Recommendations for Developing an Institutional Ambassador Animal Policy


Membership in AZA requires that an institution meet the AZA Accreditation Standards collectively developed by our professional colleagues. Standards guide all aspects of an institution's operations; however, the accreditation commission has asserted that ensuring that member institutions demonstrate the highest standards of animal care is a top priority. Another fundamental AZA criterion for membership is that education be affirmed as core to an institution's mission. All accredited public institutions are expected to develop a written education plan and to regularly evaluate program effectiveness.

The inclusion of animals (native, exotic and domestic) in educational presentations, when done correctly, is a powerful tool. CEC's Ambassador Animal Position Statement describes the research underpinning the appropriate use of program animals as an important and powerful educational tool that provides a variety of benefits to zoo and aquarium educators seeking to convey cognitive and affective messages about conservation and wildlife.

Ongoing research, such as AZA's Multi-Institutional Research Project (MIRP) and research conducted by individual AZA institutions will help zoo educators to determine whether the use of program animals conveys intended and conflicting messages and to modify and improve programs accordingly. When utilizing ambassador animals our responsibility is to meet both our high standards of animal care and our educational goals. Additionally, as animal management professionals, we must critically address both the species' conservation needs and the welfare of the individual animal.

Because "wild creatures differ endlessly," in their forms, needs, behavior, limitations and abilities (Conway, 1995), AZA, through its Animal Welfare Committee, has recently given the responsibility to develop taxon-specific animal welfare standards to the Taxon Advisory Groups (TAG) and Species Survival PlanĀ® Program (SSP). Experts within each TAG or SSP, along with their education advisors, are charged with assessing all aspects of the taxons' biological and social needs and developing animal care standards that include specifications concerning their use as program animals.

However, even the most exacting standards cannot address the individual choices faced by each AZA institution. Therefore, each institution is required to develop a program animal policy that articulates and evaluates program benefits. The following recommendations are offered to assist each institution in formulating its own Institutional Ambassador Animal Policy.

The Policy Development Process

Within each institution, key stakeholders should be included in the development of that institution's policy, including, but not limited to representatives from:

  • the Education Department
  • the Animal Husbandry Department
  • the Veterinary and Animal Health Department
  • the Conservation & Science Department
  • any animal show staff (if in a separate department)
  • departments that frequently request special ambassador animal situations (e.g., special events, development, marketing, zoo or aquarium society, administration)

Additionally, staff from all levels of the organization should be involved in this development (e.g., curators, keepers, education managers, interpreters, volunteer coordinators).

To develop a comprehensive Ambassador Animal Policy, we recommend that the following components be included:

I. Philosophy

In general, the position of the AZA is that the use of animals in up close and personal settings, including animal contact, can be extremely positive and powerful, as long as:

  1. The use and setting is appropriate.
  2. Animal and human welfare is considered at all times.
  3. The animal is used in a respectful, safe manner and in a manner that does not misrepresent or degrade the animal.
  4. A meaningful conservation message is an integral component. Read the AZA Board-approved Conservation Messages.
  5. Suitable species and individual specimens are used. Institutional ambassador animal policies should include a philosophical statement addressing the above, and should relate the use of ambassador animals to the institution's overall mission statement.

II. Appropriate Settings

The Ambassador Animal Policy should include a listing of all settings both on and off site, where ambassador animal use is permitted. This will clearly vary among institutions. Each institution's policy should include a comprehensive list of settings specific to that institution. Some institutions may have separate policies for each setting; others may address the various settings within the same policy. Examples of settings include:

I. On-site programming
A. Informal and non-registrants:
1. On-grounds programming with animals being brought out (demonstrations, lectures, parties, special events, and media)
2. Children's zoos and contact yards
3. Behind-the-scenes open houses
4. Shows
5. Touch pools
B. Formal (registration involved) and controlled settings
1. School group programs
2. Summer Camps
3. Overnights
4. Birthday Parties
II. Offsite and Outreach
1. PR events (TV, radio)
2. Fundraising events
3. Field programs involving the public
4. School visits
5. Library visits
6. Nursing Home visits (therapy)
7. Hospital visits
8. Senior Centers
9. Civic Group events

*In some cases, policies will differ from setting to setting (e.g., on-site and off-site use with media). These settings should be addressed separately, and should reflect specific animal health issues, assessment of stress in these situations, limitations, and restrictions.

III. Compliance with Regulations

All AZA institutions housing mammals are regulated by the USDA's Animal Welfare Act. Other federal regulations, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, may apply. Additionally, many states, and some cities, have regulations that apply to animal contact situations. Similarly, all accredited institutions are bound by the AZA Code of Professional Ethics. It is expected that the Institution Ambassador Animal Policy address compliance with appropriate regulations and AZA Accreditation Standards.

IV. Collection Planning

All AZA accredited institutions should have a collection planning process in place. Ambassador animals are part of an institution's overall collection and must be included in the overall collection planning process. The AZA Guide to Accreditation contains specific requirements for the institution collection plan. For more information about collection planning in general, please see the Collection Management pages in the Members Only section. The following recommendations apply to ambassador animals:

  1. Listing of approved ambassador animals (to be periodically amended as collection changes). Justification of each species should be based upon criteria such as:
    • Temperament and suitability for program use
    • Husbandry requirements
    • Husbandry expertise
    • Veterinary issues and concerns
    • Ease and means of acquisition / disposition
    • Educational value and intended conservation message
    • Conservation Status
    • Compliance with TAG and SSP guidelines and policies
  2. General guidelines as to how each species (and, where necessary, for each individual) will be presented to the public, and in what settings
  3. The collection planning section should reference the institution's acquisition and disposition policies.

V. Conservation Education Message

As noted in the AZA Accreditation Standards, if animal demonstrations are part of an institution's programs, an educational and conservation message must be an integral component. The Ambassasdor Animal Policy should address the specific messages related to the use of ambassador animals, as well as the need to be cautious about hidden or conflicting messages (e.g., "petting" an animal while stating verbally that it makes a poor pet). This section may include or reference the AZA Conservation Messages. Although education value and messages should be part of the general collection planning process, this aspect is so critical to the use of ambassador animals that it deserves additional attention. In addition, it is highly recommended to encourage the use of biofacts in addition to or in place of the live animals. Whenever possible, evaluation of the effectiveness of presenting ambassador animals should be built into education programs.

VI. Human Health and Safety

The safety of our staff and the public is one of the greatest concerns in working with ambassador animals. Although extremely valuable as educational and affective experiences, contact with animals poses certain risks to the handler and the public. Therefore, the human health and safety section of the policy should address:

  1. Minimization of the possibility of disease transfer from non-human animals to humans, and viceversa (e.g., handwashing stations, no touch policies, use of hand sanitizer).
  2. Safety issues related to handlers' personal attire and behavior (e.g., discourage or prohibit use of long earrings, perfume and cologne, not eating or drinking around animals, smoking etc.).  AZA's Animal Contact Policy provides guidelines in this area; these guidelines were incorporated into accreditation standards in 1998.

VII. Animal Health and Welfare

Animal health and welfare are the highest priority of AZA accredited institutions. As a result, the Institutional Ambassador Animal Policy should make a strong statement on the importance of animal welfare. The policy should address:

  1. General housing, husbandry, and animal health concerns (e.g. that the housing and husbandry for program animals meets or exceeds general standards and that the needs of the individual animal, such as enrichment and visual cover, are accommodated).
  2. The empowerment of handlers to make decisions related to animal health and welfare; such as withdrawing animals from a situation if safety or health is in danger of being compromised.
  3. Requirements for supervision of contact areas and touch tanks by trained staff and volunteers.
  4. Frequent evaluation of human / animal interactions to assess safety, health, welfare, etc.
  5. Ensure that the level of health care for the ambassador animals is consistent with that of other animals in the collection.

VIII. Taxon Specific Protocols

We encourage institutions to provide taxonomically specific protocols, either at the genus or species level, or the specimen, or individual, level. Some taxon-specific guidelines may affect the use of ambassador animals. To develop these, institutions refer to the Conservation Programs Database. Taxon-specific protocols should address:

  1. How to remove the individual animal from and return it to its permanent enclosure.
  2. How to crate and transport animals.
  3. Signs of stress, stress factors and discomfort behaviors.
  4. Situation specific handling protocols (e.g., whether or not animal is allowed to be touched by the public, and how to handle in such situations).
  5. Guidelines for disinfecting surfaces, transport carriers, enclosures, etc.
  6. Animal facts and conservation information.
  7. Limitations and restrictions regarding ambient temperatures and or weather conditions.
  8. Time limitations (including animal rotation and rest periods, as appropriate, duration of time each animal can participate, and restrictions on travel distances).
  9. The numbers of trained personnel required to ensure the health and welfare of the animals, handlers and public.
  10. Taxon-specific guidelines on animal health.

IX. Logistics: Managing the Program

The Institutional Policy should address a number of logistical issues related to program animals, including:

  1. Where and how the ambassador animal collection will be housed, including any quarantine and separation for animals used off-site.
  2. Procedures for requesting animals, including the approval process and decision making process.
  3. Accurate documentation and availability of records, including procedures for documenting animal usage, animal behavior, and any other concerns that arise.

X. Staff Training

Thorough training for all handling staff (keepers, educators, and volunteers, and docents) is clearly critical. Staff training is such a large issue that many institutions may have separate training protocols and procedures. Specific training protocols can be included in the Institutional Ambassador Animal Policy or reference can be made that a separate training protocol exists. It is recommended that the training section of the policy address:

  1. Personnel authorized to handle and present animals.
  2. Handling protocol during quarantine.
  3. The process for training, qualifying and assessing handlers including who is authorized to train handlers.
  4. The frequency of required re-training sessions for handlers.
  5. Personnel authorized to train animals and training protocols.
  6. The process for addressing substandard performance and noncompliance with established procedures.
  7. Medical testing and vaccinations required for handlers (e.g., TB testing, tetanus shots, rabies vaccinations, routine fecal cultures, physical exams, etc.).
  8. Training content (e.g., taxonomically specific protocols, natural history, relevant conservation education messages, presentation techniques, interpretive techniques, etc.).
  9. Protocols to reduce disease transmission (e.g., zoonotic disease transmission, proper hygiene and hand washing requirements, as noted in AZA's Animal Contact Policy).
  10. Procedures for reporting injuries to the animals, handling personnel or public.
  11. Visitor management (e.g., ensuring visitors' interact appropriately with animals, do not eat or drink around the animal, etc.).

XI. Review of Institutional Policies

All policies should be reviewed regularly. Accountability and ramifications of policy violations should be addressed as well (e.g., retraining, revocation of handling privileges, etc.). Institutional policies should address how frequently the Ambassador Animal Policy will be reviewed and revised, and how accountability will be maintained.

XII. TAG and SSP Recommendations

Following development of taxon-specific recommendations from each TAG and SSP, the institution policy should include a statement regarding compliance with these recommendations. If the institution chooses not to follow these specific recommendations, a brief statement providing rationale is recommended.

I Accept

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