What is an ambassador animal?

September 29, 2015, 12:54 p.m.

This eastern screech owl was photographed at Mountsberg Raptor Centre, a conservation facility that also runs educational programs. This owl is not the only resident at the center, which is "home to 15 different species of native birds of prey, many of whom have permanent injuries which have left them incapable of surviving on their own in the wild. Often, these injuries are caused by human activity, but with the help of these feathered ambassadors, the community can learn about how to share our environment with native birds of prey, and how to reduce the negative impact we might have on them."

An animal ambassador is an individual of a species - often a tame or habituated animal that lives permanently at a rehabilitation center or zoo - that is used to educate the public about the species. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums defines an ambassador animal as "an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals."

Comfortable around people, the animal can represent its species when traveling to classrooms, or during demonstrations and educational talks at the facility where it lives. Ambassador animals play a key role in connecting those who are near it with nature and the issues influencing the species itself or its native habitat.

For young children and adults alike, the thrill of being close to a wild animal can spark a life-long interest in learning more about a species or ecosystem, and importantly, in environmental conservation. So ambassador animals are some of the most important members of their species.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.