In July 2019, Craig Hoover joined the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as executive vice president. Craig’s career in wildlife conservation in the government and non-profit sector has spanned three decades. Prior to joining the Association he was chief, Division of International Conservation for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. After six months at the Association, Connect staff sat down with Craig to get his impressions of the AZA community and the Association.
What appealed to you about coming to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums?
In the nearly 30 years that I have worked in international wildlife conservation, I have been fortunate to work closely with Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities. With that experience, I saw firsthand the significant and impactful contributions that AZA makes to conservation, animal welfare, and environmental awareness. Whether it’s through the education of approximately 200 million visitors per year, the delivery of $231 million to field conservation in more than 120 countries, or the continually evolving gold standard in zoo and aquarium accreditation, I knew AZA is an organization that aligns with my core beliefs about protecting wildlife and wild places. With every career decision, I ask myself one simple question: can I do more for wildlife there than in my current role? I joined AZA because the answer was a resounding “yes.”
Can you share with us an experience that first drew you to a career in conservation?
I knew that I would work in wildlife conservation from a very early age. I grew up at the edge of Lake St. Clair in southeast Michigan and always had ready access to, and a passion for, the natural world. I spent spring and summer hunting for snakes and turtles and fishing, fall watching migratory waterfowl, and winter tracking foxes and other wildlife through the snow. Although I would not have predicted that these experiences would lead to participating in U.S. delegations to meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or traveling to Central Africa to monitor efforts to combat wildlife poaching and trafficking, a career in conservation was never in doubt.
What do you think are the major challenges in conservation today?
The threats to conserving wildlife and wild places are myriad. Habitat loss, climate change, poaching, illegal trade, disease, human conflict and other threats continue to push thousands of species toward extinction. The recently released Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) biodiversity assessment concluded that perhaps one million species are at risk of extinction. I believe our greatest challenge is to convince people to prioritize conservation. At its core, conservation is a people problem. Until people decide that maintaining biodiversity, for the benefit of wildlife and people, is more important than the activities that drive biodiversity loss, we are fighting a losing battle.
What do you see as the role of accredited zoos and aquariums in saving wild animals and wild places?
I believe that AZA is uniquely positioned to address the greatest challenge to conservation by changing hearts and minds regarding biodiversity conservation. AZA-accredited facilities can be conservation change agents by connecting people with nature through our sustainable animal populations, by educating 200 million visitors per year about how they can act to make meaningful contributions to conservation, and by continuing to put our expertise and resources to work to conserve wildlife in their natural habitat. We are uniquely situated to change how people see nature and their role in protecting wild animals and wild places.
What role does AZA and the AZA community play in promoting animal welfare?
The health, husbandry, and welfare of animals cared for in AZA-accredited facilities are paramount. AZA, particularly through its accreditation standards and animal care manuals, sets the gold standard for what is a modern zoo or aquarium. Through our 238 members in 12 countries, we set the standard to which other zoos and aquariums aspire. Our standards and manuals are constantly updated to reflect new science and knowledge of the animals in our care. Because our standards are developed in consultation with AZA committees, Scientific Advisory Groups, and Taxon Advisory Groups, we are always at the cutting edge of animal welfare and well-being. Our standards are made publicly available and our processes are transparent, so we have a positive influence on animal welfare and well-being not only for current and prospective members, but for other facilities that want to ensure that they are providing the best possible animal care.
Why do you think accreditation is so important?
AZA accreditation is the cornerstone upon which all of our work is built. Fewer than ten percent of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited. AZA accreditation is the distinction that separates the finest facilities from everyone else. The accreditation process is a comprehensive assessment, resulting in accreditation of only the most scrutinized, specialized, and dynamic organizations in the world dedicated to animal care, welfare and well-being, public engagement, education, conservation, and science. And the bar is constantly being raised as we learn more about the animals in our care. Perhaps most importantly, because we are not only stewards of the animals in our care, but also in a position to change the hearts and minds of our 200 million annual visitors, accreditation tells the public that our members are institutions that they can trust.
With the headwinds, are you hopeful about the future of wild animals and wild places?
Yes! With every challenge comes opportunity, and I believe that we are well positioned to tackle these challenges and make meaningful progress in the conservation of wildlife and wild places. If we look past the regular stream of discouraging news, there are many signs of progress. We see California condors back from the brink of extinction and reproducing in the wild; the private sector, conservation community, and governments working together to eliminate single use plastics; countries such as China and the United States banning the sale of elephant ivory; large swaths of the oceans set aside as marine reserves with resulting recovery of fish stocks; and hundreds of millions of trees planted in Ethiopia and India. We must remain vigilant in all of these efforts but, as we continue to change people’s thinking about the conservation of wild animals and wild places, I am confident that we will see more of these opportunities become reality.