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from the desk of dan ashe

A Passion to Prevail

By Dan Ashe
min read



We have just completed the live Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2021 Virtual Annual Conference, and as I reflect on the last three weeks of meetings and sessions, that is what comes to mind—two simple, yet powerful, words that incoming Board Chair, Dr. Brian Davis, president and chief executive officer at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga., used when he accepted the challenge of leading our AZA community. They exemplify everything for which we stand.

The past 18 months have challenged individuals, facilities, collectives like our Association, governments, and put to question our abilities to achieve a common purpose. Yet, if our 2021 Conference is any measure, we have not only survived, we are well placed to thrive in the coming months and years. 

More than 1,650 attendees from 26 countries registered to listen to a diverse and powerful roll call of keynote speakers, attend seven General Sessions, 64 Concurrent Sessions, 23 roundtable discussions, five “Buzz” sessions, and explore more than 31 virtual posters and the services and products of 60 sponsors.

The success of the 2021 Virtual Annual Conference is a testament to your Passion to Prevail.  

Highlights of the Conference are too numerous to mention all here, but I will share some thoughts.

In the Opening General Session, Bert Castro, president and chief executive officer for the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., and outgoing AZA Board Chair, introduced Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Martha Williams.

Williams talked about the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, a ten-year nationwide, locally led, and voluntary effort to restore and conserve America’s lands, waters, and wildlife. She also reminded us about the importance of our Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion efforts, saying, “It’s not enough to invite people in, but that we have to make sure everyone has a place in nature and a place in our profession.”

It was a thoughtful message with which to start the Conference.  

On Tuesday, we welcomed Susan Goldberg editor-in-chief at National Geographic and editorial director at National Geographic Partners to moderate a panel discussion among renowned conservationists, including Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE. Joining Dr. Goodall was well-known author, Dr. Carl Safina; Azzedine Downes, president and chief executive officer of the International Fund for Animal Welfare; and Juliet Eilperin, senior national affairs correspondent with The Washington Post. Each cares deeply about the natural world and the wild animals that call it home, and their discussion revealed important lessons about how influential conservationists view modern zoos and aquariums.

Panel members were in broad agreement on the progress of accredited zoos and aquariums in the fields of animal welfare and education, but voiced concerns about our ability to hold certain species, such as elephants and orcas.  As you can imagine, this touched a nerve in our community, and led to a vibrant discussion later in the Community Conversation panel held later that day. 

Denise Verret, chief executive officer and director of the Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif., hosted the Conversation. The panel reflected on what was said in the earlier Goodall panel’s exploration of zoo and aquarium relevancy in society and sparked a dynamic conversation amongst attendees, and also among the viewers in an incredibly vibrant “chat”. This is what our conferences are about—meaningful conversations on challenging topics. When this happens, the community benefits. 

Each year, the Honors and Awards session is a time when we come together as a community to recognize and honor those who have done exceptional work.

We started at the very pinnacle of our profession with the R. Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence. The award was presented for the 25th time by Paul Baribault, president and chief executive officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif., and Chuck Bieler, executive director emeritus at the Alliance and a previous Perkins Award winner.

The 2021 awardee, following a 50-year zoological career, was Doug Myers, president and chief executive officer emeritus, at the Alliance. During his time at San Diego, he transformed the Zoo and Safari Park with state-of-the-art and immersive exhibits, grew key conservation programs for the Alliance, and leaves a tremendous legacy of excellence and visionary leadership. 

In my long career at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Doug and his team were always available and eager to help and generous with advice and support. Doug also championed a new way to work with elephants—protected contact—and worked tirelessly with the AZA board to get this adopted as the new standard for our profession.  For that and everything else you have achieved at San Diego and for the AZA community, thank you—this honor is richly deserved.   

I won’t mention every award here, but would be remiss if I didn't call out Dr. Jill Mellen for receiving the Animal Welfare Lifetime Achievement Award and Dr. Oliver Ryder for receiving the Devra Kleiman Scientific Advancement Award. As we look to the future, it’s important to recognize today’s work is built on the achievements of some great professionals in our field.

Thank you, Doug, Jill, and Oliver for careers well spent and for helping establish the AZA community as recognized leaders in animal welfare, conservation, and community engagement.   

On Thursday, Dr. Safina returned and talked about his experiences and thoughts on zoos and aquariums. Cynthia Vernon, chief operating officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., asked a series of probing questions, leading to frank and honest replies from Safina. Considering a diversity of voices, including those that we don’t agree with, is the hallmark of a strong, vibrant community. This session also sparked a passionate discussion about storytelling in that afternoon’s Community Conversation—Reflections, moderated by Margo McKnight, president and chief executive officer at the Palm Beach Zoo in Palm Beach, Fla.

Closing out the Conference on Friday, we held our annual Business Meeting where we recognized and thanked outgoing board leaders and welcomed new members to their terms of service. New members of the Ethics Board were also recognized.

Outgoing Chair, Bert Castro, deserves our special gratitude—he is, without a doubt, one of the Association’s great advocates. Bert’s tenure as chair of the AZA board in 2020-2021 has been anything but traditional—he has overseen the Association and its members meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and, importantly, the establishment of the JoEllen Doornbos Endowment Fund that puts SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, AZA’s flagship conservation program, on stable financial footing. His leadership, vision, and counsel throughout have been critical in helping our community navigate a challenging year. We Are AZA, and we are now poised to emerge from the pandemic in large part thanks to Bert’s vision and leadership.

We also welcomed those stepping into new board roles, and I would like to recognize incoming Board Chair, Dr. Brian Davis. His passion for education shone through as he talked about the importance of early opportunities for exposure to nature and animals. His commitment to Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion was also apparent as he conveyed the importance of “seeing people who looked like you,” to young people searching for a way into the community, and we were left in no doubt about the importance of SAFE as he reaffirmed the Association’s commitment to conservation. Brian is the first Black person to serve as chair and he brings a commitment to breaking down barriers of entry to our profession.

Perhaps his most memorable phrase was “Passion to Prevail.”  It is something we as a community have demonstrated throughout this Conference and the whole of 2021. Welcome, Brian, this will be a dynamic year, and I can’t wait to get started. 

The Conference would not be a success without the support of our sponsors. I would like to especially recognize those that sponsored at the Platinum level. Their significant support of the Association—financial and intellectual—is a foundation stone on which the ongoing work we do is possible. We could not do the work without you!

Platinum Sponsors

  • Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment
  • Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition
  • Satisfi Labs
  • Tanzania National Parks, in Proud Partnership with Zoo Knoxville
  • Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc.

2021 has been a challenging year, but this Conference has reaffirmed the strength, dynamism, and commitment of our community.

We Are AZA, and we have a Passion to Prevail! 

Dan Ashe is the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums

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