Staff

Administration

Kris Vehrs, Interim President and CEO

Kris is responsible for internal and staff operations functions at AZA. She provides counsel to the Association including review of contracts, bylaws changes, accreditation and ethical issues. Kris works with the Board of Directors to determine the focus of the Association.

Kris began working for AZA in 1979 when AZA was represented by the firm of Steele and Utz. Kris served as the Director of Government Affairs from 1981 until March 2000. Kris has a law degree from George Mason University.

Jill Nicoll, Chief Operating Officer

Jill is a member of the Executive team and oversees all aspects of member services including conferences, membership, professional development, education, member communications, advertising, digital media, marketing as well as revenue generation activities. She is also responsible for the day to day operations of the AZA.

Jill joins the AZA with 20 years’ experience, most recently as a marketing consultant and prior to that as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the National Park Foundation. Before joining the National Park Foundation, Jill was a PR Manager at United Media in NY, where she handled the partnership with Charles Schulz and the PEANUTS characters. Jill holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband, two kids, one cat, one dog and one fish.

Jack Keeney, Jr. , General Counsel

Jack is a former partner (1985 - 2011) at the D.C. law firm of then-Hogan and Hartson where he was AZA’s counsel for almost 20 years.  Jack left Hogan and Hartson in 2011 to direct all appeals for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.  He is the past president of the 100,000 member D.C. Bar and represents D.C. in the American Bar Association House of Delegates.  Numerous awards include the 2012 Justice Potter Stewart Award from the Council for Court Excellence, the 2013 Outstanding State Chair Award (co-recipient) from the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, and the 2010 Wiley Branton Award from the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.  He is on the Board of the Washington Council of Lawyers, on the Nominations Committee of the National Capital Area ACLU, and on the Advisory Rules Committee of D.C. Superior Court.  He is listed in Best Lawyers in America and in Who’s Who in American Law, in America, and in the World. He is a 1976 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and a 1973 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

Phil Wagner, Senior Vice President, Finance

Phil manages the financial affairs of the AZA, including budgeting, financial reporting, payroll, IT and cash management. His goal is to ensure that the AZA staff members have the financial tools they need to achieve their missions, while maintaining a secure financial position for the Association.

Phil joined the AZA in December, 2011, with over 30 years in accounting, including stints in Big Four Public Accounting, Retail, Telecommunications and Not-for-profit. His career includes 2 ½ years as Controller at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

He holds a Bachelors Degree in Accounting from Loyola University in Baltimore, and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Barbara Pueschel, Board and Committee Liaison

Barbara joined AZA as executive assistant to the Executive Director in 2004, shortly after returning to the US from Dominica. Her responsibilities at AZA include providing administrative support to the Board of Directors, AZA Committees and the Executive Director.

Barbara has worked in independent education since 1985 primarily in development and publications. She has a B.A. in History and English from the University of California at Santa Barbara and has taken graduate courses in Art and Literature from Wesleyan University.

Ana Maria Sanchez, Controller

Ana Maria joined AZA January, 2007 as a member of the Finance team; she manages all aspects of the accounting of AZA.

Ana Maria holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Maryland University College, a Bachelor’s degree in Philology and Languages from Univesidad Libre de Colombia and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Nancy Ramos, Accounting Assistant

Stephanie Wood, Receptionist/Accounting Clerk

Stephanie joined AZA in April, 2015 as a member of the Finance & Administration team. She handles everyday administrative tasks; oversees the front desk and provides support to the Controller.

Stephanie holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.


Accreditation

Denny L. Lewis, M.B.A., Vice President Accreditation Programs

Denny Lewis has had a career developing and managing certification and accreditation programs primarily in the scientific professions, including the American Institute of Chemists, the National Certification Commission in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, and the Association For The Advancement of Medical Instrumentation.

A native of Washington, DC, he came to AZA in 1998 with a passion for wildlife that began as a child and continued through college, where he majored in business and studied zoology in elective courses. He holds an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland.

Jennifer DiNenna, B.S., Manager, Accreditation Programs

Jennifer manages the Accreditation and Certification process, including accepting applications, setting up inspections, tracking and reviewing reports, maintaining and updating records, preparing for accreditation hearings, supporting the Accreditation Commission, and counseling members as needed.

A native of Maryland, Jennifer earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Life Sciences with a concentration in Zoology from the University of Maryland.  She then obtained a Certificate of Accomplishment from Animal Behavior College.  Prior to joining AZA, Jennifer was a manager of a pet sitting, boarding and canine daycare facility.  She also instructed obedience classes as a Professional Positive Reinforcement Canine Trainer.  Jennifer then decided to follow her passion for exotic animals at AZA.

Cheri Bermudez, B.S., Program Assistant, Accreditation Programs

Cheri joined AZA in April of 2015 as the Program Assistant for Accreditation Programs. Her primary responsibilities include acting as a staff contact for accreditation applicants and inspectors, reviewing reports, responding to general inquiries and letters of concern, managing the Accreditation Resource Center, and providing support for all accreditation-related processes.

Cheri earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Maryland with a concentration in Wildlife Ecology and Management. Prior to AZA, she worked for several years as a veterinary technician and interned at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center doing behavioral and dietary research with diving ducks.

Communications

Rob Vernon, M.B.A., Senior VP, External Affairs

Rob Vernon is responsible for overseeing all communications functions of the AZA, including media, internal communications, and public opinion polling. He also serves as the main spokesperson for the Association, and is the AZA staff liaison to the Diversity Committee, Public Relations Committee, and Trends Committee. Rob also leads the Public Engagement & Action efforts for AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction.

Prior to joining AZA, Rob worked at two international public relations firms, developing public affairs communications and public policy strategies for a variety of corporate, government and non-profit clients. Before joining the private sector, he held senior positions with several state and federal elected officials, on political campaigns, and at a trade association and a political youth-focused non-profit.

Rob earned his M.B.A. from The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and his bachelor's degree in political science from Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Conservation and Science

Debborah Luke, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Conservation & Science

Dr. Debborah Luke joined AZA in September 2008 as the Vice President of Conservation and Science and is responsible for furthering standards of excellence in all aspects of animal care and population management within AZA's accredited institutions and advancing AZA's conservation, science, and stewardship initiatives. In 2014 she was promoted to Senior Vice President and has also assumed responsibility for developing Conservation Action Plans for AZA's new conservation initiative - AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction.

Debborah is a member of the executive team, works with the AZA Board of Directors, and serves as the staff liaison with a multitude of Committees, Scientific Advisory Groups, and Animal Programs. She is responsible for relationship building with regulatory, government and non-government agencies, universities, and other related organizations. She currently serves on the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and the American Humane Association Scientific Review Committee.

Debborah earned her B.A. in Psychology from New College, the Honors College for the State of Florida and her Master and Doctorate degrees in Psychology (Cognitive Neuroscience), with minors in Marine Biology, from the University of South Florida. She has more than 20 years of scientific research and management experience. She has an extensive marine sciences background and has studied both captive and free-ranging marine animals, with a particular focus on manatee sensory biology and animal training, and considerable cetacean and sea turtle stranding and care experience. She also has considerable experience with establishing and managing informal education programs, intern and volunteer programs, and grant writing.

Candice Dorsey, Ph.D., Vice President of Animal Programs

Dr. Candice Dorsey joined AZA in September 2008 and is responsible for overseeing AZA’s cooperatively managed Animal Programs, and advising and supporting the Program Leaders and participants of Taxon Advisory Groups, Species Survival Plans® and Studbooks. Candice works closely with the AZA Population and Reproductive Management Centers, the Wildlife Conservation and Management and Animal Welfare Committees, and several Scientific Advisory Groups. She collaborates with other regional zoological associations and serves as a Vice Chair to the WAZA Committee on Population Management, which oversees Global Species Management Plans.  Candice also acts as AZA's Conservation Grants Fund (CGF) Science Director, and serves as a scientific liaison to other AZA departments and their programs.

Candice earned her BA in biology from St. Mary's College of Maryland and received her MS in Conservation Biology from American University. She has over 15 years of wildlife research experience including investigating developmental stability of the Florida manatee, Western lowland gorilla behavior, population genetics of the black footed ferret, and giant panda foraging, and was a geneticist/technician for the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum's Department of Systematic Biology. Candice received her Doctorate in Environmental Science and Public Policy through a joint program between George Mason University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (then the Conservation and Research Center) and is an appointed Smithsonian Research Associate.  Her Ph.D. research focused on black rhino health and reproductive endocrinology.

Joel Merriman, M.S., Director of Conservation Planning

Joel Merriman joined AZA in 2014 as part of the initiation team for SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction.  Joel is responsible for conservation planning for five SAFE Signature Species:  African penguin, Asian elephant, black rhinoceros, cheetah and Western pond turtle.  He works closely with stakeholders to develop detailed plans to address key conservation challenges for each species and facilitates AZA member-led project implementation.

Joel earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science from Purdue University and a master’s in wildlife management from Texas Tech University.  His master’s thesis was focused on associations between grassland raptors and black-tailed prairie dogs.  He then moved to Seattle, where he worked for almost a decade as an ecological consultant.  This work included wildlife survey and management, environmental aspects of land use planning, wetland studies and ecological restoration.  Joel then dedicated an additional year of study to tropical ecology, conservation and protected area management at James Cook University in Australia before moving to Washington, D.C.

Shelly Grow, M.S., Director of Conservation Programs

As Director of Conservation Programs at AZA, Shelly promotes and supports AZA member participation in conservation. Shelly works closely Animal Programs, Committees, AZA members, and partner organizations.

Shelly manages the grants program under the Conservation Grants Fund; the field conservation, research, and green (sustainable) practices surveys related to the Annual Report on Conservation and Science; and AZA’s citizen science program, FrogWatch USA. Shelly has been active on amphibian conservation issues and currently serves on the Joint National Steering Committee for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. She was the program coordinator for the Butterfly Conservation Initiative at AZA from 2003-2007.

Shelly received a B.A. in cross-cultural environmental studies from Grinnell College and an M.S. in sustainable development and conservation biology from the University of Maryland – College Park. Prior to working at AZA, Shelly worked on organic and sustainable agriculture research and policy with the US Department of Agriculture and the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agriculture and the Environment at Winrock International.         

Sandra Elvin, Ph.D., Director of Conservation Planning

Dr. Sandra Elvin joined AZA in July 2014 and is responsible for conservation planning for AZA’s conservation initiative, Saving Animals From Extinction. She works closely with AZA members, partners, and stakeholders to develop species-specific SAFE Conservation Action Plans. 

Sandra earned her doctorate degree in environmental studies from York University, Toronto, Ontario, where her dissertation focused on mitigation criteria used to offset industrial effects on the black bear population of Labrador. She received her master’s degree in marine management from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her thesis focused on policy changes to reduce vessel strikes on the North Atlantic right whale. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, where she focused her thesis on the behavior of the Carib grackle of Barbados.

Sandra was an Expedition Leader for wildlife and natural history trips around the world. She has more than 8 years experience guiding various trips including snow leopards in Mongolia, beluga whales and polar bears in northern Canada, and panda bears and Asiatic black bears in China. She has also worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the Large Marine Ecosystem Coordinator before joining AZA.

Rebecca Greenberg, Conservation & Science Coordinator

Rebecca joined AZA’s Conservation & Science Department in October 2011. She assists with the administration of AZA’s Animal Programs, including Taxon Advisory Groups, Regional Collection Plans, Species Survival Plans, Studbooks, and Animal Care Manuals. Other responsibilities include preparing and editing reports for publication and maintaining departmental databases and records. She works closely with the Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee and corresponds with AZA members as well as the general public.

Rebecca has a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from the University of Georgia where she focused on animal behavior studies. She conducted original field research in Brazil on wild capuchin monkey tool-use and published her study in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Since graduation, Rebecca has volunteered, interned, and worked in the zoological and aquarium community. At Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium Rebecca gained experience in marine animal care, training, and conservation research, specifically working with sea turtles, nurse sharks, and manatees. Rebecca worked with Guest Programs at the Georgia Aquarium leading overnight sleepovers, behind-the-scenes tours, and assisting guests and staff during special events. She was also a husbandry volunteer with the marine mammals and penguins at the Georgia Aquarium. At Zoo Atlanta, Rebecca volunteered with the Enrichment Team where she supported zookeepers in preparing environmental enrichment for primates and other animals. She is also a former AZA Conservation & Science intern.

Arslan Ahmad, Program Assistant, Conservation & Science

Arslan joined AZA's Conservation & Science department in July 2014, and was previously one of the Conservation and Science interns for the Summer 2013 session. He provides administrative support to a number of AZA's conservation initiatives and programs, including FrogWatch USA, the Conservation Grants Fund, and the Annual Report on Conservation and Science. Before working at AZA, Arslan was employed at the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, where he helped organize and coordinate over 150 field trips to Wisconsin's state natural areas, state wildlife areas, and state parks. He has also interned at SeaWeb, a non-profit organization dedicated to ocean conservation, and has written two articles for the Endangered Species Coalition's "Stop Extinction" blog.

Arslan graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology and Biological Aspects of Conservation, along with a Certificate in Environmental Studies. His interests and coursework were geared towards ethology, anthrozoology, wildlife conservation, and animal welfare. During his time in Madison, he was also a member of the UW's Undergraduate Zoological Society. He volunteered on occasion at Madison's accredited Henry Vilas Zoo, as well as at the Feathered Friends bird sanctuary and rescue in Edgerton, WI.

Government Affairs

Steve Olson, M.S., Vice President, Federal Relations

Steve became Director of Government Affairs in March 2000. The Government Affairs Department represents the interests of AZA before Congress and Federal agencies. The Department monitors Federal legislation and regulations, analyzes the impact of bills and regulations on AZA members and develops position recommendations with the Government Affairs Committee and the AZA Board of Directors, supplies information on legislation and regulations to its member institutions, and works with government officials on developing effective Federal legislation, regulations and partnerships.

Steve received his B.S. and M.S. in Wildlife Management from Colorado State University. In 1987, Steve began work for the U.S. House of Representatives' Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Steve has also worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the project manager for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the National Coastal Resources Institute as its executive director.

Jennifer Keaton, M.A., Vice President, Congressional Affairs

Before joining the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as Vice President of Congressional Affairs, Jennifer Keaton was Legislative Director for Representative Mary Jo Kilroy (OH-15) where she supervised the legislative staff and handled issues including appropriations, health care, transportation, and foreign affairs.

From January 2001 through June 2009 Ms. Keaton worked for Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-14) in several capacities including Senior Legislative Assistant and Acting Legislative Director. During her time in Representative Maloney’s office Ms. Keaton worked on several initiatives that were signed into law including “The Debbie Smith Act,” which addressed the backlog in processing DNA evidence. She also served as the Congresswoman’s staffer for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and served as the principal staffer for the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, the Human Trafficking Caucus, and the Americans Abroad Caucus.

Ms. Keaton’s government career began in 2000 when she was hired by Representative Ron Klink (PA-04) as a Legislative Aide.

Ms. Keaton received her undergraduate degrees in Political Science and International Service and her Masters Degree in International Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C. She is a native of Pittsburgh, PA.

Ashley Zielinski, Program Specialist, All-Hazards Response Center

Ashley joined AZA in February of 2015 as the Program Specialist for the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response, and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center,  a USDA-funded initiative created to serve as a conduit between the emergency management sector and the greater managed wildlife community.  Her primary responsibilities include serving as a contact for members of the larger managed wildlife community, state and federal partners,  supporting initiatives such as Secure Zoo and Zoo Ready, and managing the ZAHP Fusion Center website. 

Ashley has a B.A. in International Studies from American University, with a concentration in Environmental Policy and Development.

Member Services

Melissa Howerton, Vice President, Conferences and Membership

Melissa joined AZA in 2008 and manages AZA's conferences, membership, and database operations. She develops general session programming, attendee marketing efforts, and overall strategic planning for AZA's conferences and meetings. She oversees the membership and database operations for the Association, including all recruitment, retention, and engagement efforts. She serves as the staff liaison to the AZA Membership Committee.

Previous to AZA, Melissa worked for 8 years at the Newspaper Association of America managing meetings, membership recruitment and retention, and committee liaison work. Melissa has a B.A. in Communications from George Mason University and currently resides in Maryland with her husband, Mike and son, Cole.

Jeff Dow, Director, Sales and Marketing

Jeff joined AZA in January 2014 and is responsible for developing and managing national marketing partnerships. Jeff also serves as a staff liaison to the Marketing Committee. Jeff has over 10 years experience in marketing and events and has spent previous stints with National Aquarium, National Geographic Society and the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers of the NHL. Jeff is originally from Wisconsin and currently lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin with his wife, two kids, three cats, one dog, three fish and one bearded dragon.

Jessica Puchala, Director, Digital Media

Jessica Puchala joined AZA in September 2016 to oversee AZA’s digital media presence including web, social, and new digital initiatives. She is an award winning digital strategist and former journalist.

Jessica has a B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.

Amy Rutherford, M.A.T., Director, Professional Development & Public Engagement

Amy joined AZA in 2011 as the Professional Development Program Manager, responsible for the development and management of AZA Professional Development Program. As director, she now oversees this program, the Executive Leadership Development Program, as well as AZA’s education initiatives and partnerships including Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium, the education programs database, AZA’s role in the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI), and the visitor education efforts for AZA SAFE. Amy is a staff liaison to the Professional Development Committee, Conservation Education Committee, and Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group. Prior to joining AZA, Amy was an education specialist at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Amy earned a B.A. in history with a minor in news, media, and society from the University of Southern California and a M.A.T. in museum education from George Washington University.

Ashley Wynne-James, Program Coordinator, Professional Development and Public Engagement 

Ashley joined AZA in 2016 in the new position of Professional Development and Public Engagement Coordinator. In this role, she is responsible for the management of the Professional Development program which includes 17 in-person courses hosted by AZA member institutions across the country. In addition, Ashley coordinates the AZA Scholarship Program, AZA Certificate program, and e-learning modules. She also serves as Staff Liaison to the Professional Development Committee. 

Ashley is a native New Yorker and holds a B.A. in Environmental Geography and Social Sciences: Global Environmental Security from Colgate University. Before her work with AZA, Ashley was a Volunteer Program Coordinator with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation on the Stewardship Team. She also interned as a Conservation Education Coordinator at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. Ashley currently resides in Silver Spring, MD. 

Tim Lewthwaite, M.A., Director of Publications and Brand

Tim joined AZA as Publications and Branding Manager in September of 2004. He is responsible for producing AZA's Connect magazine and insures that Association’s style guide is used across all AZA print and electronic publications. Tim produces Insight, the monthly e-newsletter to AZA’s membership and is in charge of all graphics and branding for the Association. Tim also guest blogs for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild View blog (http://blog.wcs.org/photo/author/tlewthwaite/).

Prior to joining AZA, Tim was Director of Communications for Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Md., where he produced the alumni magazine and managed the school's Web site. He has also worked as a freelance writer and editor and has been published in Presstime, the Newspaper Association of America's magazine, Equus, a leading equestrian magazine and African Voices, a literary magazine based in New York.

Tim has a master's degree in professional writing from Towson University.

Barb Skewes, Director, Member Information Services 

Barb joined AZA in 2009.  She manages the AZA database and administers the membership recruitment and retention efforts. Previous to AZA, Barb was the Membership Director at the American Physical Therapy Association.  She has a degree in Education.

Gina Velosky, M.B.A., Director, Business Development and Marketing

Gina joined AZA in 2013. Her primary focus is delivering valuable benefits to the Commercial Member category and developing sales and marketing strategies for AZA conferences, Commercial membership, and advertising across all channels. She also serves as a staff liaison to the Business Operations Committee, and the Membership Committee. 

Gina is a New Hampshire native with more than a decade of experience in integrative and strategic marketing and communications for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Coming to AZA from the world of haute cuisine, Gina served on the marketing team for a Swiss Imports company that supports some of the best pastry chefs in the world. She traveled extensively throughout Europe working with their team of research and development chefs and food scientists branding and marketing new lines of delicious products. Gina holds a BA in Political Science and Government Affairs from the University of New Hampshire, and a master's degree in Business with a focus in Strategic Marketing and Analysis from Mount Saint Mary’s University in northern Maryland. She shares a deep love of all animals and her personal passion is volunteering with dog and parrot rescue efforts. She resides in Maryland with her husband, two rescued conures and their chihuahua, Sophie, who runs the show.     .

Cheryl Wallen, B.B.A., Director of Conferences

Cheryl joined AZA in January 2007. She is responsible for all the logistical aspects of the Annual Conference and Mid-Year Meeting, including registration, hotel arrangements, speaker and program management, conference webpages, and meeting schedules. She also works closely with the Conference Committee in developing programming for the Annual Conference.

Cheryl graduated from James Madison University with a B.B.A. in Hospitality and Tourism Management and a concentration in Special Events and Meeting Planning. Prior to joining AZA, Cheryl completed an internship with a corporate concierge company in Fairfax, Virginia.

Jacquelyn Wright, Program Assistant, Membership Services

Jacquelyn joined the AZA in 2013, and serves as a main point of contact for AZA members and provides administrative support. She is a native of Richmond, Virginia and received her bachelor’s degree in Humanities, Science and the Environment from Virginia Tech.

Prior to joining the AZA team, Jacquelyn was an intern for Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Program, a youth-led community action and learning program as well as a Member Advocate for Interfolio, an online credential management service. Jacquelyn currently resides in Arlington, Virginia.


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