A Watershed Moment: AZA’s 2022 Annual Conference

What a week! What a community!

The 2022 Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md., hosted by the National Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo was a watershed moment for our community: coming together for the first time in three years to network, share our successes and challenges, and envision a future where the AZA community reaches its full potential to conserve wildlife and wild places, educate and inspire people, and ensure a more equitable future for all.

The Annual Conference has always been a highlight of the Association’s calendar year—and the National Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo continued that tradition this year, working with AZA’s ever-talented member services team. We all owe a huge “Thank You!” to John Racanelli, president and chief executive officer of the National Aquarium; Kirby Fowler, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Zoo; their respective staffs and volunteers; Melissa Howerton and her team here at AZA; and Brian Davis, Adrienne Rowland and our entire board of directors! Pulling this conference together is always a monumental task, but kick-starting our first in person Annual in three years took the challenge to another level—and they pulled it off in some style!

More than 2,300 attendees from 18 countries registered to listen to a diverse and powerful roll call of keynote speakers, attend seven general sessions, 82 concurrent sessions, 12 roundtable discussions, 16 “Buzz” sessions, and to explore more than 43 posters and the services and products of more than 140 exhibitors and 19 sponsors.

Highlights of the Conference are too numerous to mention all here, but I will share some thoughts.

Our Opening General Session struck a high note with Dr. Mamie Parker, former head of Fisheries, US Fish and Wildlife Service, taking top billing as she shared stories about her time as a wildlife biologist working in the conservation community. She was then joined by Curtis Bennett, director of equity and community engagement at the National Aquarium, and Dr. Bridget Coughlin, president and chief executive officer at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., in a discussion about diversity, equity, access, and inclusion and why these topics are essential to relevance, and business and mission success.

During the panel discussion, Dr. Coughlin mentioned how she had coached me on the use of gender-biased language. She and I were in conversation about a very talented, former colleague at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A woman. In describing her, I used the word “young”. Dr. Coughlin stopped me mid-sentence and asked me why I would describe her as “young” and if I would use the same term to describe a male colleague of the same age. I wouldn’t. She went on to teach me that “young” can be code for “inexperienced” when men are speaking about women. We all use language that can be and often is heard in different ways from what we intend. Knowing that makes us better communicators, better colleagues, and even better people. Thanks Dr Coughlin.

And thanks Dr. Parker, and Curtis Bennett, for helping us better understand the perspectives of a greater diversity of people, communities, and cultures.

In the General Session on Wednesday, Scott Terrell, DVM, DACVP, director, animal and science operations at Walt Disney Company, introduced AZA’s Strategic Framework for the Wellbeing of Animals. Dr. Terrell was then joined by Christopher Dold, DVM, chief zoological officer at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment; Nicola Craddock, executive director at the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia; and Dr. Dwight Lawson, executive director and chief executive officer at Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden in Oklahoma City, Okla., to further explore how AZA members’ can expand our notions of wellbeing for the animals in our care.

This is foundational work for the AZA community as we commit to continuous progress towards animal wellbeing and expanding our leadership in animal care. In fact, the two new AZA staff positions—a Director of Animal Wellbeing and an Animal Wellbeing Program Assistant—are now open and accepting applicants.

We all had abundant opportunities to reconnect, throughout the conference, and Tuesday evening’s “Directors’ Reception and Dinner” was representative. We shared beverages on the rooftop deck overlooking Orioles Park at Camden Yard, and dined together in the historic Camden Yard “warehouse.” Conversation and laughter filled both spaces. In the effort to keep my remarks brief, I neglected to mention one of the sponsors, a long-time and greatly valued member of the AZA commercial member family, and one of the founding members of our Commercial Member Engagement Council. So, let me make some partial amends here:

Event Network ROCKS! Thanks to Jerry Gilbert and his great team for all their support!!

And speaking of acknowledgment, each year, the Honors and Awards session is a time when we come together as a community to recognize and honor exceptional work.

This year, we celebrated the very pinnacle of our profession with the R. Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence. The 26th awarding of this honor was presented to Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., which she helped found in the 1970s and launch as its executive director in 1984. If you ever doubted the ability of one person to change the world in which we live, look to Julie for inspiration. She redefined what a public aquarium can be—an educational window into Monterey Bay and the oceans beyond, as a leading conservation organization, as a community asset, and as a global resource for the sustainable use of our limited resources. She has been an inspiration to many and a shining light to all in our community.

We also welcomed those stepping into new board roles, and I would like to recognize the incoming Board Chair, Adrienne Rowland, director of Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev.

Adrienne spoke of her arrival in the AZA community, making a point of recognizing first-time attendees—this was wonderful to see, as this diverse group of people are the future of our profession. She then reflected on past chairs who helped us navigate the challenging years of the pandemic: Dr. Chris Kuhar, Bert Castro, and Dr. Brian Davis. She talked about Dr. Sylvia Earle’s inspiring speech by her at our Mid-Year Meeting in Long Beach, Calif., highlighting something she said:

Knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people can be motivated to take positive actions.

Adrienne reminded us that we are surrounded by people who care and take action, sharing this powerful observation: We are surrounded by people of action. Those who do more than work at a zoo or aquarium—they work for zoos and aquariums.

What an excellent description of what it means to be part of the AZA community! Please join me in welcoming Adrienne as our new board chair—someone who is truly dedicated to working for accredited zoos and aquariums.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to our outgoing chair, Dr. Brian Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga. Brian has long been a dynamic and thoughtful leader in our community and in his time as chair he has demonstrated those traits many times over. His legacy of him as chair is deep and profound: sharpening our focus on and commitment to the fifth promise in our strategic plan on diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. As the immediate past chair, Brian will continue to serve on the Board for another year.

The Conference also saw two organizations step up with generous donations to support SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction and the new Animal Wellbeing Fund. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom donated $100,000 to SAFE and Disney donated $100,000 to help establish an Animal Wellbeing Fund. The AZA board of directors also voted to have the Association match Disney’s generous gift to the Animal Wellbeing Fund. The generosity of these two organizations will allow our community to do much good work in the years to come.

And finally, the Annual Conference would not be a success without the support of our exhibitors and sponsors. I would like to especially recognize those that sponsored at the Platinum level. Their significant support of the Association—financial and intellectual—is a foundation stone on which the ongoing work we do is possible. We could not do the work without you!

Platinum Sponsors

And did I mention Event Network?

The 2022 Annual Conference was a watershed moment when we emerged from three years of COVID-19 isolation and celebrated our resilience, our vision for the future, and our connection to one another.

Our future is bright. We control our destiny. We face abundant opportunity as well as a formidable challenge, so as Dr. Brian Davis noted, we had better “buckle up!”

We Are AZA!

Photo Credit: ©National Aquarium

Dan Ashe is the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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