In mid-April, Association of Zoos and Aquariums members descended upon Phoenix, Ariz., for the 2019 Mid-Year Meeting to hear new research, initiatives, and changes happening in the community and to the AZA. Among the most newsworthy announcements was the rebranding/renaming of the longstanding Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee (WCMC) to the Animal Population Management (APM) Committee.
In addition to the updated name was the presentation of the committee’s new strategic plan, freshly approved by the AZA Board of Directors, designed to reimagine the current way the organization manages its animal species across all 236 accredited zoos and aquariums.
This change is big news for all involved in the community, and is in response to what the committee is calling the ‘sustainability crisis’—a challenge that spans nearly every species in managed care. Currently, the AZA manages species via 46 Taxon Advisory Groups and more than 500 Species Survival Plan® programs. This involves hundreds of volunteers who, in addition to their full-time jobs inside zoos and aquariums, work tirelessly to assure the population health, welfare, and strategic management of animal populations.
Many of these programs have been running for 30-to-40 years and are designed to enhance a population’s gene and demographic diversity in order to become sustainable in zoos and aquariums for 100 years. Yet, even with careful scientific management and advancements in animal husbandry and assisted reproduction it is clear to members of the committee that, for many species, that goal is simply not attainable and actions need to be taken on a large scale.
“Our animal management systems, including the SSP framework, are amazing and unlike anything else in the world, but we have overextended ourselves, and we are facing a real crisis,” said Stacey Johnson, chair of the APM Committee and corporate director of conservation and research at San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif. “We’ve seen the iceberg; I just hope we are far enough away right now not to hit it. The crisis is that our collaboratively managed animal populations are on a trajectory for gradual decline.”
The issue revolves around the fact that today most animals in AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums were born in managed care, thereby inherently reducing the long-term preservation of gene diversity.
“Our field has changed dramatically since I started almost 30 years ago,” said Joe Barkowski, committee member and vice president of animal conservation and science at Tulsa Zoo in Tulsa, Okla. “Back then, zoos and aquariums were looked at as arks—places to save species. But our access to [wild] animals has changed, much of it for the right reasons. At this point, most of our animals were born or hatched in human care, and so we are not bringing new animals or genetics into our managed populations.”
The sustainability crisis is well known across all levels of the AZA community, but there isn’t always agreement as to how to tackle the issue. In many instances, TAG chairs and SSP coordinators may make recommendations to zoo directors to move animals for breeding purposes or to build extra room off-exhibit for various reasons. Those requests can then come into conflict with the needs of the zoos themselves—needs related to funding, lack of space, or public interest in specific species (often all three).
The reimagining of how populations are managed isn’t being taken lightly, and the new strategic plan is scheduled for rollout over the next five-to-ten years. The first step will be to establish conversations with all stakeholders.
“We want to involve people from all areas of the profession,” said Dave Powell, committee member, vice-chair for TAGs, and director of research at Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., adding that representatives from the various stakeholders (e.g., curators, directors, program leaders) within the community are represented on the committee itself. “This isn’t just an issue of managing animals and getting them to breed and providing the right environments; it is also to talk with zoo directors about their financial considerations because they are the ones who hold the purse strings.”
There isn’t yet an answer to this question, said Johnson, but he and his committee plan to jump on the phone with all TAG chairs (hopefully by September’s Annual Conference in New Orleans, La.) to begin the conversation.
“One of my key goals is to resist the temptation to solve problems right away,” said Powell. “This committee—formerly the WCMC—has a reputation of being the principal’s office where we would issue instructions and if you don’t do it, you’d get into trouble.
“We want to engage TAG chairs in meaningful, two-way conversations before anything else. I want them to trust us to get an honest appraisal of the situations, what is broken, what needs fixing, what is good and shouldn’t be thrown out, and how we can help them accomplish their goals.”
The same consideration will be extended to directors, said Jeff Sailer, committee member and chief executive officer and executive director at Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio.
“We will be reaching out to directors and asking about the species that are important to their facilities, which species help them produce on their missions,” he said. “This is where the conversation starts. From beginning to end, we want people to know that this is a conversation.”