The Power of Partnerships: Zoos Joining Forces with Animal Welfare Organizations

logoA snippet of my quite controversial post over at about my naively optimistic wish of eliminating the US vs THEM mentality that has invaded every aspect of our world:

“But my real wish, my dream, is of, “what an amazing world this would be’ if we could all join forces. We could unite over a common cause: working to protect the remaining non-captive animal populations from extinction. Let’s join together the very best characteristics from both sides of the aisle. Join the mega audience of zoos and aquariums, (with an attendance greater than all professional sports combined), with the marketing, messaging and PR skills of the animal rights groups, whose ability to incite passionate action is unrivalled.

Let’s redirect our efforts for productivity, for proactivity, and stop fighting each other. We need to listen and learn; critically review our policies and procedures, create new programs, and focus. Let’s save habitats and wildlife. Because really, we’re all on this earth together, so why not be all in this together?”

7 thoughts on “The Power of Partnerships: Zoos Joining Forces with Animal Welfare Organizations

  1. Game of Thrones provides great lessons on why forming partnerships alone isn’t enough to achieve your goals; you must understand your partners and their motivations. Rob Stark had an alliance with House Frey and House Bolton. He needed allies and support against House Lannister. Rob overestimated House Frey and House Bolton’s loyalty and upset them by going against their counsel and breaking a marriage arrangement. When they saw a chance to further their own agendas they used their closeness to House Stark to betray him at the Red Wedding. In season 7, it’s clear that Jon doesn’t have the resources on his own to thwart the white walker invasion. He needs to form partnerships. He fervently believes that if Cersei sees proof of the white walkers she’ll be compelled to set aside their differences temporally and work together to address that mutual threat. How does it end? We will have to wait for the next season, but hopefully Jon learned something from the death of his brother Rob Stark.

    Returning to zoos, partnerships could potentially be beneficial to achieving goals like conservation and animal welfare, but before partnerships can be formed it is important to understand different groups and their motivations. I think there’s still some confusion differentiating the players. Your article on Designing zoos is called “The Power of Partnerships: Zoos Joining Forces with Animal Welfare Organizations”, but the quote in your article mentions zoos and aquariums joining with animal rights groups. Animal welfare groups and animal right groups have different morals and motivations. We need to understand those differences before forming partnerships with these distinct groups.

    Besides animal welfare groups and animal rights groups there are also animal conservation groups. Animal welfare groups are concerned about the humane treatment of animals and preventing animal suffering. The American Humane Society is a prominent animal welfare organization. Animal rights groups view humans and animals as equal and are concerned with ending all use of animals for human benefit. PETA is a prominent animal rights group. Animal conservationists are concerned with protecting wild plant and animal species and their habitats. The WWF is a prominent animal conservation organization.

    Sometimes these groups have common goals and can work together. All of three of them are opposed to the pangolin trade. Animal welfare groups are concerned about the suffering of the pangolins during capture, transport and death. Animal rights groups condemn the exploitation of the pangolins for food and medicine. Animal conservation groups are concerned about the unsustainable nature of the pangolin trade and its impact on wild pangolin populations.

    All three of these groups have different concerns about and responses to zoos and aquariums. Animal welfare groups are concerned about minimizing the suffering of animals held in captivity. They are not necessarily opposed to zoos but will oppose keeping species whose needs cannot be adequately met in captivity. Animal right groups oppose keeping animals in captivity for human benefit. They would like to see all zoos closed or converted to sanctuaries. Animal conservation groups are concerned about zoos contributing meaningfully to conservation. They would be supportive of zoos that support both in-situ and ex-situ conservation.

    People and organizations do not always fit neatly into these three groups of animal welfare, animal rights, and animal conservation and there can be some overlap. For example, many animal conservationists are deeply concerned about animal suffering and some oppose the use of animals in general because it tends to be unsustainable. The three categories of animal groups are not perfect encapsulations because people have complex morals, but it does help communication and understanding.

    Zoos and aquariums can form connections, work together, and find common ground with many conservation groups and some animal welfare groups, but have a much harder time doing so with animal rights groups. Most people are concerned with animal welfare and animal conservation. Far fewer people are animal rights advocates. Animal rights groups have gained so much influence partly because they are clever and competent at it. They tend to take over conversations about welfare and cast doubt and suspicion. Look at how Donald Trump rose to presidential power in the United States. He was able to create a climate of doubt and suspicion about Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump also tapped into the deep distrust people have for institutions. Animal rights groups use a similar tactic when they frame zoos as the institution.

    The best tactic for zoos is to pick their own seat at the animal welfare conversation. They should respond proactively to improve animal welfare and address concerns. Listening to animal welfare groups, like the American Humane Society, as was done to some extent at the 2017 AZA Conference helps. Refusing to engage with those groups makes it seem like there’s something to hide or something wrong. Just listening isn’t good enough though, meaningful responses must be made to concerns, or they’ll go all Red Wedding on you.

    It would be wise to remember lessons from Game of Thrones in these partnerships. Understand your different partners and their motivations and predict how they will respond to situations. Be prepared for misunderstandings and miscommunications. Remember that others will not be as forgiving with you as you’ll like. Respond proactively. It would help to have a dragon too if things go poorly 😛 .

    Devin Legisa

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful and spot on comment, Devin! Every baby step gets us closer to understanding the power we could have if we all funneled our specific strengths into one focus. But, yes, we are FAR from that right now, and getting there will require a huge act of diplomacy from all sides.

  2. i see Devin did not mention the actual focus of your comments and logo of the HSUS. Be aware the HSUS is an animal rights groups. Their goal ( yese even with baby steps) is to eliminate all zoos. They are very good at deception. Look they even fooled you. Friends don’t let friends donate to the HSUS because they want to close all zoos..

  3. Boy are you either delusional, naive or manipulative.
    HSUS does not want to work with zoos to help them, they want them gone. & they are not by any stretch an Animal Welfare org. They’re a DC swamp dwelling, hard left anti agriculture, anti husbandry, anti pet ownership, anti all hunting (including predator control & wildlife management) bottom feeding Animal Rights lobby group. PETA in a suit & deodorant..hold the deodorant. And btw, in case you haven’t heard their Ex VP & CEO just got s-canned bc they couldn’t keep it in their pants around the office.
    Are you pretending not to know the difference between AW & AR or do you not really?
    They have no more business being involved in our zoos than they have being allowed to run SeaWorld.
    People celebrating this unholy union instead of exposing it will be the zoos’ downfall.

  4. Interesting thought, however, what zoos can achieve from that? Zoos purposes are education, breeding endangered species and conservation in the wild. Animal welfare organizations have little expertise or help to offer in either.

    Anti-zoo campaigns are loudly publicized. However their real impact on zoos is marginal. Zoos continue to grow and get record attendance. If anything, it is animal rights organizations which need publicity generated by high-profile animals like dolphins or elephants, which sell better than dogs or cats.

    At the same time, there is a fundamental truth. Anybody working with wild animals understands that the concept of animal rights is internally wrong. Nature is not compatible with rights or kindness. Predators need to eat prey. Plant-eating animals fight and compete with others of their own species. It is not possible to extend to wild animals a system of compassion and rights existing between humans and perhaps few selected pets (when we overlook that cats need animal food and all pets will breed too fast to find homes for offspirng). It is hard to cooperate with somebody who is fundamentally misinformed.

    • I agree with everything everyone has said here. If you read the full article, you will see that I am not criticizing the zoo world for not currently engaging. I’m simply observing that the animal rights movement has some attributes that we, zoo advocates, could utilize. And, if we SOMEHOW found a way to work together… WOW! What an impact we could make. I’m dismayed and surprised at how such a positive, hopeful, optimistic statement has brought about so many negative, sometimes personally insulting, and almost always pessimistic responses. Its a reflection of the frustration we are all feeling–in so many aspects of our world right now. So, thank you for your thoughts, and keep the love for zoos and aquariums going! –Stacey

  5. I hope that my post didn’t come across as overly pessimistic. I was trying to say that partnerships can be beneficial, but it’s important to be careful and mindful of the intentions of others that you work with.

    Several others have commented here that they distrust the HSUS and think that they hide an animal rights agenda behind a façade of animal welfare. They believe the HSUS is anti-zoo. Even if that’s the case, I doubt everyone who’s a part of that organization or that supports it is a hardline anti-zoo animal rights advocate. There are likely some animal rights advocates in the HSUS that are pushing to transform those groups to reflect their ideologies. Most people who are strong animal rights advocates though will be more attracted to other organizations with a transparent concern for animal rights.

    When zoos refuse to engage with animal advocacy groups they’re giving up a seat and leaving more room for people with other ideologies to have influence. I think it would be better if zoos engaged more with these groups and were able to re-center the conversation to advance meaningful improvements to animal conservation and welfare.

    Relationships aren’t one-way though. If the zoo community wants to have more influence with animal advocacy groups they also must listen to those groups.

    Devin Legisa

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