Ambassador animals can be the public faces of zoos and aquariums, but many institutions have considered them separate from the animals on exhibit—and house them out of public view and in different enclosures.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ continuous efforts to raise its accreditation standards and improve animal welfare has sparked conversations within the community about housing, enrichment, and other welfare improvements for ambassador animals, and now AZA members are busy building innovative living spaces and programs for these animals.
“I feel very lucky to be in the field and working with ambassador animals when we’re challenging everything we’ve thought and figuring out how to provide them with the best life we can,” said Jenny Izu, a wildlife care specialist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif. “It’s really an exciting time.”
The Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., opened a multimillion-dollar facility last year that houses dozens of ambassador animals, such as owls, snakes, and turtles in individual spaces tailored to their needs.
“Our new facility allows Fresno Chaffee Zoo to provide excellent welfare for our Animal Ambassadors,” said Lyn Myers, general curator at the Zoo. “Their new habitats allow more space and opportunities for them to display natural behaviors. This includes the ability to choose preferred space, temperatures, direct sunlight, varying substrates, and perching within their habitats. With this amazing area, we can continue to develop our animal ambassador program, while providing the best animal care possible.”
Zoo Miami in Miami, Fla., is preparing what Heather Keenan, chief of animal science, describes as a “reconstructing, revamping, and reimagining” of the behind-the-scenes space for ambassador animals. The new facility will have a larger external footprint, but most of the added room for animals will come from redesigning enclosures to use space more efficiently.
“We had a couple goals initially, to increase the space for our animals—that was a high priority—and make more natural substrate available to them,” said Keenan. “So we combined everything into one main shared hallway with adjoining holding spaces so our animals could have two to three times larger holding spaces than they currently have, depending on the species.”
The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn., has used a two-year COVID-19-driven programming shutdown to assess its ambassador animals’ living spaces and is preparing to break ground on what Trinity Leiser, the Zoo’s curator of ambassador animals, said is “a pretty big overhaul.” In addition to upgrading ambassador animals’ living quarters, the overhaul will include two new areas that can play a dual role as habitat/ambassador animal.
Each of these revamps were begun before AZA members agreed on revised welfare standards, but plans require little modification because the professionals at each institution are aware of rising standards of care for animals, from aardvarks to zebras.
“A lot of the animals used in ambassador collections are domestic animals or animals that we think of as not having as complex needs, like snakes or rabbits or chickens or turtles,” said Amy Rutherford, the former director of professional development and education at AZA. “We now have a better understanding what those animals need. We may have thought that a frog is happy in a small tank—it’s certainly easy to keep clean, which is good for an animal that absorbs a lot through its skin. But when we’re assessing other indicators of stress or welfare, we’re learning that we have more opportunities to provide a richer, more naturalistic environment for those types of animals as well.”
AZA has always held its member institutions to high standards of animal welfare, and continually reviews accepted practices and conventional wisdom looking for ways to improve. It then shares ideas, as it did with ambassador animal housing in a series of meetings last November.
“For a while, ambassador animals—animals used in public programs—were not being considered in the same way,” said Helen Dishaw, curator of bird programs at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah. “On our part, it’s been a realization that it doesn’t matter if you’re caring for a great horned owl that is part of an ambassador program or a great horned owl that’s just living in an exhibit: they both deserve the same consideration in terms of habitat and space, provisions, and other things to make sure they’ve got a great quality of life.”
Improving ambassador animals’ habitats is important because it expands guests’ opportunities to interact with wildlife, advancing a core mission of such programs.
“One of the one of the great benefits of ambassador animal opportunities is to build a sense of understanding, respect, empathy, and connection with animals,” said Rutherford. Raising the quality of ambassador animal enclosures to that of public exhibits encourages facilities to open those areas to guests. “Whether people touch them or not, guests are able to get closer than they typically would,” said Rutherford.
Izu recalled talking with one patron who is fond of a beaver named Peanut.
“If you have a conversation with them after the presentation, you can talk about all the great things you’re doing in this animals’ habitat and maybe add how it would be so cool if we had a pool where she could dive,” Izu said. “This is what happened with us. The person said, ‘Oh, well, maybe I can help you make that happen because I love this animal.’”
Another donor built a 15-foot rock wall on which the Zoo’s clouded leopard loves to climb.
Other improvements have required imagination more than money. Izu said a team at San Diego’s Safari Park noticed that part of the parking lot was often empty, so they got permission to fence off the bare-earth area to provide play time to animals from tortoises to kangaroos. One ambassador team asked to turn an unused steep hillside into an avian recreation area. “The birds don’t care that the floor is slanted,” Izu said, but they seem to love perching in tall trees with a view unlike the ones in their home habitats.
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., is in the early stages of improving its ambassador animal enclosures, but Natali Rodgers, the director of learning and evaluation, is challenging team members to reimagine how they house animal ambassadors, whether they need more room, more natural light, or a way to go off exhibit if they choose to do so.
“I’ve challenged them to have big ideas,” said Rodgers. “We can always scale back a vision if we need to, but for now let’s take out questions of staffing and funding. Think outside the box, move forward and re-envision how we do this. Let’s make sure that what we do is best for those animals and that animal welfare is our top priority.”
Limited space can be a hurdle to expanding living quarters for exhibit animals as well as ambassador animals. An increasingly common solution is to create shared spaces.
“When there’s suddenly space available because animals move to another zoo or shuffles happen, we historically would ask ourselves which animal will get the upgrade to move into that space,” said Izu. “Now, we look at turning that space into an exercise yard and rotate animals through it. So you can have one big open habitat, you build a little forest in there, and the animals can take turns going to it for the day or for a night or for a couple of days.
“That does all kinds of things for the animal,” she continued. “First, it gives them an opportunity to exercise and be in a larger space than they would have had otherwise. It also lets them smell each other, which is very stimulating for them. Something like this lets many more animals benefit from that one new open space. Instead of just one animal getting an upgrade, lots of animals can benefit from it. We believe that our ambassador animals living behind the scenes deserve the same dynamic, natural spaces as animals that are on-habitat."
Hero Photo Credit: ©Jenny Izu
Mark Stein is a writer used in Larchmont, N.Y.