Establishing a Multi-National, Cooperative, Zoo-Based, Conservation Program in the Rapidly Changing Arid Southwest
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2007
Roberto F. Aguilar1, DVM; Erin Fernandez2, BiolMSc; William VanPelt3, BiolMSc; Christopher Parish4, BiolMSc
1Conservation and Science, The Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, AZ, USA; 2Arizona Ecological Services, US Fish Wildlife Service, Tucson, AZ, USA; 3Non-Game Birds and Mammals Program, Arizona Game and Fish, Phoenix, AZ, USA; 4The Peregrine Fund Condor Project, Mormon Lake, AZ, USA


Global warming may have a serious impact on human population within this century. Changes in local and regional weather patterns will most likely degrade human and environmental health. At present rates of biodiversity loss, 25% of all species on earth may become extinct within 50 years. Causes of loss of biodiversity include encroachment and destruction of forested areas, savannas, freshwater wetlands, marine resources and other ecosystems; high consumption of natural resources, introduction of alien invasive species, pollution, acid precipitation, and widespread use of toxic substances and pesticides.1 Climatologic changes will likely affect water-stressed arid ecosystems.4

The arid Southwestern United States is a region of environmental concern. Encroaching and ever-expanding communities and sub-urban development, strained renewable freshwater resources, compromised riparian systems, changes in land use, political border issues, and an 11-year drought are rapidly changing the regional environment. Western aquatic biologic communities are being transformed by water diversion, heavy grazing of streamside vegetation, degradation of riverbanks, catastrophic wildfires, wastewater dumping, introduced diseases, and the introduction of non-native competitor and predator species.3,5

The Arizona Zoological Society (AZS) is committed to inspire people to live in ways that promote the well-being of the natural world. The Society’s conservation plan involves direct and indirect participation in local, regional, national, and international wildlife conservation projects. Current programs occur in two distinct modalities at the landscape, life zone, and watershed level. The focus is on ecosystem conservation.

Active Participation

Conservation efforts are directed at preserving, restoring, or sustaining a set of habitats, as well as determining the effect of rapid change on the species they support. Most programs are multi-faceted, diverse, comprehensive, and occur simultaneously. The focus of the program is the arid and semi-arid Southwest, with all the species it contains. Recent changes to the global environment, the fact that nearly one-quarter of the entire surface of the earth’s land could be defined as arid, and our location in a rapidly changing arid ecosystem, give incentive to create or participate in collaborative regional plans, as well as interpret the most productive aspects of those plans to other institutions. The concept of environmental medicine is key to the overall goals of the program. International programs support ecosystems represented in the collection, and yet will occupy only ten percent of our annual departmental expenditures. Their impact in the long run, however, may be considerable. Our goal is to promote effective conservation, as measured by the preservation of viable, genetically diverse, and self-sustaining healthy populations of wildlife in viable habitats. Our basic objective is to keep wild animals living in the wild.

Zoo Experience/Collections

Visitors to the zoo are engaged through cognitive, emotive, and behavioral activities in the recognition of environmental issues and their direct effects on all beings. The focus of our programs is the link between the environment, health and the species that inhabit diverse ecosystems. The goal is to affect the way our visitors behave towards their environment. We seek to promote responsible stewardship of natural resources at a local and regional level. It would be advisable when developing the regional exhibits in the zoo’s Master Plan, that regional conservation efforts be highlighted. A strong emphasis on the Southwest and the species we seek to preserve in their native habitat should be pre-eminent. The Native Species Conservation Center (NSCC) will help connect our guests with the many conservation activities we are involved with beyond our gates. Ideally, visitors could do a “short trail” with non-native tropical interpretation, and a “long trail” visiting the American Southwest and our proposed animal sanctuary, should they wish to do so. Developing our Master Plan properly should allow us to showcase an “exotic” component for return visitors, and an important regional component for those interested in our activities in the region. Active guest participation through technologically advanced exhibits and interactive electronic materials are in the works. Our goal is to inspire guest and staff alike into proactive community and regional conservation roles.

Zoo-Based Programs

All single species programs are currently scheduled for 2 and 5 year reviews. Goals are set at the inception of each program, and documents of agreement and budgets are to be reviewed fully at that time. Status reports are to be presented to the Director, the Conservation Committee, and the Board of the Arizona Zoological Society.

Species Currently in Preferential or Priority Programs Programs on Zoo Grounds

Narrow-Headed Garter Snake

An informal agreement with Arizona Game and Fish (AZGF), US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS), and the Phoenix Herpetological Society is in place. The zoo has committed verbally to accept up to five individual narrow-headed garter snakes with the goal of producing a management, care, and breeding manual. Once a husbandry manual is produced for the species, they will be transferred to the Phoenix Herpetological Society as an ex-situ population is formally established. A twin project exists for the Sonora Desert Museum with Mexican garter snakes.

Black Footed Ferret (BFF)

Program in place since 1992. Currently being evaluated for cost, productivity and merit. Participation with the USFWS programs is expected throughout 2007 and beyond. Paul Marinari (USFWS) has been actively monitoring and consulting with staff during the current breeding season. Some retired BFF may be placed in the NSCC for training and programs purposes.

Chiricahua Leopard Frog

An assurance colony of the last remaining animals from the Buckskin area has been established at the zoo. Currently the two remaining males and the one remaining female have produced a fertile embryo mass that is being head-started on grounds. A second part of the program involves in-house head-starting of select egg masses collected from the wild by AZGF. The goal is the release of successfully head-started animals into managed recovering environments. Over 1100 tadpoles and morphs were released into the Tonto National Forest last fall and are currently being monitored for success by AZGF. The plan is to build up populations in managed landscapes with a goal of full species recovery in the southern area of distribution. The plan is in support of the AZGFD Recovery Plan and is reviewed every 5 years.

Proposed Programs for Zoo Grounds

Lowland Leopard Frog

A discussion to head-start of partial or complete egg masses collected from the wild by a bi-national project with Mexico has begun. Once established, the release of successfully head-started animals into managed recovering environments will take place in Sonora, Mexico.

Three Forks and San Bernardino Springsnails

Refugia for severely endangered invertebrates proposed by AZGFD. Set up at NSCC. Both species restricted to single spring sources currently in need of management in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and Cochise County, respectively. Appendix I.

Off Site Animal Programs


Camera trapping of animals through ongoing support of the Sky Island Alliance, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, and the Northern Jaguar Project is currently being considered. Technical support has been given to all projects, as was direct participation in the Mexican Jaguar Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA), in support of the AZGF Non-Game Department.

Masked Bobwhite Quail

Currently supporting with USFWS to discuss future long-term projects. The Buenos Aires Refuge is receiving technical support and husbandry advice on their captive flock.

Mexican Grey Wolf

Adaptive Management Oversight Committee evaluation of current protocols in association with numerous national and regional conservation groups. Evaluation of program and current progress through regional, environmental, and land-based groups.2 Participation in the current Freedom of Information Act process, along with numerous groups and the AZA.

Sonoran Pronghorn

Support of Arizona based USFWS programs for monitoring and release of managed populations. Cooperative work with peninsular pronghorn research is under consideration. On-site support of non-invasive research with northern pronghorn to determine basic behavior in coordination with Arizona State University School of Living Sciences.

California Condor

Medical support and treatment of chronically injured or poisoned re-introduced birds. Aggressive treatment of severely chronically lead poisoned birds and development of novel surgical techniques to resolve chronic GI stasis, as well as to allow nutritional support. Seven cases of severe toxicosis treated in the past year.

Native Amphibians

Assessing current status and programs through AZA.

Native Invertebrates

Assessing current status and programs through AZA

Secondary Regional Programs

Pygmy Owl

Participating in a habitat and nesting study in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, in agreement with USFWS and University of Arizona.

Gunnison’s Prairie Dog

Participating in annual planning meetings.

Native Fish

Emergency holding of native fish when required by AGFD or USFWS during fires or landscape improvement actions. A small group of Gila Top Minnow are currently held in the lower Anuran building, along with the remaining Buckskin Chiricahua Leopard Frogs.

Thick-Billed Parrot

Participation in bi-national meetings regarding the translocation of birds from Mexico to the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona. A release is presently planned for the current year. Potentially involved in field activities or research with technical support, if requested.

Preferential International Projects

Pichi Armadillo, Argentina

Granted funds for histopathology as basis of zoonotic study. Expected to produce numerous peer reviewed papers in recognized journals. Currently expanding study area to the dry Chaco of Northern Argentina and serving as a model for a regional giant anteater release and tracking program through the University of Corrientes, Argentina.

Arabian Oryx

Static. Limited to exhibition and controlled breeding.

Elephant Sanctuary and Reserve

Under consideration and planning for southern Arizona. Currently hosting an international workshop on elephant footcare.


The authors are grateful to Emil McCaine of the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Program, and to Sergio Avila of the Sky Island Alliance for their expertise, support, and the materials shared in the preparation of this paper.

Literature Cited

1.  Ahmed, A. K. 2003. Environmental Protection, Public Health, and Human Rights: An Integrated Assessment. Report—Science and Human Rights Program. Am. Ass. Adv. Sci.

2.  Carroll, C., M. K. Phillips, C. A. Lopez-Gonzalez, and N. H. Shumaker. 2006. Defining recovery goals and strategies for endangered species: the wolf as a case study. Bioscience. 56: 25–37.

3.  Holycross, A. T., W. P. Burger, E. Nigro, and T. C. Brennan. 2006. Surveys for Thamnophis equis and Thamnophis rufipuncatus in the Gila watershed of Arizona and New Mexico. Report—Arizona Game and Fish Department.

4.  Talkan, O. and S. Kanae. 2006. Global hydrological cycles and world water resources. Science. 313: 1068–1072.

5.  Westerlin, A. L., H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, and T. W. Swetnam. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science. 313: 940–943.


Speaker Information
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Roberto F. Aguilar, DVM
Conservation and Science
The Phoenix Zoo
Phoenix, AZ, USA

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