Animals Are Our Mission

August 2018

By Mary Ellen Collins

The Director’s Role in Advancing Sustainability

Your facilities director is explaining options for fixing an exhibit leak. You have to review the budget before the board meeting. You’re running late for a community presentation on your planned expansion; and a major donor wants to meet with you—today. Sound familiar?

The specifics may differ, but directors of Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities are no strangers to juggling competing priorities. Although it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture when you are pulled in multiple directions, it is critical for leaders to focus on their ultimate goals.

“If you distill us down to our core activities and our mission, we provide intimate and engaging experiences between animals and people, with a goal of increasing an awareness of animals and awe of the natural world,” said Jeff Sailer, chief executive officer and executive director of the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio. “We provide a venue to inspire people to see animals and learn why it’s important to protect them.”

In a profession that revolves around a commitment to promoting animal welfare and conservation across the globe, it makes sense that institutional directors take a leadership role in those areas.

“Having animals is core to fulfilling our mission, and it needs to fold into the individual mission and strategy of the individual director,” said Sailer. “At the end of the day, the director is responsible for the vision and strategic direction and the allocation of resources … and the curators can only do as much as their individual directors and boards will allow.”

Invest in Program Leaders  

Making an investment in Taxon Advisory Group chairs, Species Survival Plan® coordinators and studbook keepers goes beyond giving them the time they need to travel, attend meetings, and carry out all related program leader responsibilities. Directors are increasingly focusing on providing them with opportunities to develop what are often called “soft skills.”

“Within the professional development committee there’s a renewed understanding of the complexity of the [program leader] job, and we’re beginning to develop more robust middle manager training,” said Norah Fletchall, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y. “The technical skills are what program leaders are really excited about—saving species and helping conservation efforts—but we’re starting to acknowledge that it’s not just the technical skills that matter. They have to arrange meetings and develop agendas. They have to facilitate communication among all involved stakeholders, and those conversations can be very difficult.”

Fletchall has sent her staff members who are also program leaders to training in communications, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, all of which develop skills that will help them in all aspects of their work.

“As directors, we understand that a program leader has to wear many hats,” she said. “It’s our obligation to touch base with them to see how they’re doing and make sure we’re coaching and supporting them and giving them the tools and resources they need because they are the ones who are making sure we have sustainable populations.”

Keith Lovett, director, Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Mass., is also the TAG chair for new world primates and waterfowl, and the SSP coordinator for bush dogs and spider monkeys. He is confident that these multiple roles facilitate his ability to support other program leaders.             

“Continuing to be involved in animal management keeps me grounded and allows me to stay connected to why we do what we do. Not only can I guide my own staff, but I can also mentor new program leaders across the country who are running SSPs under the TAG. Not everyone comes in with an animal background, so I can help them see the big picture perspective and the bigger purpose. A lot of times it’s a balancing act between the individual and the population, and a younger curator may not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Prioritize Breeding

Sailer encourages all directors to become involved with breeding of endangered species, and not to let perceived space restrictions stand in the way.

“In 2012 there were only 11 pink-necked fruit doves left in eight U.S. zoos,” he said. “So we brought all 11 birds to Toledo with plans to use space we already had to increase the population.  In 2018 we have 60 pink-necked fruit doves. We made use of a facility we had to target this population so the cost was minimal. We’ll start sending them out to other zoos but we’ll provide a hub for breeding.” In addition to increasing the number of doves, the breeding project was also valuable for keepers because they can now speak to the husbandry of a species and not just a pair.

Sailer is considering other species that could be bred at the Zoo and said, “We’ve begun to look at a number of SSPs that have less than 100 animals. You look down that list and think, ‘These species won’t be here unless we dedicate space and resources.’ A lot of people don’t realize what’s possible. Whether you have several acres or several hundred acres, you can do this.”  He cited his experience at the six-acre Central Park Zoo in New York, N.Y., as another good example of maximizing existing resources.

“We had lots of infrastructure dedicated to water quality because the collection included polar bears and otters. We had ozone generators and people who understood moving water systems, so I thought, ‘We could work with sensitive water fowl species because they require wonderful water quality.’  By the time I left, we had 30 species of waterfowl. It’s just a matter of seeing what you can do.”

In the aquarium world, increased collaboration on breeding initiatives includes a sand tiger shark project that involves a number of institutions working with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC).

“Sand tiger sharks have a complex biology, they grow slowly and only have one or two offspring, and they’re very vulnerable to threats in the wild,” said Peggy Sloan, director, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, N.C. “But we weren't the first or only people to think about breeding sand tigers. New York Aquarium already had a breeding facility planned for their expansion, but we hadn't thought about it before in North Carolina. As we began exploring with Florida through SEZARC, a sand tiger shark community came together … and we are now moving forward in step with leadership from many great aquariums.”             

To complement the ex situ research that is being conducted this project is developing in situ initiatives including tagging and tracking the sand tigers; collecting video footage of them; and developing a citizen science photo ID program. The ultimate goal is to share information that will ultimately enable the breeding of sand tiger sharks in aquariums.

Focus on the Big Picture  

It is critical for directors to avoid tunnel vision regarding their own collections, said Lovett.  “Leaders of institutions need to understand that species management is the core of what they do, and it’s not enough to emphasize the animals in your zoo,” he said. “Everything I do to run my zoo I can do for a TAG, like fundraising and marketing. For example, when we needed to relocate two Northern muriquis from an unprotected area to a protected area in Brazil, I launched a fundraising campaign to do that.”

For directors who did not advance to their position through the “animal side” of the profession, Lovett also emphasizes the importance of thinking in terms of populations rather than individuals. “For example, it’s great to build a lush habitat for spider monkeys, but you need to think 10 years ahead. What about the offspring?  You need to be able to hold them comfortably behind the scenes.  Work through your curators and run your zoo to meet the needs of the population.”

A new SSP sustainability database is the perfect tool to help directors keep the big picture front and center when developing their own collection plans. Instead of going to program leaders for information on SSPs, AZA staff members now have a robust database to query. They can perform searches that help them identify species that fit their own planning criteria as well as the priorities of the TAGs and the species themselves.

“As zoo directors, we need to ensure that our collection planning is supportive of the SSPs by aligning institutional resources with the SSP program priorities,” said Don Moore, director, Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore. “And now we have a repository of quantitative and qualitative data that facilitates decision-making at the institution level and the population level. You can fill your institutional need and the overall population need.                        

“Our SSP populations need to be sustained over the long term, so we need collaborative action on every SSP.  This database allows us to apply all of our experience and knowledge to enhance the populations’ sustainability.” 

And that’s the bottom line. Making progress on sustainability has to be a priority for everyone, because the alternative is not an option.

“The animals for which we provide care and resources are the foundation of what we do,” said Fletchall. “We can’t tell our story effectively if our exhibits are empty.”

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Find a Zoo or Aquarium Donate to AZA Contact Us Member Login Search the site