Skip to content

The Future of Ethics: Living Collections and the “Ambassadors for Their Species” Concept

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Today’s guest post is by Colleen Dilenschneider, director of digital engagement at the predictive intelligence company, IMPACTS Research. I highly recommend Know Your Own Bone, where Colleen blogs about creative online engagement and new media for zoos, aquariums and museums, and the emergence of Generation Y in the workplace.

 “Captivity” is defined as the condition of being imprisoned or confined. Zoos, aquariums and museums with living collections (ZAMs) struggle with the negative connotations of that word even as they inspire conservation, provide education, and encourage the protection of the very animals that “captivity” imprisons.

“In the 70s,” said John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium, during his keynote speech at the annual conference for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last September, “I remember our standard rationale for keeping three orcas in a grungy, one-million-gallon tank was, ‘They’re ambassadors for their species.’ In some cases, little has changed. It’s a well-worn, familiar old saw and—in my view—it’s becoming increasingly less relevant every year.”

Racanelli may be onto something.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Research suggests that an increasing number of folks oppose the concept of captivity—particularly members of Generation Y and especially regarding the captivity of larger, charismatic species. As public sentiments continue to evolve and new generations assume leadership positions, ZAMs will have to adapt to this evolving environment, changing both their programming and the rationales that support their collection policies.

From a pure business perspective, compelling data also indicates that programming that was once considered a key driver of visitation—such as dolphin shows—are potentially posing barriers to onsite engagement. As Racanelli states in his keynote, data from IMPACTS Research shows that 35-40 percent of the National Aquarium’s audience is NOT motivated to visit by the existence of a dolphin show. In fact, 15 percent of the National Aquarium’s potential visitors chose not to come [at least in part] BECAUSE the Aquarium has dolphins. As Millennials take the stage, those two quotients are predicted to rise—and not just for the National Aquarium. Increasingly, young adults aged 18-34 report that captive animals—particularly those featured in a “show” format—represent a major barrier to their visiting a ZAM. In fact, our detailed research shows that, in the past four years, there has been an 11 percent increase in Millennial audiences who cite a conceptual objection to captive animals as the primary reason that they have not recently visited a zoo or aquarium.

This shift in sentiment will have consequences: Millennials represent the largest population bubble in U.S. history—significantly larger in number than the vaunted Baby Boomer generation that has long been the object of many marketers’ affections. The future viability of any ZAM dependent on earned revenues will hinge on their ability to engage with Millennials…and this generation’s beliefs about captive animals may not reconcile with the current programming of a number of ZAMs.

Investing in more ambassadors:

Despite the research presented above, some aquariums argue that having these animals onsite provides a unique experience that would otherwise be inaccessible to members of the general population. Many zoos and aquariums have a mission “to inspire” (action, conservation, respect for the natural world, etc.). This may be the driving force behind Georgia Aquarium’s recent request for a permit to bring 18 beluga whales into the United States to be housed in zoos and aquariums across the country.

Promoting new kinds of ambassadors:

Organizations like the National Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are taking another approach.

In May 2012, the National Aquarium dramatically revamped their traditional dolphin show experience to instead feature a new Dolphin Discovery program. The Aquarium’s separately ticketed 20-minute stunt shows have been replaced by an all-day, open amphitheater program featuring one-on-one interactions with trainers and the opportunity for audiences to observe more natural dolphin behaviors. The Aquarium is also highlighting its well-known and highly-regarded marine animal rescue programs, and sharing these animals’ compelling stories with both their onsite and online audiences. In turn, this storytelling engenders a vast network of ambassadors with an increased awareness of and appreciation for the animals in the Aquarium’s care.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has long been recognized as one of the preeminent advocates for animal populations, and they have selectively featured animal ambassadors as a means of advancing their mission to inspire conservation of the world’s oceans. Recently, their White Shark Project offered the public the rare opportunity to experience six white sharks at the Aquarium between years 2004-2011. While the public enjoyed a unique, “once-in-a-lifetime” encounter with an endangered species, the Aquarium’s research yielded valuable information about how to protect and preserve the species. Under the careful care of the Aquarium’s scientists, each of the sharks was returned to its natural habitat when its continued display was no longer in the best interest of the shark’s well-being. While the sharks definitely helped attract visitors to the Aquarium, perhaps the most important benefit of their presence was an increase in public awareness of the Aquarium’s conservation research initiatives. For example, the Aquarium also rescues sea otters on the California coast through its Sea Otter Rescue and Care Program. Many of the sea otters in the Aquarium’s exhibit were originally rescues—taking the traditional “ambassador for their species” concept to the next level.

On to the Future

The continued vibrancy and relevance of ZAMS depends on their ability to inspire audiences by offering a unique experience while remaining congruent to the prevailing social beliefs and conservation ethos of future generations. The examples given above illustrate how aquariums are embracing or adapting their respective approaches to the “ambassadors for their species” concepts, but as John Racanelli said:

“I think the ambassadors concept worked for a previous generation, in a less-connected time, in a world that didn’t boast 23 channels of wildlife programming, but—and this is only my opinion—increasingly, it doesn’t work anymore…”

Change is coming. Will there be more ambassadors, new kinds of ambassadors, or none at all? Research suggests that zoos and aquariums, like the species they house, will have to adapt or die.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



  1. In direct contradiction to the changes made by the National Aquarium, a while back the Shedd Aquarium changed its dolphin education program into a multimedia entertainment special, complete with an audience member 'volunteer' who is actually part of the show and trainers dressed as mer-people. No longer do actual volunteers get to ask questions or help demonstrate natural dolphin behaviors nor can you see the stunning beauty of Lake Michigan during the program as blackout curtains are necessary in order that the audience see video and lighting effects. When my daughters and I wrote letters of protest to the Shedd about this change, the response we received was basically that the change was made to please the audience. Were they wrong? Has visitation suffered? I would be interested to know as I preferred the old educational demonstrations to the new high-tech 'show'.

  2. Thank you for this article. I appreciate your research to substantiate what I have always felt is a time of great change for zoos and aquariums. It is great for ZAMs to present animals in a way that not only inspires human visitors to care about animals and the environment, but that also is in the best interest of the individual animals involved.

  3. This is a very thoughtful and concise analysis of both the challenges and opportunities that aquariums and zoos face when planning their futures. While I don't think that any reasonably informed person would hold the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium in the same esteem when it comes to animal care and conservation legitimacy, it is interesting to consider their use of the "ambassador" rationale. One would hope and think that places like Georgia Aquarium would learn from the examples of places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Equally compelling are the decisions made by the National Aquarium as they do have dolphins on display – a practice that I believe many organizations (including the Monterey Bay Aquarium) do not support.

  4. This topic is getting a lot of buzz because of the NOAA hearings about the Georgia Aquarium's permit to import beluga whales captured from their wild habitat. It's pretty clear that Ms. Dilenschneider is being polite in this article. Her blog makes it clear that she is a consultant and advisor to many aquariums. What is left unsaid is that nearly every major aquarium considers the Georgia Aquarium a joke when it comes to conservation and education programming. They also have a horrible reputation when it comes to animal care with many recent deaths of whale sharks, belugas and dolphins. I'm not an anti-captivity militant. I do believe in the ambassador model of inspiring care for the ocean. It's just that no one that I know in the conservation community would ever consider the Georgia Aquarium as the preferred example of this model. As has been pointed out, the Monterey Aquarium makes a very considered decision to never display marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. If they are the most credible aquarium when it comes to research, education and conservation, then surely they have a reason to make this decision? Why aren't other aquariums following their example?

  5. Jesse, The Georgia Aquarium is accredited by the AZA–if their peers think that their standards (of animal care or of ethics) fails to meet the generally accepted standards of their field, I would think it would come up in the course of that review.

  6. I appreciate your comment, but I think that you're not very informed on this matter. It is a mistake to assume that AZA as an accrediting entity speaks for the entirety of their membership. There are 224 accredited zoos and aquariums. Many of the most esteemed refuse to support the Georgia Aquarium's permit. Also, the AZA's legislative reps and lobbyists on this captivity issue are funded by the Georgia Aquarium. It is well-known that the serious, legitimate, conservation-minded aquariums take a very dim view of the Georgia Aquarium. This is hardly a secret. You will please note that while multiple accredited aquariums had representatives at the NOAA hearings, not a single one – NOT ONE – stood up in support their application. Most aquarium people that I know are mortified by the permit, and concerned by the appearance of Georgia Aquarium as a representative of their behaviors. I'm not anti-Georgia. They have fun exhibits. But they are laughable as a conservation organization. IMHO!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.