Successful reproductive management is an integral component of sustainable AZA Animal Programs, ensuring that both the genetic and demographic goals of the population are met. AZA professionals provide the highest standards of care for the animals they manage, which includes the objective that no more animals are produced than can be properly cared for. Careful reproductive management, which includes tools such as contraception, assisted reproduction, and fertility diagnostics, is essential for managers to reach population goals without disrupting natural social and family groups.
The AZA Reproductive Management Center (RMC) began as the Contraception Advisory Group in 1989 and eventually evolved into the RMC as the Center expanded its scope beyond contraception to include additional aspects of reproductive management (e.g., infertility). The Saint Louis Zoo serves as the home of the Center and its Director and Program Analyst, but its advisors are spread throughout the world and include scientists, veterinarians, and animal managers with research and management expertise in wildlife contraception and disciplines that will contribute to the long-term sustainability of captive populations.
Maintaining sustainable animal collections is one of AZA’s central strategic priorities. Sustainability is reliant on successful reproductive management, which requires communication and coordination among many AZA Animal Programs. The RMC works with the Population Management Center (PMC) to assist Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), Species Survival Plans® (SSPs), curators, and veterinarians by recommending taxon-specific contraceptives and dosages, and contributes this valuable information to AZA Animal Care Manuals and Regional Collection Plans. The RMC also works with commercial partners to make new contraceptives available and affordable to the zoo and aquarium community.
The RMC maintains a Contraception Database containing over 30,000 records that can be analyzed to continually update recommendations on efficacy and reversibility. The Reproductive Health Surveillance Program (RHSP), a RMC partner, studies the safety of contraceptives through comprehensive pathology examinations of reproductive tracts submitted by zoos and aquariums. The RMC also initiates and coordinates research trials of existing and promising new contraceptive methods. This research program responds to feedback received from the Annual Contraception Survey and other less formal input. Ongoing communication between the RMC and members of the AZA community is critical to research efforts as well as overall program operation.
What's more, the contraceptive research carried out in zoos and aquariums has direct applications to the management of in-situ animal populations found in National Parks and Reserves. The Science and Conservation Center at Zoo Montana has applied this technology to the management of the wild horse population of Assateague Island National Seashore under the sponsorship of the National Park Service, white-tailed deer in several states, African elephants in 15 different game parks in South Africa (to eliminate the need to legally kill them in African National Parks), water buffalo in Guam, feral burros in Virgin Islands National Park, bison on Catalina Island, and elk on Point Reyes National Seashore. In addition, and relevant to European applications, The Science and Conservation Center is involved in managing the Hortobágy National Park Przewalski’s horse population in Hungary and is providing vaccines for several hundred Danube Delta horses in Romania.
Given its specialty in reproductive science, the RMC expanded its focus to include investigations of causes of reproductive failure across taxa. Just as safe prevention of reproduction is crucial for non-recommended breeding pairs, successful and healthy reproduction in recommended pairs is critical to population management. Emerging topics of study include identifying causes of female infertility or pair incompatibility, with the goal of improving reproductive success in affected individuals. Working with the AZA Population Management Center, and AZA Scientific Advisory Groups and Committees, the RMC promotes a holistic approach to evaluating reproductive failure, one that examines all possible elements (e.g., nutrition, behavior) rather than focusing on physiology alone.
Lifetime Reproductive Planning (LRP) is another area of focus; this involves breeding females early and often to establish and maintain fertility, which can increase the reproductive health and success of both the individual and the population. LRP is based on analyzing the outcomes of historic breeding recommendations, identifying factors (e.g., ages of male and female, time since last birth) that are associated with reproductive success. Those factors are then used to generate a statistical model that evaluates the impacts of breeding early and often on population demography and genetics.
To speak with someone at the RMC:
Contact the RMC Director Mary Agnew or Program Scientist John Sahrmann.