The third promise in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ strategic plan says, “We will tell powerful stories about the work of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.” Many of our stories involve what members do to support the federal and state governments in their responsibilities to conserve endangered and threatened species: red wolves, yellow-legged frogs, Mexican wolves, manatees, California condors, southern sea otters, sea turtles, polar bears, hellbenders, Hawaiian birds, Florida panthers, and Florida corals are just a few examples.
In normal times, AZA members help the government. In my 37-year career with the federal government, I saw this so many times and in so many ways. AZA members earned a reputation as trusted, talented, and tenaciously innovative partners. And for decades, it has been pretty much a one-way street. The government asks for help and zoos and aquariums step up.
These are not normal times. Although 95 percent of AZA members are now open, they are far from full-strength. Most are operating at 30-50 percent of normal capacity, and facing drastic declines in earned revenue, all the while maintaining top-quality animal care, including care for endangered and threatened animals, many of which are owned by the federal government. As a 25 June 2020 L.A. Times editorial aptly put it, “zoos can’t lay off their animals”, nor the professionals who care for them.
So, while AZA members normally help the government, they now need—and deserve—help from the government. Aided by powerful stories, decades of earned reputation, and the strength of relationships built through lots of good, old-fashioned hard work by the AZA Government Affairs team, help may be on the way.
Earlier this year, AZA wrote to congressional appropriators requesting $30 million to provide critically needed relief funding for facilities that are providing direct and ongoing support to federal agencies by caring for rescued, confiscated, or threatened and endangered animals listed under the Endangered Species Act and critical to federally recognized recovery and reintroduction plans.
AZA-accredited facilities have long used gate revenue as the fuel powering their voluntary participation in these recovery and reintroduction efforts, making the guests’ visits purposeful. Their contributions reduce the need for federal support, meaning agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can use their precious taxpayer dollars to support other conservation work. However, with the dramatic loss of revenue experienced in 2020, AZA members are having difficulty funding these efforts, putting at risk long-standing efforts to recover threatened and endangered species. We estimate it is costing AZA members at least $5 million per month to maintain operations and care for these animals, and while closed, each member facility has been losing, on average, over $1 million monthly.
Thankfully, late on Thursday, 1 October 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act 2.0, which includes $30 million in critical relief funding that will be available to AZA members who are providing direct and ongoing support to federal agencies by caring for animals listed under the Endangered Species Act.
This type of congressional support is not an accident. It is the result of long-sustained efforts to build reputation by telling powerful stories about the work being done by the AZA-accredited community; then turning that work into credible proposals and getting them in front of supporters on Capitol Hill. And while I hope Congress will act quickly to pass the Heroes Act 2.0, or a compromise bill that also provides this much needed and richly deserved funding to AZA members, the battle is not yet won.
Please stay engaged and continue to help us build key relationships. These are challenging times, and our nation is bitterly divided, but the work of conserving wild life is inspiring and uniting. The reputation and relationships we are building today are the cornerstones in the foundations for future success.
Heroic work recognized in the Heroes Act 2.0.
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