Animal Care Decision-Making: Giving Up Control to Gain Influence
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2015
Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM; Patrick J. Morris, DVM, DACZM; Nadine Lamberski, DVM, DACZM; Meg Sutherland-Smith, DVM, DACZM; Bruce A. Rideout, DVM, PhD, DACVP
San Diego Zoo Global, San Diego, CA, USA


We can rightly assume that zoo professionals desire to make decisions that are in the best interest of animal health and welfare. Animal health and welfare may suffer, however, when unhealthy conflict exists between the key decision-makers. In most cases, this conflict originates from unclear decision-making roles and disputes over authority. In other words, there is often conflict over who has the ultimate authority to decide. In contrast, successful partnerships develop when it is clear who the ultimate decision-maker is and who is best suited to influence that decision. Successful partnerships are not based on equal and identical roles, but rather thrive when roles are defined and distinct.1

The following is a model to help improve animal care decision-making by clarifying the roles of each party. This model focuses on the veterinarian-curator relationship since it is often the relationship that is strained the most when difficult and complex decisions about animal care must be made. A similar process, however, could be employed in other animal care decision-making relationships, such as nutritionist-veterinarian, curator-nutritionist, veterinarian-technician, etc. In each of these relationships, working as allies is more effective than working as opponents.

This approach begins with the proposition that having influence may actually be more important (and require a higher degree of responsibility) than having full authority and control. The professional experience and expertise of the veterinarian, used with humility and integrity, can be a powerful source of influence. Furthermore, exerting that influence is entirely under the control of the veterinarian, whereas the final decision may not be. In other words, it is useful to give up control in order to gain influence. This approach can change a win-lose situation into a win-win and a distrusting relationship into a collaborative one. When applied with good intent, the relationship improves, trust mounts, and animal welfare ultimately benefits.

The first step in this model is to identify and define decision-making roles. For this purpose, two distinct roles can be identified: the “Decider” and the “Advisor.” The Decider’s role is that of the responsible party who has the ultimate decision-making authority. This person actively seeks input from those in the Advisor role. The Decider takes full responsibility for outcomes. The Advisor’s role is to influence the Decider by providing evidence, interpretation, and advice in a professional and respectful manner. The Advisor may actually initiate and drive the decision-making process. In the end, they support and respect the Decider’s decision.

The second step is to identify key decision areas where curators and veterinarians need to partner in decision-making. For each of those decision areas, the curator’s and veterinarian’s roles are determined and agreed upon. The following are suggested roles and corresponding example decision areas.

Curator “Decider” Role—Veterinarian “Advisor” Role

  • Collection planning
  • Acquisition and disposition
  • Animal welfare issues
  • Husbandry and enclosure design
  • Animal escape and recapture
  • Regulatory issues (animal care related)
  • Non-emergency euthanasia
  • Health and disease management practices
  • Medical case management affecting sustainability and welfare

Veterinarian “Decider” Role—Curator “Advisor” Role

  • Quarantine and biosecurity
  • Preventive medicine program
  • Emergency medical care
  • Basic and daily case management
  • Egregious animal welfare issues (USDA role as veterinarian of record)
  • Regulatory issues (health related)

These roles may seem straightforward at first glance. Conflict arises, however, during complex or high-stakes decision-making events when the roles seem to overlap. It is advisable in these situations to break these complex scenarios down into the individual decisions that need to be made and what roles each will play for each step. The end result is a decision that can be made with consensus and true partnership.

We all desire to see decisions made that are in the best interest of animal health and welfare. As professionals, we have knowledge and experience vital and necessary as a decision-making partner. Therefore, our goal should be to develop healthy, solid relationships that give us strong influence and not simply the power and authority to make those decisions. This is a model that requires good communication and relationship skills. There are good resources in the veterinary literature2,4,5 and elsewhere3,6 that review communication skills around building trust and decision-making.

These are concepts and practices that have developed at our institution over many years. Other situations and styles may be entirely different and require a different approach. If, however, the decisions involving animal care are not what you would like them to be, you might consider trying some of these practices.


The authors thank the Animal Health and Collection Husbandry Sciences departments of San Diego Zoo Global for their help in formulating this model and for their partnership in ensuring animal health and welfare.

Literature Cited

1.  Cohen AR, Bradford DL. Influence Without Authority. 2nd ed. Somerset, NJ: Wiley; 2005:320 p.

2.  Cornell KK, Kopcha M. Client-veterinary communication: skills for client centered dialogue and shared decision making. Vet Clin Sm Anim. 2007;37:37–47.

3.  Covey SR. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2013:425 p.

4.  Grand JA, Lloyd JW, Ilgen JR, Abood S, Sonea IM. A measure of and predictors for veterinarian trust developed with veterinary students in a simulated companion animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;242:322–334.

5.  Kristensen E, Jakobsen EB. Challenging the myth of the irrational dairy farmer; understanding decision making related to herd health. N Z Vet J. 2001;59(1):1–7.

6.  Patterson K, Grenny J, McMillan R, Switzler A. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2011:304 p.


Speaker Information
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Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Global
San Diego, CA, USA

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