Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Annual Conference - Intro

You may have noticed a dearth of Zooillogix posts over the last two weeks. This is due in large part to Benny buying a bar, and me buying a puppy. They are the same amount of work. Well I aim to make it up to you today and already I have forced myself out of bed at 5:00 AM and boarded a train to Milwaukee to spend the day covering the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference.

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I'll do my best to make the posts real-time but this might not always be possible, as is the case at the moment, sitting on the train, surrounded by loudly snoring sales guys. They probably think I'm a sales guy too because, frankly, my hair looks awesome this morning.

While this conference includes a number of technical meetings concerning population management and care of individual species like the Micronesian Kingfisher and Tree Kangaroo, my coverage will focus on the more general challenges being addressed. These include conservation education, public perception, fundraising, marketing and the laundry list of government regulations zoos and aquariums operate within. Ever try to buy a beluga whale? Not easy!

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Here's a question, is there any talk about evolution education being promoted in member zoos?

I ask because I inquire at the Los Angeles Zoo about what part of their education focus covers non-conservation science, specifically evolution. They responded to me that their educational guidelines are based on the AZA's. If the AZA required evolution instruction, then they would follow, but they weren't going to stick their neck out.

With Science education in this country facing the horrible situation it's at, shouldn't the fundamental organizing principle in all biology be part of our Zoos' educational offerings?

I mean, what a waste of a Zoo... If I were to teach an evolution class, I'd teach it at a zoo, not a museum!

Is this even on their radar there in Milwaukee?


Unfortunately, it's not really on the AZA radar right now. While the religious right will happily inject their perception of the truth at every opportunity, I think the zoo community has to be careful when crossing such a controversial border. As their existence relies on visitor patronage rather than oil-backed big business, they really can't take the risk of offending such a large percentage of their audience. (Though, quite honestly, I'd be just fine with them keeping their narrow-minded ways in their churches and out of my zoos.)

As an example of the political issues the zoo community continues to deal with, there are a group of protesters outside the AZA conference right now because the Elephant SSP (Species Survival Plan) is meeting today. Essentially, they are protesting the people who care the most about the welfare and continued existence of these animals. This is why zoos are forced to tread lightly.

But I'm all with you on the needs for improved scientific education. I say we fight fire with fire and start an evangelical science movement, complete with revivals and speaking in tongues. Oh, the fun that could be had!

"As their existence relies on visitor patronage rather than oil-backed big business, they really can't take the risk of offending such a large percentage of their audience."

Last time I checked, my local natural history museum, my local ice age dig site and my local observatory and space museum don't seem to have a problem with presenting facts creationists don't like.

Why my local zoo?

Hi, Siamang.

I don't want to start anything contentious with you, especially since we seem to be on the same side of the fence. But I do feel the need to defend the zoo community on this topic not only because I'm a proud member, but also because I have a great deal of respect and admiration for my colleagues.

According to the 2007 AZA institutional survey (data available at, of the 151 zoos and aquariums providing information on their budgets, an average of 59% of their total operating budget was covered through ticket sales, concessions, and retail sales. If you include private endowments and donations, this percentage jumps to 65.4%. I won't profess to know the same statistics for public museums and observatories, but it's my understanding that these institutions garner a significantly larger proportion of their revenues from government funding. I've never had the pleasure of getting to visit a dig site (though I'd love to!), but most that I know of are funded by grants.

The point I'm trying to make is that zoos and aquariums rely on the public for their existence much more so than government-sponsored public museums. Because of this unfortunate fact, they must do a certain amount of kowtowing to public opinion if they want to have enough money to provide adequate care for their animals. The reality is that a frightening large proportion of the public in the United States believes in creationism. Enough of these people are die-hard enough to have the ability to cause a major PR fiasco and close these beautiful institutions. I completely agree with you, Siamang, that teaching evolution in zoos would be incredible! I think the majority of my colleagues would agree as well. Unfortunately, acting on those beliefs would result in major negative consequences for our animals. I find it a travesty, but our hands are tied in 'making nice' with the public.

But let's you and me work on spreading the word and encouraging those institutions that can afford to voice their opinions, regardless of public backlash. Just don't disparage the zoological community for choosing existence over their voice. Ideally, we wouldn't have to deal with such fascism, but the world is far from an ideal place.

Thanks for the reply Julia,

It just seems to me that if the reality is as bad as you describe it, that this would indeed be a topic of at least conversation among the science friendly in-group at the AZA. That it's not even being discussed seems like a missed opportunity.

The LA Zoo is run by the City of Los Angeles, and as such, I do not expect them to be held to any lower standard than the life science education standards of our public school system. And yet, while state instructional requirements mandate evolution education in our schools, the zoo's educational director replied to my inquiries with a buck-passing to the AZA's standards.

Imagine if I was an LAUSD biology teacher looking for materials on evolution at the zoo. I would be quite shocked by the education director's response.

As a parent of a school-age child attending LAUSD, my mantra is "never squander a learning opportunity."

I would love it if the AZA merely started the conversation... if only to talk about the problem openly.

"I've never had the pleasure of getting to visit a dig site (though I'd love to!), but most that I know of are funded by grants."

Come to LA some time and enjoy our lovely La Brea Tar Pits! The excavation is ongoing.

Take care!

The La Brea Tar Pits have been on my 'Must see!!' list since I was about 7-years-old!

I agree every learning opportunity should be taken. We just redid out African ape building not long ago. I know our primatologists helped in the design. I'm going to see if there's anything written in the signage with regard to evolution. And if I find anything, I'll take those primatologists out for a drink on our behalf, Siamang. :)

At the LA Zoo there's inconsistent signage around their chimpanzee area. On the plus side, they do mention that chimps are our closest "relatives" (with bonobos).

On the minus side, they list the *four* great apes: chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

Sorry to post on an old thread, Julia. I'm guessing you'll find this.…

So, to bring this discussion back around. NOW is it time to start discussing evolution education at AZA meetings?

Because clearly, CLEARLY, this isn't a subject on which there is universal consensus among the Zoological community.

I see this incident at the Cincinnati zoo as being exactly what happens when we take other's opinions for granted and we refuse to discuss the elephant in the room. This is a defeat for science and science education. And sadly, I think it could have been avoided if the subject wasn't taboo, or if their eye wasn't primarily on membership and attendance at the zoos.

This move is CLEARLY a bid to promote membership and attendance for the Cincy zoo. Here's to our nation's future zoos: well-attended animal-viewing theme parks.