Imagine the amount of knowledge and expertise inherent in a group of individuals who have received the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ highest honor, the R. Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence. Honorees must meet rigorous award criteria that include an impeccable character, a distinguished record of honorable service to the Association, outstanding contributions to the profession, and an unparalleled level of leadership throughout his or her career.
Recipients of the award are universal in their feelings of appreciation: “flattering and humbling,” said Satch Krantz, retired president and chief executive officer at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C.; “the pinnacle of my career,” said Kris Vehrs, retired executive director at AZA in Silver Spring, Md.; and “a welcome evaluation of my leadership and professional contributions,” said Bill Conway, retired president of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y.
Joining a group of peers who exemplified the level of professional excellence demonstrated by icon Marlin Perkins was a particular source of gratitude for Steve McCusker, retired director at the San Antonio Zoo in San Antonio, Texas, who said, “There were a lot of people I knew and admired who had received the Marlin R. Perkins award. I was flabbergasted, delighted, and proud to become a part of that group.”
Given the impressive list of attributes that Perkins awardees share, we asked six of them to weigh in on the state of the AZA community today and what they think the future holds. Their answers reflect an honest assessment of current and future challenges along with varying levels of optimism about AZA’s potential to move forward as a global conservation leader.
The Perkins award recipients agree that the effort to educate the public about AZA members’ identity and their missions must remain a focus. Whether it’s the meaning and importance of accreditation or the commitment to conservation, misperceptions still exist.
“To many people the word ‘zoo’ is a pejorative term,” said Krantz. “The average person doesn’t make a distinction between an accredited zoo and a non-accredited zoo. We’re all painted with a broad brush. Trying to get the public to understand the difference between being an accredited institution and things like the Tiger King is difficult. You just have to keep hammering away at it.”
AZA members’ identity as conservation organizations also needs more and consistent focus.
“We haven’t done a great job of telling our story,” said Dr. Jackie Ogden, retired vice president of animals, science, and environment at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in Orlando, Fla. “During the 19 years I spent at Disney, any time I would talk about the conservation we did, the universal reaction was, ‘I had no idea.’ Are we doing better? Absolutely. Could we be doing more? Absolutely.”
Community engagement is a critical part of telling the AZA story as part of the larger conservation story, and again, it is an area that requires continued focus.
“One of the most important things is to get across to the public the service we do for conservation on the animal side of the coin; and try to get them involved in conservation through education on the human side,” said McCusker. “A lot of species wouldn’t be around now if it weren’t for zoos. We need to get everyone walking with the same mindset. One of the major ways is to continue to make zoos great and pleasant places to visit, and then educate people. It’s now or never.”
Building, maintaining, and adding to collections will continue to present major challenges for the entire AZA community.
“There is a very well-funded minority that does not like animals in managed care,” said Ogden. “We understand that there’s nuance to these groups and that we can work with some of them on some things, and we can’t work with others on anything.”
In addition, Vehrs added that all members must continue to stay abreast of regularly changing regulations regarding the importation and display of animals. “It’s more difficult to get animals from the wild—each country has its own rules and some species are covered by CITES. You have to have time, a deep pocketbook, and you may end up in a PR fight.”
All of these factors are leading to a homogenization of zoo collections, according to Krantz.
“The variety of animals available is down substantially from what it was when I started out. If you go to Riverbanks, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Dallas, you’re going to see basically the same animals. I think people keep thinking it’s going to get better, [but] we probably have to come up with new and better ways to display the animals we have.
“There are so many issues that all come back to human population growth, and the average person has a tough time coming to grips with that. Wildlife just isn’t on most people’s radar screens and it needs to be. Conservation work needs to be promoted and promoted and promoted. It’s so frustrating to know that my 20-month-old granddaughter may not live as an adult to see giraffes.”
“The biggest challenge AZA faces today is the fact that we are in a global extinction crisis and [the fact] that zoo capacity to help is sharply constrained by space, public understanding, and by the oncoming tragedy of global climate change,” said Conway.
Collaboration among like-minded entities would seem to be the natural approach to a problem of his magnitude, but Krantz identified an ongoing problem that AZA will have to address.
“Worldwide there are perhaps hundreds of conservation organizations, each with its own mission, goals, and objectives. Many are at odds with each other. A number of these organizations do not see zoos and aquariums as part of the solution, while others embrace what the community has to offer. The AZA will have to win over the skeptics while working with those who recognize the value of small animal population management.”
Dave Towne, retired director, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., added that, “AZA has had a hard time moving into the next century. They’ve tried, and the conservation effort is a significant step. But given the respect we have, we’re not very much of a force. In order to really coalesce into a political or social movement it really takes a lot of resources, and we’re not really in that position.”
Ogden agrees that the challenge exists, but is optimistic about members finding ways to meet it.
“I always believed in the power of zoos and aquariums to make a difference in the field of conservation … [but] we still have yet to crack the code to being a force in creating a social movement with the goal of having humans and animals thrive. We have not achieved our potential. With the number of people we reach, we really could make a huge difference. The actions can be fairly small but they need to be strategic and linked to a specific species. Zoos and aquariums need to be working with local communities, not just the communities in which they’re located, but in communities where the animals are, whether that’s Uganda or Kansas. We need to think better and be more strategic.”
The pandemic forced many AZA members to cut conservation programs when they had to close their doors, and that will have to be addressed when business returns to some semblance of normal, said Vehrs.
“Post Covid the biggest challenge will be to stabilize the funding … and zoos and aquariums have to get back into the conservation game once that funding is stabilized. They also have to figure out how to be relevant.”
Views on the financial future are mixed among this group of former leaders.
“Some institutions, such as the Indianapolis Zoo, have recently developed a very sensitive and generous relationship with the Lilly company, which promises particularly helpful new directions,” said Conway. “One cannot but hope that other powerful corporations will develop such partnerships on behalf of man and nature. The zoo can be a perfect partner.”
Towne thinks financial viability is a significant concern, but he does add an optimistic note. “Money is the avenue by which you develop power; and money is a major factor in affecting public attitude. AZA has a major, major effort ahead—to survive the competition for support. I wish AZA luck. And I still have hope. We are doing God’s work—promoting the conservation of animals and protecting natural resources, and I think that good message will win out.”
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.