As members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, we are experts in caring for the complex needs of thousands of species of wild animals. Caring for animals is the foundation of everything that AZA members do to inspire people to appreciate animals and nature, create compelling visitor experiences, maintain healthy animal populations, and save animals from extinction. Our member facilities and committees have helped our community make great strides in the science of animal welfare, and our accreditation standards hold us accountable. But, we don’t yet have a holistic vision for the future of animal welfare for the AZA community.
The AZA’s Animal Welfare Vision and Strategy Task Force (AWTF) was formed in the summer of 2019 by the AZA board of directors with the goal of identifying AZA’s vision for animal welfare. This vision and strategic framework will help align the AZA community as a whole (individual members, institutions, committees, and partners) around shared aspirations and priorities for the future of animal welfare. We had a few fits and starts, pausing for the majority of 2020 so our task force members could focus on their COVID-19 pandemic response. We have been working in earnest since late 2020, and are excited to share some of our work with you.
The AWTF represents the range of facilities, backgrounds, experiences, and committees that exists in our membership. As Lisa New, chief executive officer of Zoo Knoxville in Knoxville, Tenn., and AZA board member shared, “this was intentional on the part of the board and AZA staff—they want this group to provide AZA a holistic perspective on animal welfare, set a future vision, and talk about the strategic priorities to achieve that vision.”
The task force is composed of approximately 20 AZA professionals from large and small zoos and aquariums, spanning the disciplines of animal welfare and care, veterinary medicine, communications, marketing, education, leadership, and more. When shared openly and respectfully, our diversity of perspectives is our greatest asset in this work.
A key underpinning of how the task force went about our work was listening to our profession. We view the job of the task force as not to create a strategy for AZA, but to draw the strategy from the AZA. This is based in the belief that when we listen to each other and ourselves, we are better able to sense the whole.
The ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant is an apt illustration of this concept. As the parable goes, when a group of blind men come upon an elephant for the first time, they try to identify it based on what each is sensing. One man, who is touching the trunk, thinks it must be a snake. Another, whose hand lands on the elephant’s tail, thinks it feels like a rope. In focusing on the part, they are not seeing the whole. While each subjective experience is true, it is almost certainly not the full picture. The more perspectives and experiences we consider, the more accurate our sense of the whole will be.
To achieve the goal of gathering perspectives and ideas from our diverse AZA community, we held a series of listening sessions to provide a space for our AZA community to share their experiences and thoughts. We started by getting curious about ways in which lack of alignment (with respect to animal welfare) was holding us back, and what might be made possible if we had greater alignment. We inquired into what success looks like, in the context of animal welfare, to our AZA community. We asked about what you want us to achieve, what your priorities are, and where you see gaps in our collective knowledge. In total, from January through April, more than 900 individuals participated in a listening session.
First and foremost, we heard that we want to continuously enhance our ability to provide great welfare. We want to utilize our collective knowledge to create better, fuller lives for the animals in our care and we want to share that knowledge across AZA through training and education. Additionally, we heard that:
Challenges inherent in the many ways in which we pursue our mission, individually and together as an AZA community, also surfaced in the conversations. We may, at times, fall into dualistic thinking (either/or), where we see these as things to choose between, rather than tensions to manage. You noted some key areas where this may be holding us back in the welfare space.
Members need to have some level of autonomy to decide what works best for their specific community and context. And, current lack of alignment and integration across AZA members means we may be missing opportunities and duplicating efforts. How do we both allow for the diversity of ways facilities approach welfare and leverage the strength and power of the collective?
There are organizations that take issue with our very existence, but that have areas of common ground or mutually beneficial issues where we could partner. We may fall into an “us versus them” mentality with organizations that don’t align or agree with us on every issue. Sometimes it is easier to externalize the enemy than have the uncomfortable conversations or consider the complex issues that arise internally. How do we see the differences between ourselves as important information to be reflected on and worked with, not dismissed or avoided?
As a zoo and aquarium community, we are grappling with what can feel like competing goals and perceived tradeoffs (e.g. individual animal vs. population; maximizing profit vs. maximizing mission). What kinds of skills, tools, and mindsets could help us to better manage and integrate these goals and tradeoffs?
In today’s world, science and traditional experts aren’t automatically granted trust, and changing societal expectations for animals in human care may not be evidence-based. How do we both meet people where they are, and be willing to attend to both the science-based outcomes and perceptions?
While there is a level of complexity to our collective vision and aspirations around animal welfare that arose as a result of the listening sessions, the most exciting finding of the listening sessions was the fact that we, the AZA community, are more aligned on this topic than perhaps we had realized before the sessions. There was remarkable consistency in the “wants” and issues identified above in this article. No matter the audience we polled, from direct animal care to support professionals to senior leaders, the over-arching themes were the same. Therefore, we believe strongly that we are well-positioned as a task force and as a profession to propose a vision and strategic framework to achieve that vision for a foundational tenet of our profession—animal welfare
Robin Keith is president and chief executive officer at EcoLeaders LLC.
Dr. Candice Dorsey is the senior vice president of conservation, management and welfare sciences at AZA.
Dr. Scott Terrell is DVM, Dipl. ACVP, director, animal and science operations at Disney's Animals, Science, and Environment team and Disney Parks, Experiences, and Consumer Products.