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Patience, Persistence, and Politics

By Mary Ellen Collins
min read

AZA Members Drive Legislative Change

Individuals who entered into careers with zoos and aquariums might not have imagined spending much time in city hall or on Capitol Hill, but that’s exactly where many Association of Zoos and Aquariums staffers find themselves. A commitment to conservation is often the first step on the path to crafting policy, and representatives from AZA-accredited facilities are among the travelers on that path.

“I really believe our guests and members expect us to do this,” said Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. “We’re supposed to be advocates for the health of the environment and the wildlife.”

“We’re supposed to be advocates for the health of the environment and the wildlife.”

The Aquarium’s management of the state’s stranding response network led them to take a leading role in promoting new legislation that would eliminate releases of balloons, which injure and kill wildlife.

“We respond to strandings of sea turtles and marine mammals all over the state and we see it on a firsthand basis,” said Swingle. “We just finished a five-year grant to study marine debris on ocean beaches, and found that balloons are the second most common item, right after plastic bottle caps. We have found as many as 150 balloons per mile on uninhabited barrier islands off Virginia’s eastern shore … we’ve found them from as far away as Kansas.”

The Aquarium has been working on this issue with environmental consultant Christina Trapani, Lynnhaven River NOW, Clean Virginia Waterways, and the Virginia Conservation Network, with Swingle and Trapani being the primary contacts with the state legislators. Two bills were put forth this year.

A dirty balloon lies on a beach.

“We liked one of the bills because the legislators used our language, [which was] to prohibit intentional balloon releases outdoors,” said Swingle “The second bill, which we don’t like, was that an individual can’t release more than one balloon per hour. It’s an amended version of balloon legislation that’s already on the books that says an individual can’t release more than 49 balloons an hour.”

Unfortunately, the bill that Swingle favored didn’t get out of committee, even though Swingle and his colleagues thought it was a slam dunk. The second bill passed the Senate, but the House forwarded it to next year.

“I think the thing against us this year was that both of the legislators who took the bills forward were brand new, just elected in November, so the time frame was very short. I spent a lot of time up there and I had a lot of legislators say, ‘We’re with you on this issue. Come back next year and we’ll get it done.’” 

Swingle is optimistic, a necessary quality on the legislative front. “We’ve been pushing this for a long time, and not only are we saying it …  the Balloon Council has come out this year and said they do not favor intentionally releasing balloons. The groundwork we’ve laid will be very impactful next year, and we believe a law will pass.”

It’s Not Over ‘til It’s Over

Should gray wolves be reintroduced on the western slope of Colorado? Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., is one of many organizations that are engaged in answering that question.  The Zoo has been an active supporter of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, the goal of which is “to improve public understanding of gray wolf behavior and ecology, and … secure a voter mandate for restoring the species to the western slope of Colorado.”

The first step toward getting wolf reintroduction onto the 2020 ballot required getting 125,000 signatures from registered voters by December 2019. The Zoo stepped up once they made sure their Zoo constituents were on board.

“The advocacy role is new for us,” said Liza Dadone, vice president of mission and programs at the Zoo. “We have a long history of being involved in the reintroduction of species, but this type of advocacy—getting something on the ballot—is new. When we checked in with our Board and other stakeholders, the response was overwhelmingly positive that this is right decision for our organization.”

In addition to creating educational opportunities and collecting signatures, the Zoo contributed $50,000 and successfully challenged other AZA-accredited facilities to give an additional $50,000 that was used for the paid signature gatherers.

 We increased the frequency of keeper talks at our Mexican wolf exhibit,” said Rebecca Zwicker, animal care manager at the Zoo.  “We also had a booth there and at the front gate where we collected signatures. We got 15,298 signatures of people who did support the wolf reintroduction and seven who did not support it. Visitors were really excited to be able to take an action.”

Enough signatures were gathered to put Initiative 107 on the ballot in November, which, if passed, would support the development of a plan to reintroduce and manage the gray wolves by the end of 2023. However, Senator Kerry Donovan recently introduced a bill that differs from the ballot initiative regarding the timing and the way the wolf reintroduction would occur. Bob Chastain, president and chief executive officer of the Zoo, is hopeful that changes in the bill will ultimately make this a winning proposition for everyone.

Two wolves howl on a rock.

“There is a bill in the Colorado legislature that would negate the need for a public vote. From my perspective, that is good news because the bill could help us reach the same goal of restoring wolves to the wilds of Colorado. Moreover, the wildlife agencies could get involved with restoration planning immediately, instead of after the public vote, as required by the laws governing a citizens' initiative. We would be thrilled to see Senator Donovan's bill be written in a way that would allow the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund to pull the ballot initiative and move forward with wolf restoration.”

Online survey results released by Colorado State University suggest that an estimated 84 percent of Coloradans support the reintroduction, another reason for optimism.

“There’s been interest from different stakeholder groups in the past, but we’ve never been this close to actually having the wolves restored,” said Dadone. “I’m more optimistic than I have been. We know that most citizens support it, but it’s not a done deal. This is a long game.”

Many Steps, Multiple Levels

As a member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP). Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., has long collaborated with other aquariums to be vocal advocates for reducing ocean and freshwater plastic pollution. Successful efforts to alter behaviors among people and within organizations and businesses make AZA-accredited facilities a formidable force in the policy arena.

“We are the well-respected content experts,” said Andrea Densham, senior director, policy and advocacy at the Aquarium. “We can educate the public about the amazing creatures that are out there and try to inspire youth and families to raise their voices and take action. We did that with SHEDD the Straws and we just started a new program with restaurants to help them move their way forward to identify more sustainable practices. Each action is a step toward substantial change. By providing education, we can help build science driven, publicly supported legislation.”

The Aquarium is currently involved in supporting legislation that has been introduced at all three levels of government. Densham helped to draft the Plastic Free Water Ordinance in Chicago, which is aimed at reducing plastic pollution in Chicago waterways and the Great Lakes. It will eliminate significant sources of single use plastic and advance sustainable solutions to keep drinking water clean and ecosystems healthy.  After it goes to Committee this spring it will go to city Council for a vote.

There is also a suite of bills in the Illinois State General Assembly, for which Densham provided testimony. These bills recommend state agency sustainable procurement practices, a container/bottle bill and single use plastics by request only, a plastic bag fee, and a Styrofoam ban.

And finally, Shedd joined with its ACT colleagues to issue a statement in support of the proposed Break Free from Plastic Pollution bill that was introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif). The Aquarium also participated in a panel discussion about the bill and a screening of The Story of Plastic documentary which was held at the U.S. Capitol and Visitor Center.

“We’re hopeful,” said Densham. “It’s fantastic to have this topic on all cylinders. To have this kind of impact shows the power of ACP and AZA. We do urge everyone to contact their elected officials about how important it is to come up with solutions to this problem. We have colleagues all over the country who are doing this work. You just begin. We need to be tenacious if we’re going to protect wildlife.”

It’s really that simple. Change happens when enough people speak up, and who better than AZA members to speak knowledgeably and passionately on behalf of wildlife and the environment? We know we are experts within our facilities and the conservation community, but we have what it takes to be just as effective in the halls of government.

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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