At the recent Association of Zoos and Aquariums Directors’ Policy Conference, John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society asked attendees a question: “Do any of you work or have to deal with government officials? Do any of you have to deal with regulations at the city, state, or federal level?”
Every hand in the room shot into the air.
As the Government Affairs Committee chair, he’d just proven a point: all of their work intersects with politics.
“If we’re not at the table, then others are making these decisions,” he said. “I think that really resonates with people.”
That’s why Calvelli, who is chair of the AZA Government Affairs Committee (GAC), is working hard to bring more AZA members to the table so they can help inform decisions that matter. To do that, the GAC is adding structure—organized by region and specialization in the form of working groups—to engage more members to participate in advocacy efforts by connecting with lawmakers and building strong relationships.
“You need to make a friend when you don’t need a friend,” said Calvelli.
Those efforts have already paid off during COVID-19, resulting in federal funding and assistance for AZA-accredited facilities. Now, the committee is working to build on the momentum so the zoo and aquarium community is prepared for the future. By building a lasting infrastructure, the GAC is working to harness the power of collective advocacy to benefit AZA for decades to come.
For Calvelli, the wakeup call came in 2009. It was during the Great Recession, and the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was designed to help businesses and organizations suffering from economic loss, specifically excluded zoos and aquariums.
“They literally wrote out zoos, aquariums, golf courses, and swimming pools,” said Calvelli.
Since then, he’s been working with member institutions to change the conversation and build stronger relationships with policymakers. When the pandemic swept the globe in 2020, it was clear that their efforts were paying off. Early on, many members received relief from the Paycheck Protection Program and through the Shuttered Venues Grant Program, AZA-accredited facilities collectively received more than $330 million in funding. And further, the American Rescue Plan will provide $30 million for care of species listed under the Endangered Species Act, rescued and confiscated wildlife, and federal trust species in facilities that lost revenues because of the pandemic.
In recent months, Jennifer Keaton, AZA’s vice president of congressional affairs, said she’s seen the AZA community band together like never before to tell members of Congress and state legislators that zoos and aquariums needed help to survive.
“Now, as COVID-19 hopefully recedes and we get back into more normal life, we don’t want to lose all that energy,” she said. Under the leadership of the GAC, a plan is underway to build upon those efforts in an intentional and sustained manner.
“We were facing a crisis with the pandemic, but there are other ongoing issues where our collective advocacy can make a big difference for the community,” said Keaton. “We’re trying to make sure this stays at the forefront of our membership’s mind.”
When Kerston Swartz started her job in government affairs and advocacy at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Was., eight years ago, it was rare to meet others at AZA organizations with the word “advocacy” in their title. She’s found herself doing a lot of educating about what advocacy looks like, and correcting misconceptions.
“Advocacy for AZA isn’t protesting or confronting fur wearers,” said Swartz, who is GAC vice chair and director, government affairs and advocacy at Woodland Park Zoo. “It’s about amassing our huge audiences to make change.”
Today, she reports a dramatic evolution. Some of her closest relationships in AZA are with people who work in advocacy at other facilities. And, she said, the word advocacy now comes up frequently in casual conversations with colleagues in all kinds of positions, as more people understand the benefits of building relationships with policymakers.
“The collaboration that I have seen among us as it relates to advocacy and government affairs has been a complete culture shift,” she said. “Bottom line, if there’s funding out there we all want it. But we’re starting to see if I partner with that guy, or that gal, we’re way more attractive to policy makers and checkbook holders because our impact just doubled and tripled and quadrupled.”
To enlist more AZA participation in advocacy efforts, the GAC created a structure consisting of ten regions across the U.S., which include every AZA-accredited facility in the country. Each member of the GAC has the responsibility of working within their own region to identify at least one representative from every facility who will volunteer as a government affairs representative.
Those representatives can come together around their shared issues and concerns, and meet with area lawmakers to educate them on the work that accredited zoos and aquariums do in science, conservation, and other areas. Since the regional mapping and advocacy efforts began, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and their staff have already shown an increased interest in zoos and aquariums: the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus has grown from 52 members to more than 65; the goal of the GAC is get 100 congressmen and women involved in the Caucus by the end of year.
“The Caucus gives us a vehicle on Capitol Hill to engage with a group of members that either have a zoo or aquarium in their district, or love zoos and aquariums and want to support the work that we do,” said Calvelli.
Swartz said the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus offers an opportunity to educate lawmakers on the conservation work that zoos and aquariums do. Recently, AZA invited members of the Caucus and their staff to an exclusive, behind-the-scenes virtual visit to the Manatee Critical Care Center at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla. It was a way of highlighting the important work that’s being done by AZA members to help manatees in crisis, and also a means to building stronger relationships with the Congressmen and women.
“Politics is about relationships. It’s about dynamic behaviors,” said Swartz. Through events like that, AZA members can also see that advocacy doesn’t have to take them out of their comfort zone, or feel intimidating. Rather, it’s showcasing the work they do every day. “You don’t need a master’s degree in political science or public administration,” said Swartz. “All you need is the ability to talk about and be proud of where you work.”
To further organize beyond the regional structure, the GAC established working groups to focus on three distinct areas: advocacy; legislation and policy; and regulation and operations. The working groups meet once a month, with the goal of bringing together members who can share their knowledge and expertise to move issues forward.
Swartz said AZA has an incredible history when it comes to influencing wildlife protections and regulations, but zoos and aquariums should help relieve tasks that have fallen on the shoulders of AZA. By establishing regions and working groups, individuals from member organizations can all work together towards making an even greater impact.
“With AZA staff leading the way, we’re like three parallel paths moving forward in the exact same direction because of this working group structure,” she said. “Now, the committee is laid out in such a way that we are supporting their work and then doing more.”
When Calvelli reflects on advocacy efforts that have succeeded through collaboration, his mind goes to 96 Elephants, which was a campaign that began as a partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Society and AZA with the goal of banning the sale of ivory and protecting elephants in the wild. In 2014, New York state passed a law banning the sale of elephant ivory. New Jersey passed a similar law. Then, the California Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) picked up the mantle, and California enacted a state-wide ban. The dominos kept falling and ivory sales were banned in Hawaii and Illinois. In 2015, President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping, together, announced bans to halt the ivory trade.
“At our height, we had 127 zoos and aquariums across the country working together on this,” said Calvelli. “It was really the power of the collective coming through.”
Of course, collaboration in AZA is nothing new. It’s the backbone of membership, and it shines through in countless efforts across time and place. Now, the GAC team is working to institutionalize that collaborative work by building long-lasting structures and processes.
“We want to always be prepared and we want to always be able to activate. We want to always be building these relationships and making sure lawmakers understand the issues facing zoos and aquariums every day,” said Keaton. “We want to be able to hit the ground running.”