A Conversation with Dan Ashe

July 2017


What appealed to you about leading the Association of Zoos and Aquariums?

Throughout my career at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, including nearly six as director, I had the opportunity to work closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as AZA-accredited facilities, on numerous occasions.  As we move deeper into the 21st century, we face a complicated conservation landscape and effective conservation will demand broader and stronger partnerships.  The AZA and its 231 accredited aquariums and zoos have always been exceptional partners with an excellent reputation. 

The AZA community collectively brings more people face-to-face with wild animals in a way that no other organizations can match. Connecting that many people to wildlife and nature provides a powerful opportunity for us to engage them in efforts to save endangered wildlife and wild habitats around the globe.

My career has been spent in government. Government employees are public servants—many devote their entire careers to this ideal. The AZA is a member services organization—to be able to continue my career in the service of others, and the service of wild animals, is enormously satisfying.  

I was also intrigued by the influential role AZA-accredited facilities play in their communities.  AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums create jobs, stimulate economic activity and serve as core cultural destinations in cities and towns around the country.  And we mustn’t forget that AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums supply a safe environment for families, in their hometowns, allowing them opportunity to enjoy a day with nature. 

Who wouldn’t want to play a leadership role in a community like this?

Can you share with us an experience at an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium that led you to think you might want to work with this community?

When you visit Zoo Atlanta in my hometown, you will find a bronze statue of Willie B., a western lowland gorilla who lived at the Zoo for almost 40 years. As a child, I remember visiting what was then Grant Park and seeing Willie B. in person.  He was a majestic animal who inspired awe, in me and in thousands of other people.  For about 25 years, Willie B. was kept by himself, but in 1988, he began a new chapter in his life during which he led a troop and raised a family. He died in February of 2000. His life spanned four decades and he experienced firsthand the evolution of zoos in this country.  I think about him and the positive impact he had on people from all walks of life, including myself.  Today, at AZA-accredited facilities, tomorrow’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director, or the next Rachel Carson, or maybe a future U.S. President is being inspired, as I was.

I’ve been fortunate to have a career that has allowed me to devote myself to saving wildlife and wild places.  My father was a 37-year career employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so I grew up around the organization that I later joined and served. His career was an inspiration for my own. In 1995, I joined the Service as assistant director, External Affairs; then assistant director, Refuges and Wildlife; then National Wildlife Refuge system chief; then science advisor to the director; then deputy director; and finally, I was nominated by President Barack Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be director, on 30 June 2011. And now I have joined the Association as president and chief executive officer.

Aquariums and zoos have always been valued partners and sources of inspiration as I have moved along my career path—sometimes in the background and at other times in the foreground. At a time when saving species from extinction will require new and broader partnerships and great inspiration and aspiration, joining AZA as president and chief executive officer feels like a natural place to be.

You know the role AZA-accredited facilities have played in the conservation of endangered species; what do we need to do moving forward?

AZA-accredited facilities have a long history of successful conservation—species like the black-footed ferret, the California condor and the golden lion tamarin are still here today because of the great conservation work of dedicated professionals in our community.  But this is an area that we must continue to grow and evolve our work. 

How do we take our programs to scale? What do we commit to saving and what do we let go?  How do we amplify the efforts of our animal programs and member facilities?  These are some of the questions that are being asked.  And the answers aren’t necessarily simple.  Conservation of any species is a complex task to undertake—but it is a challenge I am confident to which we can rise.

SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction is a potent tool to help us respond to some of those questions. SAFE looks to combine the power of the 185 million zoo and aquarium guests with the expertise of AZA-accredited facilities and their partners to save animals from extinction.

How do we take our programs to scale? What do we commit to saving and what do we let go?  How do we amplify the efforts of our animal programs and member facilities?  These are some of the questions that are being asked.  And the answers aren’t necessarily simple.  Conservation of any species is a complex task to undertake—but it is a challenge I am confident to which we can rise.

The highly endangered vaquita provides an example of the potential of the program. In early March, I sent a message out regarding the urgent need for action to help the rapidly dwindling population of vaquita in the Gulf of California.  In a testament to the conservation will, power and generosity of the AZA community, you raised $1 million and offered an array of in-kind services and expertise, in addition to commitments already in place to promote sustainable fisheries and seafood, research and development for gear that would support local fishermen, and campaigns to support local legislation. The fate of the vaquita remains in the balance and is by no means certain, but we can now say, difficult as the challenge, we stepped up to the line when asked, and our approach incorporated the larger context and community that has threatened this marine mammal. 

SAFE can become a powerful national brand for the conservation work of AZA-accredited members—but it will take an ongoing commitment, both from the Association and the membership.

What is the role of the AZA community in society’s understanding and consideration of animal welfare?  

Animal welfare is one of the foundation stones of the AZA community—and all 231 accredited facilities should be very proud of their track record in this area. We are the animal welfare experts in our communities, across the nation and around the globe.  The AZA community takes care of approximately 750,000 animals from 6,000 different species every day—no other organization can say that. 

We have more than 450 Species Survival Plans® and 46 Taxon Advisory Groups, each with species experts who have in-depth knowledge of the physical, mental and social needs of the animals in their care.  The professional staff at AZA facilities has no equals on this topic—they are the best, most knowledgeable animal welfare experts out there. 

And importantly, the care of animals at our facilities is based on animal welfare science. In 2015, AZA-accredited facilities spent $28 million on research and 43 percent of the research projects focused on animal care, health and welfare.

We have the animals. We have the people. We do the research and push the envelope in this field. We are the experts.

What we need to do a better job of is communicating our commitment to animal care and welfare to varied audiences. In this day and age, doing is not enough—we need be more public about our care and get better at telling our stories in ways that resonate with different groups.

How can zoos and aquariums better connect people to nature? 

I grew up with nature playing a large part in my life, so it is troubling to see the growing disconnect between young people and nature. But we can’t simply mourn the fact that today’s children are not growing up like we did. We need to help them encounter nature, and learn to love nature and support protecting it, in their own way. The good news is that AZA members have the opportunity to lead the way.

AZA-accredited facilities come to the table with many strengths.  The dynamic field of conservation education is growing—and there are many staff and volunteers at our facilities ready to engage our guests in meaningful educational encounters.

For young children, AZA facilities have been leading the field of nature play; helping kids and their families gain familiarity and comfort with nature. Our reputation as safe, secure, inviting, inclusive and fun places will mean that we can be leaders in building an ethic of environmental activism in rising generations.

For older guests and to engage their larger communities, AZA facilities have turned to citizen science, an expanding field with people motivated to participate.  AZA’s own FrogWatch™ USA program now has 145 chapters in 41 states and Washington, D.C.  Imagine, parents and children are going out to their local wetland together in the evening to listen for frogs and toads and then contributing their knowledge so that it can be used to track amphibian population trends around the country. That’s exciting to me—it inspires me. If you don’t have one, is there a citizen science program that makes sense for your facility?

Nature play, citizen science, on- and off-site educational programs, community outreach with animal ambassadors—there’s so much quality work already being done at AZA-accredited facilities to engage guests and the general public.

What we need to understand and focus on is how our educational work impacts our guests’ behavior. Education and awareness alone are not enough; how do we engage people to take actions that help save wildlife and wild habitats? When that piece of the puzzle falls into place, we will be able to take our efforts to scale and accelerate our impact in the communities we serve. 

Given the headwinds, are you hopeful about the future for wildlife and wild habitats?  

The problems facing wildlife and wild habitats can be summed up in one word—people. The global population today stands at roughly 7.5 billion. United Nations estimates for the population of people by the end of the century range as high as 16.5 billion with a median estimate of 11 billion. 

That is an astounding mass of humanity, all of whom will consume a vast amount of resources. Planet Earth cannot sustain more-and-more humans, and increasingly affluent humans, and all the rest of what we lump into a category called “biodiversity.” But if we humans plan our economies around a sustainable ecology, then we can sustain wildlife, as well. Not in all its historical abundance and distribution, but in a healthy and sustainable diversity. 

This will be a challenge, but with vision and persistence from great organizations like AZA and its accredited members, I am hopeful.

We now know how to do effective conservation, and we have a track record of saving species and habitats.  We need to get much better at what we do—the future of our fellow species demands it. We also need to take our efforts to a larger scale so that our conservation investments have the widest possible impact. And we need to be dynamic in our thinking, sharpen our focus and be willing to make hard decisions—we aren’t going to be able to save everything.  Where can we best invest our resources? What species can we save, and what species, even with the best of intentions, are beyond our capabilities to rescue?

It’s not going to be an easy road. Few things of real value are easy to achieve.

But I believe, with a committed and talented community like the AZA, we can do great work to serve the wildlife that drew each and every one of us into this field.  I’m happy and proud to join with you. Thanks for the warm welcome!

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