President’s Blog: September 20, 2017
President's Blog

President’s Blog: September 20, 2017


Dear Friend:


Last week the Association of Zoos and Aquariums held its annual conference in Indianapolis.  Those attending from Mystic Aquarium, in addition to me, included Katie Cubina, Andy Wood, Larry Rivarde, Allison Tuttle, Laurie Macha, Nate Fague, Laura Batt, Gayle Sirpenski, Roz Gilhuly , Dale Wolbrink and Tracy Romano.

Mystic Aquarium plays an active role in the leadership of the Association.  Several members of our team participated in panel discussions on various topics, discussions on species specific matters, and held meetings with their counterparts from other zoos and aquariums.  The Association has a new President and CEO, Dan Ashe, and I want to welcome him and wish him the very best in leading the Association.

The keynote speaker for the conference was President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Wayne Pacelle.   I was delighted to talk with Mr. Pacelle and learned that he is a native of New Haven.  He spent many days as a child and youth at Mystic Aquarium.

Mr. Pacelle’s appearance at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference was quite controversial because, at times, the Humane Society of the United States, and Wayne personally, have been outspoken critics of keeping animals, especially marine mammals, under human care.

However, many individual zoos and aquariums, including Mystic Aquarium, work with the Humane Society in various ways at the local level.  For example, Mystic Aquarium has collaborated with the Humane Society on seeking a ban in Connecticut and Rhode Island on the sale of shark fins because of the cruel practices of the shark fin trade.



Vice President of Conservation and Education, Kelly Matis, is Chair of the Conservation and Education Committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  An editorial written by Kelly and several colleagues appears in the September 2017 edition of Connect magazine. Perhaps coincidentally, the article features an image of Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Management Specialist Gayle Sirpenski talking about the importance of the Species Survival Plans. Here is the editorial:

An Editorial from the Conservation Education Committee on Sharing the Collective Impact and Importance of Zoos and Aquariums

The results are in and the findings are confusing.  Public favorability of zoos and aquariums appears to be dropping, but perhaps not steeply enough that we should panic.  There are generational differences in terms of who trusts us the most, yet it’s not quite as drastic as we might think.  One thing we know from some of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ market research is that the public trusts their local zoo or aquarium more than they trust our wider profession.  And why not?  We are great at telling our own stories; it helps us gain memberships, visitors, donors and dollars.  Telling our individual stories to our individual audiences makes business sense.  But as we look to the future of zoos and aquariums, there is one overarching lesson we must all take to heart; we all succeed, or we all fail, together.

We are a Collaborative Community

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are accustomed to collaboration, ever since Species Survival Plans® began in the 1980s. The strength of SSP programs—and collaborative management in general—is that it enables us to bring our collective resources to bear for the strength of our exhibits as well as populations.  And thus, population management has cemented within our field an expectation of collaboration.

This expectation of cooperation exists beyond the scope of population planning, however. We all experience it echoing through the halls of any AZA annual meeting, and through any AZA listserv or message board, where educators (for example) trade lesson plans, conservation messages and interpretive scripts as freely as our grandmothers shared recipes.

Recently, that culture of collaboration has become more public as zoos and aquariums push forward collective public awareness and action campaigns.  The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) demonstrated the potential of multiple facilities coming together on behalf of wildlife with the success of their 96 Elephants campaign.  That effort contributed to a ban on ivory sales in the United States (with China following months later) and the passage of the END Wildlife Trafficking Act, to say nothing of the nearly two million actions taken on behalf of elephants. Most recently, the Invest in the Nest Kickstarter challenge blew past its original fundraising goal and its subsequent stretch goal to raise more than $190,000 for African penguin nest boxes.  This campaign utilized corporate relationships, educational programming, video and photo collateral, communication strategies and more from a variety of facilities—some of which don’t even exhibit African penguins.  The Kickstarter campaign would not have had a chance of success had multiple members, and a variety of professions within our community, not come together on this joint venture.  Indeed, the rationale behind AZA: SAFE is that we are stronger and more impactful when we work together.

Gayle Sirpenski
Gayle Sirpenski explains the importance of #SavingSpecies

Creating a Culture of Sharing:  A Proposal for the Future

Is now not the time to take this even further?  The community found success through these targeted campaigns, but how do we now create a full blown culture of collaboration?   It currently seems challenging to speak about other zoo and aquarium work with our own audiences.  But, if the market research is true that our local audiences are leery of our profession as a whole, and if national trends in zoo and aquarium favorability continue downward, possibly weakening our access to future financial supporters, then we feel that now is the time to use our local social capital towards national goals.  Now is the time to leverage individual facility’s expertise and connections for a larger collective impact.  We must be highlighting our colleagues’ successes and using our collective voices to amplify the reach.

Perhaps this amplification can manifest in the form of one zoo’s lion exhibit encouraging guests to check out another zoo’s work with the species.  Or a joint social media campaign could be launched by many aquariums to highlight each other’s likeminded work on coral restoration.  Or imagine front-line interpreters who were encouraged to tell a curious guest that “while our team isn’t engaged in field conservation work with bonobos, our colleagues at this other facility are, and we’re proud to be part of a community where such impactful projects occur.”  If these examples are too difficult, perhaps there is a creative way we can think about highlighting collective impact stories.  Can zoos who participate in 96 Elephants, for example, put signage up about that initiative?  Can we run AZA: SAFE columns in all our member newsletters, even when our own institutions’ participation might be limited?

Of course this is easier said than done. Some development officers would naturally chafe at the idea that heralding the work of another facility might divert donor dollars from their own. Audience research or communications practitioners might contend that their audiences don’t care about what other zoos and aquariums do.  And doubtless there are potentially directors out there who are proud that their facility is a leader in a certain area and would not want to weaken that position in the community for the sake of inclusivity.  These are valid objections, and we do not pretend to have the answers.

Yet we feel compelled to make the call to action nonetheless, so that communicators, educators, conservationists, animal care teams and administrators can all grapple with this confusing question.  How can a single facility amplify the efforts of their colleagues across the continent? How can we learn—and we must learn quickly—to weave our own facility’s story in with the stories of our peers?  And what metrics should we track to measure our success?  It can’t just be about feet through the door or dollars in the bank; though these might be correlated to success, and would serve as resources we can mobilize in our efforts to make even bigger impacts on conservation.  After all, we cannot think about this solely as a prescription for our profession’s endurance, but as the means to accomplish what is truly our ultimate goal of saving animals from extinction.

In 2016, a reported 180 million people visited an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium, with at least 90 million audience driven educational engagements occurring within these visits, and our reach through social media, magazines, and earned media amplifies those contacts even more.  We are adept at managing animal populations together for the greater good.  Imagine what we could do if we could manage our stories and successes the same way.

  • Kelly Matis, AZA Conservation Education Committee chair and vice president of education and conservation at Mystic Aquarium.
  • Allison Price, Conservation Education Committee vice chair and director of learning experiences at Lincoln Park Zoo.
  • Debbi Stone, Conservation Education Committee vice chair and vice president of education at the Florida Aquarium.
  • Danielle Ross, Conservation Education Committee past chair and vice president of conservation education at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Wilds.



We are thrilled to hear news from our partner, Sea World in San Antonio, about the birth of a baby Beluga to mother, Crissy.  I was with SeaWorld Vice President of Zoological Operations, Chris Bellows in Indianapolis at the conference last week – he looked and acted like an expectant father!

The gender of the calf cannot be determined yet because the animal husbandry staff is trying to give the mother and calf sufficient space.  Here is a heartwarming video clip of mother and baby from the local San Antonio news channel:

The next few weeks in the calf’s life are critical and we are hoping and praying that the animal will thrive.  SeaWorld’s team of husbandry and veterinary staff are among the best in the world and we are proud to be a partner with them in assuring the future of Beluga whales and on many other efforts.



Senior Vice President for External Relations, Andy Wood, joined United States Congressman Joe Courtney, representatives of the United States Department of Commerce, and Connecticut leaders on a whirlwind tourism promotion trip to parts of Ireland and England this week.  Our own mascot, Petey the Penguin, also took part in the trip.

Mystic Aquarium SVP External Relations Andy Wood and US Congressman Joe Courtney

 Ireland Connecticut Connection

 These efforts are extremely important to raise awareness of the non-stop international flights now available on Aer Lingus from Europe to Bradley International Airport.  Also, the United States has seen a significant decline in tourism from abroad over the past year.

Aer Lingus produced the promotional video below.  Even with this first class video production, my understanding is that Petey the Penguin stole the show:



Todd Devlin-Perry

Senior Life Support Systems Technician Todd Devlin-Perry has been elected to the Board of the Aquatic Animal Life Support Operators (AALSO)

Water quality and life support personnel at Mystic Aquarium and elsewhere are often the unsung heroes of these operations.  They come in the dark of night when there is a problem of any sort with an animal’s health, keep systems going amidst myriad challenges, and assure the health and well-being of all 5,000 animals under care at Mystic Aquarium.

Our Water Quality and Life Support Teams at Mystic Aquarium include Todd, Kristin Russo, Randy Shine and Mark McDermott.  They are often assisted by our HVAC and Mechanical Systems Team which includes Tom Clay, Bob Carr, Rob Gray and Adam Potter.

I asked Todd to tell me about the work that he does with the AALSO.  He wrote:

“…we provide hands on experience and education for the members.  We have designed a 100’ long Life Support System with all of the equipment that we tend to see in our field.  This “loop” gets reassembled every year at different locations and then filled with about 4,000 gallons of saltwater to give a real life experience for the students.  We … perform workshops on pumps, various filters, ozone generators and other associated equipment.”

Congratulations to Todd and thank you to our Water Quality, Life Support, Mechanical and HVAC teams for your commitment and dedication to our mission.



Mystic Aquarium has been awarded a major grant from the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services to construct a new Long Island Sound exhibit and touch tank on the main aquarium floor.  Funding from the Institute is matched by another major gift from Dominion.

Congratulations to Senior Vice President for Mission Programs, Katie Cubina and her team, as well as Grants Manager Jill Diehl and Grants Coordinator Autumn Hanscom for their outstanding work in securing this funding.


See you all soon!

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