Indianapolis, Sept. 12, 2017 -- The following remarks were delivered by Bronx Zoo Director Jim Breheny as he was sworn in as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Jim, who has worked at the Bronx Zoo since he was 14, now serves as Director of the Bronx Zoo and Executive Vice President of Zoos and Aquarium for the Wildlife Conservation Society, overseeing its five zoological parks in New York City, including the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo and New York Aquarium.

Here is a link to a video of his acceptance speech at AZA.

And below are his written remarks:

I consider myself very lucky to be part of this profession for over 40 years.  I grew up in one of the greatest zoological and conservation organizations in the world;   at the Bronx Zoo, which is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society.   I’ve been around animals and zoos all my life, it’s part of what defines me.  I met my wife at the zoo, we even got married at the zoo; the staff there is like family.  Working at the Bronx Zoo is all I ever really wanted to do.  And being part of this profession has been an amazing experience. 

One of the high points of my career was being elected to serve on the Board of Director’s – and today’s the culmination of that experience.

As much as I thought I knew about zoos, when I joined the Board in 2012, it was an awakening for me.  The AZA has some 230 members; with a diversity of sizes, budgets, and socio-economic challenges.  But the one thing we all had in common, and still have in common, is the commitment to be the best.  And that standard – that AZA members are the best zoos and aquariums – is ensured by our willingness to go through our rigorous accreditation process. 

In the 44 years that I have worked at the Bronx Zoo I’ve seen enormous changes in our profession.  And while WE recognize that zoos and aquariums have advanced and evolved tremendously over that time, it’s apparent that a portion of the public is not aware of our evolution; and as we know, they can be really vocal about it. 

The world in which we exist is a complex one.  We know how important our work is, yet we struggle.  We struggle because there has also been an evolution and change in thinking on the part of the public when it comes to animals in a captive setting.    

Our success, our ability to move forward – to survive really - comes down to one criteria: that of relevancy.   People are questioning - Are zoos and aquariums relevant in the 21st century?    We all know the answer and the answer is yes  - and here’s why….

Our zoos and aquariums have bold goals / and broad responsibilities;     in addition to providing the best care and welfare to individual animals, we work cooperatively to sustain species for the future.  

We’re working to ensure that the diversity of species sharing our planet with us today - will be sustained and thriving for future generations      

This is what makes us relevant.

But some people, even our friends and supporters – even some of us in this room – have varying degrees of comfort with some aspects of what we do and with some of the species that we keep.  In short, people want to support us, but they also want to feel good about their visit to our zoos and aquariums. 

There is also a segment of the public that genuinely has philosophical issues with the idea of keeping wild animals in zoos.  They may accept that the animals are well cared for, but still they feel wild animals belong in the wild. 

This growing segment of the population may challenge us, but they also provide us with the greatest opportunity to get our message out – that conservation of species is central to our mission.

But we’re often frustrated because we seem unable to communicate our relevance to those who question us. 

But is that their fault or ours?

I’ve sat in many rooms over the years surrounded by really smart people all totally flummoxed by our inability to communicate to others what’s so completely obvious to us.  We ask ourselves “why don’t people get this?” 

Well, I had an experience recently that’s made the answer to this question really clear.  It proved to me something we’ve all heard many times before:  We’re all part of a great story /  we’re just not good at telling that story. 

We may not have the appropriate platform or forum, we may be reactionary rather than proactive or we may be hesitant to let our story tell itself. 

In this we’ve done ourselves a huge disservice. 

We need to stop being defensive, apologetic and even secretive.  We need to engage the public and be absolutely open and transparent about what we do. 

I found that it’s not really that hard to open yourself up / you just have to make up your mind to do it.  It may require a change in culture at your zoo or aquarium, it certainly generates a little angst to put yourself out there, but more than anything - it requires a strength of conviction in what you are doing and in what we are doing together, collectively, as a community.  And that shouldn’t be a problem for us, because if we don’t all have that strength of conviction in what we are doing, we shouldn’t be doing it.

Our show, THE ZOO, on Animal Planet allowed me and the people I work with at the Bronx Zoo to tell our story.  Creating and producing the show was a natural, organic process.  It was a good-faith partnership with Discovery, Animal Planet and our producers. 

But we thought long and hard about doing the show before we did it.  It was five years from concept to premiere.

We sweated over it – that kind of openness and transparency was new to us.  We had never let anyone behind the scenes like that before – we never gave people that access.  But in the end, it was worth it.

THE ZOO gave the audience access to our animals, the staff, how we think, and to the things that we do every day and take for granted – and this was fascinating to them.   Most importantly, the show provided insight into who we are, the level of dedication and the diverse skills that we all bring to the table in caring for animals and working to save species.  

And allowing people to see it was much easier than trying to explain it. 

Viewers loved seeing the obvious relationship between the animals and the staff who care for them.  That bond resonated with people and seeing it increased their comfort level with us keeping animals in zoos and aquariums. 

The other thing that came through loud and clear was the conservation message.  Animal Planet’s own surveys told us that.

And learning how zoos and aquariums are working to save animals in the wild also increased the audience’s comfort level and allowed them think about us in a different light.

Hopefully, the show hasn’t just told the story of the Bronx Zoo, but also the larger story of all AZA zoos and aquariums. 

This experience is proof that somehow, we need to tell our collective story in a bigger way than ever before, and I look forward to working with all of you to figure out how to do that.

People need to understand that our efforts in our zoos and aquariums and in the field are integrated and not mutually exclusive; in fact they complement each other very well.

And that AZA zoos and aquariums are actively working to protect and preserve wild animals in nature. 

This is why we are relevant.

We need to educate people on these facts, not to simply justify the existence of zoos and aquariums, but to convey the crisis species face when they come in competition with people for land and other resources.  Animals, wild species, rarely win.  And as zoo and aquarium professionals, we can help. 

This is how we are relevant.

We want a world where wild animals and humans can both exist.  We have a mandate to inspire, to instill a sense of awe and wonder.  And we are unique in our ability to do so  – because we inspire our guests with living animals.  And if we’re successful in connecting the animals in our zoos and aquariums to the plight of species in nature – our members, visitors and public will join us in our mission to advocate for and save species. 

Advocacy is new for us, but look how successful we were when we joined together for 96Elephants.  We created a movement that achieved incredible, tangible results.  We made a difference for elephants.

This is how we’re relevant.

As AZA zoos and aquariums, we do not exist to be well run menageries;  we have a higher purpose    and that higher purpose is the conservation of species in the wild. 

In the last five years, our collective contribution to field conservation has gone from $159M to over $216M this year.  If we can maintain this, we will be able to state that every five years / AZA zoos and aquariums collectively contribute over $1B to the conservation of species around the world. 

That’s an amazing number and we own it! 

And it’s something we need to celebrate…

But as well as we are doing, most of that $200M is coming from about 50 members.  As a community and as an association we must do better. 

The goal is for each AZA zoo and aquarium to devote 3% of their operating budget to field conservation.  If we can achieve that, the two hundred million dollar number will

increase exponentially. 

There are few other organizations dedicating this magnitude of resources to ensure the survival of species for future generations.  This is how we answer our critics. 

If we are to truly speak of ourselves as agents of conservation, we all have to put our money where our mouths are; to have integrity, we all have to walk the walk.   

This is how we are relevant.

We don’t need to be defensive.  We just need to be the best at what we do.  As members of the AZA we need to be above reproach. We need to continue to challenge ourselves and answer the challenge that others will bring. 

But that’s not something to fear; it will only make us stronger.  That’s what’s going to continue to make us the best.

At the Bronx, I had Bill Conway as my mentor.  And he always said: “if you are going to keep an animal, keep it well.”

We need to constantly critique our exhibits and review the species that we keep.  If we have an exhibit that is not up to standard, we need to fix it or close it.  If we can’t properly provide for an individual animal or a species – we need to phase it out. 

Right now at the Bronx we have two major buildings, The World of Darkness and the Monkey House, that are closed because they no longer meet our standard for exhibiting animals. 

This type of honest self-scrutiny gives us credibility and reinforces our commitment to animal welfare and modern zoological practices.  It will serve as proof to our critics of two very important things; that AZA zoos and aquariums continue to evolve as the best in our profession, and that as zoo and aquarium professionals we have a conscience.

It all boils down to this: we need to provide the best care and welfare for the individual animals we keep.    We must manage the species we keep sustainably for the future;   and we must connect our animals and exhibits to species in the wild and inspire and empower our visitors to support our efforts to save them. 

The last point is an extremely important one.  As members of this association we must be active agents of conservation.  We must continue to challenge ourselves, to increase our efforts and funding for saving species and protecting the areas in which they live.  To continue that conservation mandate - $1billion dollars for conservation every five years… to grow that number – that’s what will guarantee our relevance for future generations. 

None of this is easy - but almost anything worth doing is hard.  But look around this room – at your friends and colleagues - we are passionate, dedicated professionals.  And we are up for the challenge.

Remember this:

The decisions and commitments that we make today will be what decides if there will be a nature tomorrow. 

We have a huge responsibility and we must deliver on it.  And that my friends, is what makes us relevant.