The plastic bag floats across the grass, dipping and swirling in the wind.
It skips across Omaha onto Cheryl Morris’ hay field in Iowa, where it finally descends into a creek. Which flows into a river and then an ocean.
That single-use plastic bag might not seem like a threat to animals facing extinction across the globe, but it and the millions of others like it are, says Morris, a conservation expert at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
“What we do here impacts other larger habitats and landscapes,’’ she says.
Species all over the globe are facing threats from climate change and worsening environmental conditions and an ever-growing human population.
Even here in Nebraska, far away from polar bears, lions and elephants, Morris says, we have a role to play in saving them by reducing our impact on the environment.
Instead of feeling hopeless when we read about how decreasing ice threatens polar bears in the arctic or losses in habitat harm lions in Africa, small steps can make a difference.
“We can do things right at home,’’ Morris says. “Recycling. Composting. Reducing the use of single-use plastics and paying attention to what we buy.’’
Even something as simple as purchasing a $1 conservation button on the way out of the zoo makes an impact. Seventy-five cents of that profit goes toward research and field work that the zoo finances throughout the world.
Memberships also help the zoo approach conservation in three ways.
It supports researchers in the field who are directly working to mitigate threats to animals such as elephants, rhinos and cheetahs. The zoo supports 60 projects in Africa, Asia, Madagascar and in the oceans.
Zoo staff is also doing research to support sustainable populations in zoos across North America.
“Our scientists here are working to figure out the reproductive biology of these species so we can be more successful to ensure our grandchildren and their grandchildren can see rhinos and cheetahs in 200 years,’’ Morris says.
And just as she said everyone here in Nebraska can do, the zoo is composting and reducing its electrical and water usage. Every new exhibit is built with sustainability and green practices in mind.
Individual contributions to environmental groups also help, especially the ones doing projects that directly impact the animals that people care about. Do some homework, Morris says, and find those researchers.
“Then support them directly,’’ Morris says. “They are doing amazing boots-on-the-ground work and they need support to do it. Especially in a COVID year.’’
The pandemic has hurt efforts but despite it, work continues. The zoo is still funding the planting of trees in Madagascar and research is continuing from a distance.
Morris says despite all the challenges, she still feels hopeful.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of educating and talking with other people, she says. A farmer near where she lives in Iowa might then learn how just an additional strip of grass can make a huge difference for monarch butterflies.
Students in zoo programs become passionate about conservation and saving animals and some day may become a scientist themselves.
“There are things we can all do,’’ she says. “That little thing we do does help the whole planet. All kinds of little things combine to have a big impact.’’
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of the Momaha Magazine.