Recently, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an organization whose members I have proudly promoted and defended locally and nationally in good times and in bad for more than 25 years, announced it had invited HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle to be its keynote speaker at the public display trade association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis next month. Echoing the thoughts of many rank and file zookeepers and zoo directors that have shared on social media and directly with new AZA CEO Dan Ashe, this is a terrible decision. A trade association’s first duty is to protect and advance the interests of its members, not to “invite the fox into the henhouse.” Instead, the naïve invitation sends an unmistakable signal to the world that its finest and most knowledgeable zoological park professionals need the help of the most committed and well-funded anti-zoo organizations in the area of animal welfare.
Rather than reverse course on an unpopular and dangerous decision with lasting implications, the AZA doubled down a few days later in a press statement that not only tried to legitimatize the HSUS as a welfare organization and part of the mainstream, but implied those of us that oppose this invitation are “afraid to listen.” That alone would be laughable if it weren’t also quite revealing about the trajectory of the AZA over the past decade. Perhaps the new AZA CEO and his team should spend more time with its own animal professionals– keepers, trainers, researchers, aquarists, aviculturists, herpetologists, and veterinarians are some of the most courageous and skilled people I have ever known.
Fact is there’s nothing new to be learned from Mr. Pacelle. We have heard from the HSUS for years. More importantly, we have seen in the public record how he and they have behaved to define and curtail all zoos and aquariums, including AZA members. Those slick efforts in words, deeds, and in the halls of Congress and state legislatures around the country continue in earnest. And the suggestion by AZA leadership that we should “keep an open mind” and “hear what he has to say” further suggests that many within the zoo community have not been paying close enough attention to the behind the scenes moves in D.C. and the attacks their colleagues and fellow institutions have endured at the hands of HSUS and its extremist allies. That is perilous ignorance.
From the HSUS website: “The Humane Society of the United States believes that under most circumstances wild animals should ideally be permitted to exist undisturbed in their natural environments. Zoos are, however, a currently established part of our society and a fact of life.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? And, their desire for no zoos in the future, including presumably AZA accredited ones, is inescapable.
Perhaps Churchill put it best, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." Still time to put all members first and egos aside by reversing a poor decision.
Grey Stafford, PhD
Grey Stafford is an animal trainer, zoologist, and educator. Stafford is the President of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA).
He was formerly the Director of Conservation at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium in Phoenix, AZ. He is also a spokesperson for the zoo and aquarium industry and has been featured on nationally televised programs. His views are not those of IMATA or the AZA, but his own.