Passing the Torch

February 2017

By Cathie Gandel

Pioneers Who Started the SSPs are Looking to a New Generation of Leaders

In 2000, Jennifer Mickelberg began working with golden lion tamarins at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  When she moved from there to Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga., to become the senior director of collections and conservation in July 2012, she brought not only the golden lion tamarin international studbook with her, but years of training and guidance from Jonathan Ballou, her predecessor and mentor.  “I had a nice twelve-year overlap with Jon” she said. “That made the transition much easier.”

Jonathan Ballou may have already passed the golden lion tamarin “torch” to the next generation, but there are other long-time coordinators who are still pondering the “how-to” of succession. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) initiated its signature Species Survival Plan® (SSP) programs in the 1980s. The success of these programs—measured in part by maintaining healthy populations of animals in a zoo or aquarium and, in some cases, reintroducing them back into the wild—is largely due to early leaders. With no instruction book and feeling their way, these men and women created the SSPs from scratch and fostered the relationships necessary to sustain them.  Now, thirty years down the road, these SSPs are complex programs with many moving parts, and these pioneers are considering how to pass on their institutional memory, their years of experience and, perhaps most importantly, their personal relationships.

“For the last five years, I’ve been thinking about what a transition should look like,” said Michael Mace, curator of birds for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, Calif., Andean Condor SSP coordinator and California condor studbook keeper.   One thing he is sure of: “Developing the next generation of conservationists requires that they be immersed in what’s going on now,” he said. “If people get a chance to see how the program works, the complications, what the challenges are and how people participate, then the transition will be smooth with a minimal risk of the program stepping back.”

Sharing Knowledge

One way to do this is to have substantial overlap between old and new SSP coordinators, as with Mickelberg and Ballou. If that’s not possible, then up-and-coming leaders need to know where to go for guidance. There are a lot of resources on the AZA and SSP side—what Peter Siminski, director of conservation at the Living Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., Mexican Wolf international studbook keeper since 1985 and Mexican Wolf SSP coordinator since 1994, calls “redundant knowledge.”

Peter Siminski is the director of conservation at the Living Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., Mexican Wolf international studbook keeper since 1985 and Mexican Wolf SSP coordinator since 1994 © Living Desert

“A lot of people have been involved for a long time and know what’s going on,” he said.   The AZA provides training for studbook management and SSP coordination, and through its Population Management Center, resources for population analysis and SSP recommendations. “Within the larger SSPs, there are also steering committees that hold vast program knowledge available to any new program leader,” Siminski said.  Incoming SSP coordinators “need to maintain those relationships and recruit that expertise,” said Michael Mace.

People just coming on board can have access to the AZA’s information and experience through formal and informal mentoring.  “Whenever I had a question, I could just walk down the hall and ask my mentor,” said Mickelberg. Now, while she may not have that kind of immediacy, she mentors others.  Mickelberg works with other program leaders and studbook keepers at Zoo Atlanta to answer questions and provide support. She also takes her knowledge and experience “on the road.”

“The training I received from Jon has inspired me to help train others in the field by teaching population management courses both in the U.S. and internationally,” said Mickelberg. Mentoring could prove to be a useful tool in transitioning program leadership agrees Peter Siminski. In fact, it will be on the agenda of the Canid and Hyaenid Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) at the 2017 AZA Mid-Year Meeting at the ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, N.M., on 26-31 March.  The TAG will decide on the new regional studbook keeper and/or the SSP program coordinator.

Teaching and mentoring are important, but so is bringing a new team member into the discussion. “Empower people,” said Mace.  “Ask the future leaders what they would do about a challenge and why. You want to share your experiences, but you also want to encourage them to impart new ideas into the program.” This kind of back-and-forth can strengthen a relationship between an old-timer and a new recruit.

It’s Who You Know

If the two main features of an SSP are animal management and personal relationships, it’s easier to pass on the “how-to” of the former. “You can train people to do population management,” said Andy Odum, the Aruba Island Rattlesnake SSP coordinator since 1984 and assistant director and curator of herpetology at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio.  “Maintaining personal relationships is more difficult and way more important,” he said.

In the field, that can sometimes be challenging because team members come from many different organizations and may have diverse objectives along with unique strengths.  “In the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, no one person has the full skillset needed to meet all the challenges, but given enough time in the field you begin to form a close-knit team,” said Gay Reinartz, conservation coordinator at the Milwaukee Zoo, and SSP coordinator since 1988. The Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI) includes people from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state environmental organizations, NGOs, the AZA and local agencies.

“You can train people to do population management,” said Andy Odum, the Aruba Island Rattlesnake SSP coordinator since 1984 and assistant director and curator of herpetology at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio.  “Maintaining personal relationships is more difficult and way more important.”

Having numerous participants is true for most of the SSP programs. The diversity is an asset, but it also means that there is the potential for a continual turnover of players, said Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas. She took over managing the Puerto Rican Crested Toad SSP in 2005 from Bob Johnson. “What has to remain consistent is our side, the SSP side,” she said. “That consistency is critical in maintaining trust with the local agencies.”

When Barber goes to Puerto Rico, she always brings someone else who has been there before. “Recognizing a couple of familiar faces helps build trust,” she said. And it helps the other team member become more engaged. Everyone must be invested in the program, said Barber. “It's especially important to have a vice-coordinator personally invested.”

One tool to help all partners trust the process is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which Barber helped to develop for the Puerto Rican crested toad program. A MOU spells out everyone’s responsibility, and what everyone has agreed to long-term. Not only do you need to have everyone aware of what’s realistic in terms of the program and what’s not, “having this kind of contract is helpful, especially during transitions,” Barber said.  “You need to have longstanding agreement about roles so that when somebody leaves, things just don't flip 180 degrees.”

Developing new leaders is not going to happen overnight. It takes time, sometimes years, said Mace. Second-generation coordinators need to broaden their skills, become exposed to the different parts of a program, and develop their own relationships with people in the field. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Bonobos SSP, and Reinartz has seen many team transitions over the years. “It’s ‘on the job’ training and it takes new people—regardless of their specialty—two to three years to fully integrate,” she said.

“The job of species conservation will never be complete,” Reinartz said. “I don’t see us as carrying a torch. I see our work more as sticking fingers in the holes of a leaky dike as the tides rise.”  And the “tides” will continue to rise. In the future there will be even greater pressures on animal communities around the world, so the next generation of leaders will not just be maintaining the status quo. There are always going to be new problems, whether from disease, other species, humans, or weather. An inadvertent introduction of the boa constrictor onto the island threatened the Aruba Island rattlesnake population. Michael Mace and his team figured out how to protect the condors from wires, and then wind turbines presented a new danger. New conservationists should not be excluded from a search for solutions, said Mace. Not only is it another opportunity for them to absorb the current situation, but also to display leadership skills and intuitive ability.

Being tapped to carry an SSP program forward is a big responsibility. “I had huge boots to fill,” said Barber. Although she and Bob Johnson worked together for two years, she felt overwhelmed and would have wished for a more gradual transition, she said, but “Bob just threw me out of the nest and trusted that I could fly.”

Siminski is confident that there will be a strong team in place to take over when he retires. “My only worry is that I will miss doing it,” he said. “It’s frustrating but rewarding work.” 

What both old and new program leaders agree on is this: they all want the programs to rise to greater heights and become even more successful. “You want the program to flourish beyond what it had been,” said Mace.

Cathie Gandel is writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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