Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference 2017

Last week the Association of Zoos and Aquariums held its annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The conference draws around 2,800 attendees from a diverse group of institutions and organizations around the world.  The Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature team was able to send representation and take part in the poster presentations.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was originally founded in 1924 as the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, later changing its name to the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums and eventually selecting its current moniker.  The founding officers included  Chairman C. Emerson Brown from the Philadelphia Zoological Park, Vice Chairman Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth of the San Diego Zoological Society, and Secretary Will O. Doolittle.  The original directors were Edward H. Bean of the Milwaukee Zoological Park and George P. Vierheller of the Saint Louis Zoological Garden.  Chairman C. Emerson Brown’s publication “A pocket list of the mammals of eastern Massachusetts…” can even be found in BHL here.

As a non-profit the AZA is “dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.”  The organization represents over 230 different institutions within the United States and around the world.  The AZA and their institutions have a strong commitment to animal welfare and conservation which is seen through the millions of dollars they commit to scientific research, conservation and educational programing.

Besides supporting these areas they are also an independent accrediting organization.  With some of the highest and most comprehensive standards, not even 10% of the United States’ 2,800 licensed wildlife exhibitors meet the top standards held by AZA.  Every year AZA accredited institutions allocate $160 million on field conservation around the world- over 2,600 projects worked on by specialists in the field.  The AZA itself has provided a cumulative seven million dollars on over 375 projects in conservation.  Every year 40,000 teachers are trained at AZA accredited facilities, which lend support to state science curricula.  Overall, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ pledge to the natural world furthers the fields of animal welfare and conservation and trains new generations to save the biodiversity.

The conference began on Friday with committee meetings and the pre-conference tour.  On Saturday and Sunday, small session meetings and workshops were held.  Sunday evening an icebreaker was held at the Indiana State Museum ahead of the conference kickoff at the Opening General Session on Monday morning.  Below learn more about a sampling of the meetings, panels, and events that were attended by EABL.

Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center (CELC) Meeting

The Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center, a network of 25 aquariums and marine science education centers located in the United States, Canada and Mexico, was originally foundedin 1996 by Coastal America.  With strong support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the consortium works to involve the public in protecting coastal and marine ecosystems. One of the major topics at the meeting was aquaculture- cultivating aquatic animals or plants for food.  Not to be left behind the curve, BHL already holds a number of titleson the subject. Do you have any thoughts or feelings on aquaculture?  Let us know in the comment section!

California Association of Zoos and Aquariums

The California Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) is a way to bring together all of those involved in AZA accredited zoos and aquariums in the California area.  California currently maintains more accredited zoos than any other state- twenty-three.  CAZA is dedicated to monitoring the local legislation that would affect the welfare and conservation of the natural world.

Icebreaker at the Indiana State Museum

Sunday evening the Indiana State Museum hosted a social event that allowed those in the zoo and aquarium field to catch up and enjoy Indiana history.  The museum, located along the Indiana Central Canal built in the 1800s, offered spectacular views of the city and even attracted the Indianapolis Colts’ mascot, Blue to join in the fun.

Opening General Session

The conference kicked off Monday morning with the opening session.  Dennis Kelly, Chair of the AZA Board of Directors and the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, welcomed attendees to the annual conference and introduced Mike Crowther, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo who hosted this year’s conference.  He prepared attendees for the Indianapolis Zoo Day by throwing stuffed toy macaws into the audience to preface the zoo’s Magnificent Macaw exhibit which allows the birds to fly a half mile across the zoo and back  multiple times a day.

The Opening General Session also included speeches by Dr. Carl Jones and Wayne Pacelle.  Dr. Carl Jones, winner of the 2016 Indianapolis Prize, is known around the world for his championing work in saving a number of different species that were on the brink of extinction: the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet and the Mauritius kestrel.  Dr. Jones noted that zoos have the answer to saving species and urged attendees to think of zoos as arks and be creative in animal management.  He recalled many instances where other scientists recommended saving species that were not high risk, but maintained his commitment to high-risk species.  His commitment paid off when he restored a species (the Mauritius kestrel) of four to four hundred over the course of a decade.  Dr. Jones noted “it is not hard to save a species, but it takes time” and “we should not tolerate any future extinctions.”  Through his experiences as a world-class conservationist, he challenged the idea that focusing on entire ecosystems was the only way to save a species.  Instead, he found that working with particular species saves entire systems and that it is not about preservation, but looking forward and thinking about the future.

Wayne Pacelle is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS.)  In the position since 2004, Pacelle has helped the HSUS grow and pursue its goal of being the largest animal care and advocacy organization in the nation.  Since the start of his tenure, Pacelle has overseen the passing of over 1,100 state animal protection laws and over 100 federal statutes.  Before Pacelle took the stage, attendees were urged to remember that diversity made us stronger and that this was even true of diverse and differing opinions.  Pacelle lauded the work AZA zoos have been doing in the areas of animal welfare and conservation and highlighted the work the HSUS is doing in animal protection.

Nature of Americans

“The Future of Wildlife Depends on the Connections we Make Today and the ‘Nature of Americans'” was one of the first panels. The speakers- Claire Martin from the Disney Conservation Fund, Dr. Daniel Escher of DJ Case & Associates, and Monica Lopez Magee of the Children and Nature Network – presented a study done between 2015 and 2016 in response to the growing amount of time spent inside and on electronic media.  The major mission of the talks was to discuss what people think about nature and how do those in the field turn that into action.

Dr. Escher, a social scientist, talked about the Nature of Americans study (available at   Some of the key findings were that people like zoos and aquariums, the vast majority of children and adults like visiting zoos and aquariums, interest in nature is high across household incomes, and interest in nature is high and stable across educational levels.  Another major takeaway was that nature is social.  Most of the interviewed returned responses that showed people were more likely to experience nature in social groups rather than alone.

Magee went over some of the examples of using the data found in the study to connect with the community.  The first was “Nature in the City.” The Tracy Aviary in Utah brought nature to the community.  They attempted to go mobile and do activities outside of their institution. However, the initial attempt was not enough.  They eventually found that collaborating with local libraries and using them as a community hub and audience was very successful.

Another example presented was at the Houston Zoo.  They had a Zoo Sprouts program that had always been indoors. In order to get more engagement with the users they just moved the program outdoors. They found that this caused the children to be more inclined to meet and touch the animals and to explore their surroundings. The idea that nature is messy and unexpected things happen within it versus technology, which can be more stagnant, were shown by both the study and the case studies to be the reason children were drawn to it.

Overall, this panel focused on explaining the study and examples of using nature in education and outreach in order to give those in the zoo and aquarium field ideas of how to use these findings in their own institutions whether in activities or even in branding.

Why Save a Species?

The “Why Save a Species” panel brought together five different international conservation projects that highlighted regional species and animal reintroductions. The presentations focused on lessons on wildlife management, human-animal interactions and public interaction, working with international colleagues and working with stakeholders to aid in saving species from extinction.

Dr. Melissa Songer gave the first presentation from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and National Zoo. It centered on restoring the Przewalksi’s horse to the wild in the Kalameili Nature Reserve located in Xinjiang, China. The Przewalksi’s horse was extinct in the wild in the 1960s with the only living animals being in Western zoos.  Within these zoos, and with careful genetic management, the population grew from 14 founders into 1,900 horses who lived in captivity.  Reintroduction efforts began, and they are no longer nearing extinction.

This particular presentation was on the reintroduction efforts in Mongolia. Because of the harsh winters, they turned the project into a semi-release of the horses. The project members reached out to the locals to see if they were interested in the project and found that the locals were worried about how the release program would affect local pastures for the cattle and therefore affect the locals’ livelihood. Dr. Songer noted that one of the challenges was balancing the goals of the different stakeholders.

Carlos Galvis of the Zoologico de Cali in Columbia presented on the Golden Poison Frog. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zurich Zoo provided funding to help conserve the species in Colombia.  Through this research, they found that the range of distribution of the frogs was much larger than originally thought.  They are now working to use this new distribution of the species to conduct field studies and help determine if reintroduction is necessary.

Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation of the PanEco Foundation and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program talked about their work in reintroducing the orangutans to their native Indonesia. Through Dr. Singleton’s work, two genetically viable and self-sustaining wild populations have been established. Their goal is to release 350 orangutans at each of their sites.  So far 170 orangutans have been released in Jambi and 99 have been released in Jantho. They have been attempting to tackle the demand for wildlife in the illegal trade through education of the locals, finding that some of those involved just needed to be told that it was detrimental to the population of the orangutans.

Dr. Amy Dickman, director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, highlighted the struggle between humans and carnivores in the area.  The Barabaig people have long had a tradition of killing African lions. Dr. Dickman’s team wanted to determine why they were killing the lions and other large carnivores which would contribute to eventual extinction of species. After many failed attempts at making contact with the tribe, they found that the people had started using the solar charging station to charge their mobile phones. Eventually they were able to create an understanding and trust with the community.

She found that there were four major reasons why the carnivores were being hunted: deprecation of cattle, absence of benefit from their presence, rewards to warriors for the killing of the animals, and lack of motivation to care about the animals. To solve the first issue, they helped to build safe areas for their cattle and crops. They then started a point system that rewarded the community members for capturing images of the local wildlife.  The points could be exchanged for something they wanted- healthcare and other benefits. They also started a warrior school in order to allow people in the community to still gain notoriety.  The school provided these ‘warriors’ with educational benefits. Thanks to Dr. Dickman and her team they were able to change an entire community’s understanding of nature.

John Newby, CEO of the Sahara Conservation Fund, talked about another species who has been extinct in the wild since the 1980s- the scimitar-horned oryx. The last surviving oryx was killed inside a game reserve in Chad.  In 2008 the Sahara Conservation Fund started its project to reintroduce oryx into their natural habitat. The first fully wild calves have already been born- there are currently 90 in the wild breeding and 23 offspring.  The Fund’s goal is to have 500 breeding animals that are secure and free-ranging. Newby stressed that the zoo community played a major role in helping stop the extinction of the oryx and that the captive population was imperative for reintroducing the species.

Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, closed out the panel.  He noted zoos and aquariums need to continue to fight for every creature.  This includes the flagship or more well-known animals as well as the lesser known species and even the unknown species that have yet to be discovered.  It is also imperative to ignite visitors- engaging and inspiring the next generation to protect wildlife. Some of the overall takeaways were that while donors may want to give a large amount of money in a short time, budgets for conservation efforts need to be able to adapt and change without being specifically allocated. Each of the presentations mentioned the local communities, and it is important to note that they cannot sustain these conservation efforts.  Therefore, it is imperative that international supporters step up.  Since these conservation efforts take time, donor fatigue happens and those involved should be prepared to get creative with providing results and finding new sponsors.

Poster Reception

The Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature poster was titled “ZooLiterature Online” and reflected the work the grant had done in the area of zoo and aquarium literature.  Since AZA was a relatively new area for BHL, a portion of the poster was general information about BHL highlighting some of the different ways content could be used and analyzed. The poster also highlighted the Expanding Access project, its goals, grant team institutions, accomplishments and zoo and aquariums contributors and titles in BHL, many added as part of EABL. The poster was well received and introduced many AZA conference attendees to BHL.

Explore the zoological titles highlighted in the EABL poster in BHL here:

Communities Come Together Over Gardens: Using Horticulture to Connect with Our Neighbors

The focus of most of the AZA panels was, logically, zoos and aquariums.  However, one of the final panel options centered around botanical gardens in zoos. The panel began with a look back at horticulture in zoos. Fifty years ago, it involved trimming hedges around the property. Forty years ago, zoos moved towards hiring horticulturists to create convincing habitats. Moving to thirty years ago, some zoos started becoming botanical gardens as well. It was just twenty years ago that zoos and aquariums became more interested in plant conservation as an added component to their missions.

Presenting at the panel was Steve Foltz, Director of Horticulture at the Cincinatti Zoo and Botanical Garden; Paul Bouseman, Botanical Curator at the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden; Bob Chabot, former Director of Horticulture at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and current Chief of Staff at Zoo New England; and Christine Nye, Horticultural Programs Manager at the John G. Shedd Aquarium.

Each presenter highlighted the work their zoos and aquariums did both within their institution and in their community in the area of horticulture. The Cincinnati Zoo worked to build bridges in their community by planting trees in areas of the town that were affected by tornadoes or in communities in need of transformation. They worked with master gardeners, Proctor and Gamble, and the Cincinnati Reds to help renew the community and change the way the community looks at the zoo.

The Shedd Aquarium uses the spaces around its exhibit as a free public garden space and created volunteer and education programs around it.

The Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden uses horticulture to attract people with the power of plants. Mesker’s local community comes in and volunteers and they gain a better connection with the zoo.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Garden partnered with a number of different local organizations and even a high school. Chabot and the zoo worked to create gardens in a number of locations and used the local arts high school- Douglas Anderson School of the Arts- to record sounds for the Butterfly Hollow exhibit.

Zoo Day at the Indianapolis Zoo

The final event of the AZA Annual Conference was Zoo Day.  The day included full access to the rides and attractions- including the carousel, train ride, skyline, 4D theatre, Kombo Family Coaster, and Race-A-Cheetah. They also set up a number of different chats, demos, feedings and presentations throughout the afternoon and evening.  Between the hosted lunch, happy hour, dinner, and dancing AZA attendees were able to take advantage of a number of different Behind-the-Scenes Open-Houses that allowed those from other zoos and aquariums to get a better understanding of the operations and animal care at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Also attended were Public Perceptions of Zoos and Aquariums in a Changing World, Classic Continuing Conservation, What’s New in Exhibit Design?, and Cognitive Tasks for Great Apes: Promoting Conservation, Research, Education and Animal Wellness.

Moving forward, the Expanding Access team and the Biodiversity Heritage Library hope to maintain our current relationships with Zoo and Aquarium institutions and publishers.

Are you part of a zoo or aquarium and interested in what you can do to get involved? Here’s some tips on what you can do!

  1. Use BHL!
  2. Consider adding your publications to BHL.
  3. If you have legacy literature you want scanned from your library or archive, email us!
  4. Suggest titles you would like to see in BHL and we will do our best to include them.

For any of these suggestions please email use our Feedback form here.  You can also check out our poster presentation in PDF format here.

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Mariah Lewis is a Metadata Specialist at The New York Botanical Garden as part of the BHL Expanding Access project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.