As an accredited and non-profit body representing 229 zoological facilities in the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Bermuda, Hong Kong and Singapore, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science and recreation.
AZA-accredited facilities enjoy benefits such as increased grant eligibility and access to committees impacting the future of the industry, notably the ability to participate in Species Survival Plan® programs. These programs aim to ensure that a viable, genetically diverse population exists for each species in human care, with a special focus on those animals that are endangered or threatened.
The work of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums extends far beyond their actual locations. By continually advancing animal welfare, updating their exhibits and facilities, and spreading conservation messages and sustainability practices via education and social media communications, these visitor attractions are among the most forward-thinking in the world.
Some truly incredible zoo and aquarium developments have recently been completed and many more are in the works that are sure to amaze and engage visitors of all ages, challenging them to rethink the world ? and their role in its protection.
Exhibits and Theming
Over the past decade or so, AZA-accredited facilities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in exhibit upgrades, transforming outdated enclosures into larger naturalistic habitats that provide more enriching experiences for animals and visitors.
In the spring of 2014, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium opened Heart of Africa, a sprawling US$30.4m (£19.8m, e27.3m) addition, including a realistic 43-acre (17-hectare) savanna home to free-ranging giraffes, zebras, gazelles, wildebeests and birds. Additionally, areas housing other species such as cheetahs and vervet monkeys are scattered throughout the exhibit.
In keeping with the heritage of its animal residents, everything in Heart of Africa has a distinct African flair; the restaurant resembles a safari lodge, the gift shop is reminiscent of a street market and the elevated pathways are not unlike those one would encounter in, for example, South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Design features within the animal habitats are also part of the action: the zoo’s lions laze about a downed plane while the vervet monkeys rummage through a simulated campsite.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore held its ribbon-cutting ceremony last September to officially announce the opening of Penguin Coast, an US$11.5m (£7.5m, e10.3m) exhibit featuring endangered African penguins. Capable of housing 100 birds, the habitat boasts ample room for swimming and climbing, as well as a ‘dump tank’ that, when activated, triggers a waterfall and ensuing waves. Cement rockwork, ‘wooden’ docks and an aluminum-roofed holding area suggest that the penguins have made their home in a disused cannery.
The infrastructure required to build and support these exhibits, as well as offer the animals and visitors a more enriching experience, is extensive and the construction process generally involves hundreds of temporary or contracted employees trained in every discipline.
The grandiosity of these blockbuster exhibits no doubt draws big crowds. By offering unprecedented opportunities to come face-to-face with the world’s most charismatic and threatened species (and assuaging concerns about animal welfare), zoos and aquariums are presented with an important opportunity to deliver messages about conservation. A priority is placed on built-in interpretive content that communicates this information to the broad spectrum of age groups that visit. To increase the effectiveness of this conservation messaging, a healthy combination of written, visual (infographics, charts, videos) and interactive (computer games, moveable panels) elements are utilised.
Education and Participation
As a cornerstone of AZA’s mission, a robust educational programme is a must for accreditation. Upwards of 50 million annual visitors are under the age of 18, so content is primarily targeted to this age group. In addition to perennial field trips, AZA-accredited facilities help train approximately 40,000 teachers each year, offering tools to embed zoology and conservation in the standard science curriculum. As a cost-effective alternative, many facilities also offer ‘zoo to you’ offsite presentations featuring small live animals. It is estimated that there were nearly 7.4 million instances of these off-site education programs by AZA-accredited facilities in the USA in 2013. As AZA-accredited facilities go beyond raising awareness about conservation issues to engaging visitors to take action addressing the conservation crisis, there were more than 26 million instances of visitors participating in programming that presented a clear conservation action related to a wildlife concern.
Educational staff are a mix of paid employees and dedicated volunteers, often called ‘interpreters’, who may stand in front of exhibits delivering short presentations and answering questions about the animals. For more interactive exhibits such as touch tanks and free-flight aviaries, interpreters are also trained to ensure that visitors and the animals have a safe and positive experience. Zookeepers have also become increasingly involved in educational programs and other guest interactions. Many facilities host regularly scheduled ‘keeper talks’ during which animal keepers share their knowledge about a particular species. Because of their expertise, keepers are also frequently called upon by the media for interviews and testimonials.
Campers and Conservation
Most AZA-accredited facilities offer seasonal day camps to school pupils, allowing for a longer-term educational experience and the opportunity to explore conservation topics in a more in-depth and hands-on manner.
For example, teenagers participating in the ‘Lights, Camera, Conservation!’ camp at Phoenix Zoo in Arizona got to produce a short project about a topic of their choosing. With unprecedented access to conservation professionals and the zoo’s photogenic animal collection, the campers were able to rely on their scientific comprehension and teamwork skills to learn more about conservation and tie in technology to help create a finished project that can continue to be shared.
While ‘talking the talk’ and driving home messages about conservation, it is important to give campers the chance to ‘walk the walk’. From the no-idling zone at camper drop-off/pick-up, to reusable cups and water bottles for drinks and recycled materials for crafts, conservation actions are part of daily life at the Saint Louis Zoo’s Camp KangaZoo in Missouri. Staff also challenge campers to bring a trash-free lunch and leftovers are composted, recycled or taken back home.
“Incorporating conservation action into camp is easy and fun and our messages and actions reach beyond the zoo,” says Eve Cooney, youth programs coordinator for Saint Louis Zoo. “We hear from parents who are packing those trash-free lunches and in turn have also influenced area schools to adopt trash-free lunches.”
Volunteers have long been essential to zoo and aquarium operations, especially as the vast majority of AZA-accredited facilities are non-profits or government entities. In 2012, the in-kind services donated by 171,264 volunteers were valued at US$204m (£133m, e183m).
Many opportunities exist for high school students to volunteer at zoos and aquariums, and many facilities offer programs specifically targeted to this age group.
Every spring, Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden in Indiana hosts a conference for ZooTeens aged 13 to 17. Participants are offered the opportunity to explore a wide range of initiatives. Most projects involve the use of creative strategies to raise public awareness of conservation issues such as the elephant poaching crisis and waste reduction. ClimaTEENS at New England Aquarium in Boston create presentations that encourage audiences to take action on climate change. Aquarium staff who specialize in public speaking and climatology help the teens hone their messaging to deliver as impactful a presentation as possible.
Whether in an official capacity or not, AZA-accredited facilities have also been at the forefront of social media since its inception; in fact, the very first video uploaded to YouTube by the site’s cofounder was filmed in front of the elephant habitat at California’s San Diego Zoo.
The animals that live at AZA-accredited facilities provide source material for millions of pieces of social media content, particularly photographs and videos. The opportunity to use official social media channels encourages user engagement via contests or posting shareable content that is not only fun, but also educational.
Because of their sizeable social media reach, zoos and aquariums are in a unique position to disseminate conservation messages. Facilities participating in World Oceans Day on 8 June 2014 asked its followers to post a ‘selfie for the sea’, holding papers with a written pledge on how they will help protect the ocean. For example, “I promise to carpool once a week” or “I promise to recycle more”.
A similar initiative took place on 12 August 2014 in observance of World Elephant Day. The Wildlife Conservation Society encouraged social media users to ‘go grey’ by uploading a photo of themselves wearing elephant-coloured attire or changing their profile pictures to greyscale. Many other zoos ? and aquariums ? joined in on the campaign. World Elephant Day resulted in 310 million social media impressions and became a trending topic on Twitter. It was an apt response to the scale of the poaching crisis in Africa, where an estimated 96 elephants are killed every day. These and similar campaigns are excellent examples of collaboration between AZA-accredited facilities and other wildlife organisations, demonstrating that conservation is a team effort (see Table 1).
To help fulfill their commitments to serve as stewards of the environment, many AZA-accredited facilities are ‘greening up’ by employing innovative sustainable practices in their operations.
A Green Scientific Advisory Group – comprised of employees of AZA-accredited facilities – was formed to “identify ways to minimise negative environmental impacts by reducing consumption of both natural and manufactured resources, reducing production of hazardous wastes, developing systems and programs for re-use of materials, and by recycling materials that cannot be reused”.
AZA encourages each facility to assemble a ‘green team’ consisting of sustainability-minded employees from all departments and management levels, who craft a mission statement for the present and a vision statement for the future. When quantifiable, economically feasible opportunities for improvement have been identified and prioritized, the green team then works to develop a sustainability plan that outlines each item’s team, timeline and budget. As a living document, it is recommended that this plan is evaluated and adjusted at least annually.
Despite its reputation as a drizzly and cloudy metropolis, there are plenty of solar-powered systems in Seattle, USA. Capitalising on funding from the local public electrical power utility and the City of Seattle, Seattle Aquarium purchased 247 solar panels to help reduce utility costs and cut its carbon footprint by more than 20 per cent.
“The solar project provided a great opportunity for visitor and community engagement,” wrote Mark Plunkett, the aquarium’s conservation manager. “We teamed with City Light on a ‘Conservation News’ billing insert to encourage customer participation in community solar. As a result, all 1,850 available units sold out to almost 200 customers in six weeks, generating capital for a future project.”
The Toledo Zoo in Ohio is also benefiting from solar power after purchasing power collected from 28,170 panels at a local brownfield site. This solar array is large enough to provide 30 per cent of the zoo’s energy needs and reduce CO2 output by 75 metric tonnes each year. Community investment was a cornerstone of this project as much of the technology and infrastructure utilized was developed by local companies.
To meet its goal of reducing the pull of new water by 50 per cent by 2018 from a 2007 baseline, John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago relies on active monitoring, creative thinking and sustainable leadership.
An external audit identified early areas for improvement, and set the course for extensive internal reviews of infrastructure and operations to determine where major changes and slight adjustments would reduce water usage. From fixing leaks and replacing aging plumbing fixtures to upgrading the chiller plant and replumbing habitats to recycle water, Shedd achieved a 49 per cent reduction by the end of 2014. The final one per cent will primarily rely on improvements in daily operational behaviours, such as food service and animal care practices.
Dining and Catering
In May 2012, the Komodo Café at Akron Zoo in Ohio became the seventh establishment in the USA to receive a four-star rating by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), making it one of the most environmentally friendly dining places in the country. Points were awarded for the LEED-certified café’s extensive composting programme, numerous vegetarian and vegan menu items, geothermal heating and cooling system, use of green cleaning products and other facets of operation. Since the café’s certification, seven more AZA-accredited facilities have this accolade for one or more of their dining establishments.