Remarks by Dennis Kelly, 2016 AZA Annual Conference

Thank you Kris for that very kind introduction. 

I want to add my thanks for all the work of outgoing Board Members Amos Morris and Lynn Clements and previous Board Chair Dennis Pate; I have learned much from of you, and it has been an honor to serve with you. 

I want to give my personal thanks to our Chair, Steve Burns.  This has been an especially eventful year for our profession and our Association.  Steve, you have led us with passion, grace, and courage.  We are so fortunate to have had you to guide us in our relentless quest to save species.

I am humbled and honored to stand before you as your next Chair.  I take on this role fully realizing that most of the people in this room have dedicated their lives to our animals and our mission, and I feel an awesome responsibility to serve you and our mission with passion and skill.  I won’t let you down.

Traditionally, the incoming Chair uses these few minutes to talk about the current and future state of our profession.  In addition, it is customary for me to tell you about my personal journey to this point in my career.  After a lot of thought and discussions with my staff and friends, I decided there are only three things about me you need to know about me.  First, I have the great fortune to be married to my best friend and high school sweetheart, Debby Wynne Kelly, who is with me here today.  Second, I am a pretty good bass fisherman, and a fly-fisherman-in-training—all catch and release, of course.  And finally, in spite of my lack of an accent, I am a Southerner; so, if I approach you and start a conversation with the words, ‘bless your heart," we probably won’t be having a pleasant conversation.

I have been leading AZA institutions for nearly fourteen years.  During that time I have developed strong beliefs about our profession.  I also have a clear sense of where we should be headed. I want to quickly share those beliefs and prescriptions with you now.

First, I believe that by many measures our profession is more vital and successful than at any time in our history. Annual attendance continues to grow in most of our institutions, now 186 million visitors, more than the MLB, NFL, and NBA COMBINED. Our institutions are the favorite destination for families with children. Capital investment has averaged over a half a billion dollars for each of the last three years. Association membership is at an all-time high. And, attendance at this meeting has broken all records. In sum, by most measures we have a lot going for us.

However, every one of us in this room has experienced a shift in public attitude towards our profession and our institutions.  All of us see anecdotal evidence of a decline in PREFERENCE for our aquariums and zoos.  For example, a new friend, often a younger, well educated person, when learning what we do will first say, "wow," and then, after a pause, follow with a "but…"

"…I am not sure how I feel about animals in an aquarium or zoo.”

"…how do you feel about the recent incident at ‘xyz’ aquarium or zoo?"

"…why can't all animals live in the wild?"

And these anecdotes about changes in preference have been confirmed by several researchers:

Quantitative studies indicate that, while we are still very popular, we are seeing a very real increase in the percentage of people who are uncomfortable with some aspect of our profession.  One study, conducted over an eight-year period documents an 18% decline in favorability for zoos in America; the trends for North American Aquariums are almost identical. Many of us, including our Boards and our advisors, believe that we are facing a CRISIS OF RELEVANCY with the families and people who have so deeply believed in us in the past.

There is a second, and even more disturbing crisis impacting our profession and our planet.  In fact, I believe we are facing an unprecedented existential crisis that our profession is completely immersed in.  This crisis goes to the heart of why we work so hard every day. 

On screen behind me are four species that we one cared for in our institutions, which no longer exist: the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon, the Caribbean monk seal, and the Javanese tiger. They are extinct.

We were caring for these species and many others in our aquariums and zoos, and we watched them disappear from our planet.  We probably said we don’t have the resources and mandate to save these species.   We did not think this extinction event was our responsibility, and most of us did not have the skills and tools to intervene.

This crisis—and I use that word very carefully here—has been recognized in the last two decades and is well described Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize best-seller which labels the phenomenon as the "Sixth Extinction." Ms. Kolbert describes the role that aquariums and zoos have had in saving some two-dozen or so species—work that only we are capable of doing, by the way. I know a number of institutions have made Elizabeth’s book required reading for their boards, leaders, and staff.

So, what are we going to do? 

Here is my four part prescription:

First, we MUST be the leading experts and practitioners of the best animal care and welfare on our planet.  We must continue to invest in staff, partnerships, equipment and resources to clearly establish ourselves as THE EXPERTS on the welfare of animals in human care.  We are not recognized as the experts today—we must be.  We must do better.

Every institution represented in this room has an aquatic habitat, or animal habitat, or animal program that needs improvement.  I urge you to redouble your efforts to make every animal habitat, every program, every department in your organization one that you are proud of, and do so as quickly as possible.

Second, we must make our institutions absolutely safe for staff, visitors, and animals.  The standards and expectations of yesterday are no longer relevant.  Our position and our SOCIAL LICENSE to care for animals is dependent on our delivery of a safe visitor and working experience.  Your Association has the tools to help you insure a safe experience, including guides from the TAGs (Taxon Advisory Groups), SSPs, (Species Survival Plans) and the AZA Safety Committee.

Third, we must be directly involved in saving species in their habitats and saving those places where wild fishes and wild terrestrial animals live.  It is no longer good enough to educate—we must be directly and meaningfully saving species.

Recently our current Chair, Steve Burns, challenged us to commit at least 3 percent of our operating budgets to field conservation.  Many of you answered that call, and now, collectively we are supporting $183 million in direct action to save species.  However, most of us are not contributing anywhere near that 3 percent level.  In fact, only 51 of our more than 230 member institutions are contributing at least 3 percent of their operation budgets to field conservation.  AZA has created a program, SAFE for “Saving Animals From Extinction”, which makes your support of field efforts even more powerful and effective, regardless of the size and experience of your organization.  You have heard a lot about this important program already, and there are more exciting SAFE developments to come.

So, I repeat Steve Burns’ challenge: measure your annual direct impact on Conservation—if it is not at least three percent of your operating budget, challenge yourself to make it so.  SAFE is a great tool to help you find a program that fits your institution to meet this challenge.

Finally, we must begin to communicate much more effectively with our many constituencies about who we are, and especially our work to save species.  This may be the hardest challenge of all.  We have been so successful with our current messages of fun and education. But, I am convinced we need to CONTINUE TO evolve our messaging if we are going to remain RELEVANT and if we are going to make an impact on the biodiversity crisis that is overwhelming our planet.  Again, many of our institutions are doing a good job in this area, but most of us are not.  I want to especially recognize the communication efforts of our hosts—San Diego Zoo Global and SeaWorld—who are leaders in messaging conservation and animal rescue as part of every guest’s experience.  And, again, SAFE is a tool that you can use to talk about the work of our profession and your institution in saving species.

Let me finish with a message of optimism, hope, and pride.  There are dozens of species you are already saving today.  There are hundreds more that need our help.  SAFE is a tool you can use today and tomorrow to advance your mission and your relevancy.

Two thousand years ago Rabbi Hillel the Elder challenged his community with these words:

“If not us, who?  If not now, when?” That is my challenge to you, to us, today.

Thank you for listening to me, and I look forward to working with you this year and for years to come to advance our institutions, increase the relevance of our profession,  and to save species.