Big Cats and Zoo Politics

Update: H.R. 1818— Big Cat Public Safety Act

Dan Ashe and Wayne PacelleDan Ashe, CEO AZA, with Wayne Pacelle, CEO HSUS— photo via twitter

The Big Cat Public Safety Act is alive and well, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary made by Dan Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), to member zoos concerned about the survival of their Animal Ambassador programs.

On March 30, 2017 the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1818) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the primary proponent of the measure, characterized the bill as a bi-partisan effort to “prohibit private ownership of captive lions, tigers, and other big cats in the US.” — ostensibly a bill to ban big cats as pets. However, most states already prohibit the ownership of big cats as pets. South Carolina passed a law banning big cats as pets in the 2017 legislative session. The primary impact of H.R. 1818 would not be on pet owners, but on zoos and sanctuaries that are not ideologically aligned with the HSUS.

Zoo Controversy
Recently, a dark tide of suspicion and uncertainty washed over the zoo community, when news of an alliance between an anti-zoo-animal-rights behemoth, HSUS, and the largest zoological trade association in the country, AZA, was announced. The new partnership was unveiled when Dan Ashe announced that his old friend Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the HSUS, would be the keynote speaker at the AZA Annual Conference 2017.  Facebook blazed with opposition posts, and an online petition to disinvite Pacelle from the conference garnered more than 700 signatures.

Simultaneously, AZA declined Protect the Harvest’s platinum sponsorship and revoked its booth at their conference. Protect the Harvest, a farm organization founded by Forrest Lucas, has been a vocal critic of the HSUS, and their removal from the conference was a clear nod to the HSUS by Dan Ashe. Clearly, Wayne Pacelle wanted no counter balance to his aggressive animal rights vision for AZA.

Association Politics and Propaganda
In the lead up to the AZA conference, AZA members criticized Dan Ashe for inviting Pacelle as the keynote speaker. For many, it was akin to letting the fox into the hen house. Pacelle has never supported zoos in the past, and has never supported captive breeding programs for conservation. He has a reputation for believing he has the moral authority— giving himself latitude — to play fast and loose with the truth. His ability to engineer slick media campaigns designed to smear his enemies and promote his friends has become his signature.

The HSUS propaganda machine can be a serious problem for anyone not willing to align with Pacelle’s animal rights philosophy. Farmers, egg producers, ranchers and dog fanciers can all attest to the damage done when Pacelle opens up his bag of dirty tricks. Understandably, many in the zoo community are afraid that HSUS will lead the AZA into dangerous and uncertain territory.

“Dan was the best US Fish and Wildlife Service Director the nation has ever had.”— Wayne Pacelle, AZA Annual Conference 2017

Some AZA members say they were assured by Dan Ashe that H.R. 1818 was dead. Many had expressed fears the bill would eliminate their Animal Ambassador programs. However, keep in mind, Dan Ashe has always been known for a very transactional management style. As director of FWS, he never met someone that he didn’t agree with. At the meeting table Ashe focuses on appeasement. Regardless of eventual outcomes, face to face, he is always on your side.

ZAA Smear
During his opening statements at the AZA Annual Conference, Pacelle revealed the long term relationship between he and Dan Ashe dating back to before their close association during Ashe’s days as Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Pacelle joked about playing basketball with Ashe in the mid-80’s. Then in an attempt to demonstrate ideological parity between the HSUS and the AZA, and to assuage member concerns about the historically anti-zoo HSUS mission, Pacelle elevated the AZA accreditation above all other zoological trade associations, calling it the “gold standard.” He then directed his ire toward the second largest zoo accreditation organization, the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), saying, “[ZAA] doesn’t have standards”— and equating it to the “pet ownership” he wants to eliminate with H.R. 1818. Pacelle’s efforts to discredit the ZAA and convince AZA conference attendees that ZAA’s zoo accreditation equates to pet ownership provided for the darkest moments of his address.

Big Cat Public Safety Act is Alive and Well
Ironically, in his closing remarks, Pacelle contradicted Ashe when he thanked the AZA for their “collaboration” on H.R. 1818, after Dan Ashe was reported to have just told some members that AZA was not supporting the bill. Not only did Pacelle implore members to support H.R. 1818, he urged them to take an active role discrediting the ZAA brand, calling ZAA members, “bad actors” and “unethical businesses.”

“Let’s get this bill done… let’s get congress to act on these issues.”— Wayne Pacelle, AZA Annual Conference 2017

H.R. 1818 may not be front burner on Capitol Hill right now, but HSUS and AZA are pushing for it. AZA members who are under the impression Dan Ashe doesn’t support this measure should seek clarification on exactly where AZA stands. All it would take is for one legislator to be convinced they could score some safe political points by pushing what HSUS has characterized as a “common sense public safety” issue to move H.R. 1818. I imagine at that point, Dan Ashe if true to form, would admonish that it is all beyond his control. Remember, election season is right around the corner, and talk is cheap in Washington, D.C. Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security.


Andrew Wyatt, working through the firm of Vitello Consulting, is a government affairs and policy consultant dedicated exclusively to the wildlife sector.

WyattP1“Wildlife issues are highly charged and contentious. I specialize in articulating clear policy ideas and getting them in front of key decision makers. Please follow ‘The Last Word on Wildlife’ for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of creating a comprehensive business/government affairs strategy, or a more targeted issue campaign, please call or email me.” — Andrew Wyatt


©Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word on Wildlife, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word on Wildlife with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

3 thoughts on “Big Cats and Zoo Politics

  1. Time to boycott and denounce any zoos that are members of the AZA! Hit’um in the “Hip National Bank” (their wallets)! Stop feeding the enemy!

  2. Pingback: Big Cats and Zoo Politics — The Last Word on Wildlife | Doc Antle's Tiger Tales

  3. Dan Ashe is a traitor to the very organizations he represents. This is the classic Wayne Pacelle tactic to woo the egos of the people at the top who are there to protect their members but wind up selling them out for Wayne’s attentions and money. AZA needs to boot this man out as he will sell you down the river and cause your demise. It does not take much to realize that every organization Wayne become involved with sooner or later dies out. There will be no more zoos if Wayne has his way. Every member of this organization should be protesting his speech and involvement at the top.

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