Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group

Mission and Function

The mission of the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group (AASAG) is to develop cooperative relationships between the education, research, and animal welfare interests of the zoo and aquarium community around the topic of ambassador animals (a.k.a. program animals).

The primary functions of the AASAG are:

  • To emphasize the importance of ambassador animals in zoo/aquarium education.
  • To support professional standards in the management and handling of ambassador animals.
  • To provide a forum for those involved in ambassador animal research to share their findings.
  • To establish a resource for new AZA members to get information about ambassador animals.
  • To ensure that the topic of ambassador animals is continually addressed at AZA meetings.

Structure and Membership

The AASAG is composed of zoo and aquarium professionals with expertise in education, animal management, and research. AASAG is administered by a 15-person Steering Committee including officers and other members, all of whom are elected by the current Steering Committee for three-year, renewable terms. Members must reapply every three years to be reconsidered for the subsequent term.

The AASAG Steering Committee is:

  • Katie Manion, WCS - Bronx Zoo, Chair
  • Tanya Paul, Oregon Zoo, Co-Vice Chair
  • Jac Menish, Nashville Zoo, Co-Vice Chair
  • Maureen O'Keefe, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Secretary
  • Bonnie Baird, North Carolina Zoo
  • Nicki Boyd, San Diego Zoo
  • Helen Dishaw, Tracy Aviary
  • Liz Evans, National Aquarium
  • Marina Haynes, Elmwood Park Zoo
  • Emily Insalaco, Denver Zoo
  • Mandi Krebs, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
  • Chuck Kopczak, California Science Center
  • Ric Urban, Mississippi Aquarium
  • Cherlyn Vatalaro, Lehigh Valley Zoo
  • Jacque Williamson, Brandywine Zoo
  • Ed Mastro, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, Newsletter Editor
  • Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo, Liaison from Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee
  • Steve Martin, Natural Encounters, Liaison from Animal Welfare Committee
  • Mandi Schook, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Liaison from Research and Technology Committee
  • Brenda Walkenhorst, Audubon Zoo, Liaison from Principles of Program Animal Management

AZA staff Amy Rutherford and Candice Dorsey serve as staff liaisons to the AASAG.

The AASAG advises the AZA Board, committees, and other scientific advisory groups on matters involving ambassador animals. It reports to the AZA Board of Directors via the Conservation Education Committee and abides by the guidelines of the Scientific Advisory Group Handbook.

The AASAG aims to have an Institutional Contact at every AZA accredited institution. Institutional Contacts take responsibility for disseminating the work of the AASAG to the relevant staff members in their facility. They are also occasionally called upon for input into AASAG initiatives. (More on how to contact your Institutional Contact or become an Institutional Contact below.)

The AASAG Steering Committee holds regular conference calls and organizes in-person meetings for all individuals interested in ambassador animals in conjunction with AZA’s annual conference and mid-year meeting. The Steering Committee organizes its efforts around several specific initiatives within a strategic framework (see below).

Strategic Framework

The AASAG strategic framework addresses the following initiatives and objectives:

Initiative #1: Best Practices
Objective: Establish and disseminate best practices for the care and welfare of ambassador animals.

Initiative #2: Sustainable Collections
Objective: Facilitate collaboration with AZA animal programs (SSPs, TAGs & Studbooks) to enhance sustainability of populations for both breeding and educational program use.

Initiative #3: Support Research
Objective: Support research around ambassador animal related topics, including welfare and the impact of ambassador animal messaging.

Initiative #4: Program Animal Course
Objective: Provide support for the Program Animal Training Course by reviewing curriculum and assisting in program evaluation.

Get Involved

The AASAG issues an annual call for service to participate on the Steering Committee. Terms of service last 3 years and begin immediately following the AZA annual conference each year. If you are interested in serving on the Steering Committee, please contact Katie Manion, AASAG Chair, at for more information.

All zoo and aquarium professionals can support the work of the AASAG in the following ways:

Join the AZA Network

Join the Ambassador Animal group on the AZA Network! This is an online space with discussion threads, resources, announcements, and mini-surveys. This group is an open forum and anyone may create an AZA login and join; membership is not required.

Connect with Your Ambassador Animal Institutional Contacts

The AASAG aims to have an Institutional Contact at every AZA accredited institution. Institutional Contacts take responsibility for disseminating the work of the AASAG to the relevant staff members in their facility. They are also occasionally called upon for input into AASAG initiatives. Check the list of Ambassador Animal Institutional Contacts and ask yours to include you in communications. If your institution does not currently have a contact for the AASAG, you can volunteer for this position by contacting Jim Nemet at

Contribute to the Program Animal Information and Rating System (PARIS)

One important component of AASAG’s work occurs through the Program Animal Rating and Information System. PARIS is a tool provided by the Philadelphia Zoo and AZA to share information about species used as program/ambassador animals. The PARIS wiki collects and stores information about program/ambassador animal species, including housing needs, handling guidelines and effective presentation tips. Go to to access the PARIS information and if you have information to contribute, simply email Stephanie Eller to be added as an editor.

Participate in Professional Development

Register yourself or send staff to the Principles of Program Animal Management (PPAM) course. This six-day intensive course exposes students to the range of opportunities for animal use in education programs and provides students with the knowledge to effectively develop and manage formalized programs utilizing ambassador animals. If you have already completed PPAM, consider applying to serve as a course instructor and share your knowledge with others.

Attend AASAG Meetings

The AASAG meetings held at the AZA annual conference and mid-year meeting include a portion that is open to all attendees. Check the conference program guide prior to each event for schedule specifics.

Use the Sustainability Database

This search portal will connect collection planners to SSP Sustainability Reports, which include summaries of husbandry information, exhibit design, and population management needs. Functionality will include a filter to search specifically for ambassador animals. You can access this database from the left menu after you login to your AZA account.

Conduct Research

Zoo/aquarium professionals and graduate students are invited to contribute to the body of scientific research on ambassador animals. The AASAG is particularly interested in answering the following research questions:

Animal Welfare Research Questions

  • Do program animals have different welfare when compared to exhibit animals (housing size, sleep cycles, etc)?
  • What is the effect of handling, transportation, presentation, etc. on program animal welfare?
  • Thresholds to handling, effects of handling during first year of life on welfare and sustainability (reproductive) outcomes?
  • What is the effect of training on program animal welfare?
  • Is there a difference in welfare if the presentation takes place inside or outside of the animal's exhibit?

Visitor Outcome Research Questions

  • What messages are audiences taking away from experiences with program animals? (conservation messages vs. unintended messages about handling wildlife)
  • Does the way the animal is handled (type of program) affect the visitor outcomes of the experience? (off- vs. on-exhibit, touch vs. hold vs. on perch)
  • Does the type of animal presented make a difference in the outcomes of the experience? (charismatic megafauna vs. invertebrates)
  • Do program animal experiences result in different visitor outcomes than experiences with biofacts?

The Research and Technology Committee (RTC) has developed a Zoo and Aquarium Researcher Directory meant to facilitate communication among and with researchers working in AZA institutions. Search this directory to find others whose work intersects with your research focus.

Scientific Review Board

A scientific review board, comprised of members of the Research & Technology Committee (RTC), is available to assist with reviewing research proposals involving ambassador animals. To be connected with the scientific review board, please contact RTC Chair Katie Leighty.

Research projects involving human participants should also undergo proper review to ensure that the rights and welfare of the participants are protected. In most cases, you will need to work with the institutional review board at your zoo, aquarium, or an affiliated university. See also the Guidelines for Human Subject Protection in Informal Learning Research, provided by the Research and Technology Committee.

Research Proposal Endorsement

If you would like the AASAG to provide a letter of endorsement for a research proposal, submit a complete proposal using the AZA Research and Technology Committee (RTC) research form to Allow TWO WEEKS for review and endorsement by the scientific review board.  The board will vote to endorse the project or not based on the following criteria:

  • Does it help accomplish the research priorities identified by PASAG?
  • Does the study have scientific merit?
  • Is it feasible and well written?


Important resources that the AASAG has identified as valuable or developed in support of its mission:

AASAG Newsletter: A quarterly publication that highlights the work of the SAG and offers ideas for improving Ambassador Animal programs. Newsletters are 

Ambassador Animal Evaluation Tool: Developed by the AASAG, this tool lists common criteria that AZA accredited institutions evaluate a species or individual animal against to determine if it will be a good fit for use as an animal ambassador.

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