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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dear AZA

To Daniel M. Ashe
President and CEO, Association of Zoos and Aquariums
July 26, 2017

Dear Mr. Ashe,

Congratulations on passing the half-year mark in your tenure as President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  I have been a proud member of AZA for nearly a decade, and must say that I have been pleased with many of the changes going on in the organization.

I appreciate your willingness to become an increasingly vocal advocate for the zoo and aquarium community - the very first statement that I ever saw from you wasn't a press release, it was a Facebook comment extolling the great work of our community in saving species.  I have been pleased to see how successful you've been in rallying AZA member institutions behind efforts to save the critically endangered vaquita.  I've very much admired your willingness to use AZA's platform to take a stand on political issues, whether testifying before Congress on behalf of the Endangered Species Act or allying zoos and aquariums with the March for Science.

There is, however, one subject which I would like to broach which I feel some concern about.  Not anger, not disappointment - just concern.  I'm sure you can guess what it is.  From what I've heard, AZA has received many emails on the subject lately.  That subject, of course, is the Humane Society of the United States.

Apart from PETA, HSUS (H$U$, as I see many zoo professionals deride it) is probably the most well-known animal right's organization in the country.  While their platform has never been explicitly anti-zoo or aquarium, that bias has definitely been implied.  Whereas other animal welfare organizations have at times celebrated the care that zoos and aquariums provide their charges - I'm thinking most specifically about the American Humane Association's new accreditation program - HSUS has always given off the air of tolerating - just - zoos, with the AZA and its members being the best of what they see as a regrettable lot.

So are you sure that they are an organization that we want to ally ourselves with?

I certainly understand the importance of listening to differing viewpoints.  If it weren't for that, zoos and aquariums would never have evolved past the dark ages of small, sterile cages.  I also appreciate that, both being organizations concerned with animal issues, there are plenty of times that our interests will be aligned.  There are plenty of concerns that both of our organizations should take a stand together on, from shark-finning and rattlesnake roundups to backyard big cats.  Even PETA, after all, has occasionally found itself in uneasy, temporary alliances with zoos and aquariums, as evidenced by the rescue of the polar bears known as the Suarez Seven.

That being said, how sure are we that we want to partner with an organization that, at best, sees zoos and aquariums as a necessary evil?  One that might begrudgingly admit our role in saving the California condor, the Arabian oryx, and a handful of other species from extinction, but remain highly skeptical of every aspect of our programs that isn't either a wildlife rehabiliation or an active reintroduction program?  One that is dubious of our educational roles, and thinks of us as stationary circuses?  Such a partnership, I fear, would be a temporary one, and one that is largely defined simply as a lack of open hostility.  When Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle speaks to the general session of AZA's Annual Meeting in Indianapolis this year, what agenda will he have in mind?  Is it truly collaboration - or simply a delay in attack?

Furthermore, I am concerned that this partnership may allow HSUS to aim its fire at non-accredited facilities, putting AZA in the awkward position of having to either a) stand by and watch as some good facilities have their names dragged through the mud, or b) stand up against their newfound partner.  While there are some truly horrid non-AZA facilities out there, there are others which are excellent institutions which contribute in very concrete ways to conservation programs, often in collaboration with AZA.  Where would our waterfowl programs be, for example, if not for the input and expertise of Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Pinola Preserve, and Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy?

Please don't get me wrong - I still firmly believe that AZA is the best force for good in the zoo community at this time.  Its accreditation standards continually push zoos and aquariums to become better.  The Species Survival Plan program manages populations of hundreds of species with the goal of genetic and demographic stability.  Its Conservation Grant Fund marshals millions of dollars into field conservation programs around the globe.  The new SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) initiative combines ex situ and in situ conservation efforts.  Working together gives zoos and aquariums an amplified voice for collaborative messaging and education programs.

I've always thought of AZA as a big-tent sort of organization, one that was big enough to welcome anyone who believed in the power of zoos and aquariums to build a better future for wildlife.  I still do.  It's just that now, I find myself wondering if that tent is truly big enough to include an organization like HSUS.

Thank you for your time.

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