A leading American conservationist yesterday defended the use of zoos and aquariums in cities as necessary to educate and interest people in animal welfare. Speaking at a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondence Club on 'Why zoos and aquariums are important in the city', Sydney Butler said that these facilities played a bigger role in conservation than most people gave them credit for. Mr Butler is president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which sets welfare and hygiene standards which members have to satisfy. Mr Butler is in Hong Kong for a week at the invitation of Ocean Park, which last year became the first Asian animal facility to become a member of the association. To become an accredited member, zoos and aquariums have to meet standards on animal care, safety equipment, finance and governance. The sizes of the cages and tanks in which the animals are kept are also considered. Mr Butler said zoos and aquariums prompted visitors, especially children, to care about what they saw. He also warned against turning children into 'eco-phobics'. 'You can't tell a 10-year-old, 'You must save the ocean, you must save the coral reefs' ... this doesn't work,' he said. 'We want to teach them to love the planet before asking them to preserve it.' Animal rights groups disagree. Annie Mather, of Animals Asia Foundation, argues that the educational role played by zoos and aquariums has been supplanted by nature-oriented television channels, books and magazines. 'Wild animals belong in the wild, not in tanks and cages,' she said. Asian Animal Protection Network spokesman John Wedderburn said few zoos and aquariums played a part in conservation, with most simply conveying the message that it is acceptable to lock up wild animals for amusement. Animals were also living beings and should be respected like human beings, he said. In his speech, Mr Butler also said funding for public zoos was a problem worldwide and that the conditions of zoos and aquariums were a reflection of society, he said. He will visit the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Central tomorrow, though only to have a look. 'I am not here to accredit the Hong Kong Zoo,' he said.