Have you visited an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility and stumbled upon an animal presentation? Or watched a live-stream educational program highlighting an animal? Then you have experienced an ambassador animal program.
Ambassador animals are animals that are presented by animal keepers or education staff to the public and commonly seen as part of free or paid conservation education and outreach programs. These animals are typically smaller species that are easy to work with and transport, like birds, small mammals, and reptiles.
There are many resources available to the AZA community when designing an ambassador animal program. The AZA Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group (AASAG), in partnership with the appropriate Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) or Species Survival Plan®, coordinates the development of Ambassador Animal Guidelines. According to the AZA website, “Ambassador Animal Guidelines provide a compilation of knowledge provided by recognized animal and education experts based on the current science, practice, and technology of ambassador animal management and presentation. Each Ambassador Animal Guideline assembles basic requirements, best practices, and animal care recommendations to maximize capacity for excellence in animal care and welfare of ambassador species.”
Christina Dembiec, director of education at Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tenn., used these resources when she was developing the Zoo’s animal ambassador program within the education department.
“There is an evaluation tool available through the Ambassador Animal SAG and other resources to help determine suitability for acquisition of ambassador animals,” said Dembiec. “It has a lot to do with the taxa, the animal itself, the species, and the current level of expertise that our industry has in managing those animals as ambassadors. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it in terms of collection planning with purpose both for what’s best for the welfare of the animal, how we can work collaboratively with SSPs and still have animals in ambassador situations, and then what works for the staff expertise and programmatic need.”
Many facilities use the National Association for Interpretation’s (NAI) Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) courses to prepare the animal care or education staff who work with these animals and conduct educational programs and presentations. Animal care and welfare is the top priority, and sometimes a program may change from the original plan or an animal may choose to not participate in a program at all. The staff uses these opportunities to interpret that animal’s natural behaviors and educate the public on the importance of choice and control.
“We try to have the animals show off their natural behavior, like a binturong going over your head on a branch or a sloth climbing the rope in front of you,” said Nicki Boyd, associate curator of behavioral husbandry at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif. “We give the guests that wow moment that inspires that connection and we want to make sure that they feel our passion. We have condors that will fly over your head and you may be able to hold a tube and feed an aardvark. You may not always be able to touch an animal directly, but we balance it, and obviously the animal’s comfort level dictates the interaction. We’re very careful about making sure that we don’t make them look like pets and that is an educational opportunity.”
Setting guest expectations when they book a paid program that the species or experience may change if the animal does not want to participate is crucial. Another way that ambassador animal programs set themselves up for success is creating depth in their program with multiple animals of the same species or being more generic with program themes, like Cats and Friends rather than specifically about servals.
“We’re always flexible. It’s in our marketing ahead of time trying to prepare guests that things could change last minute,” said Stephanie Alexander, director of education and premium experiences at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “We are factoring in animal welfare and providing choice and control when we plan our programs. Maybe it’s highlighting canines as a group and that provides the teams a couple of options if there’s an animal that chooses not to participate that day, so it can still help us highlight a specific area of animal or conservation hub without putting our teams in an uncomfortable position of ‘oh great, we advertised this one animal and they are choosing not to participate in this program.’ So, thinking about that in the planning side as well.”
Revenue-generating programs are certainly a nice bonus for AZA-accredited facilities, but profit is never put over animal welfare. Animal care and education staff are empowered to make decisions about programs based on how an animal is behaving, which provides that animal with choice and control. Ambassador Animal Guidelines provide animal handling protocols and limits based on each individual species.
“Our ambassador animals are used on a rotating basis, so they all have usage guidelines for how many times a day, how many times a week, and how long they’re allowed to be out of their enclosures,” said Cherlyn Vatalaro, director of conservation education at Lehigh Valley Zoo. “We follow those guidelines and then if it’s not a program that requires a specific animal, we will look at the calendar of usage and select animals based on whoever is up so that we can keep rotating them and avoid any animals being over used.”
For example, Vatalaro said that their sloth can only be booked for encounters three days a week, one time a day, and no more than two days in a row.
Sharing stories about conservation programs and animal behavior is a larger factor than revenue when designing animal ambassador programs.
“I think that if you were to base a collection plan off of strictly if people would pay money to see this or to have an encounter or something, then you’re missing out on the educational value and the conservation messaging,” said Dembiec. “People might not pay to see our smooth-sided toads, but we tell a story about how they were involved in research here for some of our conservation programs and that ticks a bigger box for me. The fact that we can tell those conservation stories and meet a programmatic need is more important.”
Dembiec expressed they are working to find another balance between revenue generation and remaining accessible to their community, as not everyone can pay for certain programs. Partnering with local libraries and literacy councils has allowed them to offer free programming at the Zoo for Tennessee residents.
What does the future of ambassador animal programs look like?
“One area we would like to look closer at, is what animals are already ambassador animals in their own way in places around the Aquarium, and how can we connect guests better with those animals,” said Megan Anderson, director of guest engagement at the National Aquarium, located in Baltimore, Md. “For example, there is a wonga pigeon in our Australia exhibit that just happens to keep flying down to the ground and interacting with people’s feet. To some it’s annoying, but it’s also a connection and an engaging story. And so, looking at that animal as an ambassador animal and how can we use that moment, which is hilarious and annoying at the same time, to further our conservation mission?”
Perhaps the future involves using technological advancements to bring guests closer to animals who have previously been difficult to use in programs.
“There’s also some creative development of presentation boxes,” said Alexander. “Sugar gliders, for example, are a small species and it’s tough to safely get them up close to a class of kids, but now they have a clear presentation box that allows us to have the kids really get to look at them closely and inspect them, without making the animal uncomfortable or putting the animal in an unsafe situation.”
Whatever the future holds, ambassador animals will always advance AZA’s mission of a world where all people respect, value, and conserve wildlife and wild places.
Hero photo credit: ©National Aquarium
Karlyn Marcy is a writer and the digital media coordinator at AZA.