When I was 12 years old, I was bitten by a copperhead that I was trying to catch. While the snake got away, that experience and many others gifted me with a lasting love of wildlife.
A native of Atlanta, Ga., I grew up with a deep appreciation of native wildlife and lizards, snakes, turtles, birds, bugs, and once, a mother possum and four kits, were all part of any given day in the Ashe home.
My father was a 37-year career employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), so I grew up around the organization that I later joined and served. His career was an inspiration for my own, but I give credit to National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau for inspiring me to study marine biology, which I did at Texas A&M, Florida State, and the University of Washington. I had the great fortune of receiving a National Sea Grant College Fellowship, in 1982, and came to Washington, D.C., where I began a 13-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1995, I joined the USFWS as Assistant Director, External Affairs; then Assistant Director, Refuges and Wildlife; then National Wildlife Refuge System Chief; then Science Advisor to the Director; then Deputy Director; and finally, I was nominated by President Barack Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be Director, on June 30, 2011.
I’m extremely proud of my time at USFWS and was lucky to work with many remarkable and talented people. During my time there, I witnessed the value that Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities brought to the table when it came to saving species. Black-footed ferrets, Mexican and red wolves, California condors, American burying beetles, Hawaiian birds, and more are all still around due to the expertise and talents of you—staff at AZA facilities.
But we live in challenging times—conservation of wildlife and wild habitats is becoming an increasingly abstract concept to many Americans. How do we make it relevant again? How do we inspire and engage a new generation of conservationists? How do we prioritize what is most important to conserve and what is less so? How do we take action to the necessary scale? How do we, as a community of people who are dedicated to the animals in our care and conserving their wild counterparts, bring our strengths to the table in more meaningful and impactful ways?
In the coming months, I will be visiting a diversity of AZA-accredited facilities to learn about our community. I look forward to sharing my perspective on the important wildlife challenges we face, but also to hear about your successes and concerns, and how AZA—as your Association—can enhance all of the important work you do, and help zoos and aquariums prosper.
By Dan Ashe, AZA President & CEO