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Lessons about innovation and risk management from the end of the road

Dr Jake Veasey

Mar 8, 2024

 Are zoos and aquariums ready to keep pace with accelerating rates of scientific and societal change?

The breaking news that an eviction notice has been served on Miami Seaquarium on animal welfare grounds will send ripples through the zoo, aquarium, and welfare communities, highlighting once again, the preeminent significance of animal welfare to the sector. Since details are still emerging, and I have no direct experience with the Seaquarium, I’m not going to go into the specifics of this case, other than to say I hope a speedy solution can be found to secure the welfare of the animals, and my thoughts go out to the animal care staff, who I have no doubt, did the best they felt they could for the animals in their care, given the circumstances they and their animals found themselves in. Instead, I want to focus on the broader conversation this news should hopefully prompt about the welfare of wild animals in captivity, and specifically, the readiness of zoos and aquariums to adapt to rapidly evolving societal expectations.

Despite being certified by American Humane just five years ago, Miami Seaquarium clearly lost the confidence of elected stakeholders regarding their welfare credentials. This story highlights the risk of complacency in relying on prevailing paradigms of best practice and the need for vigilance in respect of both the direction of travel, and rate of change in welfare thinking amongst scientists and society at large.

It seems to me there are a couple of factors converging that will ensure this won’t be the last zoo or aquarium to close because it apparently fell behind the curve on welfare. The first factor is the ever-accelerating pace of technological and societal change, which, I think it’s important to recognise, encompasses a rapidly evolving understanding of the needs of animals, which is in turn shaping societal expectations. In contrast to this, the rate at which zoos and aquariums can adapt to these scientific and societal changes can be comparatively slow, and proportionally so for highly capital-intensive habitats such as those for larger mammals.

The logic behind this second point is as follows; higher habitat costs lead to more risk averse design choices, and a greater the tendency to choose “proven” designs paradigms. Parallel to this, the more an institution has invested in a habitat, the greater the tendency to double down and commit to extending their use, and defending their performance. Added to this, institutions that invest heavily in their facilities often have a greater influence on setting husbandry benchmarks, which can inadvertently contribute inertia to updating standards. While this might not be a universal truth per se, I’ve witnessed it’s influence frequently enough to recognise it as being far from unheard of… most notably when sat amongst other stakeholders discussing standards of elephant care, over the course of two decades and across two continents! So, in short, the more expensive it is to build a habitat, the greater the risk of that habitat falling behind accelerating public and scientific expectations of what good looks like. Over the past decade, marine mammals have increasingly seen their prohibitively expensive habitats fall out of step with current societal expectations, and are probably the greatest exemplars of this, and this will likely have contributed to the downfall of Miami Seaquarium.

So how do zoos and aquariums insulate themselves against this challenge? The answer is of course, by striving to maximise the welfare of animals under their care and ensuring that mantra guides long-term strategic decision making as well as day to day activities. The first step, and perhaps the most difficult step for some is recognising that defending the status-quo will fail, as I believe it has, repeatedly with the care of marine mammals. Secondly, zoos and aquariums need to consider existing conceptions of best practice as a minimal baseline which, if we are doing our jobs right, should become obsolete in the medium term, rather than as aspirational targets. And finally, zoos and aquariums need to reconsider how they risk assess habitat design; while the cookie-cutter approach of tweaking “proven” built designs might seem to reduce construction risks, it is also a guaranteed recipe for premature obsolescence and sub-optimal welfare. 

Buckle up, the rate of change in "zoo-design" is set to accelerate, but can zoos and aquariums keep pace?

Habitats that prove to be effective and resilient in the longer term will undoubtedly be those founded on welfare-driven innovation, rooted in evidence, rather than those configured around existing husbandry conventions. While standards may evolve, the fundamental needs of species, outside of evolutionary adaptation, remain constant, and so its these fundamental needs that must guide habitat design. Such an approach, unshackled by existing habitat conventions which invariably fail to accommodate significant welfare priorities, is the only way to meet the needs of animals, anticipate changes in welfare standards ,and future-proof investment in capital projects. 

The closure of the Miami Seaquarium may not be exclusively down to their infrastructure, but undoubtedly it won't have helped their cause. Irregardless of which, this is yet another wake-up call to zoos and aquariums on the need to reimagine their practices and facilities, ensuring they lead rather than follow when it comes to animal welfare, and that leadership needs to be tangibly demonstrated in the infrastructure they build.

We are committed to leading the charge in this area – our evidence-based tools for determining welfare priorities, are the foundation of our habitat design process, which seamlessly integrate with advanced management principles that go far beyond existing best practice. Our welfare priority assessment tools allow us to configure habitats and management systems around the evolved needs of species, and to date, over 150 species experts, from zoos, sanctuaries, animal welfare NGO's, as well professionals from the fields of welfare science, in-situ conservation, and field biology, representing more than 60 institutions worldwide have contributed to our assessments. Such broad, expert-based input not only underpins the process, but also emphatically mitigates against the risks often associated with innovation, empowering a decisive shift to prioritising progressive evidence based innovation, supercharging animal welfare, and avoiding the risks of premature obsolescence.

For a greater insight into our innovative design tools that prioritise the intrinsic needs of species, along with our comprehensive welfare management and monitoring solutions, please don't hesitate to contact us!

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