This year AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, held its annual conference online once more, due to the continuing challenges presented by the global pandemic in 2021. However, the move to a virtual space did not deter either the determination of the organisers to provide a quality event or the enthusiasm of the attendees.
The event took place from Monday 20 to Friday 24 September. During this week, there was a packed schedule of keynote speakers, panel discussions, educational sessions and networking events. There was also a chance to meet over 60 organisations taking part in the event, via the Sponsor Spotlight.
On Tuesday and Thursday, there were community conversations. Here, participants could meet their peers and discuss the thoughts and themes discussed in the general sessions. In addition, the platform also hosted a lounge area. In this area, delegates could connect with colleagues and peers through messaging or video chat.
On Monday, Dan Ashe, AZA president and CEO, started by welcoming everyone to the 2021 AZA Virtual Annual Conference. He was then joined in conversation by Bert Castro, AZA Chair of the Board, and Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Martha Williams for a conversation on the value of AZA members and the role they play.
Williams said: “AZA members around the country are a critical component to wildlife conservation in the United States and abroad.”
Castro added: “During the pandemic, people understood the intrinsic value our institutions bring to their communities. People want to come out, spend time with their families in a place they feel safe.”
Tuesday saw a legend in the conservation world, Dr Jane Goodall, take to the virtual stage, also joined by Susan Goldberg, Editor-In-Chief, National Geographic; Azzedine Downes, President and CEO, International Fund for Animal Welfare; Juliet Eilperin, Senior National Affairs Correspondent, The Washington Post and Dr Carl Safina, Safina Center Founding President, Ecologist and Author, for a conversation entitled “Modern Zoos and Aquariums: Are they Relevant and How Can They be Better?”
This panel of experts in conservation, the environment, and animal welfare issues looked at how zoos and aquariums contribute to conservation, research, and education. On the topic of what a zoo’s mission should be, Safina said:
“Are the animals there just to get you in to pay a fee to look at them? Or are the animals there as ambassadors in a mission to help you fall in love with the living world?”
Safina also returned to the stage on Thursday to present another headline session, where he was joined in conversation with Cynthia Vernon, COO of Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Educational sessions at AZA conference 2021
With a packed schedule of sessions each day, attendees had plenty of content to choose from. On Monday, this included sessions looking at Adopt an Animal programs, aquatic sustainability, virtual engagement, climate change, animal population management and women in leadership, to name just a few.
This also continued throughout the week, with a full quota of panel discussions and presentations each afternoon. Topics covered ranged from AZA’s SAFE programme to pest management, from colonialism in zoos to teen mentoring, diversity, pandemic recovery, partnership working and much more.
This was supported by the chat function, as well as the platform’s lounge area. Here, attendees could continue the conversation and engage with both the speakers and the topics.
Participants at the AZA conference 2021 could also enjoy The Buzz – an informal and enjoyable way to extend program learning. Taking place at the end of each day, this included several short, individual talks. These were presented in an interactive and fun format.
On Monday, Chris Corpus, Director of Conservation at Dallas Zoo and Sean Devereaux, Executive Director, Leadership Long Beach led the session, which included talks on education through VR, conservation storytelling, taking risks, and conservation partnerships.
Then, on Tuesday, Amy Rutherford, Director, Professional Development & Education, AZA, and Craig Saffoe, Executive Director, Association of Minority Zoo & Aquarium Professionals led the Poster Buzz, featuring several short, individual poster presentations.
On Wednesday, Chris Corpus was back, joined by Juliana Kim, Mammalogist, Alaska SeaLife Center. Topics covered in this Buzz session included using both the Discord server and AR for engagement, supporting girls in STEM, marine mammal relocation and more.
Thursday saw the return of the Poster Buzz with Amy Rutherford and Craig Saffoe, with more individual poster presentations. The final Buzz session of the conference was led by Cassandra Davis and Sean Devereaux. There were presentations on several topics including Asynchronous Learning Platforms, virtual outreach, touchscreen technology and more.
Awards and honours
AZA’s annual conference is also an opportunity to recognise members in the service awards and accreditation report. This year, Chair of the Board Bert Castro began the proceedings on Wednesday 22 September. He started by awarding the association’s highest award for professional excellence.
For 2021, the R. Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence was awarded to Doug Myers, President/CEO of San Diego Zoo Global. “His lifelong zoological career leaves a legacy that will impact our industry for generations,” said San Diego Zoo’s Paul Baribault.
Meanwhile, The Animal Welfare Lifetime Achievement Award went to Dr Jill Mellen, previously education and science director at Disney‘s Animal Kingdom. “Her dedication to improving animal welfare is apparent in all that she does,” said Toledo Zoo’s Beth Posta.
Following this, the Devra Kleiman Scientific Advancement Award went to Dr Oliver Ryder of San Diego Zoo.
Sue Chin, Chair of the Honors & Awards Committee, then went on to announce the winners of the SSP Sustainability Award, Volunteer Engagement Award, Green Award, Angela Peterson Diversity Award, Excellence in Marketing Award, Education Award, Research Award, Edward H. Bean Award, North American Conservation Award, William G. Conway International Conservation Award and the Exhibit Award.
New Chair of the Board
On Friday afternoon, before another full afternoon of educational sessions, AZA management thanked the service of outgoing members. It also welcomed new members of the board.
Misha Body, California Science Center, Harrison Edell, MS, Dallas Zoo Management, Inc and Anne Shimerdla, Blank Park Zoo were sworn into the ethics board. Meanwhile, the new AZA Board of Directors are Lisa New, Zoo Knoxville, Vice Chair-Elect; Glenn Dobrogosz, Greensboro Science Center; Erich Rose, Herschend Enterprises and Megan Ross, PhD, Lincoln Park Zoo
Brian Davis, PhD then shared his address as the new 2021–2022 Chair of the AZA Board of Directors.
“I have known Brian for several years,” said Dan Ashe, President, and CEO of AZA. “His impressive accomplishments and the high regard in which he is held across the accredited aquarium and zoo community speak to his many talents. The AZA community is poised to benefit from his leadership and vision.
“Brian is AZA’s first Black chair. He was central to crafting AZA’s newest promise, focused on advancing diversity, equity, access, and inclusion within the zoological profession. DEIA issues are close to his heart, and I know he will deliver on that pledge.”
“Being appointed to the role of Chair means the world to me,” said Davis. “We have a commitment to ensure that every guest who visits our facilities, walks away with respect to care for our planet and its animals. With 241 AZA-accredited facilities working together we can educate and inspire the next generation of leaders in animal welfare. I am proud to be a part of leading us down the exciting road ahead. I hope to use the next year to make us stronger, more united, and more diversified.”
More than 60 organisations were supporting the AZA conference 2021. This includes Imagine Exhibitions, accesso, ACME Ticketing, RocketRez, Tessitura Network, Speak Creative, Roto, Semnox Solutions and Photogenic Inc.
Speaking during the opening session, Ashe revealed that next year’s conference will feature both an in-person and a virtual element. The hybrid annual conference will take place from 27 August – 1 September 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. The National Aquarium and Maryland Zoo will host the event.