AZA News Releases

AZA Program for Potential Future Executives of Accredited Zoos and Aquariums Begins Fourth Year

Silver Spring, MD – Based on a recent survey of directors at AZA aquariums and zoos, it is estimated that there will be approximately 20 zoo or aquarium director openings ‎per year for the next 10 years at facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Knowing this, the AZA is proactively working to educate and train the next generation of leaders of AZA-accredited zoological facilities through the Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP). Entering the fourth year of this program, AZA has announced the 2017 class, which consists of the following ten individuals:

•    Christina Castellano - Vice President, Chief Science Officer, Utah's Hogle Zoo
•    Dolf DeJong – General Manager, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
•    Barry Downer - Deputy Director, Oklahoma City Zoological Park
•    Stacy Graison - Director of Education, Naples Zoo
•    Lindsay Hutchison - Vice President of Philanthropy and Community Engagement, Tulsa Zoo
•    Laura Martina - Chief Human Resource Officer, Fresno Chaffee Zoo
•    David Niebuhr - Vice President of Education & Managing Director of Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Audubon Zoo
•    Sean Putney - Senior Director of Zoological Operations, Kansas City Zoo
•    Geoff Pye - Animal Health Director, Disney's Animal Kingdom
•    David Rosenberg - Vice President of Guest Experience, Monterey Bay Aquarium

“Through this rigorous, custom-designed program, participants have the opportunity to further develop skills necessary to meet the challenges of sustaining a viable aquarium and zoo operation that benefits the animals in their care, their local communities, and global wildlife conservation initiatives,” said AZA Executive Director Kris Vehrs. “Throughout the year these rising leaders are connected with current directors to share their expertise and foster a leadership development culture throughout our community.

The goal of the ELDP is to impart the Zoo & Aquarium Executive Director Competencies, which are the behaviors, knowledge and skills needed to be most effective in this role. The competency model developed for this program emphasizes three tiers of competencies and includes:

  • Executive Leadership Behaviors, which defines the heart and values of an effective leader and their leadership approach to Inspire, Model, Challenge, Enable, and Encourage others to deliver on the mission of their facility. This 360-degree assessment of Leadership Behaviors was created by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner and is included in their book, “The Leadership Challenge, Fourth Edition.” The book is considered the gold standard for research-based leadership and the premier resource on becoming a leader. 

  • Executive Focus, which defines the skills and knowledge an executive needs to possess in order to sustain a viable facility and includes Animal Welfare/Conservation Development, Board/Committee Development, Business Acumen, Business Development, People Management/Development, and Planning.

  • Executive Oversight for Zoo/Aquarium Operations, which defines the skills and knowledge needed to provide executive oversight for each operational area reporting to the Zoo/Aquarium Executive Director. This includes Animal Care, Communications, Conservation/ Science, Design/ Exhibit, Education Programs, Events, Finance, Government/Legal Affairs, Guest Services, Human Resources, Marketing, Member/Donor Management, Public/Community Relations, Safety, and Security.

A variety of experience-based learning methods are used to develop the key competencies for the zoo/aquarium Executive Director role. These experience-based development methods will include forming action teams to address real and complex issues; having dialogues with current executive leadership to transfer institutional knowledge and lessons learned along the way; and creating a customized individual development plan. Participants will also benefit from leader and mentor relationships and build competency through relevant learning opportunities.

The development of this custom program, which launched in 2014, was a collaborative effort between the AZA Board of Directors, top executive consultants, and many current zoo and aquarium executives. The kick-off session for the 2017 class program was held January 23 in Corpus Christi, Texas, with many other development events planned throughout the year, both virtually and in-person.

The executive development of identified senior leaders will be an ongoing effort by AZA, and a new ELDP group will be selected each fall for participation in the program the following year.

About AZA

Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, animal welfare, education, science, and recreation. AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and eight other countries. Look for the AZA accreditation logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things. The AZA is a leader in saving species and your link to helping animals all over the world. To learn more, visit

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