Imagine a doctor’s visit where you get the bad news—high blood pressure!
You discuss a plan—she writes a prescription, you discuss diet and exercise, and off you go. At your next exam, she uses a variety of tools—a blood pressure cuff, past medical records, results from recent bloodwork, and your feedback about how your treatment has gone. Together you assess your current health and modify last year’s recommendations.
This feedback loop can lead to improved health, but would be hampered without the tools to measure progress over time. Within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, our Species Survival Plan® programs also need this adaptive management, and PMCTrack is one tool in our toolkit which can help improve our cooperative management system.
Ten years after its initial release to the AZA community, a January 2021 update has re-introduced PMCTrack with a new look and feel and enhancements targeted at streamlining SSP management. This website is used by SSPs, zoos and aquariums, the AZA Population Management Center (PMC) and PMC adjuncts—collectively it has been used by thousands of people across AZA since its release in 2011. Since then, the system has made significant improvements to PMC operations, SSP management, and our AZA-wide understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing SSPs.
The revamped website has been greeted positively by the AZA community.
“The entire layout is much more user-friendly and makes it easier to locate information. Also the area that specifically calls out the tasks I am responsible for is very helpful. Lastly, the expanded help section is really well assembled and easy to navigate,” said Joe Barkowski, vice president of animal conservation and science at the Tulsa Zoo in Tulsa, Okla., and chair of the AZA Animal Population Management Committee (APM).
Re-designed based on feedback from the community, the website makes it quicker for everyone to find their “to dos,” while also highlighting essential information relevant to each user on their dashboard.
The PMCTrack feature that SSP coordinators and institutional representatives (IRs) interact with the most are its surveys, which they use to understand what an SSP’s participating facilities need in an upcoming breeding and transfer plan (wants/needs surveys) and why the last set of recommendations didn’t occur (outcomes surveys).
PMCTrack relieves SSP coordinators of a lot of administrative headaches so they can focus on synthesis and analysis. The website assists with maintaining an institutional representative list, developing effective survey questions, tracking user responses rates, following up with late responders, and organizing responses.
“I’ve used PMCTrack most extensively for preparation with my recent Greater Kudu SSP breeding and transfer planning. It was incredibly useful in being able to handle a large amount of information from so many institutions in just one location (and subsequently being able to collate that into complete reports),” said Dennis Charlton, animal keeper and Greater Kudu SSP coordinator at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Using PMCTrack surveys is not just advantageous to an individual SSP coordinator, it also helps others across the AZA system.
“I am often working to advise multiple SSPs at the same time. With so many moving pieces, I appreciate when SSP coordinators use PMCTrack surveys to capture the ‘wants and needs’ of facilities,” said Paul Senner, population biologist at the AZA PMC. “If a SSP coordinator uses PMCTrack surveys, I know the format the survey responses will come in, when the survey responses will be available, and which facilities have responded. This makes for more efficient work, allows me to collaborate with the SSP coordinator more easily, and makes the planning process smoother.”
Using PMCTrack surveys can also help individual facilities. If an individual is an institutional representative across many programs, a standardized survey (with customized questions for each SSP) provides a familiar format, making it easier to gather the information requested. And historical surveys can be a valuable resource.
“With a relatively short time in this role, being able to review past completed surveys (and by who!) has assisted me in getting a long-term picture of [our] collection planning process. With 165 managed species in the collection, I do discuss the needs/wants with the current individual IRs, but being able to review how the organization has responded over the years is especially important in building a valid, useful institutional collection plan,” said Kevin Drees, director of animal collections at Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City, Okla., and its institutional liaison.
That permanent repository is also invaluable as staffing changes.
“Basic knowledge of the program is not lost with personnel turnover or when a long-term SSP coordinator retires because everything is tracked,” said Dr. Megan Brown, director of population management strategy at AZA.
Current and future enhancements to surveys will hopefully encourage more SSP coordinators to use these tools, which can have system-wide benefits.
“Using the wants/needs surveys helps facilitate planning, keeps the information all in one place, and makes requests trackable, rather than in a SSP coordinator’s overflowing email inbox. Using outcome surveys would allow for greater understanding of why recommendations could not be completed or if there are underlying issues within the management of a population,” said Brown.
PMCTrack also helps increase transparency within the AZA community on multiple levels.
“Before you even log in, anyone can easily see the upcoming schedule of SSP planning meetings, which is a transparent way for our community to see which SSPs are meeting soon,” said Kristine Schad Eebes, director of the AZA PMC at Lincoln Park Zoo. In addition, the latest release has added tools for institutional liaisons.
“I absolutely love the automated emails to inform me about upcoming SSP breeding and transfer plans,” said Charlton.
These emails identify who the assigned institutional representative is for an SSP, allowing the institutional liaison to quickly address any errors to make sure that surveys and draft/final plans can easily flow between their facility and the SSP and AZA PMC. And responsiveness to surveys is one more aspect of improving our understanding of the community’s commitment to SSPs.
“Use of surveys would help with accountability across all levels of those involved in cooperative management programs,” said Brown.
The recommendations that SSPs issue in breeding and transfer plans are currently evaluated by PMCTrack using studbook data to assess whether the recommendations were fulfilled as requested before the next plan is issued. These assessments are a good starting point and, for the first time, allowed us to benchmark how SSPs across AZA were doing in this aspect of management: as of May 2021 across all SSPs and plans issued from 2000-2021, fulfillment rates were 24.6 percent for Breed With (N = 33,186 scorable recs), 94.7 percent for Do Not Breed (N = 101,187), 92 percent for Hold (N = 166,732) and 61.1 percent for Send To (N = 18,773). This is a massive, powerful dataset, but there are also opportunities for improvement that the PMCTrack team is working on based on feedback from the community.
Programming changes slated for 2022 will allow better tracking of interim recommendations that SSPs send out between breeding and transfer plans. More importantly, we will create the ability for facilities to indicate when recommendations were attempted, rather than simply tracking fulfillment. These changes should mean that facilities and SSPs will get more credit for the hard work that they invest in successful SSP management.
As the APM Committee works to reimagine what our cooperative management programs look like, there is a recognition that, just like a doctor and a patient having a conversation about needed health improvements, many tools will be important to guide towards the long-term health of populations.
“As the APM Committee vice chair of SSPs and Studbooks, I am excited about the potential to use PMCTrack as a tool to help us track participation and progress of SSPs,” said Hollie Colahan, vice president of living collections at the Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala., “Having one place to access information on breeding and transfer plans and recommendation fulfillment, as well as data about why recommendation may not be fulfilled, is going to be critical in our reimagining of SSPs.”
The enhanced PMCTrack 2.0 is now available to all registered users—all SSP coordinators, institutional liaisons, Taxonomic Advisory Group chairs, and institutional representatives that work within the cooperative management system—at pmctrack.org. We invite everyone to explore their new dashboard, review the help content which can guide them through new features, and further consider the ways this tool can help improve the health of the SSP system.
Dr. Lisa Faust is the senior director of population ecology at the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology at Lincoln Park Zoo and the creator of PMCTrack.