Every one of Zoo Boise's 325,000 visitors annually commits an act of conservation.
With their extra 50 cents for a ticket or $5 for a season pass, zoo-goers have contributed nearly $1 million in support of projects to conserve wildlife - from wolverines in Idaho to lemurs in Madagascar.
In 2008, Zoo Boise became the first in the nation to charge a conservation fee. Today more than 12 percent of its revenue goes to conservation, a high bar set for other zoos to match. The program has brought the zoo international attention for its leadership in changing roles in preserving the species that zoos display.
Steve Burns, Zoo Boise director, is the visionary who started it all.
"We changed the definition of the word zoo: a place with a collection of animals on display for the public for the primary purpose of conservation and generating funds for the conservation of animals in the wild," Burns said.
"Zoo Boise has really taken a leadership position by showing how a zoo can be an engine of conservation," said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "The innovative way they've done that has inspired others to do more."
FEEDING MORE THAN A GOAT
Visitors help protect disappearing wild species when they pay $3 to feed the giraffes and the sloth bear. When they take a boat ride, they do more conservation. When they buy feed to give to the sheep and goats, they support field-conservation programs.
When a new exhibit is built, 10 percent of the cost goes to field conservation. The new Patas monkey exhibit will generate $20,000 for the Yankari National Reserve, where the monkeys live in Nigeria.
That will put the zoo over $1 million.
LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS
Burns, 47, was the executive director of Friends of Zoo Boise, the nonprofit foundation that supported the zoo, before the city tapped the Boisean to run the zoo and the foundation in 2001.
His inspiration about directing resources toward conservation came when he began to recognize how many traditional zoo animals - tigers, rhinos and giraffes among them - have populations that are declining. There are more people in Idaho, he said, than there are top zoo animals left in the wild in the world - elephants, chimpanzees, hippos, orangutans, pandas, polar bears and lions.
Burns is the chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums field conservation committee, which has encouraged more of the AZA's members to support conservation. In 2011, 184 of its 241 accredited institutions and related facilities spent $160 million on more than 2,670 conservation initiatives in more than 100 countries.
It used to be that zoos were viewed as places dedicated to inspiring people and educating people to care for animals.
"That's just not enough anymore," Burns said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484