ARTICLE

CHANGING THE FACE OF AQUARIUMS AND ZOOS

Updated on May 31, 2024

For aquarist Jennie Janssen, science boils down to two simple tasks — asking questions and seeking the answers.

But to ask different types of questions and come up with a variety of possible answers or solutions, it takes diversity in perspective, culture and experience. Unfortunately, that level of multiplicity is severely lacking at aquariums and zoos today, said Janssen, who serves as an assistant curator at the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Maryland, and as a research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

woman scuba diving

Image courtesy of Georgia Aquarium

Improving animal care through diversity

When Janssen, who is of Chinese descent, looks at the profession she has devoted decades to, she sees a startling lack of diversity. By attracting and retaining professionals from many different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles, she said aquariums and zoos will be better equipped to find solutions to the problems facing wildlife today.

“The science that occurs in aquariums and zoos has direct impacts on our knowledge, care and conservation of species and habitats, and there are big challenges out there,” said Janssen. “We need a diverse array of professionals engaging at all levels to best address these challenges.”

Taking action to drive change

Driven by a profound desire to change racial and ethnic inequities that are directly impacting her field, Janssen, along with colleague Meghan Holst, founded Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science in 2021.

woman giving a presentation

Image courtesy of Emily Yam

“We both felt that enacting change was very possible, and we had both been greatly inspired by the creation of Minorities in Shark Sciences by four young Black women in 2020,” Janssen said. “We thought, we need this kind of initiative for the aquarium and zoo industry, and we were ready to take action. Together, we decided to create our own nonprofit, Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science.”

According to the organization’s website, its mission is to advance aquarium and zoo science by diversifying the professionals and perspectives within it. Its goals are to bring more people of color into the aquarium and zoo fields and to support and retain minorities who work in these fields.

“Therefore, while our focus is on increasing and retaining professionals that are racial and ethnic minorities, the practices we encourage and the tools we put in place are made accessible so these fields can be more equitable and financially accessible to all,” Janssen said.

women examining shark

Image courtesy of Georgia Aquarium

Diversity equals improved care

The top priority of most aquariums and zoos is to provide exemplary animal care with the animals’ welfare and well-being as the central focus. However, limited diversity among the caregivers limits their ability to achieve that goal.

“If we continue to select out certain communities that would provide different perspectives to our operations by opting not to change our systems and processes, we are then knowingly hindering our own efforts to continually advance the science of providing that care, welfare and well-being,” Janssen said.

In addition, by diversifying the professionals who are the face of aquariums and zoos, these organizations will be better positioned to provide a positive and lasting experience to a wider range of visitors.

“Aquarium and zoo science also informs the general public who visit our facilities by the millions each year and even more broadly through social media,” Janssen said. “But for all of these audiences, there is a market. And whom we market to is influenced by whom we can relate to, and conversely, who is able to relate to us and what we do.”

woman examining whale shark

Image courtesy of Georgia Aquarium

Everyone can benefit from wildlife

Janssen views experiencing nature and encountering wildlife, whether at an aquarium, a zoo or in the wild, as a basic human need. Simply hearing the sounds of the natural world and taking in the beauty of nature has a restorative effect on all people.

“I believe it is important for everyone to have time in nature. But for many, it’s a distinct privilege to have access to such spaces,” Janssen said “Without intentional involvement in nature, wildlife and conservation, biodiversity and everyone’s access to it would diminish even further.

“On a human level, I also think it’s important for all of us to see and know at a foundational level that we are not alone on this planet and that everything we do affects other beings — human or not.”

To learn more about Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science, visit miazs.org.

For another great story about diversity and conservation, read “Wildlife Conservation and Representation.”

 

Header image courtesy of SECORE International | Paul Selvaggio

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