As the Reid Park Zoo puts the finishing touches on a new 7-acre elephant habitat, it's worth noting that change can be hard, but change can also be very good. Speaking for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), I have seen our Accreditation Standards change, especially as they relate to elephants, and I have seen zoos change and adapt to meet these rising standards.
But let's start with Connie, the Reid Park Zoo's 44-year-old female Asian elephant. Elephants are social animals, which is why AZA Standards call for a minimum of three elephants in a herd. Connie will move to San Diego's state-of-the-art Elephant Odyssey, where she will be welcomed by seven Asian elephants. Elephants are adaptable, and with the great care that the San Diego Zoo will provide, Connie will be among the most knowledgeable and caring humans, as well as her own kind.
Shaba, the zoo's 31-year-old female African elephant, is in for some changes too. She will welcome a new herd of African elephants to Reid Park. With luck, she'll soon be an auntie to little ones, with the ability to use her social skills in a whole new way. As with Connie, caring zookeepers will be part of the equation, easing everyone into their new roles.
The movement of elephants between AZA-accredited facilities is often necessary as standards rise, as facilities expand, and as there are changes to the composition of the elephant herd in North America.
We know that both the Reid Park and San Diego zoos will be highly sensitive to the needs of every individual elephant involved. In this case, they will also be adhering to the AZA Standards, which state, "Due to multiple species differences and possible disease transmission issues, when forming new herds, Asian and African elephants should not be placed together in the same enclosure."
The completion of the its new elephant habitat will not only allow the Reid Park Zoo to meet rising AZA Standards, but will also solidify the Reid Park Zoo's commitment to leadership among zoos caring for elephants.
The people and the elephants, together with a wonderful new elephant habitat, can help ensure the survival of the species and fully engage the Tucson community in the critical mission of elephant conservation.
Recognition of the Reid Park Zoo's leadership commitment is especially important when addressing the heartfelt concerns of those who question the changes that are taking place.
The people of Tucson share the same passion and love for animals, demonstrated by the thousands of donors and zoo visitors who made the new Reid Park Zoo elephant habitat a reality and also by the outpouring of concern for Connie and Shaba.
To everyone, I offer the assurance that the experts at AZA-accredited zoos can and will meet the needs of each individual animal; they can and will advance wildlife conservation and education; and, just as much as elephants, we all can and will learn to adapt when change comes our way.
Kristin L. Vehrs is executive director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.