Former USFWS Director Dan Ashe Discusses Wildlife Conservation & Animal Welfare Programs as the New CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)

Former USFWS Director Dan Ashe Shares Perspectives on Wildlife Conservation & Animal Welfare as CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)
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Dan Ashe (President & CEO, AZA)

Dan Ashe (President & CEO, AZA)

Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)

The 2016 selection of former Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Dan Ashe as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was exciting for many executives at the helm of accredited zoological parks in North America and worldwide for several reasons.

The appointment of perhaps the highest ranking wildlife biologist in the United States to the post in charge of wildlife in human care was an obvious choice to many zoo and aquarium professionals and a poignant reminder of AZA’s commitment to wildlife conservation. But the significance of the selection may not have resonated as widely or strongly within the public sector. Connections between zoos and field-based programs, including restoration efforts, which are often largely administered under the auspices of zoos and aquariums themselves, are frequently under-recognized and under-appreciated, even among avid zoogoers.

As conservation breeding centers, zoos and aquariums are at the forefront of sorta situ wildlife conservation, while also entrusted with the welfare of imperiled wildlife populations, including critically endangered flagship species. ‘Sorta situ’ refers to a progressive, integrated and intensive effort to conserve and manage wildlife. In essence, it is a hybrid approach to species preservation comprised of ‘ex situ’ (in human care) and ‘in situ’ (in the wild) populations and science-based practices used to protect and conserve them. While we’d like to think free-ranging populations do not require intervention in the way of assisted sustainable management practices, wild populations increasingly require help from managers serving protected areas.

"Dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation." -Excerpted from AZA Mission Statement

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums represents more than 230 facilities in the US and internationally and caters to more than 186 million visitors a year. AZA not only supports the interests of its institutional members, but professional members in management positions, aspiring managers and those beginning their careers in zoos.

The organization also serves as the accrediting body for zoological facilities primarily in North America. On behalf of its members, the association directly and indirectly interfaces with government agencies and non-governmental organizations to promote sustainable species management practices. As a priority, it is committed to the best animal management practices for wildlife cared for by its member facilities. This requires a dedication to evidence-based animal health and welfare programs.

To some, the selection of a top wildlife official in charge of protected areas may be an unusual choice to head up an international zoo and aquarium association, but as the former chief of the USFWS, Ashe was heavily involved in many programs that involved collaborative efforts with wildlife agencies and international environmental organizations, as well as AZA member institutions. Balancing these initiatives is quite complex and may explain why the AZA Board of Directors recruited such a seasoned scientist, manager and leader.

Restoring wildlife to wild places may not be on the radar of every recreational zoo visitor, but to many within the profession, safeguarding wildlife remains the priority objective of the modern-day zoo.

Momentous multi-agency propagation and/or restoration efforts for imperiled species are widely shared in popular science publications. Here are just a few examples that I have reported on myself in recent years, including a selection of recovery programs coordinated by AZA and EAZA members:

giant salamander Smithsonian National Zoo... (NGS) | hellbender Saint Louis Zoo... (NGS)

black-footed ferret Cheyenne Mountain Zoo... (NGS) | Arabian oryx Phoenix Zoo... (NGS)

Chiricahua leopard frog Phoenix Zoo.... (NGS) | okapi IUCN feature’... (HuffPost)

Mexican wolf Brookfield Zoo / Saint Louis Zoo... (NGS) | wisent EAZA feature... (NGS)

wood bison Support from Bronx Zoo-based WCS / American Bison Society... (NGS)

During my tenure with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we welcomed a visit from then-USFWS Director Ashe to celebrate the historic release and repatriation of the largest terrestrial animal in the Western Hemisphere — the wood bison.

Dan Ashe has been intimately familiar with agency programs that involve the participation of zoos during his lengthy career at the USFWS. He was a long-time proponent of zoo programs nationwide and overseas prior to assuming duties last January as the new chief executive of the AZA.

In this interview, the distinguished wildlife biologist and former public official reflects on his first eight months at the helm of this prominent zoo association and wildlife conservation organization.

A Conversation with Dan Ashe" (July 2017 Interview from AZA website

Interview with Dan Ashe (August 2017)

Jordan Schaul: Thanks for agreeing to participate in this discussion concerning your new role. After an illustrious career as a government agency biologist and ultimately director of the USFWS, how would you describe the "corporate culture" of AZA and the zoo profession compared to agency culture. I imagine there are quite a few similarities and differences. Included among similarities is a diverse personnel-base. In the case of AZA, there may be the impression that you indirectly oversee zoo employees at AZA-accredited facilities. How would you describe your role?

Dan Ashe: Hi, Jordan, and good to talk with you. Amazingly, the corporate cultures are very similar. Both are highly educated, science-driven and professional. Both are tight-knit cultures, where everybody seems to know everybody. Both are mission-driven and service-oriented. They are both made up of people who love animals.

In the USFWS, of course, I had direct responsibility and oversight of all 10,000 employees. But it’s a famously decentralized organization, which places value on driving discretion and decisions to the lowest possible level. So, it’s not a place or culture that readily accepts control from Washington, DC. And, as in any job, I had a boss – the Interior Secretary – and many others who thought they were my boss, and in some respects they were: Assistant Secretaries; OMB Directors; Congressional Committee Chairs; Governors; etc. That’s a long way of saying, being an effective Director is really more about being a servant leader.

As AZA President and CEO, I’m definitely in a leadership position within this community, but aquarium and zoo employees do not work for me. Because aquariums and zoos must be accredited in order to be members, they are, in a sense accountable, but they don’t take direction from AZA, and certainly not from me. I have a board to which I’m directly accountable, and over 230 members whose dues pay my salary and that of all AZA employees. And because AZA represents and serves a broad membership, I guess I’m indirectly responsible for the well-being of all of AZA’s member employees. So, as in the USFWS, effective leadership is really more about being a good servant leader. And I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with, and good at it, over a 35-year career.

Jordan: What achievements would you highlight regarding your history working with zoos from your government posts both with regard to domestic programs and international efforts to conserve exotic and native species. I suspect that most people would be surprised at the number of programs that involved the coordination of activities with AZA and its member institutions.

Dan: I’ve had a 35-year career in conservation: 13 years working in the U.S. House of Representatives; 22 years with the USFWS, including nearly six years as Director; and now, seven months with AZA. I’ve known and worked with AZA and its member facilities for nearly that entire span. I worked with Sid Butler and Kris Vehrs back in the 1980s, when I worked on the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. AZA was a driving force during the last reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In the USFWS, the examples of cooperation are too numerous to mention but include California condor and black-footed ferret. I can say, unequivocally, condors and ferrets would be extinct today if not for the expertise and dedication of AZA members. San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, Oregon Zoo and others with condor. Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, El Paso Zoo, Denver Zoo and many others on ferrets. Mexican wolf, red wolf, Florida panther, hellbender, burying beetles, Hawaiian birds, and other species too numerous to mention have all been helped tremendously by the efforts of AZA member zoos.

On the marine side, AZA member aquariums have been huge partners. SeaWorld has been an invaluable partner on sea turtles and manatees. Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Alaska SeaLife Center have been leaders in sea otter recovery. Sturgeon, alligator gar, river herring, sharks, and dozens of other species have all benefitted from the expertise and dedication of AZA member aquariums.

And internationally, of course, AZA members have been leaders. The two best examples are the successful efforts to protect shark species under Appendix II of the CITES Convention, and the efforts to halt domestic and international trade in elephant ivory. In the latter case, the now famous 96 Elephants campaign, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, and joined by 127 AZA members, was instrumental in gaining support for the USFWS regulations banning domestic sale of ivory. And AZA and its members helped to capture world attention and change world opinion as we have crushed U.S. ivory contraband.

I can’t say enough about the crucial role AZA members have played in conserving wildlife and saving species from extinction. And the story will only get better with time. With our Saving Animals from Extinction or SAFE program, our members will be investing more than $2.5 billion into field conservation and leveraging another $2.5 billion in partner contributions over the next decade. That’s why I’m so excited to be leading this organization at this key juncture, as we prepare to battle against a sixth mass extinction.

Jordan: What is the role of AZA? For example, should it both support and advocate for its members and how does the Association currently interface with institutional members and in the future should it interface more or less with the public in any capacity?

Dan: I think our role is to be the best and most vocal advocate for the professional, accredited zoological community that we can. We work with our members on a daily basis to provide the services they need, while working to engage and inspire our visitors to help save species. But we’re not just a cheerleader. We have a role in helping define and shape the 21st Century zoo and aquarium. As our incoming chair, Jim Breheny, Director of the Bronx Zoo, says in the introduction to the Animal Planet television show, The Zoo, modern zoos are not just well-run menageries. They exist for a purpose -- to inform, inspire and engage the public, and to conserve animals in nature. As an accrediting body, AZA has a responsibility to help achieve this vision. The social license to hold and exhibit animals will continue to rise. Our members understand and accept that responsibility.

Jordan: During your tenure leading the federal wildlife resource and refuge agency, you indirectly managed what is now the Service’s International Affairs Program with a mission of coordinating "domestic and international efforts to protect, restore, and enhance the world’s diverse wildlife and their habitats with a focus on species of international concern." I think this is just one of many examples of why you are so poised to assume this role supporting and managing zoo and aquarium conservation initiatives and advancing the interests of accredited facilities. Do you agree that such experience is helpful to your current role?

Dan: Yes, I do. As we discussed previously, AZA and AZA members don’t need me to tell them how to do conservation, or how important it is for a modern aquarium or zoo to be a conservation organization. They have an inspiring history of accomplishment in saving species, and they have a global view and voice, participating in CITES and other international zoological associations. Saving species from extinction is becoming a global cooperative endeavor, both for range populations and for those in human care. I think international collaboration is only going to get stronger and become more necessary as we battle a sixth mass extinction. I think my experience in leading the world’s biggest and best wild life conservation agency can help AZA members become even better conservation organizations. We will be doing more, and even better conservation in the days, months and years ahead. We face great challenges, but that means we have great opportunities.

Jordan: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a long history of advancing the interests of its professional individual members through partnerships with academic institutions and its own curricula. Similarly, the Service has a professional development branch. How might you compare the two as they serve personnel and what might be in store for AZA in regard to future professional development initiatives for individual members?

Dan: Two visionary leaders in the USFWS – former Director John Turner and former employee Rick Lemon – gave the agency a great gift. They envisioned and built the National Conservation Training Center, in Shepherdstown, WV. NCTC is without equal in the conservation world and is a reflection of the value that the USFWS places on employee and professional development. AZA doesn’t have a facility like NCTC, and won’t, but I see the same organizational value in employee and professional development, from technical skills to human resources, to supervision, and to leadership.

AZA’s core strength is in its unique quality as a hybrid between trade association, accrediting body, and professional society. It represents and reflects its members. It sets, enforces, and constantly reviews and revises standards, which are the most comprehensive and rigorous in the business. And it serves the larger profession, offering benefits similar to a professional society, including an impressive and evolving curriculum in professional development.

Jordan: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums plays an integral role in facilitating the preservation of domestic and foreign species of conservation concern. Can you highlight some examples and perhaps new initiatives including collaborative efforts with other state and federal agencies involved in species restoration?

Dan: We spoke earlier about the long-standing and inspiring examples of how AZA members and partners have helped to save several species from near certain extinction, including black-footed ferret and California condor. These two species were, quite literally, rescued from extinction’s doorstep, and it would not have happened without AZA members’ contributions. That willingness to respond to conservation emergencies – when hope seems at its lowest and the risks are high – continues to this day.

Perhaps the best recent example is how the AZA community has rallied to help rescue to the vaquita porpoise, one of our SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction species. The vaquita is like the most endangered animal on the planet, with no more than 30 left in existence. Within a month of beginning my job as AZA President, we put out an urgent plea to our members to support the rescue effort. That effort is called Vaquita CPR and is being coordinated by a courageous group of conservation heroes and led by the National Marine Mammal Foundation. It includes participation by the US and Mexican government authorities, nonprofit organizations in the US and Mexico, experts from AZA member institutions (like Brookfield Zoo and Ocean Park). AZA members responded by contributing over $1.2 million, which helped to inspire a $3 million commitment from the Mexican government. With a good bit of luck, we’ll capture enough of the remaining vaquita to allow us to repeat the miracles worked with California condor and black-footed ferret.

Although not widely reported yet, we have new initiatives with USFWS and state agencies to support species recovery. One recent success was the very recent award by the USFWS of a Competitive State Wildlife Grant for Western Pond Turtle, another one of our SAFE species.


Jordan: To my knowledge, previous AZA directors were not formally trained as wildlife scientists in addition to being seasoned executive level managers and/or public officials, as you are. Does your background as a scientist influence the potential research capacity of the zoo association as a coordinating body or the direction you are inclined to take the association and its membership in terms of its science and conservation programs? Can you discuss how your background as a government scientist might facilitate advancing research programs in zoos and aquariums under the auspices of AZA members?

Dan: What I’ve learned, Jordan, is that AZA members are very, very engaged in research that is very applied and relevant to our community. As with conservation, they certainly don’t need me to tell how or what science to do, or help them to publish more – and I would certainly encourage them to do so! I’d hazard a guess that, cumulatively, our members employ more research scientists doing and publishing more peer-reviewed research than many conservation NGOs, including a wide diversity of topics such as animal care and welfare, and conservation and reproductive biology, and ecology. In fact, as a community, our members reported having more than 440 full-time researchers on staff in 2016 and published nearly 240 peer-reviewed papers last year alone. All of this contributes to what I’ve found to be a very collaborative community who want to make sure everyone has access to the most current science on how to take the best care possible of the animals live in their facilities and living in nature. We owe it to the animals to continue to improve and learn. I will do all I can to foster that spirit.

I do think I can help inspire our members to work together on bigger issues of scientific significance, and we are currently working on a multi-facility plan to drive research on polar bears, and help the USFWS and our international partners to save this incredible species from extinction. When AZA members come together, it creates enormous potential, and our staff and members have had some very productive and inspiring meetings with the USFWS. Look to hear more about this in the months ahead.

Jordan: AZA as a brand signifies an accreditation standard to zoo professionals but my premonition is that there is room for more brand awareness and recognition among the general public and zoo patrons in particular? How important is AZA brand clarity, awareness and recognition and is it priority for the organization to gain greater visibility or are you more concerned with your members advancing their individual institutional marketing and PR agendas?

Dan: I’ve been spending a lot of personal effort on this question since I joined AZA, and it’s certainly a key strategic question. I think the solution is a balance of both. AZA is working on implementing a national communications strategy to speak to those who are going to zoos and aquariums and taking their children, but they are perhaps not fully comfortable with what they see at aquariums and zoos. They are thinking and forming an opinion. We need to make sure they have an understanding that visiting an AZA-accredited facility means they are visiting the best of the best – the best providers of animal care and welfare, the best educational and family experiences, and a place and people who harbor a deep commitment to saving species. We need to tell that story better, joining with our members as they tell their individual stories. In the end, we want the public to know that visiting an AZA-accredited facility is, quite literally, an act of philanthropy. Their visit is directly and significantly supporting conservation of animals in nature. So, they can have a wonderful family experience, and help save the planet at the same time!

Jordan: AZA members demonstrate a strong commitment to species conservation education and relevant multi-institutional environmental conservation initiatives. Included, is this Conservation Planning Specialist Group (formerly Conservation Breeding Specialist Group-CBSG-SSC-IUCN) campaign under the auspices of Onnie Byers and this climate change awareness initiative undertaken by Woodland Park Zoo director Alejandro Grajal (formerly with Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo) and colleagues. AZA members are leading by example with their ‘green’ practices, as demonstrated by this Denver Zoo initiative.

Collectively, zoos and aquariums offer both formal and informal opportunities to engage the citizenry and specifically zoo patrons, as I mentioned in this HuffPost article a few years ago. I don't think people are as aware of USFWS curricula serving a similar purpose.

In addition, both organizations are proponents of citizen science. Do you see opportunities for public participation/engagement through AZA or its members' programs?

Dan: Absolutely. When delivering conservation education programs, AZA-accredited facilities raise awareness about conservation issues and promote actions visitors can take that help save wild life and wild places. In fact, our data shows that our members’ programs that focus on actions to address conservation issues reached 111 million people in 2016. And of course, we have been big promoters of citizen science. AZA manages a nationwide, highly visible program, FrogWatch USA, but our members are involved in an array of citizen science programs. Citizen science is also a great way to feature the expertise available in zoos and aquariums – we both employ and connect scientists and the general public, providing a bridge between these two communities that too often do not communicate.

Jordan: Federal and state agencies not only dictate regulatory standards for caring for threaten and endangered species, but they often have oversight over restoration programs, which they manage in cooperation with zoos and aquariums. At the USFWS, you essentially had oversight over regulatory permitting and compliance oversight and essentially managed the supervision of activities involving habitat management and mitigation monitoring. Is it feasible or appropriate for AZA to assert more influence than it currently does in these arenas. Would it facilitate or expedite AZA interests if zoo employees were more equipped in these areas to complement their field science programs?

Dan: I think people would be surprised at the extent that AZA members are already engaged in population monitoring. In fact, every year, “population biology/monitoring” is the most frequent activity associated with AZA member field conservation efforts. Zoo and aquarium staff are vested in any animals that are reintroduced, head-started and released, or translocated, making monitoring an obviously related activity. They are also in ideal situations to test the effectiveness of different monitoring and tracking technologies as they can sometimes test a technology and the behavior of an animal to the technology on-grounds before applying it to populations in the wild. They also engage visitors and communities in camera trapping initiatives, such as the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute’s Biodiversity Monitoring project.

Several AZA members have become active in habitat management, as well. For example, the Denver Zoo helps the USFWS to manage the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Mexico and oversees restoration efforts, education, and outreach activities, as well as some important research projects. And San Diego Zoo Global took over the management of Cocha Cashu Biological Field Station in Peru, in 2011.

Jordan: There is no question that zoological parks have been increasingly stigmatized in recent years through what our mutual colleague and esteemed former AZA executive and former CEO of The Wildlife Society Michael Hutchins refers to as “misplaced compassion.” Michael and I conducted a series of interviews for Nat Geo Voices, including this one on zoos. Can you speak to what is a seemingly common sentiment among certain factions of the public and how it can be addressed. Is it AZA's responsibility to lead such a campaign to combat propaganda from ‘activist’ communities?

Dan: I think we do have a duty to be the voice of the accredited zoo and aquarium community and as I mentioned earlier, we are taking steps to make that voice heard. Also, I think we have an obligation to listen to voices that we may not always agree. Stephen Covey once said, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” It is important we understand where all sides are coming from on issues important to our profession. By doing so, we’ll be better prepared to counter arguments and uncover alliances.

Jordan: A few months ago I responded to a critique of zoos, countering the claim that there is a paucity of restoration success stories credited to AZA facilities. A better metric of species conservation than raw numbers, might be a one of influence? A multitude of species in zoos, including some that have been successfully reintroduced to the wild are both flagship umbrella species and/or keystone species and their restoration has a profound influence on ecosystems and other less conspicuous species in peril. Not all species are created equal and a vast number of species managed in captivity are disproportionately deemed important.

Dan: As we’ve discussed, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have contributed significantly to wildlife conservation, and that contribution will continue expanding, with partner matching contributions, exceeding $5 billion over the next decade. Our members are leaders in animal care and welfare, and we will continue to expand our understanding of how to provide better and better well-being for animals in our care, and animals everywhere. They are involved in research about the animals’ ecology and why the populations are declining, such as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s role in identifying the pathogen causing amphibian die-offs. They are working with communities and governing authorities to change people’s behaviors, protect communities and provide alternatives in situations of human-wildlife conflict, mitigate threats, and protect animals from poachers, as has been demonstrated in the highly successful 96 Elephants campaign, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, and involving 127 AZA members. They work on policy issues domestically and internationally, like the recently launched “In Our Hands” plastics campaign by 18 AZA member aquariums.

AZA members also invest in green infrastructure to model the behaviors in their communities and reduce environmental impacts. And they raise support and compassion for these animals and their conservation by harnessing the connection between visitors and animals at the zoo or aquarium into stewardship behavior and action.

I believe the role of zoos and aquariums in conservation is much larger than the number of species, or the number of animals placed in the landscape. So while those numbers are important, they are only the prelude to the whole story. And there are more chapters to come from AZA members in that story.

I hesitate to divide the world into “animal activists” and “animal pragmatists.” We cannot survive if we perpetuate an “us-versus-them” mentality, or characterize people’s opinions or beliefs as “uninformed.” Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld said, “Politics is human beings; it’s addition rather than subtraction.” Our success will depend on addition, and we have a great and expanding asset – our visitors – 188 million and growing! Our challenge is to engage, inform, and inspire them. Our opportunity is to build and expand partnership with organizations with whom we share common cause – conservation organizations, animal welfare organizations, educational organizations, community organizations, and others. And we will!

I often share this African proverb:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or be eaten. Every morning, a lion awakens. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or starve. It doesn’t matter whether you are a gazelle or a lion when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

Every day, when the sun comes up, AZA and its over 230 members are fired up, and ready to run! We’re on a mission. And we’re determined to succeed. And we will!

I’d like to thank Dan Ashe, as well as AZA spokesperson and Senior Vice President (Communications and Marketing) Rob Vernon for facilitating this interview.

From the AZA Pressroom

Please join Jordan on LinkedIn or Facebook and by all means, visit his website.

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