How does one define a “hero?” Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines a hero as a “mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.” But a hero does not have to be fictional. A hero is an individual who confronts fear or hardship in a selfless pursuit for a noble cause. A hero protects the vulnerable, and inspires others to achieve their dreams. I can think of no better example of “heroism” than the work of AZA’s 200,000 tireless, passionate zoo and aquarium professionals as they work to save vulnerable species from extinction.
Earlier this month, AZA invited our members to share their personal stories as a part of the “Find AZA Heroes campaign.” We received over 95 entries, each one unique and inspiring.
As the host of the contest Stephanie Arne said, “It was a really hard decision for the judges to make, as all the videos were so amazing. As someone who has also worked in the zoo field and had many of the same experiences, I really felt a connection to these contestants’ stories. Their passion and hard work is inspirational and deserving of our gratitude and appreciation."
My fellow judges and I, after much deliberation, are proud to announce four exceptional entrants as our winners: Amanda Hodo from Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, Donnie Alverson from San Diego Zoo Global, Josh Lucas from Oklahoma City Zoo, and Rachael Rost from Topeka Zoo.
Josh, an herpetologist, grew his childhood love of reptiles into a lifelong passion for caring for animals, and traveled across the globe to help rescue endangered radiated tortoises from illegal wildlife trade. Donnie, a conservation researcher, is studying, breeding, and reintroducing Hawaiian honeycreepers to ensure sustainable populations in the wild. Rachael, an educator, directly connects with hundreds of students per year, engaging them in citizen science and inspiring conservation in the classroom. Amanda followed her dream to pursue aquatic biology, and serves as a role model to the nest generation of scientists through outreach to underserved communities .
These four exceptional individuals embody the heroic qualities I see throughout the whole AZA community; and though their stories are different, they are united in their commitment to wildlife and wild places.They are dedicated to animal welfare, saving species and conservation efforts.
As a whole, AZA professionals contribute approximately $220 million per year to conservation, engaging in international field work benefitting over 800 species . As researchers, they conduct over 1,000 animal care, health, and welfare projects per year. As conservationists they have succeeded in reintroducing extinct species like the scimitar-horned oryx and the black-footed ferret, and have rehabilitated thousands of individual animals who cannot survive on their own. As educators, they inspire over 190 million annual guests, in addition to leading countless education and volunteer programs in their community.
I never cease to be amazed by the animal champions in the AZA community. I am so proud of my community and of our AZA Heroes. Thank you to all for sharing your stories and hard work.