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Letter from Shedd Aquarium: Endangered Species Need Our Help and Our Voices

August 29, 2019

Rescued sea otter pup Ellie sits surrounded by toys behind the scenes at Shedd.

Ellie is a rescued southern sea otter, an endangered species currently protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been a powerful tool for protecting fish, plants and wildlife ever since it was signed into law in 1973. The bald eagle, humpback whale, grizzly bear and American alligator all would very likely have disappeared without it.

Imagine never being able to see those awe-inspiring wildlife, in the wild or a zoological setting. This could be our future reality.

The federal administration has, as feared, finalized changes that weaken the ESA’s protections for endangered species which could result in incalculable negative impacts to wildlife and the habitats they call home.

Over the past four-plus decades, the ESA has repeatedly demonstrated that it works. Since its inception, the ESA has prevented the extinction of 99% of the species under its protections. Right here in the Great Lakes, it has helped advance efforts to protect local species like the piping plover, a bird that can been seen on our beaches in Chicago, the pallid sturgeon and the Topeka shiner, guarding them from human influence and complex environmental forces like drought, habitat loss and more.

The change to current protections devastates science-based conservation and disregards the current biodiversity emergency that calls for stronger safeguards for wildlife, not weaker ones, for the more than 2,300 species – plants and animals – listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In May, the United Nations released a report warning that as many as 1 million species are at risk of extinction globally due to human activity if we don’t act now. When there is scientific research that shows animals are at risk - now more than ever - why take a step back and reverse efforts to protect these species? It is crucial to uphold the laws that protect fragile and threatened wildlife, making science-driven decisions to ensure thriving biodiversity.

The ESA is not only critical for the intrinsic value of each species, but also for human survival. For example, pollinators like the endangered rusty patched bumble bee ensure food crops such as potatoes, onions and broccoli exist and are available for human consumption. In the world’s oceans, balanced biodiversity of coral, fish and phytoplankton ensure carbon sequestration required to offset greenhouse gasses.

Shedd Aquarium along with the 226 other member organizations of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), focus efforts on saving the world’s most vulnerable species from extinction and restoring them to healthy populations in the wild, helping to educate 196 million guests per year.

We have boots on the ground and wetsuits in the water working for the conservation of wildlife species, many of which are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, like sharks and rays, cetaceans, and tortoises and freshwater turtles.

For the nearly 2 million guests who walk through our doors each year in Chicago, the ESA is more than just a piece of legislation or a status list. It is the face of more than 22 endangered species of animals in our care that they connect with that are familiar and fascinating – and at risk of disappearing from our planet in their lifetime. These animals serve as ambassadors for their species and for our shared planet.

“To make changes for the benefit of a select few special interests will not just harm species on the brink of extinction, but all of us.”

Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium

With these established connections, thousands of AZA supporters signed petitions last year calling for a strong, science-based Endangered Species Act, as it is a flagship United States' environmental law. Now is the time for both federal and state governments to hear the American people and work together to invest in protections of our nation's irreplaceable treasure of biodiversity that both nature and our communities call for.

While our federal government has moved to reduce protections for wildlife, our fight is not over. It is critical that we not allow the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act to be similarly weakened. We urge the Illinois General Assembly to maintain the science-driven foundation of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act to ensure the protection of remarkable wildlife and their wild habitats, preventing future extinctions.

While we are organizations committed to fighting extinction and have a duty and a mission to save endangered and threatened wildlife and the places they live, we can’t do it alone. As habitats shrink, biodiversity declines and animals face threats from human development and a changing climate, we must increase protections for endangered species, not undermine them.

Changing legislation as effective as the ESA risks our clean air, clean water and the wild spaces. To make changes for the benefit of a select few special interests will not just harm species on the brink of extinction, but all of us.

We urge our supporters to continue to raise their voice for endangered species in our home state of Illinois and across the United States.

Conserving wildlife is at the heart of our mission and together we can take action for wildlife and their habitats. Sign today to make your voice heard:

Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin

President and CEO

Shedd Aquarium