When it comes to animal care, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. The same is true for population management. That’s been an ongoing topic of conversation for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Animal Population Management (APM) Committee, as it works on a strategic plan to address the animal population sustainability crisis within AZA. While the reimagined Species Survival Plan® framework—with new criteria, processes and guidelines—will be fully implemented in 2023, some aspects will be developed this summer, as Taxon Advisory Groups work to assess where their current SSPs belong.
Some of the changes ahead revolve around what the APM Committee Vice Chair of SSPs and Studbooks, Hollie Colahan, calls “social science” considerations. That is, rather than focusing primarily on a species’ status in the wild, the new plan will also take into account practical measures, such as what animals are the AZA member facilities interested in? What are they willing to commit resources to? How much space does the population need? Is it challenging to care for?
“We’re really good at population management,” said Colahan, who is also AZA’s Lion SSP coordinator and studbook keeper and vice president of living collections at Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala. “But this is more the people side of it.”
To get a sense of the sustainability challenges zoos and aquariums are facing, and how the new plan may address those, we posed three questions to APM Committee leaders and members. Here’s what they hope to see in coming years, as the new plan takes effect.
Vice President, Zoo Advisors; advisor, APM Committee; chair, Ape TAG; chair, AZA Board of Professional Ethics; past chair advisor, Orangutan SSP; advisor, Gorilla SSP
First, zoo leaders need to truly understand the fact that there is a crisis. I think many don’t really see it as such, and human nature often keeps us from recognizing the signs of a crisis until it impacts us personally. Only after recognition of the issue can we expect to see the needed commitments, which are the other pieces needed to adequately address the issue.
The primary impact for Ape TAG programs are, one, moving us more rapidly to the development of a global species management plan (GSMP) for bonobos, with the recognition that the SSP population is too small and in too few facilities to achieve long-term sustainability on its own; two, emphasizing the need to focus efforts on chimpanzees and gibbons. Gorillas tend to be seen as “facility builders” by zoo leaders, but chimps and the small apes require more attention if we are truly committed to sustainability. And these apes often provide more dynamic, active experiences for zoo guests, so investing in them results in a win-win for their populations and for zoos.
Broadly, I hope the AZA community will at long last come to genuinely understand and appreciate the reality of the sustainability crisis, with the result that we can recognize that we need each other; our success will be collective, as will our failure if we are not able to achieve understanding and real cooperation. The future for many animal populations—and for our profession—depends on it.
Director of Animal Management – the Wilds; APM Committee member; vice-chair for Cattle and Camelid Subgroup, Antelope, Cattle, Giraffid and Camelid TAG; steering committee member Equid TAG, Cervid TAG, Caprinae TAG, and Rhinoceros TAG
We have to be able to make some hard decisions about managing our resources. We simply do not have the space necessary to maintain all of our current programs at a sustainable level. Once we have a chance to complete the SSP assessment process, it will be important for zoos to look at their collection plans and decide where they can commit their individual resources to support the programs that are important to them.
The new plan is taking programs beyond the “90 percent-gene-diversity-for-100-years” concept. The inclusion of new criteria like husbandry and institutional interest will help us find a better fit for diverse programs and species. A standardized species selection decision tree and the new regional collection plan process should help streamline that task for the TAGs. I hope that being freed from the restrictions of the SSP framework will provide the flexibility we need to manage smaller programs that are still important priorities for the TAGs. Specifically, I’m thinking about TAGs like the Antelope, Cattle, Giraffid, and Camelid TAG, which has historically been a TAG with a lot of species. Reducing the number of SSP species, and having a standardized decision tree and regional collection plan template will reduce the work associated with updating the regional collection plan. This TAG has several priority species that will lose SSP status. We hope these will benefit from having more flexibility under consortium management.
Our SSP programs should have healthy populations of the animals zoos want readily available. I hope that we will see more cooperation and commitment to the SSP programs from all stakeholders. We also know that we have high-priority species that will not make the cut to remain as SSPs under the new structure. For some of these species, we will need to reach out to responsible private, non-AZA partners to find the resources to support these programs. I hope to see new management concepts emerging to coordinate breeding and conservation efforts for these species.
Curator of herpetology at Zoo Knoxville; vice chair, APM Committee; chair Chelonian TAG; SSP coordinator, Radiated Tortoise; SSP coordinator/studbook keeper, Northern Spider, Common Spider, and Madagascar Flat-tailed Tortoise SSP; SAFE coordinator, Radiated Tortoise
I think to start with we need a better understanding across the board at zoos and aquariums, from the first-day employee to the chief executive officer and board members, that space is a precious commodity and not something that is realistically going to be increasing at most facilities. As all animal care members strive to provide the best welfare for our animals—which includes larger habitats—we decrease diversity by losing overall exhibits as some grow in size. So we have to be strategic and strive for greater collaboration to make sure we still have animals available moving forward. Exhibit design teams need to consider including, as a minimum, additional back-of-house holding to assist with the raising of offspring. This is a major shift in how our business operates and it’s going to take time, but in order for us to succeed long-term, we have to do it.
The Chelonian TAG is slightly unique in that most of our programs have focused on critically endangered species, but unlike the Amphibian TAG, which has been able to return many of their SSP progeny back to the wild, we have not. In some cases it’s because we haven’t reached a point where our species can be returned, or there is no habitat left to do so. I think it will be interesting moving forward to see how those programs evolve into either the new SSP model or into SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction®. The new plan also makes it a priority to focus on husbandry improvements, so I think ensuring that we are providing the best care for these animals is obviously very important, and making sure the next generation knows what to build off of is vital.
Just that we all work collaboratively together for the benefit of the animals in our care and to make the best experience for our guests at the same time. Using our knowledge to share with our partners across associations, and in the private sector (the herp community routinely works with the private sector), to continue the work of preserving species from total extinction remains a top priority for the Chelonian TAG.
Interim co-curator at Woodland Park Zoo; member, APM Committee; chair, Terrestrial Invertebrate TAG
It’s hard to say what is most needed because it is a combination of so many things. People need to understand that there is a sustainability crisis and what their role is in helping to fix it. We need to be able to have open, honest conversations about all the factors at play. For terrestrial invertebrates, we are developing out our husbandry guidelines, working hard to create more husbandry manuals, and developing continuing education opportunities to develop and share best practices.
For the Terrestrial Invertebrate TAG, the new plan gives us some inherent flexibility. Terrestrial inverts do not fit into some of the more common models so the new plan allows the flexibility to develop what we will need for our own sustainability.
I hope to see robust, sustainable collections and programs that meet the varying needs of all the taxa.
Director of husbandry at The Dallas World Aquarium; member, APM Committee; chair, Marine Fishes TAG
We have to identify the species that are a priority to our member facilities across all taxa and focus on those that are most successful and improve the overall breeding success and genetic viability of those programs.
The new plan will help us to focus on the species that are most popular or best represented in our aquarium facilities and help us to prioritize the programs that are not only popular, but also those that have experienced good success in breeding and transfer of animals among facilities.
For the past decade or so, the Marine Fish TAG programs have focused on species of conservation concern, many of which are Elasmobranch and Syngnathid species, which is also important. This is a shift in our planning processes, but in order to ensure that animals are available to AZA facilities into the future the changes will be necessary.
Maximizing the use of AZA and AZA Population Management Center (PMC) resources, like breeding and transfer plans, to make these management decisions will continue to be beneficial in making these decisions based upon best population management practices.
The new plan will help us to focus on those priorities. In addition, the flexibility to manage our most unique aquatic programs in other ways, such as consortiums or TAG endorsed programs will allow for stakeholder facilities in smaller populations to focus on creative ways of managing those species.
I hope that the focus on breeding and maximizing the use of AZA and PMC resources will result in increased attention from our stakeholder facilities for these priority species, and continued collaboration to ensure their success into the future.
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.