From the Desk of Dan Ashe

Bridging the Gap

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are places where people of all ages, gender, races, religions, ethnicities, abilities and cultures create bonds with animals they will likely never have opportunity to see in the wild. In a world where people are increasingly urbanizing and disconnected from nature, aquarium and zoo experiences are providing connections to the natural world that can inspire conservation action. Not everyone, however, may have easy access to their local zoo or aquarium. For example, a recent study found only 54 percent of children from low-income households have visited a zoo or aquarium compared to 69 percent of children from more affluent households. As the examples below demonstrate, AZA member facilities are bridging that gap. They also underscore our potential to do even more to reach out to diverse communities.

- Birmingham Zoo was the nation’s first certified “sensory inclusive” zoo or aquarium, and one of several members who are working to create a safe space for visitors with sensory processing needs. Many zoos and aquariums have since adopted these inclusive practices and certification, including Audubon Zoo and Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium.  

-Our members are leading young women to pursue STEM careers. Earlier this year, over 50 women in science met with Mystic Aquarium guests as part of the fourth Annual Women in Science Day. And the Kansas City Zoo is just one of many facilities that has partnered with the Girl Scouts to offer classes and camps focused on conservation. 

-With on-site audio described aquatic presentations, tactile maps, assistive listening devices, sensory friendly app, captioning devices in the 4D theater and more, visitors have an increasingly barrier-free, safe and comfortable experience at the John G. Shedd Aquarium.

-Utah's Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary’s “Zoo Just for You” program launched in 2014 with the goal to make environmental education available and accessible to community members with disabilities. To date, more than 1,500 students of all ages have been educated throughout various programs and the Zoo has become more accessible to the community.

-Many zoos and aquariums are rethinking event programming to attract new audiences by focusing on the specific interests of the audiences to increase relevance of our missions to a broader audience. Events and programs that celebrate gay pride, like Smithsonian National Zoo’s International Family Equality Day, or that highlight special topics, like the Aquarium of the Pacific’s special health-focused “Senior Days,” are a few examples.

AZA members are also finding ways to connect with communities beyond the typical zoo or aquarium visit. 

-They are leading education programs in schools, libraries, senior citizen living centers, and hospitals. From San Diego Zoo’s “Zoo Kids” programming in children’s hospitals to multiple members' traveling “Zoomobiles,” our members are bringing the zoo to the community.

-The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ W.I.L.D. (Wildlife Immersion and  Leadership Development) program recruits staff aged 15-18 from underserved and under-represented communities to train as education staff conducting live animal interpretation and outreach programming. 

-Lincoln Park Zoo has established a process of co-creating programs with community partners, emphasizing listening and collaboration at every step. The results are programs that connect children and families to the environment and wildlife in their own neighborhood and culture.

-Ocean Wise at Vancouver Aquarium increases access to sustainable seafood by recruiting partners from underrepresented communities, completing small-scale fisheries assessments for culturally relevant seafood items and providing educational and training materials in Chinese Traditional text, Chinese Simplified text and French.

Annually, AZA member zoos and aquariums welcome 200 million guests of all races, ages, abilities and cultures. America, like the world, is diversifying.  If we want to find ways to inspire concern for nature and action to save it, then we need to reach broader and more diverse audiences, and assure that all feel welcome and included.

AZA will be providing leadership, encouragement and professional development to help our members to move forward.  Our AZA Diversity Committee is dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion to assure a future for all living things.  The Committee provides advocacy, resources and education regarding diversity and inclusion. Through the Angela Peterson Excellence in Diversity Award, AZA recognizes the most significant innovative, productive, far-reaching, program to promote diversity among AZA members.

When we look at the natural world, we see strength in diversity. We strive to protect what we call “biodiversity.” We can apply that same passion as we seek to grow a conservation movement and constituency.  Let’s celebrate and cultivate the strength that comes from diversity.

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