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from the desk of dan ashe

Community Strength

By Dan Ashe
min read

The 2020 AZA Annual Conference

The strength of a community often comes to the fore during times of adversity, and that is certainly true of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ community. 

The success of AZA’s first-ever Virtual Annual Conference is a testament to that strength. When it became apparent in early summer that there would be no in-person Annual Conference hosted by Tom Stalf and his team at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, the Association committed to going virtual.

You can imagine the challenges, both technical and professional, that come into play pulling a meeting like this together. But come together it did in a remarkable show of commitment, support, and community strength. 

More than 1,400 attendees from 16 countries signed in to listen to a stellar roll call of keynote speakers, attend seven General Sessions and 70 Concurrent Sessions, read more than 20 E-posters, and explore the services and products of 67 exhibitors and 18 sponsors.  

The We Are AZA strategic plan speaks to the community of excellence that the Association represents, and the success of the Virtual Conference is a credit to you, the membership. During his opening remarks, Board of Directors Chair, Dr. Chris Kuhar, said, “Leaders show up!” Well, you all showed up for Annual Conference. Your ongoing participation in AZA—even in these challenging times—is fuel for our progress and brings enduring value to our work.

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

Dr. Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, kicked off the Conference with a fascinating discussion about his work with indigenous tribes in the Amazon that resulted in the conservation of more than 80 million acres of ancestral rainforest achieved through respect for, and not domination of indigenous people. It was a keynote that reminded me about being better stewards of Nature and of the important role that AZA-accredited facilities play in connecting people to distant places and educating them on the animals, habitats, and cultures that call those places home.  

Social justice resonated deeply with people across the country this year—and at the Association, it has been no different. Denise Verret, chief executive officer and director of the Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif., led, perhaps, one of the most meaningful panels at any AZA Conference to date.

The thoughtful discussion at the Black Voices in Courageous Conversation panel went to the heart of so many issues that need to be addressed, both inside the AZA community and more broadly in society. Denise led masterfully, but I would like to thank each of the panelists personally: Symone Johnson Barkley, manager of education programs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.; Corina Newsome, community engagement manager at the Georgia Audubon; Tony Smith, regional vice president of AZA commercial member, SSA Group; and Lamar Gore, refuge manager, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge—thank you!

Corina had a particularly powerful observation when she noted as a community, we care deeply about diversity and its importance to healthy populations of wild animals and habitats, but we have overlooked the same value diverse voices could bring to the conservation conversation. It was a powerful moment in an absorbing hour.

As our nation is an imperfect union, we are imperfect as a professional community. We have made progress, but we are now at the start of a long journey towards creating a more perfect community and society that are increasingly diverse, equitable, accessible, inclusive, and socially just, but listening to these courageous panelists gives me genuine hope. If you are wondering what leadership looks like—this was it. 

Dr. B.N. Horowitz discussed her research and how it focuses on the natural world for insights into human pathology and developmental challenges. She taught us that anthropomorphism is not the mistake, but rather the idea of human exceptionalism, and anthrocentric thinking. News flash! Humans are animals, and not so much different from our distant evolutionary relatives, genetically, physiologically, or socially. We can learn a lot about ourselves from learning about them. Sounds like an opportunity for people who work with animals 24/7/365.

Wildlife trafficking and its relationship to pandemics was the focus of a panel moderated by Dr Cristián Samper, the president and chief executive officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y. 

The wide-ranging discussion explored a variety of facets of unregulated, unethical, and illegal wildlife trade, from the limitations of CITES to the ongoing mystery as to where COVID-19 first emerged in China; from the need to involve local communities in valuing and protecting wildlife to the power of AZA-accredited facilities to educate about an issue that touches all.

Panelists included Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation; John E. Scanlon, chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime; Maxi Pia Louis, director of the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations; and Dr. Johnathon H. Epstein, vice president for science and outreach of EcoHealth Alliance.

Much like social justice, wildlife trade and trafficking and its connections to pandemics is a subject that will long be on the mind. And perhaps, the answer lies in taking lessons learned from the Black Voices in Courageous Conversation panel and applying those in our search for a solution. 

Dr. Chris Kuhar’s tenure as chair of the AZA Board in 2020 has been remarkable. I’d like to thank him for his leadership and counsel through what has been an extremely difficult year. 

We knew about the danger pandemics and zoonotic diseases posed, but few could have predicted that COVID-19 would emerge as such a threat to human health and the global economy. As executive director of Cleveland MetroParks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, he has navigated and led his own staff through these harrowing times, and yet he has never wavered in his commitment to and leadership of the Association. If a person has ever embodied We Are AZA, it is Chris. He even used the mantra in his remarks, for which I promise not to make any fun with—watch the recording of his speech if you don’t get that punch line.

Fortunately for us, Bert Castro, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., became the new chair of AZA’s Board on the final day of the Conference. Bert’s service to the AZA community is both distinguished and long. He is a visionary in the community, and I can’t think of a more passionate and committed leader to help us thrive in the coming year and to set a course toward fulfilling our new 5th strategic plan promise.  

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—in these challenging times is a foundation stone on which the ongoing work we do is possible. We could not do the work without you!

Platinum Sponsors

CLR Design
Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment
Mazuri
Polar King International
Tianyu Arts & Culture

2020 has been a challenging year. 2021 will be also, maybe more so. Witnessing the commitment, strength, dynamism, and courage that were on full display at the year’s Annual Conference, I am confident that we will rise to those challenges and discover and then exploit the opportunities they present. 

Steve Jobs once said, “Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.”

We Are AZA! And we are influencing the future!!

DAN ASHE IS THE PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE ASSOCIATION OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS.


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