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Wednesday, October 28 Living

‘When one species falls, another comes right behind it’: CT native’s film focuses on extinction crisis

Matthew Brady has always thought of zoos and aquariums as fun places to spend the day, and maybe teach kids a little bit about the variety of animal species.

But the filmmaker, who hails from Madison, says he never really grasped the deeper purpose of these organizations until he directed and produced the documentary “Escaping Extinction,” about the roles zoo and aquariums play in preserving and expanding critically endangered species.

“The fun thing about being a filmmaker is that you learn as you go,” says Brady, 43, who now lives in Los Angeles. “And I had absolutely no understanding of the conservation work coming out of zoos and aquariums.”

He made the film, which is narrated by Dame Helen Mirren, for the Washington, D.C.-based animal welfare agency American Humane. In it, Brady and his team visited and spoke with staff at zoos and aquariums across the globe — including Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut — about what they are doing to protect animals from extinction.

According to American Humane, 1 million plant and animal species face extinction and 40 percent of all amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction. Brady says, because multiple species can live in a single ecosystem, they are dependent on one another for survival, so the loss of even one species can have a catastrophic effect.

“It’s absolutely frightening,” he says. “It’s a little like dominoes — when one species falls, another comes right behind it.”

Multiple factors contribute to endangerment and extinction, including poaching, trafficking and habitat destruction.

The film opens with a montage of animals that have become extinct, including the dodo and the laughing owl, and goes on to show the many species that are critically endangered, including the tiger and the golden lion tamarin. Some of these endangered species have seen their numbers grow, due to the work of conservationists.

“Escaping Extinction” argues that a lot of that work is being done at zoos and aquariums. The film acknowledges the controversy behind that stance, as many animal rights activists are opposed to keeping animals in enclosures.

But, the movie argues, accredited zoos and aquariums often protect animals that might not otherwise survive in the wild, including those that are injured, or that live in a habitat that has been threatened in some way. Brady specifically pointed to the wildfires in Sydney, Australia, earlier this year, and the critical role that zoos played in helping to rescue the animals affected by the blaze.

The experts interviewed in the movie all agree that unaccredited zoos and aquariums can be harmful. The example highlighted in “Escaping Extinction” is the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, made famous by the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King.” The establishment closed to the public this summer.

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Yet places like this don’t represent the greater zoo culture at all, Brady says. “We try to be really clear (in the movie) that there’s a difference between (high-quality zoo) and ‘Tiger King,’ ” he says. “The whole point of this movie is ‘Let’s get behind these organizations that are helping animals and support them.’ ”

In a rarity for the pandemic era, “Escaping Extinction” is showing in theaters, and opens in Mystic at the Cinepolis and Mystic Luxury Cinemas on Oct. 16. Brady says he feels for the movie theater industry, which, like many, is struggling due to the pandemic.

“All of the big studio movies have been pushed to spring or later,” Brady says. “This is something people can watch with their families.”

He emphasizes that, to his knowledge, the theaters showing the film are enforcing social distancing and other regulations.

Ultimately, Brady hopes the movie will be encouraging and educational. “I want to celebrate the people dedicating lives to saving animals from extinction,” he says. “It’s really important to me that we support these people.”

Amanda Cuda is a staff writer.

Amanda Cuda|Health reporter

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