HSUS, top zoos can together be a force for the good

As if there isn’t enough misunderstanding in the world nowadays, a few voices in the zoo community have scolded the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for inviting me to give a keynote presentation at the opening session at the group’s annual conference that kicked off today [9/11] in Indianapolis – a gathering that attracted about 2,500 people in the zoological profession. This effort to divide animal advocates into warring camps comes at a time when there is a greater need than ever for pro-animal organizations such as The HSUS and the AZA to unite to fight cruelty and promote conservation.

Indeed, we have common purposes and we need to listen to each other, learn from each other, and work with each other. For the animals’ sake, we need more cooperation, not less. We should seek more understanding, not more quarreling.

The AZA and The HSUS can justly be described as the most important nonprofits in their respective fields. One is the national face of America’s leading zoos and aquariums, and the source of the nation’s most rigorous standards for accreditation of member institutions. The other is the foremost voice for animal welfare in the United States.

Why would anyone give much credence to the few critics in the ranks of the zoo world who recycle false narratives about The HSUS from a Washington D.C. public relations company hired to defend such cruelties as the extreme confinement of farm animals, the misery of puppy mills, and the mistreatment of animals in many other settings? I was glad to see those voices muted or marginalized at the AZA conference today.

What ought to be clear to anyone is that when our two organizations are in alignment – and that is the preponderance of the time — we are stronger standing together than apart. It’s much more constructive to celebrate areas of agreement than to hunt and try to find areas of division. The issues are too urgent for us to fall prey to grievance collectors.

The HSUS understands that accredited zoos and aquariums have been a force for good in celebrating animals and fostering understanding of animal cognition, their social lives, and their place in the matrix of life. The best among them provide broad benefits to animals. We’ve worked with the Detroit Zoo in Michigan to fight the trophy hunting of threatened wolves in the Great Lakes region, with the Wildlife Conservation Society (including its Bronx Zoo) on federal policies to restrict the ivory trade, with the Portland Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo to fight wildlife trafficking in Oregon and Washington through ballot initiatives, with the Lincoln Park Zoo to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, with the Brookfield Zoo to ban the use of elephants in traveling acts, and with so many other zoos on lifesaving projects. More broadly, the 230 or so accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States welcomed nearly 200 million visitors last year and enhanced the appreciation of animals in countless ways. Like any set of organizations, it’s my hope that they’ll continue to refine their educational programs and speak out on the important topics of the day when it comes to animal cruelty and conservation.

The AZA is also the best antidote to knockoff accreditation programs that put a stamp of approval on substandard zoos and aquariums. In contrast to the AZA’s very meaningful accreditation program, a group called the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) “accredits” facilities that don’t meet the established group’s strict standards. That latter group also works to block legislation to ban private ownership of dangerous wild animals, and even to weaken the Endangered Species Act. The group adopted the nomenclature of the AZA and re-sequenced the words to sow confusion among members of the public. It would be like some group calling itself the United States Humane Society giving its blessing to factory farms or trophy hunting. People would scratch their heads and wonder what’s going on, and why the sudden shift in opinion.

And ZAA has quite a market for its stamp of approval. While there are 230 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, there are as many as 2,000 non-accredited facilities. Many of them are roadside menageries that promote the trade in wildlife, allow dangerous public contact with juvenile carnivores, and provide deficient care of animals. How dangerous for animals lovers looking for an experience with wildlife to see the ZAA stamp of approval on a roadside menagerie and to think that it’s legitimate. Not only does this give members of the public the false assurance that things are okay, but it also has the effect of putting money into the pockets of these unethical businesses.

Responsible zoo officials share with The HSUS an abhorrence for the sorry approaches to animal care that persist in substandard roadside zoos and other settings, as well as for the unethical trade in animals that puts thousands of exotic animals into the hands of private individuals, jeopardizing humans and animals alike.

I’ve spoken at many zoos around the country through the years, and gave a keynote address at a conference hosted by the Detroit Zoo that brought together animal welfare leaders, zoo professionals, and scientists to talk about advancing animal welfare. At that conference, there was nearly unanimous agreement among participants about the value of AZA-accredited zoos and mainstream animal welfare advocates standing together on common-ground issues.

The AZA and The HSUS have many shared ideals. We both believe that humans and animals are linked by a deep and vital bond. We both believe that this bond must be wisely and compassionately nurtured. We both believe that animals deserve the best from humans. We both believe in preserving species and ecosystems. Those are big, fundamental ideas, and they form the kind of common ground that will strengthen our joint campaigns to end the private ownership of exotic wild animals, kill the illicit trade in ivory and wildlife products, and educate millions of Americans about the many threats to animals and their habitats throughout the world.

The basic, elemental matter that unites The HSUS and the AZA is a love and concern for all animals. And I hope most of us will agree that not a single creature anywhere will be helped if our two leading organizations refuse to listen and learn from each other. People who care about animals should welcome this kind of interaction, and thankfully, most of them do.

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