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Collaborating for Population Sustainability

By Mandi Krebs
min read

It takes strong collaboration to ensure the sustainability of the animals within our care. In 2020, the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group (AASAG) completed a survey to identify species in use as ambassador animals. Of the 802 species reported in the survey, 126 are part of a Species Survival Plan® (SSP) program—15 percent of the survey. Of the 492 currently managed SSPs in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 25 percent had at least one ambassador animal, according to the survey results, impacting 30 different Taxon Advisory Groups (TAG). Knowing there is a large portion of managed species involved in ambassador programs, a closer look is underway to understand how animals working in an ambassador role impact SSP programs. The AASAG is exploring the collaborative efforts between TAGs, SSPs, and ambassador departments, working to identify any perceived gaps with animals in this role and working with animal program experts to identify solutions to sustainability concerns. 

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Ambassador Animals in Breeding

A key role of an ambassador animal is inspiring the public. Does this mean that an animal has only one role to play? Many SSP coordinators have been thinking outside the box about how to incorporate ambassador animals, particularly those with known or valuable genetics, into the goals and breeding and transfer plan of the SSP. Instead of excluding ambassador animals from breeding and transfer planning because they are “in education,” SSP coordinators are having conversations with education staff about options to include these animals as part of the breeding population. Animals have successfully worked in dual roles (a breeding ambassador), while some are removed from their ambassador role temporarily during the breeding season to support the needs of the SSP. While this option is not feasible for all species, it is worth considering especially when space is limited and genetic diversity within the population is low or at risk.

Prehensile-tailed porcupine on a tree branch
Photo Credit: ©Katie Cotterill, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

Utilizing ambassador animal spaces for breeding supports the sustainability of the SSP population. It not only provides learning opportunities for keeper staff, but also enables ambassador programs to be contributors to the AZA program as opposed to consumers. The acquisition of non-managed species for ambassador programs historically has relied on private breeders, donations, or rescues. The AASAG is exploring the need for breeding high demand ambassador species where there are no managed programs in place. The consortium breeding model may be a fit with ambassador species where there is a demand from AZA members but not a need for a high level of genetic management.

Approximately 50 percent of prehensile-tailed porcupines in AZA facilities are ambassador animals. With high demand for this species, the SSP has included ambassador animals in the breeding program. According to the 2018 Breeding and Transfer Plan and Lindsay Sears, the SSP coordinator, the Prehensile-tailed Porcupine SSP specifically requests education animals be available for breeding if requested. It also prioritizes placing animals at facilities willing to breed and encourages education departments with valuable individuals to consider breeding their ambassador animals. Ambassador porcupines have been successfully paired with similarly ranked non-ambassador animals. Successful reproduction has occurred within education programs demonstrating that, in this species, animals can serve dual purposes in breeding and ambassador roles.

Communication is Key

Southern ground hornbill
Photo Credit: ©Katie Cotterill, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

This type of collaboration relies on communication between animal program leaders (which includes TAG chairs, SSP coordinators, and studbook keepers) and ambassador departments. Gone are the days where acquisition of cooperatively managed species is siloed. The acquisition of managed species, as well as contraceptive considerations for ambassador animals, must be in coordination with animal program leaders so that genetics of the population can also be considered. When communication is lacking or assumptions are made, SSP programs can appear to have a population size that meets sustainability goals and then, when looking deeper, discover preventable contraception or behavioral issues that do exclude certain animals from participation in the SSP.

Recently a new collaboration between the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group and the Coraciiformes TAG developed to examine issues that were being addressed with some of the ambassador birds. 

Paul Schutz, Coraciiformes TAG chair, shared his story.

One of the TAG’s SSP coordinators and the TAG’s veterinarian advisor came to me with concerns around some trends they were seeing in one of our managed species. In order to investigate further they wanted to start with a survey to gather information. The next day I happened to attend the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group meeting at the AZA Mid-Year Meeting. There, I realized that here was a huge resource that could help us tackle this exact challenge, and might even have collected important data already. When I reached out to AASAG, they were very eager to assist and we immediately began collaborating.”

Collaboration with managed programs goes both ways. Experienced ambassador staff have a unique skill set that can also support animal program leaders. Because of the shift in best practices to choice-and-control management, ambassador animal care teams are developing positive keeper-animal interactions to be able to voluntarily present animals to guests. If an animal program leader is not as experienced in ambassador behavior training, it can be helpful to have someone on the team who can help troubleshoot challenges. 

I think that we often are focused on our particular discipline, and as a result we aren’t aware of the expertise that exists outside of our particular ‘silo.’ Reaching out and creating partnerships across disciplines can present a huge opportunity to advance animal care and welfare, as well as pool resources and save time and energy,” said Schultz.

Ambassador animal prehensile-tailed porcupine doing a demonstration
Photo Credit: ©Ingrid Barrentine, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

To provide support to animal program leaders with ambassador animals in their managed populations, the AASAG developed the Ambassador Animal Advisor role. Adding this advisor to a TAG or SSP can aid with encouraging best practices, writing ambassador animal guidelines, or developing dual role breeding recommendations, among other needs. Reach out to the AASAG Sustainable Collections Initiative group for help in filling this support position.

Hero photo credit: ©Ingrid Barrentine, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

Mandi Krebs is the interactive animal program manager at the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, a member of the AASAG Steering Committee, and a Sustainable Collections Initiative Lead.

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