National Geographic

Former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation & Science Discusses the State of Zoos & their Future

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews his friend and colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins, one of the foremost experts on zoos in the world, to continue discussion about the future of zoos, related conservation breeding facilities and their role in global species preservation.

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Michael is the Director of Conservation and Science for Safari Professionals (SP), one of the most esteemed eco-tourism companies in Africa. Prior to joining SP, the career wildlife biologist served as the Executive Director of The Wildlife Society, which is the premier scientific society for wildlife conservation and management professionals in North America. Before leading TWS, he served as the Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Prior to  joining the AZA, Michael worked as a Conservation Biologist and Curatorial Intern for the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Michael currently holds two academic appointments. One is as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Graduate Program in Conservation Biology and the other is as an assistant professor in George Mason University’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy.

The distinguished biologist has written and edited over 200 books, scientific articles and published reports including serving as Editor Emeritus for Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. He has not only visited major zoos around the world, but has traveled to 35 countries, which includes visits to field conservation sites on 6 continents.  Michael received his PhD in Animal Behavior from the University of Washington where he studied the behaviorial ecology of Rocky Mountain goats in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

I interviewed Michael to gain some insight into the future of zoos as conservation centers and to elucidate some trends in the current management and exhibition of species for both conservation breeding and education purposes. This is part of a series examining the current state and future of zoological parks and their evolving roles as both sustainable wildlife conservation centers and natural history institutions.


Jordan Schaul: As one of the individuals who spearheaded many of the conservation programs that AZA- accredited zoos participate in today, and later the person at the helm of The Wildlife Society, you are perhaps one of the most qualified wildlife professionals in the world to address the integration of collection-based conservation programs and field initiatives, or what we call the interface between ex situ and in situ conservation. Are zoos really making an impact on field conservation, or at least the kind of impact you envisioned they would make at this point in time? What have zoos accomplished in this regard and where do they need to go in terms of maximizing their collective contribution to field conservation?

Michael Hutchins: The simple answer to this question is that some individual zoos are making significant contributions to in situ conservation and some are not. That being said, the paradigm has changed for zoos and aquariums that exhibit threatened and endangered species. In order to obtain an exhibition permit for such species from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, zoos must now show some level of commitment to in situ conservation. Often, this means a monetary donation to a field project or it may mean that the zoo’s staff is directly engaged in such projects.

Many of the larger zoos and zoo-based organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, New York), Denver Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) employ numerous educators, scientists and field conservationists. WCS, a zoo-based organization, has one of the oldest and largest field research and conservation programs in the world. Given the financial limitations of smaller zoos, it is not surprising that they that have had a difficult time fulfilling this goal. I and others, most notably Dr. William Conway, former director of WCS, have argued for two decades that zoos needed to increase their commitment to field based conservation, education and science if they and their animal collections are to fulfill their role as true ambassadors for conservation ( While some zoos have made significant progress in this regard, others are still struggling, often not for lack of interest, but for a lack of resources. In fact, it would be possible for smaller zoos to team up with larger ones and make important collective contributions. Often the goal of in situ conservation has taken a back seat to the need to improve aging and outdated animal facilities.

As far as the future is concerned, I think contemporary zoos need to continue along the path of raising funds for in situ conservation. This can be done in a number of innovative ways. Some zoos levy a conservation surcharge on visitors when they pay admission, and some charge admission to individual exhibits, or offer visitors opportunities to make voluntary contributions. For example, the Bronx and San Diego Zoos have kiosks where visitors can easily donate (via credit card) to in situ conservation efforts. Still others are building a conservation component into their fund-raising activities. One example would be to include support of in situ conservation into fund-raising for new exhibit construction, some of which can cost millions of dollars. Even small zoos can do these things. I think all of these examples have a great deal of potential, but it will require a sea change in zoo fund-raising methods and in the attitudes of donors. It would be great if zoos could get their donors to look past having their names on a building to actually building a future for threatened and endangered animals and their habitats. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, an AZA member, contributes over $1 million annually to support conservation programs around the world through Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund. AZA also has a Conservation Endowment Fund that has supported numerous projects. Since 1999, this fund has provided $5 million to support over 300 projects worldwide.

Jordan Schaul: Can zoos and aquariums adequately fulfill all the roles they have assumed and truly multitask as education centers, conservation breeding facilities, and research institutions, while at the same time, provide an engaging and entertaining experience for patrons. Would you agree that these are their current objectives or have they evolved and adopted a more focused or broader mission?

Michael Hutchins: It is difficult for zoos to try to be all things to all people, but some zoos are fulfilling this multifaceted vision quite well, especially those with adequate human and financial resources. I would agree that the general philosophy of the accredited zoo community has changed and that it has embraced this broader mission. However, I don’t think zoos can continue to sell themselves only as captive breeding facilities for endangered animals. While this has proved important for the recovery of selected species (e.g., black-footed ferrets, California condors, Vancouver Island marmot, etc.), it will not work for the vast number of animals that are currently classified as threatened or endangered. Any ecologist knows that wildlife needs appropriate habitat to survive and thrive. This will be the key in a world increasingly dominated by human influences. Modern zoos need to determine how they can help to protect and conserve habitat if species are to survive. If no habitat exists, then it is questionable whether captive breeding programs are warranted. Priorities must be established and triage will become a fact of life. In the face of climate change and other human impacts, some species will survive and some will not—like it or not that is the reality of it. The key question is: how are we going to make such difficult and painful decisions?

Jordan Schaul: Many zoological facilities assert that animal welfare is of paramount concern at their institutions. Some critics of zoos claim that sanctuaries provide a healthier quality of life for animals, primarily because sanctuaries often offer more space, natural substrates, and perhaps non-native, but more diverse vegetative assemblages, as opposed to more confining naturalistic habitats provided by zoos. At the same time some zoos are adopting sanctuary practices, while sanctuaries continue to rely on veterinary and husbandry research technologies developed at zoos to incorporate into their own animal care programs. Aside from catering to different captive wildlife populations. Is there an important distinction to be made or do both types of captive wildlife facilities benefit their respective populations?

Michael Hutchins: Yes, animal welfare has become a primary concern for accredited zoos, especially after the publication of a 1995 book I helped edit called Ethics on the Ark: Zoos, Animal Welfare and Wildlife Conservation. Funded by an NSF grant, this project brought together progressive zoo thinkers, conservationists and zoo critics to debate the evolving role of modern zoos and discuss the issue of animal welfare as it applies to captive animal management and conservation. I believe that this book had a huge impact on the community and it was shortly after its publication that the AZA developed an Animal Welfare Committee and began to focus serious attention on this issue. This was also a time that zoos were receiving heated criticism from animal rights and welfare proponents and the media about the quality of animal care, some of it legitimate and much of it not ( Many zoos have come a long way in this regard by building larger naturalistic enclosures, instituting environmental enrichment ( and birth control programs, and keeping animals in appropriate social groupings. An animal welfare component has now been built into the AZA accreditation program. Is this sufficient? Probably not. In particular, contemporary zoos need to ramp up their commitment to the science of animal welfare, including behavioral and other research that evaluates the effectiveness of environmental enrichment, enclosure design and other management techniques.

I am not a big fan of wildlife sanctuaries, which, like zoos, vary greatly in their quality and professionalism. These facilities use many of the same techniques to care for their animals as do accredited zoos, although they generally do not condone the breeding of animals. One major difference is that, unlike public zoos, sanctuaries are not open to the public. However, they are open to visits from potential donors. Another difference is that sanctuaries, compared with modern accredited zoos, are contributing little or nothing to the goals of education, conservation and science. They are essentially highly expensive holding facilities that allow aged and unwanted animals to live out their lives. This in itself is not a bad thing, if it were not for the dire predicament that we find ourselves in today. The world is experiencing a severe conservation crisis with thousands of species and their habitats struggling to survive. Given this context, would it not be better if the millions of dollars spent on maintaining sanctuaries be funneled to in situ conservation, as well as to wildlife science and education? Wouldn’t it be better if states were to ban the general public from keeping and breeding large exotic animals, so that surplus animals are not produced? I find it extremely difficult to support sanctuaries based on this observation. I believe that our attempts to reverse final and irreversible extinction to be a higher and more immediate moral imperative than the lives or welfare of individual animals. As conservation biologists, Michael Soule and Bruce Wilcox once wrote, “An end to life is one thing, but an end to birth is something else.”

Jordan Schaul: Can you talk about elephant management in zoos with regard to welfare and conservation and the future of these captive populations?

Michael Hutchins: Elephant captive management and conservation has been a particular interest of mine, and I have published numerous articles and book chapters on these topics. In 1999, along with my colleague Dr. Brandie Smith (now Curator of Mammals at Smithsonian’s National Zoo), I organized a series of meetings for AZA focused on the future of elephants in North American zoos. The meetings brought together a wide variety of experts including elephant field conservationists and behaviorists, captive managers, trainers and veterinarians. The final report laid out a whole range of recommendations for the AZA community, some of which were subsequently adopted by AZA and others not. This was followed by a meeting organized by Drs. Chris Wemmer and Kate Christian at Smithsonian National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, VA, which eventually resulted in the book: Elephants and Ethics: Towards Morality of Coexistence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

All of these projects got the zoo community thinking about the future of elephant management. There has been considerable progress since that time, with many AZA zoos developing larger (several acres) exhibits that allow the animals to roam, as well as needed advances in environmental enrichment, group size, veterinary care and reproduction. AZA has finally moved its member institutions toward protected contact management of elephants, a safer and more humane approach, which involves positive reinforcement training though a protective barrier. The traditional method—free contact management–had been based on circus training using a bull hook to guide and punish the animals and with the trainer and elephant sharing the same physical space. This method was often abused and elephant welfare was sometimes compromised.

Many keepers resisted this change, but then many of them were also being injured or killed. At one point, elephant keeping was declared one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. For years, I argued for the adoption of protected contact management at AZA institutions, citing animal welfare, keeper safety and liability concerns, and this made me some enemies. That being said, in 2006, I and two co-authors published a systematic analysis of elephant keeper injuries and deaths from 1988 to 2003 in Europe and North America in the International Zoo Yearbook, a publication of the Zoological Society of London ( The results from that study clearly indicated that the vast majority of injuries and deaths occurred in free contact management systems. The few injuries that occurred during protected contact management were attributed to keepers not following established protocol. There were no reported deaths. Now that a safer and, in many ways, more humane method of training exists, it would be hard to argue for a continuation of free contact management, although it is still occurring in some countries, such as Australia, in circuses and in non-accredited zoos. Not surprisingly, there was a recent serious elephant keeper injury at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. I should also note that rather than lose valuable animals to sanctuaries, AZA is developing a large elephant holding and breeding facility, The National Elephant Center, a 225-acre facility in Florida. This a huge step forward.

Going forward, the biggest challenge for modern zoos and their elephant programs will be sustain their elephant populations over the long-term, which means science-based genetic and demographic management. Elephant importation is difficult, though not impossible; however, it is costly and controversial ( In the past, many female elephants were not bred early enough and continuously as they are in nature. Reproduction was controlled because zoos had no place to put surplus males. As a result, older, otherwise healthy, females developed abnormalities, such as reproductive tract adhesions, which precluded them from reproducing. The new facility in Florida, the National Elephant Center, will have space for the housing of surplus males, making more frequent reproduction a possibility ( The big question is: are there currently enough reproductively viable female elephants to sustain the population over time? Another question is how many zoos will be able to afford to keep elephants under appropriate conditions? For example, it is unlikely that many northern zoos that experience severe winters should have elephants, as the building of large, heated indoor facilities would be precluded by cost. It is likely that the number of zoos holding elephants in the future will dwindle to those institutions that can provide adequate space and care for these social animals and keep them in larger group sizes. The comparatively small, rock and concrete facilities housing one or two elephants will become a thing of the past.

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Are zoos contributing to elephant conservation in nature? Yes they are ( Much research has been done on the hormonal cycles and communication patterns of zoo elephants and this has contributed to a greater understanding of elephant biology, which is now being applied in the field. Infrasonic communication in elephants was first documented at Oregon’s Portland Zoo, and even further refined by research at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and in the field. Techniques for the satellite tracking of elephants have been tested on zoo elephants prior to be used in the field. The International Elephant Foundation, essentially a zoo-based organization, has contributed $2 million dollars to elephant conservation and associated research and educational programs in range countries.

Jordan Schaul: I interviewed our colleague and former zoo director David Hancocks ( earlier this year. He has some strong opinions about the current state and future of zoos. Could you share some of your thoughts on what zoos are doing right and perhaps where they could improve?

Michael Hutchins: David Hancocks is an old friend and colleague. In fact I took him on his first camping trip in the early 1980s when we visited Lake Ozette and Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I have great respect for the man and do not question his sincerity or intelligence. His work at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, along with Jones and Jones architects, was incredibly innovative at the time and resulted in a trend toward naturalistic exhibits for zoo animals. That being said, I do not agree with everything that David says in his interview. I feel that, in some cases, he has become cynical and critical of the role of modern zoos. I also believe that he leaves out a lot in his analyses and tends to speak in generalizations, when he knows full well that some zoos are already doing the things that he is suggesting. For example, he states that “if they (zoos) really wanted their visitors to develop better understandings of the natural world they would be showing and interpreting the small life forms.” Of course, invertebrates make up a large percentage of the species on our planet, and many zoos and aquariums are, in fact, exhibiting and interpreting these animals to the public. Virtually every aquarium I have visited contains exhibits of marine invertebrates, such as crabs, sea anemones and coral. Many zoos are now developing terrestrial invertebrate exhibits, including butterfly gardens. In fact, in the late 1990s, I helped to develop the Butterfly Conservation Initiative (BFCI), a consortium of state and federal agencies, zoos, and conservation organizations with the goal of recovering threatened, endangered and vulnerable butterflies in North America. Among the best zoo invertebrate exhibits of which I am aware are at the Cincinnati Zoo and Audubon Zoo and Institute in New Orleans. Have all zoos moved in this direction, no. However, the models are there and have been quite successful.

I agree with David that there is an essential conflict between zoo exhibition and welfare. However, there are solutions. For example, today’s progressive zoos do not force animals to remain within the public’s view as his interview implies. This can be easily accomplished with environmental enrichment, training and innovative exhibit design. At the Bronx Zoo, snow leopards like to lie on a heated rock, which also places them in view of the public. A similar technique is employed for lions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Feeding techniques are also used to increase visibility. For example, one method of enrichment for social primates is to scatter sun flower seeds or other edible items in the grass where the animals have to search for them, as they would in nature.

At one point in his interview, David implies that the selection of animals for exhibition is randomly based on the individual interests (whims) of zoo curators and their need to put animals on show. He further states that, “If zoos gave serious attention to education, we should surely see much greater variety in their collections.” However, David does not seem to be aware that zoos have had to reduce variety in their collections out of necessity. Captive animal populations must be of a certain size to remain viable over the long-term (minimum viable population) and this can only be accomplished if several zoos hold the species and manage the population cooperatively. In addition, space is limited and animals are more difficult to obtain from the wild ( David also does not seem to be aware of the emergence of cooperative strategic collection planning in AZA zoos, which essentially forces zoo managers to seriously contemplate why they are maintaining certain species. I co-authored a seminal paper on this topic in 1995 in the journal Zoo Biology (, which eventually led to the development of Taxon Advisory Groups. TAGs are formalized structures for analyzing zoo populations and making suggestions about which species are best suited for zoo exhibition, what the goal of exhibition is (conservation, education, science, fund-raising to support in situ conservation) and moves zoos toward effective cooperative genetic and demographic management. The survival of zoos is dependent on having live animals to study and exhibit and animals are becoming more and more difficult to obtain from the wild. That is why they must work together to sustain populations of species that they deem to be a priority.

There is one point with which I do agree with David. There needs to be much more innovation and leadership in the modern zoo community. Like the species they exhibit, zoos and the organizations that represent them, must continue to evolve in order to survive. While they have come a long way since the 1970s, further change and innovation is necessary. As David says, zoos should be their own worst critics and continually question their own practices and reasons for being. It is only then that they can stay ahead of their critics and fulfill their important missions of education, science, conservation, and animal welfare. We have already spoken about the need for innovation in fund-raising, but the educational mission of zoos also has major challenges.  How, for example, will zoos appeal to and effectively educate a populace that is becoming more diverse by the day? If zoos were engaging in self- examination regularly, and heeding their own advice, there would be no need for gadflies like David Hancocks. His 2001 book titled A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future (University of California Press) should be required reading for all zoo professionals. I made many of the same points with my co-author Brandie Smith in a 2007 article titled “Characteristics of a world class zoo or aquarium in the 21 st century” published in the International Zoo Yearbook (

Jordan Schaul: You are an ardent supporter of eco-tourism as a conservation tool. Many people are unaware that zoos sponsor many eco-tourism programs sending their own staff to accompany guides and naturalists on theses excursions. Is there a mutual benefit here and is this something you see zoos embracing more so in the future?

Michael Hutchins: Yes, as the current director of conservation and science for Safari Professionals, one of the best adventure travel companies taking people into the Serengeti and other locations in Africa, I believe that tourism is the key to saving unique African wildlife and ecosystems. The pressure for development is growing throughout Africa, especially with industrialization, mining, expanding agriculture and a growing population. Recently, the Tanzanian government sought to build a highway through the middle of Serengeti National Park to transport agricultural products and other supplies. Fortunately, due to the major impact that wildlife tourism has on the economy, the country’s leaders are considering other alternatives, including a new southern route that would bypass the park.

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Zoos that have tourism programs can be seen as providing economic incentives that conserve wildlife and their habitats in the wide variety of countries that they visit. However, the impacts of tourism in African (and other developing) countries can be tricky. Like Safari Professionals, it is critical that the tour companies zoos use are working with in-country partners that not only hire local people, but are run by them. That way, the economic benefits clearly support local communities. In addition, I think such companies should contribute a portion of their proceeds to support conservation and local community activities in the region. Through its ImpactOnAfrica program, Safari Professionals is donating a percentage of its profits to selected conservation and related educational and research projects in the Serengeti region. It is also helping local communities by providing support for clean water projects, health care and education throughout Africa.

Last, but not least, there is also the issue of the impact of tourism on wildlife and their habitats. Tourism is not a benign activity, and zoos should work with responsible companies that obey all of the rules and respect the wildlife and their habitats, while minimizing any negative impacts on them.

Jordan Schaul: Can wildlife agencies and zoos collaborate any more than they already are as partners in conservation?

There can always be more effective collaboration. However, accredited zoos and state and federal wildlife agencies often have good and productive relationships ( Individual zoos and AZA are engaged in numerous collaborative projects with government wildlife agencies, ranging from black-footed ferret and California condor recovery to a wide variety of research, breeding and reintroduction projects. A great example is the facility at Columbus Zoo, which is seeking to study and develop methods to recover endangered freshwater mussels ( Toledo Zoo has been instrumental in bringing back the endangered Karner blue butterfly in Ohio through its head start and reintroduction programs ( A similar program is underway at the Portland Zoo to save the endangered Oregon silver spot butterfly ( A consortium of zoos in the Pacific Northwest is working with state wildlife agencies to recover the endangered western pond turtle ( Many eastern AZA member zoos and aquariums are now helping to develop captive breeding programs for the hellbender, a large salamander that is critically endangered. The Nashville Zoo recently had success with the first captive breeding ( There are numerous other examples.


  1. Michaela Kennedy
    September 13, 2013, 6:56 am

    Interesting article. There has to be a point where we humans take responsibility for protecting all beings and their habitats, rather than perpetuate our greed to own and display them. Just because we can doesn’t make it right.

  2. Thomas Kirby
    May 30, 2013, 2:08 am

    This Hutchins is so wrong, about isolating animals from humans, about letting endangered species die out when they could be kept as pets, and his attacks on the right or private ownership.

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