Ambassador Animals 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, animal management, and animal welfare interests of the zoo and aquarium community around the topic of ambassador animals to maintain the highest degree of animal welfare and provide high quality educational and interpretive experiences.

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:

  • Jac Menish, Nashville Zoo,Chair
  • Liz Evans, National Aquarium, Co-Vice Chair
  • Christina Dembiec, Memphis Zoo, Co-Vice Chair
  • Maureen O'Keefe, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Secretary
  • Nicki Boyd, San Diego Zoo
  • Helen Dishaw, Tracy Aviary
  • Emily Insalaco, Denver Zoo
  • Mandi Krebs, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
  • Chuck Kopczak, California Science Center
  • Cherlyn Vatalaro, Lehigh Valley Zoo
  • Jacque Williamson, Brandywine Zoo
  • Lance Miller, Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo, Liaison from Animal Welfare Committee
  • Mandi Schook, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Liaison from Animal Population Management Committee
  • Mandi Schook, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Liaison from Research and Technology Committee

AZA staff Kari Hart serves as staff liaison to the AASAG. In addition to the Steering Committee, the AASAG includes a general membership comprised of individuals serving on working groups to advance the goals of the SAG. The number of general members may vary according to the needs of the SAG and there is no maximum number of members. General members must join and actively participate in a working group. See the AZA Scientific Advisory Group Handbook for an overview of SAG member positions, including eligibility requirements and essential position functions.

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 facility. Institutional Contacts take responsibility for disseminating the work of the AASAG to the relevant staff members in their facility. (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 care, management, and welfare of ambassador animals as well as for the unique educational experiences that ambassador animals provide.

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. Assist in communicating the results of this research within the AZA community.

Initiative #4: Professional Development
Objective: Provide support for ambassador animal professionals at all levels and career stages.

Initiative #5: Communications
Objective: Provide multiple channels for dissemination of the work of the AASAG, opportunities for members of the ambassador animal community to communicate with each other and with the AASAG.

Get Involved

The AASAG issues a call for service to participate on the Steering Committee and General Membership. Terms of service for steering committee members last 3 years and begin immediately following the AZA annual conference each year. General Members are elected on an ad-hoc basis to support a specific project. They are elected to two-year terms and may be re-elected for multiple terms.  If you are interested in serving on the Steering Committee or as a General Member, please contact Jac Menish, AASAG Chair, 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 facility. Institutional Contacts take responsibility for disseminating the work of the AASAG to the relevant staff members in their facility. If you're not sure if your facility has a contact for the AASAG, you can find out by contacting Maureen O'Keefe.

Apply to be an Ambassador Animal Advisor

Ambassador Animal Advisors (AAA) are zoo and aquarium professionals with specific expertise related to ambassador animals, including animal care, training, collection management, educational messaging, evaluation, handler training, and more. AAAs work with TAG or SSP members to serve as a resource and provide expertise on topics related to the use of a taxon or species in an ambassador capacity. Interested individuals can view the position description for more information and apply via an online application form. Contact Nicki Boyd with any questions.

Contribute to the Ambassador Animal Information and Resource Center (AARIC)

One important component of AASAG’s work occurs through the Ambassador Animal Information and Resource Center (AARIC). AARIC is a tool provided by the AZA to share information about species used as ambassador animals. The website, which started as a PARIS wiki, has evolved into a comprehensive resource that includes guidelines and policies to assist staff that work with ambassador animals. Editors with experience working with ambassador animals are always needed, contact Jacque Williamson.

Participate in Professional Development

Register yourself or send staff to the Principles of Ambassador Animal Management (PAAM) 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 PAAM, 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 ambassador animals have different welfare when compared to exhibit animals (housing size, sleep cycles, etc)?
  • What is the effect of handling, transportation, presentation, etc. on ambassador 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 ambassador 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 ambassador 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 ambassador 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 accredited facilities. 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 the current RTC Chair.

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.


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 Ambassador Animal community. Articles include information about commonly held ambassador species, research updates, program highlights, and more.

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

Ambassador Animal Guidelines (AAG): AAGs provide a compilation of knowledge provided by recognized animal and education experts based on the current science, practice, and technology of ambassador animal management and presentation. Each AAG assembles basic requirements, best practices, and animal care recommendations to maximize capacity for excellence in animal care and welfare of ambassador species.

Ambassador Animal Research Opportunities: Visitor Outcomes: Developed by the AASAG, this tool is to provide AZA-accredited facilities with options for survey questions to examine visitor outcomes for ambassador animals based on the peer-reviewed literature.

Benefits of Ambassador/Program Animal Presentations

The AZA Conservation Education Committee (CEC) has developed an Ambassador Animal Position Statement that supports the presentation of ambassador animals in the conservation education programs of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and illustrates many of the benefits these presentations have on audience engagement, knowledge acquisition, and enhanced environmental attitudes. Studies have shown that the presentation of ambassador animals is a powerful catalyst for learning for a variety of reasons including:

  • Increases the length of time that people are engaged with the program animals thereby lengthening the potential time period for learning and overall impact.
  • Provides the opportunity to personalize the learning experience, tailoring the teaching session to what interests the visitors.
  • Allows the visitors the opportunity to make specific inquiries about topics in which they were interested.
  • Enhances the delivery of cognitive and empathetic messages. Increases affective learning and attitudinal change.
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