From the Desk of Dan Ashe

2018 was an Inspiring News Year

As I look back on the last year, there have been literally hundreds of stories in the news highlighting the important work carried out by AZA-accredited facilities. From conservation endeavors to animal rescue stories to new animal habitat openings, the compelling stories coming from AZA-accredited facilities make last year a year to remember. Here are some of the best aquarium and zoo stories from 2018, compiled by our communications team.


Columbus Zoo and Aquarium collaborated with AZA, research facilities, and other non-profits to develop a successful fish-rearing technique for saltwater fish. The goal of the program is to reduce the number of fish collected from the ocean for private or aquarium use and to share strategies with other aquariums and zoos. Columbus Zoo has since raised angelfish, two types of clownfish, two types of cardinal fish, French grunts and lyretail anthias.

More than 11,000 Detroit Zoo-bred Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles were released in Puerto Rico this year as part of a federal program to save this critically endangered, endemic amphibian. Over the last decade, Detroit Zoo has released more than 52,000 tadpoles to biological reserves in Puerto Rico. The Zoo continues to breed toads for future release.  

The Indianapolis Zoo awarded the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. The Indianapolis prize provides a quarter of a million dollars to the winning wildlife conservationist; and $10,000 each to five finalists. Actor Harrison Ford, along time conservation supporter, appeared at the event and accepted the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award at the Gala from Jane Alexander herself. Learn more about the recipients here:

photo courtesy of Indianapolis Zoological Society

Los Angeles Zoo successfully bred more than 2,000 endangered Southern Mountain-Yellow Legged frogs, a species native to the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. The tadpoles are the offspring of two groups of adult frogs the Zoo took into its care as tadpoles in 2014 when they were tasked to create an insurance colony for this species on the brink of extinction. Some of these frogs will eventually be released into the San Gabriel mountains to help rebuild the wild population.

Nashville Zoo teamed up with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a restoration project geared towards a local Tennessee species: The Alligator Snapping Turtle. Only three Alligator snapping turtles have been sighted in Nashville over the last 20 years, due to overharvesting. Nashville Zoo received turtle hatchlings in 2016 and is caring for the turtles until they can be safely released into the wild.

Roger William Park’s Director of Conservation, Lou Perrotti, took journalists on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Zoo’s captive rearing center for the Eastern timber rattlesnake. The rare snake, New England’s only rattlesnake, has disappeared from Rhode Island and is further threatened by fungal disease.  

Researchers at Phoenix Zoo created a “mini monsoon” machine for land snails to replicate the water flow in their natural environment. The Zoo is also attempting the first captive breeding of the Three Forks Springsnail, a critically endangered species. In May, the Zoo reported baby springsnails for the first time in years – a great achievement.

Saint Louis Zoo achieved a historic milestone for salamander conservation with the hatching of second-generation zoo-bred endangered Ozark hellbenders. The father of the baby hellbenders was part of the first clutch of captive-bred hellbenders born at the zoo in 2011. Breeding of this federally-listed species has occurred at the Zoo annually from 2011 to 2016, resulting in 6,586 Ozark hellbenders eggs, which produced 5,183 successful hatchlings.

Zoo Miami helped enact protection for wild flamingoes in Florida through working collaboratively with regulatory agencies to change existing laws and regulations. American Flamingos have never been considered as a focal species for conservation, management or monitoring in Florida. Zoo Miami and partners lobbied Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to consider changing the present classification of the American Flamingo as a "non-native species" to a "native species."

Rehab and Rescue

The Alaska SeaLife Center works to rescue and rehabilitate stranded marine mammals. The Center participated in a record-breaking number of rescues in 2017, and this year, treated seals, sea lions, otters and more. Two of those successful rescues included a days-old sea lion and a days-old otter pup, both of which were able to be rehabilitated.

photo courtesy of Alaska SeaLife Center

Scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium were on the front lines of animal rescue as a toxic algae bloom, or “red tide,” swept through Florida’s southwest coast this fall. Mote recovered approximately 20 dolphins, 230 sea turtles, more than 100 manatees statewide and an untold number of fish, sharks and tarpons. Mote researchers are continuing to work with government entities and investigate Florida’s red tide to better understand what effects the blooms have on human and animal populations.

National Aquarium in Baltimore opened an upgraded, public-facing $20 million Animal Care and Rescue Center facility to care for animals that are sick, rehabilitating, or waiting to join exhibits. The facility can now accommodate over a thousand animals, such as the hundreds of cold-stunned turtles National Aquarium rescues every year. It is part of the aquarium’s BLUEprint plan, which also includes adding more wetlands and greenery to public areas near the aquarium’s Inner Harbor site and moving dolphins to a seaside sanctuary.


Following the death of the world’s last male northern white rhino, San Diego Zoo Global’s “frozen zoo” was featured on NBC, CBS, and other national media. The “Frozen Zoo” allow researchers to collect and store genetic material from endangered or extinct animals, with the hopes of using stem cell technology to revive lost species. The Frozen Zoo® is the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world, representing nearly 1,000 taxa, including one extinct species,  San Diego Zoo has 12 northern white rhino cell lines, and working with them on the gene level can furnish eggs with enormous genetic variety—an insurance policy against future inbreeding and genetic bottlenecks.

Scientists at Steinhart Aquarium published a paper outlining their development of a portable decompression chamber to bring fish up safely from mesophotic depths. This technology has allowed Steinhart Aquarium to exhibit "twilight zone" species never before displayed in a public aquarium.


Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo began a unique cryotherapy program for Dave, a 15-year-old red kangaroo with arthritis. Dave has become quite the celebrity, and his story appeared on Animal Planet’s “The Zoo” television show.

Everyone’s favorite premature hippo, Fiona, turned 1 in January at Cincinnati Zoo. Born weighing just 29 pounds and now boasting over 1,000; Fiona’s success story is a testament to the exceptional care animals and AZA-accredited facilities receive.

Jacksonville Zoo’s hearing-impaired gorilla Kumbuka gave birth to a five-pound baby in October, but her disability made it difficult for her to properly care for infants. Staff at Jacksonville Zoo put together a specialized birth management plan to try to teach her the correct maternal behaviors. The Zoos’ animal care experts will provide around-the-clock care for the infant gorilla until she is strong enough to reunite with her mother but are keeping mother and daughter in close connection to retain the social bond.

Mystic Aquarium’s infamous seal, Ziggy Star, returned to the water after undergoing a first-of-its-kind procedure to treat hydrocephaly in seals. Ziggy, who was rescued in 2017, suffered a neurological condition including seizures and excess fluid in the brain.  Now that the surgery is complete, Ziggy’s body can process the brain fluid normally.

Northwest Trek welcomed Huckleberry and Hawthorne, two orphaned grizzly bear cubs rescued from Alaska and Montana. Zoo staff worked to introduce the cubs to one another in order to raise them together in a renovated shared forest habitat. These are the first grizzly cubs to be exhibited at Northwest Trek in 43 years.

In August, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s veterinary team collaborated with human medical specialists to conduct a robot-assisted surgery on Emily, the OKC Zoo’s 33-year-old Western lowland gorilla, to repair an umbilical hernia. This is the first known robotic surgery performed on a Western lowland gorilla in human care.

photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo

Riverbanks Zoo staff worked with a prosthodontist at Palmetto Health USC-Dentistry to design a prosthetic device for Blueberry, the Zoo’s 30-year-old pancake tortoise. Blueberry had a hole in his sinuses that was becoming blocked by hay and food particles and causing him discomfort. Now, Blueberry’s caretakers are happy to report his new obturator has reduced his inflammation. This procedure is the first of its kind to be performed on a pancake tortoise.

Animals at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo learned how to paint as an enrichment activity to keep the animals active and engaged.  INSIDER featured a video explaining how the animals engage in painting voluntarily, and how the resulting masterpieces are sold to raise money for conservation.  

photo courtesy of Hannah LaPlante

Local OB-GYNs and Sedgwick County Zoo animal care professionals helped Lily the Sumatran orangutan through a difficult birth by C-section. The OB-GYNs, accustomed to delivering human babies, had never performed surgery on another primate before, but the operation was a great success! Lily’s story was featured on hundreds of ABC affiliates and made international news.

Toronto Zoo held an online contest to choose the name of an endangered pygmy hippo calf born in August. More than 10,000 people voted; with the winning name being Penelope. This is the seventh birth of a pygmy hippopotamus in Toronto Zoo's history and the first successful birth for Kindia, Penelope’s mother.

Princess the white rhino was quite the star at Utah’s Hogle Zoo this year! The zoo team, along with help from the community, engineered a customized eye mask to help Princess deal with her seasonal allergies.  In November, Princess also had three molars removed in a first-of-its-kind dental procedure for a rhino at the Zoo! Fortunately, Princess is in great health now thanks to her caretakers.

Virginia Aquarium’s video of a Caribbean Reef octopus being hatched was watched more than 600,000 times in the first week it was posted on Twitter. This was the first attempt to hatch octopuses at the aquarium. Aquarium staff had a chance to educate viewers on octopus reproduction, including why baby octopus change color after birth.

At Zoo de Granby, animal care professionals performed a rare cesarean section on Megan, a female Amur. The team helped her give birth to a perfectly healthy, 564-gram male! With less than 100 Amur leopards remaining in the wild and 200 in zoological facilities worldwide, each individual birth is a cause for celebration. Watch the procedure here:


Following six years of preparation and hard work, the Calgary Zoo opened the most advanced giant panda habitat in the world, Panda Passage. The stunning state-of-the-art building designed like a natural habitat will house four giant pandas during their five-year stay in Calgary. Each year the Calgary Zoo will contribute $1.4 million to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China to support conservation initiatives such as breeding, habitat protection, reintroduction science and research. Watch how the pandas receive celebrity treatment at Calgary Zoo here:

In November, Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo received a generous one million dollar donation for a new Amur Tiger exhibit. The new habitat will be home to one-year-old sisters Reka and Zeya. When the tiger cubs were born, they had only a 25 percent chance of survival and were the only two Amur cubs added to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Amur tiger population in 2017. 

photo courtesy of Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo

Kansas City Zoo opened the Stingray Bay touch tank and it was an instant hit with local media, who visited to feed the rays. The 200,000-gallon touch tank opened in May and allows guests the chance to meet stingrays and sharks up close.

Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium debuted “Ocean Wonder: Sharks!” six years after its original construction was halted by Hurricane Sandy. The $146 million, 57,500-square-foot pavilion surrounds visitors with 115 fish and 18 shark species from all over the world. To safely move the sharks into their new home, a special double-rail, serpentine crane system was developed. Watch the process of moving a shark here:

Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium opened the 35,000-square-foot Pacific Seas Aquarium in September.  The new building houses green sea turtles, sharks and rays, and numerous fish species from Baja California and Mexico, in addition to indigenous aquatic life in nearby Puget Sound. The theme of the exhibit is “Our Oceans and Our Future.”

Virginia Zoo unveiled ‘World of Reptiles,” a 13,000 square-foot building featuring more than double the number of the zoo’s exhibits and bringing the total number of animals to more than 200. That included two 150-pound female Siamese crocodiles, the first crocodiles to be exhibited at Virginia Zoo in 117 years! Their arrival marked the beginning of Virginia Zoo’s start the Zoo’s captive conservation program for the species, which are critically endangered in the wild.

photo courtesy of Virginia Zoo

Zoo Atlanta broke ground on its largest expansion in decades- a  $50 million, 5-acre  African savanna that will feature elephants, giraffes, and zebra once completed. Zoo Atlanta will also renovate its Cyclorama building, now Savanna Hall, and its entryway for a better guest experience. The work is expected to be completed in summer 2019. 


Chicago Zoological Society hosted the first Chicago International Symposium on Pangolin Care and Conservation in August.  The pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world, and with an estimated 300 pangolins killed every day in the production of traditional medicine, meat, leather, and jewelry. Brookfield Zoo is one of only a handful of zoological institutions with pangolins, allowing researchers to study their behavior, development, and genetics.

Happy Hollow Zoo threw a #BeeKind event with city officials to celebrate the re-opening of their behind-the-scenes apiary. The apiary was rebuilt over a year after the original was destroyed in a flood last year. Nearly two million honeybees reside in the apiary, offering a chance for beekeepers old and new to learn about them through classes year-round.

Lincoln Park Zoo celebrated its 150th anniversary this year! The zoo began with just two pairs of swans, but has grown to include more than 800 individual animals from 196 species – not including fish and insects. The Zoo celebrated by creating a time-lapse exhibit featuring the zoo’s changes over the years, which can also be found online. The opening day festivities in May included remarks by President and CEO Kevin Bell, animal chats, brass band performances, kids’ crafts, and more!

photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

The Tulsa Zoo hosted its inaugural “Conservation on Tap” fundraiser, with proceeds used to help wild chinchillas. Tulsa Zoo worked with local breweries to tie together craft beers and saving species from extinction. Chinchillas are critically endangered, largely due to habitat loss and poaching for the fur. The sold-out event was a great success!  


Dickerson Park Zoo opened the C.W. Titus Foundation Media Center for education outreach. At the Center, the Friends of the Zoo will share Dickerson Park’s mission of conservation education with classrooms in the community and around the country. Programs such as Eagles of North America, Endangered Species and Living Food Chain are just a few of the real-time classes, which are available as webinars from the media center.

Zoo New England’s and Harvard Medical School’s collaborative One Health Clinical Elective is a unique program enabling MD and MD/Ph.D. students to do a one-month clinical rotation with the Zoo’s veterinary staff.  By studying “patients” like the red panda, students get the chance to learn about diseases and treatments between animals and humans. The program caught the attention of the New York Times and was featured as the cover story for the Science section.


The Greensboro Science Center released bold plans for a capital campaign aimed at revolutionizing and expanding the facility for the benefit of the community. The “Think Big” that doubled the Center’s goal of raising $6 million to fund new educational programs and a major expansion called “Revolution Ridge — Life on the Edge.” Scheduled to open in 2020, it will connect the American Colonists’ fight for freedom among the fields and forests where the Center now stands, with the plight of endangered species across the globe. An expanded animal health center will provide state-of-the-art medical care serving up to 1,000 wild animals, birds and reptiles. A new multi-use amphitheater will host concerts, science programs and outdoor events, and spaces featuring public art will be located around the Center.

Odysea Aquarium kicked off their “Wings for Warriors” dive program, which helps disabled veterans connect to the underwater world through a unique scuba diving experience. Watch the inspiring video here:

Racine Zoo challenged a Fox 6 journalist to become a keeper for the day. The story highlights the 100 different animal species from around the world that call the zoo home. Find out what it takes to be a keeper here:

San Antonio Zoo spearheaded a city-wide  “Straws No Mas” campaign to help reduce the amount of non-biodegradable plastic waste. San Antonio worked with partners to promote the proactive removal and reduction of plastic straws and single-use plastic at area hotels, restaurants, bars, attractions and individual households. San Antonio Zoo has removed nearly all of its single-use plastics and offers reusable cups and straws on site.

The Wilds, in collaboration with the nonprofit Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs, hosts monthly retreats for dozens of veterans each month. These spiritual retreats have helped veterans combat post-traumatic stress disorder through classes, activities, and up-close encounters with exotic animals.


Utica Zoo in New York regained accreditation status in September 2018. After several years and new leadership, Zoo administrators set their sights on re-earning the accreditation for the benefit of the animals, staff, members, donors, and community. Oneida County supported the Zoo with a $300,000 investment. Thanks to an incredibly dedicated staff and years of hard work, Utica Zoo now stands among the best-of-the-best in the zoo and aquarium profession.

These are some examples of AZA’s best zoos and best aquariums at work. AZA facilities stride to be leaders in animal welfare, conservation, saving species, and so much more. These articles prove why zoos and aquariums matter and how their work truly makes a positive impact. Our facilities will continue working towards more conservation, more species saved, and more amazing stories like the ones above.

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