It all began in 2005, with the looming threat of a different pandemic. While the H5N1 bird flu spread across Asia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approached the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., to prepare the community for a possible zoonotic pandemic.
“I realized pretty quickly that the community did not understand how we would interact with either USDA or emergency management if we were caught up in a disaster,” said Dr. Yvonne Nadler, senior veterinary advisor for the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership, who worked on what was then called the Zoo Animal Health Network.
When Hurricane Katrina hit that same year, the USDA conducted a gap analysis that looked at zoo and aquarium resilience. It became clear that facilities with pre-disaster action plans in place fared better and recovered more quickly. The Zoo Animal Health Network then became the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Fusion Center.
The project moved to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2014 and cast a broader net which brought together accredited and non-accredited facilities. ZAHP continued serving as an information hub for various emergency scenarios; however, the center kept running into issues. Outreach became a struggle as potential partner organizations couldn’t shake the perception this was solely an AZA initiative or that their participation wasn’t necessary. It became apparent that a rebrand was in order.
“People didn’t know what a ‘fusion center’ was, so we decided to change the name and the conceptual framework to reflect a collaborative nature. The idea was to bring disparate groups together that may not see eye-to-eye on everything when it comes to the holding of exotic animals. We view this as a way forward to building a bigger tent,” said Steve Olson, senior vice president of government affairs at AZA and supervisor of ZAHP, who acknowledged that the last thing anyone wants to see is their animals, staff, or visitors become compromised in a disaster.
“Part of this restructuring is so people understand ZAHP is not exclusive to AZA because that’s something that can get misconstrued at times. This really is a benefit for everyone,” said Ashley Zielinski, the program’s director. Perception—and occasionally misconception—led to ZAHP’s rebranding, so that potential partners better understand the collaborative goal.
“ZAHP is a safe space where everyone can get to the root of issues. We have these animals in our care, and we all want to enhance our ability to protect them. We’re constantly trying to make inroads and be welcoming,” said Zielinski.
ZAHP’s mission is “to advance preparedness for and resiliency to all hazards for zoos, aquariums, and other managed wildlife facilities.”
In addition to disaster preparedness, ZAHP will focus on connecting federal and state resources to the entire zoo and aquarium community. ZAHP has created a broader advisory council that includes members from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), American Humane, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA), and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV). Together, they’ve developed a code of conduct, requests for proposals, regional workshops, and a small grant process. ZAHP now has its own standalone web address that is more user-friendly and resource-oriented. The ultimate goal is to be more inclusive and welcoming and to be open to a free exchange of information.
In addition to providing regular updates on preparedness, response, and recovery to the community online, ZAHP has released a series of All Hazards Contingency Planning modules, conducted multi-district foreign animal disease preparedness meetings, developed a Secure Zoo Strategy guide for foreign animal disease response, administered micro-grants to help facilities fund their disaster plans, and coordinated regional emergency management meetings to open pathways of communication.
Brad Andrews, global director at American Humane, got involved with ZAHP at the start of the pandemic.
“Throughout my history of working at zoos and aquariums and taking care of animals over the years, I realized the community didn’t do very well at working together,” he said. “Crises bring people together faster, unfortunately. It’s important to have your peers review what you do and how.”
One of ZAHP’s immediate projects will be a group of comprehensive surveys: an impact analysis survey, a facility survey, and an individual survey. The organization is currently collecting contacts for specific areas like animal health issues and management to create a database that will help with industry preparedness. Collecting three layers of contacts at each participating facility and updating the list annually will help ensure better communication during an emergency, when someone in charge may be unavailable or overtaxed. The surveys will also be used to help analyze the pandemic’s impact on the industry.
Government organizations and politicians don’t understand the broader zoo and aquarium community’s needs and operations—which have traditionally been handled individually within each facility. As cultural institutions caring for animals, zoos and aquariums walk a fine line between the agriculture and commercial facilities sectors and can be forgotten when it comes to emergency response plans. This became evident during the pandemic, when many zoo and aquarium workers were not classified as “essential” during lockdowns.
“Zoos and aquariums have essential workers. The fact that the government didn’t recognize this is telling. Our profile isn’t as good as it could be,” said Andrews.
In addition to helping facilities mobilize and collaborate locally, ZAHP aims to bring together a wide array of experts so that lawmakers and government organizations can understand the industry’s needs during emergencies.
“We are in a unique category because we’re not ‘food animals’ or ‘pet animals,’ so on zoonotic and infectious disease issues, we’re in a vulnerable place,” said Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACZM, a wildlife epidemiologist, secretary of the AAZV, and director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine in Saint Louis, Mo.
“From working in zoos for the last 25 years, I can say that the community itself and the American public are now more receptive to understanding why we need these types of preparedness programs.”
While many facilities don’t like to refer to themselves as part of the “animal industry,” ZAHP defines its partners in that way for a strategic reason.
“Politicians who figure out where to get money from local governments don’t necessarily care about the fabulous education opportunities or conservation work we do. What they care about is: How many of their constituents do you employ? What sort of sales tax do you generate? What do you bring in from tourism?” said Nadler. “You've got to think like a politician to make inroads. We need to keep working on getting these folks to understand our value.”
ZAHP is a facilitator and information hub—but when it comes to mobilization, the organization operates on the concept that disasters happen locally and regional collaborations work best.
“ZAHP has done a great job establishing protocols. Now we are taking it over through our own local crisis management committees and zoo relief response and rehab organizations,” said John Seyjagat, executive director of ZAA, who is no stranger to natural disasters with ZAA’s headquarters in Florida. “We have identified trailers, boats, cages for shipping animals, and buildings where they are stored for time of need. Through partnerships with local agencies, we let people know where these things are so that if neighboring states and counties need it, we can mobilize that in a matter of hours.”
The message is clear: when it comes to emergencies, animal facilities that are home to wildlife cannot afford to be segmented in their emergency responses. ZAHP is the first blanket organization trying to harness the power of the entire community to streamline emergency care and get lawmakers’ attention.
“Regional collaborations are incredibly important because we can provide a lot of mutual aid to one another, but the ability to fund that is minimal. What happens to the animals if facilities fold and people just walk away? That has happened in the past,” said Nadler.
There is no overarching trade association that considers the diverse nature of the roughly 700 zoo-like businesses in the country, so ZAHP hopes to start bridging that gap. Already, the organization has brought together people who wouldn’t normally collaborate. Overall, that’s been a positive experience, but there are certainly challenges. The important thing, said ZAHP’s members, is to focus on the welfare of the animals.
“We don’t hold the monopoly on bad things happening. We’ve got to be more inclusive. If we’re going to assist or be assisted, it behooves us all to know our neighbors and to collaborate on the things we’re all passionate about,” said Nadler. “We don’t have to agree on everything. But we have more in common than our differences.”
Top and bottom photos credit: ©Zoo Atlanta
Middle photo credit: ©Shutter Up Tulsa
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.