SAFE Stories

Image of the logo SAFE Saving Animals From ExtinctionThe Association of Zoos & Aquariums, with its member aquariums and zoos and a variety of partners, are taking action to save species through AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. SAFE combines the power of zoo and aquarium visitors with the resources and collective expertise of AZA members and partners, all focused on saving species. Our collective action will help save vulnerable wildlife species from extinction and protect them for future generations.


Reintroducing the Eastern Indigo Snake

Part 1    |   Part 2  |   Part 3  

SAFE Eastern Indigo Snake Program Leader: Michelle Hoffman, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation Director, Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Garden

What’s the first thing you do when you see a snake in your yard? Run? Chase it away? The stigma around snakes is that they are nothing more than something to fear in your yard or a nuisance to get rid of. However, like all animals in the world, they are an essential species to the environment. They are a key link in the ecosystems food chain acting as both predator and prey, and help ensure that our ecosystem and environment continue to run smoothly and efficiently. In the southern parts of the United States, the Eastern Indigo Snake population has taken a hit due to the destruction of the pine leaf ecosystem. With the help of partners, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are taking the next steps in reintroducing the Eastern Indigo Snake into southern Alabama and northwest Florida, helping to restore the population to a


healthy sustainable level.  

This reintroduction program was initiated in the early 2000's with the establishment of the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Committee; however, habitat restoration at the eastern indigo snake reintroduction sites has been taking place for much longer. Partners have been working to reestablish the eastern indigo snake in areas where the species has been extirpated for many years. In 2014, the Central Florida Zoo partnered with the Orianne Society to operate the captive propagation center, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) that was established by the Orianne Society around 2011. Currently the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is head starting between 20 and 35 snakes each year to aid in these efforts. Between 2010 and 2019, 169 eastern indigo snakes have been released in the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. Between 2017 and 2019, 47 eastern indigo snakes have been released in The Nature Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in the Florida Panhandle.

This long term reintroduction program is part of a multi-partner effort including: US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ALDCNR), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, Orianne Society, Auburn University, The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, Zoo Atlanta, Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Zoo Tampa, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Alabama Natural Heritage Museum,


In 2018 additional partners were added to the Eastern Indigo Snake reintroduction efforts: The Welaka National Fish Hatchery and Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. The Welaka National Fish Hatchery constructed a room for the purpose of head starting Eastern Indigo Snake prior to release. They obtained 10 Eastern Indigo Snake from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in January 2018 which were raised for the last four months of their two-year head start period at the hatchery and then released into the wild. In August 2018, the Welaka National Fish Hatchery received 24 Eastern Indigo Snake which were hatched in 2016 from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and they were raised until June 2019 when they were released. This year, the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is housing 30 Eastern Indigo Snake until 2020 when they are scheduled for release. All of these snakes were bred and hatched at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation for the purpose of reintroduction. In early 2018, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park received five Eastern Indigo Snake to raise until they were ready for release in the spring of 2018. After these five snakes were released, they received another five which were released in spring 2019. They have not received snakes for head starting after the five were released in 2019, but will be attempting to breed Eastern Indigo Snake for education and display purposes utilizing newly constructed outdoor enclosures and a designated Eastern Indigo Snake rearing space. Zoo Atlanta, one of the EIS reintroduction program’s original partners for head starting Eastern Indigo Snake prior to release, housed snakes involved in the program up until 2017. Zoo Atlanta is currently constructing an area specifically for rearing Eastern Indigo Snake for the program and will receive snakes soon.

With increase in populations within facilities multiple AZA facilities have expressed interest in obtaining Eastern Indigo Snakes for their facilities. The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is working to fulfill these needs using the animals at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and other AZA breeding facilities. Many snakes transferred to other zoo’s from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation are offspring of wild males and females that were acquired from non-AZA sources and have unknown lineages. In order to make more informed breeding recommendations, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Auburn University, and the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation partnered to acquire funds which include genetic screening of snakes at zoos and aquariums with unknown lineages. Additional funding supporting the captive propagation of Eastern Indigo Snake at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation for reintroduction efforts has accumulated ~$152,000. These funds are used to cover veterinary expenses at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation as well as veterinary costs of snakes at the Welaka National Fish Hatchery which utilizes the veterinarian for the Central Florida Zoo. They have also covered enclosure costs, disease testing, and a full-time temporary position at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and incubation materials. The funding support for reintroduction efforts include: Conserve Wildlife Tag (FWC) award, Cooperative Agreement between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Orianne Society, Conservation Fund through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Fund via the Nature Conservancy.

The reintroduction efforts for the Eastern Indigo Snake are only the beginning of building a healthy sustainable population. With the continuous help and support from partnerships and AZA facilities, the Eastern Indigo Snake is on its way to becoming a thriving species in the southern U.S. and continue to play a vital role in our ecosystem.

With the continuous help \\

and support from partnerships and AZA facilities, the Eastern Indigo Snake is on its way to becoming a thriving species in the southern U.S. and continue to play a vital role in our ecosystem.

The reintroduction efforts

for the Eastern Indigo Snake are only the beginning of building a healthy sustainable population.


Posted by Alex Dianu at Saturday, December 14, 2019

Sea turtles have friends in Houston.

Along the upper Texas coast, sea turtles frequent beaches to nest in April, May, and June every year. But sometimes sea turtles are in perilous situations that require immediate medical attention. Sea turtles have been found in the area that have swallowed fish hooks, are entangled in shoe laces, plastic bags, or other debris. The Sea Turtle Standing and Salvage Network, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners, is on call 24/7 and responds during all hours of the day and night. But rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles can take weeks, months, or even years and sound partnerships are the key to success. The Houston Zoo provides pro bono medical services, including surgery and other expensive procedures. The Houston Zoo Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Joe Flanagan, is always on call and conducts life-saving procedures at a facility in Galveston, Texas. The facility is especially overwhelmed during the winter months when cold-stunning events can occur. Cold-stunning occurs when sea turtles experience symptoms similar to hypothermia in humans due to long exposure to cold waters. Sea turtles can die from cold-stunning, and having Dr. Flanagan and the Houston Zoo staff such as Martha Parker able to assist the Galveston facility is crucial for saving sea turtles. For an interesting story on these key persons working hard to save sea turtles, see: Sea Turtle Superheroes.

Posted by Sandra Elvin at Thursday, December 1, 2016

AZA SAFE partner Marine Mammal Commission casts a spotlight on vaquita marina through CCTV America

Peter Thomas, International and Policy Program Director at Marine Mammal Commission, discussed concerns for the critically endangered vaquita marina in a recent interview with CCTV America. The interview focused on the impacts of illegal totoaba fishing in Mexico on the vaquita, and the steps that are being taken to help protect vaquitas in the wild. The Mexican government has issued a ban on gillnets, the biggest threat to the vaquita, and is beginning to use drones in an effort to catch poachers who continue to fish illegally. As totoaba fishing is driven largely by the Chinese market, this interview is particularly significant because CCTV has a global reach. CCTV is one of 42 TV channels produced and broadcast by China Central Television, the world’s largest broadcaster with a reach of more than 1.2 billion people. The channel can be seen in more than 85 million homes across more than 100 countries and territories. To see the full interview and learn more about threats and conservation efforts surrounding the vaquita, watch the video here:

Posted by Sandra Elvin at Thursday, October 27, 2016

Updates on AZA SAFE

Below are a few updates about the AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction program. 

AZA SAFE Member-Sponsored Species

The criteria for qualifying a species as an SMSS is finalized and the Implementation Task Force (ITF) is working on identifying a few model SMSS species.  The AZA Field Conservation Committee (FCC) has agreed to receive, review, and approve SMSS applications and is collaborating with the ITF to finalize the application and the approval processes which will be launched at the January 2017 Directors Policy Meeting.

AZA SAFE Conservation Action Plan (CAP) Project Coordinators

We are very happy to announce that two new SAFE CAP Project Coordinators have been confirmed since our last update.  Jim Wharton, Director of Conservation and Education at the Seattle Aquarium, will be one of the AZA SAFE Shark and Ray Conservation Action Plan Public Engagement Project Coordinators. Jim has over 20 years of experience with informal science education, program development and public awareness, as well as in shark and ray conservation and protection.

Beth Firchau, Director of Husbandry at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, will be the AZA SAFE Shark and Ray Conservation Action Plan SSP Sustainability Project Coordinator. Beth is the Marine Fishes TAG Chair and brings a deep set of knowledge and experience about SSP programs and their needs. Beth has over 20 years of experience in aquariums and has worked for many years on shark and ray conservation.

Learn more about the SAFE Signature Species: People have asked for a place where they can go to learn more about what is happening with the SAFE Signature Species and how they and their AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium can become directly involved in coordinating or collaborating on a SAFE CAP Project. To meet this need we have created species-specific SAFE Project webpages that identify critical actions to date and the project coordinators, collaborators and funders.  To find out more visit:, select the species you’re interested in, and then select the “Conservation Projects” link in the right-hand column.

AZA SAFE Resources Available

Two new tools have been created and are available for you to use. A SAFE 101 PowerPoint has been created and is available for you to brief your staff, your volunteers or your governing authority on SAFE. You can find it on the Governing Authorities Resource Center page: . In addition, a SAFE Frequently Asked Questions document has been developed. This is available in the SAFE community on the AZA network in the Resources area: NOTE: You need to be logged in to the AZA Network to access the resources.

AZA SAFE Founders Circle Update

We want to thank the 47 AZA zoos, aquariums, and commercial members who have pledged nearly $2.7+ million over three years to the Founders Circle to provide the seed money for the science, planning, and public engagement strategies for SAFE.   In particular, we thank our commercial members for their support including SSA, Miles River Direct, Schultz & Williams and Morey Consulting. We invite your participation in the Founders Circle to help us reach our $3 million goal.   For information, please contact Gregg Hudson at or Jill Nicoll at 

Quick Tips

Remember to Tag Your Posts with #SavingSpecies: Please use the #savingspecies hashtag. We are watching for your posts and sharing them with our followers. Let’s keep it up!

Join the AZA SAFE Community on the AZA Network: We utilize the AZA Network, posting updates and files available in the AZA SAFE community, which can be accessed here: . Please note that you need to be logged in to the AZA Network to access these resources.

Upcoming Calendar: AZA, working with several AZA committees, will be providing materials related to Focus Days in 2016. Thank you for helping to make World Rhino Day a success! 

December 4 – International Cheetah Day


Posted by Rob Vernon at Thursday, October 13, 2016

AZA member The Living Desert raising awareness and funds for vaquita

The Palm Desert Patch reports: During La Gran Fiesta, The Living Desert will also be raising awareness of the plight of the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Current estimates state there are fewer than 60 of these small porpoise left in the northern Gulf of California. The vaquitas’ major threat is entanglement in fishing gillnets. As a way to help save the vaquita, attendees at La Gran Fiesta are invited to take part in the inaugural vaquita parade. Guests are also encouraged to ‘adopt’ a vaquita to help support their recovery in the wild – adopters receive an adoption certificate, book, hat, and fact sheet – and all proceeds go to support the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) vaquita conservation action plan. Read more

Posted by Rob Vernon at Friday, October 7, 2016

Storied Seafood: Vaquita Conservation

Through exemplary collaboration, the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Seafood for the Future program and NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center developed Storied Seafood: Vaquita Conservation. Storied Seafood tells the story of the vaquita through the lens of a group of innovative fishermen from the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. These fishermen are working with global fishing experts, government and nongovernment organizations to develop and test non-entangling fishing gear. The new gear is expected to reduce fishery impacts on the critically endangered vaquita as well as other protected species in the region. Storied Seafood will also highlight various perspectives and efforts throughout the seafood supply chain to address specific ocean conservation issues associated with seafood. It will provide a platform from which to discuss, develop, and inform the public about collaborative solutions for healthy people and ocean ecosystems. You can learn more here:

Posted by Rob Vernon at Friday, September 30, 2016

Reid Park Zoo: Protecting the Vaquita

The vaquita, the smallest porpoise in the world, needs our help. In this KVOA/News 4 Tucson video, Reid Park Zoo’s Jed Dodds and Education Coordinator Jennifer discuss how the Zoo is helping the critically endangered species. Watch the video

at Friday, September 23, 2016

Calgary Zoo restores whooping crane population with advanced techniques

From Metro News Calgary: Whooping cranes nearly vanished in the mid-1900s.

Since then, the population has stabilized with the help of the Calgary Zoo and several other conservation centres across North America. So much so, that they were honoured by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with the North American Conservation Award.

But what is it that made the program so successful? Read more ...

Posted by Rob Vernon at Friday, September 23, 2016

Oregon Zoo awarded for helping to save Western pond turtle

KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon, reports: The Oregon Zoo just got an award for working to save an endangered species. The zoo has been working with Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to save the Western pond turtle. Read more...

Posted by Rob Vernon at Friday, September 23, 2016

Western Pond Turtles get a head start

On August 12, 2016, Woodland Park Zoo staff and ZooCorps teens joined biologists and representatives from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at a protected recovery site to release 47 juvenile western pond turtles. The 47 turtles were collected from the wild as eggs and given a head start on life under the care of Woodland Park Zoo to improve their chance of survival in the wild. Once the turtles reach about 2 ounces—a suitable size to escape the mouths of invasive predatory bullfrogs—they are returned to the wild each summer and monitored by biologists.

In 1991, the project was established to help recover this endangered species, including initiating a head starting program. In 25 years, the “turtle team” has released >2,100 turtles—boosting the wild population from 150 turtles at two sites to >1,000 turtles at six sites. Woodland Park Zoo and Oregon Zoo have together invested more than $1 million in this long-term field conservation program.

For this upcoming head start season, 85 eggs were collected and delivered to Woodland Park Zoo, 72 of which are most likely fertile. To date, 55+ have hatched.

Enjoy this feature by Evening Magazine, a program that airs nightly Monday-Friday on Seattle’s top news station, KING 5.

And enjoy Woodland Park Zoo’s new video:

Posted by Rob Vernon at Friday, September 9, 2016
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