When my son was playing high school football, he injured the “lisfranc joint” in his foot. It turns out, that joint is the keystone in the foot’s architecture, and it doesn’t matter how strong, fast or determined is a player, if they can’t abruptly stop, start and turn. So when my son asked the doctor when he would be able to play again, the answer wasn’t at all satisfying: “Let’s get to walking first; then running; then turning; then playing. Figure at least a week for each one of those, plus one for good measure. Five weeks.” He missed half the games in his junior season. That couldn’t be helped or salvaged, but he recovered, and ultimately played at the collegiate level. The lesson: Recovery takes time and exacts a toll, but if approached with discipline and dedication, it supports return to high-level performance.
Sometimes, recovery must yield to simple survival. In the early and mid-1990s, the Florida panther was teetering on the edge of extinction. No more than 30 were left in the wild, and the population was beset by genetic health issues stemming from inbreeding. So, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission embarked on a bold and controversial effort in survival.
Eight female panthers were imported from Texas and released into the population as a “genetic rescue.” It was fiercely opposed by taxonomic purists, but the real question was, did we want to have pure Florida panthers that where doomed to extinction, or did we want to have panthers that could survive in Florida. Thankfully, we chose the latter, and 25 years later, we have more than 200 panthers in the wilds of Florida, and it may be time to bring in more Texas cats for further genetic supplementation. But we’re finally past survival and working toward recovery.
Today, the 240 accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are facing the debilitating effects from months of COVID-19, pandemic-related closure, and now likely months of restricted operations. This is injuring the keystone of their financial architecture—earned revenue. Modern zoos and aquariums are mission-driven businesses, committed to the conservation of wildlife and wild places, but they are businesses, and without earned revenue, mission will inevitably suffer. As the adage goes—no margins, no mission.
As a result, AZA members have been making incredibly difficult choices to assure their survival. From reducing expenses to painful staffing decisions to reductions in longstanding conservation programs, every decision is about surviving and continuing to provide the best care possible for the animals.
I’ve spent my career in conservation. I joined AZA because of what its members do for wildlife and wild places, and the incredible potential to expand conservation awareness and engagement that is represented in their guests. But here’s the painful reality: all of our members are going to need to go through a process of recovery. Some are struggling for simple survival and recovery is even further away. It’s going to take time, and it will exact a toll in terms of less conservation, less education, less research, and less advocacy. I wish it weren’t so, but that cannot be helped or salvaged.
And what I’m about to say is said in my most sincere and committed conservationist voice. It’s critically important that AZA’s accredited members focus themselves on survival and recovery! That must be their priority over the next 12-24 months. First survive. Then recover. And follow the advice that my son got from his doctor—Walk, then run, then turn, then play.
Dan Ashe is the President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
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