Why a Group of Zoo and Aquarium Professionals Wants to Ensure the Future of Their Field Is More Inclusive

Over 300 professionals across the U.S. are putting visibility and representation in the zoo and aquarium field at the forefront of their work, focusing on approaches such as networking, outreach, mentorship, and professional development

Smithsonian’s National Zoo AMZAP members
“If you see us, you can be us!” The Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP) now includes over 300 members across the U.S., who are putting visibility and representation in the zoo and aquarium field at the forefront of their work. Pictured here are the Smithsonian’s National Zoo AMZAP members.

As the curator of large carnivores at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and a black man in the zoo field, I have long been keenly aware of the dearth of black and brown faces in my chosen field. After years of thinking about what I could do to try to address this situation, I finally decided to, as my mother told me growing up, “stop talking about it, and be about it.” So I gathered a handful of colleagues at the National Zoo and together, we created the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP). AMZAP was born from a desire to take concrete action to effect the change we have long wanted to see in the our field. We established AMZAP, with the simple mission of seeking to increase minority representation in the zoo and aquarium field. To work toward that mission, we identified two primary goals: (1) build a nationwide network of zoo and aquarium professionals, particularly those of racial and ethnic minority heritage. This network was intended to be a source of community for minorities in the field and to allow these professionals of color to become visible representations and even mentors to the next generation of potential zoo and aquarium professionals; and (2) allow minorities interested in zoo careers, but who rarely can envision themselves in this role, to see examples of people who look and sound like them doing their dream job, hopefully encouraging more minorities to apply and work in the zoo and aquarium field.

It is hard for me to believe that AMZAP is now over six months old and we have inspired a membership of almost 300 zoo and aquarium professionals across the country. We’re fortunate enough to have members who hold a wide variety of positions, from education specialist to animal care staff to photographers to veterinarians and even directors! We also have members that represent a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, black, white, hispanic, and biracial or multiracial members.

Our network of professionals works together to reach our mission through four pillars, which are networking, outreach, mentorship, and professional development. AMZAP members demonstrate that minorities don’t just exist in this field, but that we are exceling and doing amazing things every day!

Pictured here with a giant tortoise, Jenn Donato is a registrar at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and a member of the AMZAP steering committee. Her career trajectory has always included a love of science, with a previous role at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo courtesy of Jenn Donato

For example, one of our AMZAP steering committee members, Jenn Donato, is a registrar at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Jenn’s work focuses on many of the details we all might miss. She makes sure that we all follow rules and regulations, while  maintaining records on every animal at the zoo. Jenn is of Asian-Pacific heritage and sees herself as an example to other Asian girls and women who love science and want to explore a possibly unknown field for themselves.

And AMZAP steering committee member Carly Hornberger. Carly is an animal keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo who has Native American heritage based in the Oneida Tribe.  Carly has always been proud of her heritage, but has struggled to find an outlet to express her heritage in a field in which there aren’t many people who share her cultural experience.  Since joining AMZAP, Carly has been able to build her network and connect to professionals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian as well as zoos across the country, and she has found a fantastic outlet for her cultural expression!

Many of AMZAP’s pillars focus on supporting minority professionals that are already in the zoo and aquarium field. Our Professional Development program provides resources and educational opportunities to our members, including scholarships and sponsorships for conferences and other organizations. Our Mentoring program connects individuals who are hoping to join the field or gain a promotion with a mentor who is an experienced professional. AMZAP’s Networking program puts individuals in touch with each other throughout the country.

In addition, one of AMZAP’s main goals is to show others, especially students and aspiring zoo professionals, that there are people that look and sound like them, including Jenn, Carly, and me, out there in the field. We hope to inspire others to enter the zoo and aquarium field and know that any career path is open to them.

AMZAP members share their career pathways and professional successes through the association’s social media accounts, demonstrating a variety of career paths from animal keeper to filmmaker. From top left clockwise: Hilary Colton, Roshan Patel, Donna Stockton, and Chilea Chong.

We reach our target audience through our Outreach program. We use social media, including Facebook and Instagram, to demonstrate that there are minorities in the field and to amplify their stories. We reach an average of 30,000 viewers every month and we can share the stories of our diverse members. Different AMZAP members have joined after seeing our social media posts and realizing that they are not alone in the field. We had one professional comment that they thought they were the only Filipino zookeeper out there- now they are in touch with other Filipino animal keepers from across the country!

Our Outreach program also includes holding presentations at schools and universities. During a career presentation held by AMZAP for students at the University of Puerto Rico, one student commented that she never knew there were Boricuas working in zoos in the mainland. We had two Puerto Rican AMZAP members leading that talk (one curator and one veterinarian) and this student said that she never knew these options existed for people who look like her.  Our programs can include a single speaker or a panel of speakers.  We can focus on a range of topics from career paths to general discussions about animals and science.  And our members are thrilled to speak to groups of all ages and academic levels.

We really encourage anyone who may be interested in an outreach presentation to contact us so that we can set up a presentation for your school or academic group. We also have a variety of resources about the zoo and aquarium field available on our website. Students can learn about different careers, how to enter the field, and read about different minority professionals, who are currently working in different areas. High school students can  get in touch with professionals through our mentorship program as well.

Craig Saffoe (back) leads a procedure on a cheetah in his role as the National Zoo’s curator of Large Carnivores. In 2020, along with a steering committee of fellow zoo and aquarium professionals, Saffoe founded the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals to offer mentorship and support to other minorities in the field and improve the pipeline for future generations of interested learners.  Photo courtesy of Craig Saffoe

AMZAP has made a big impact in several lives, including my own. I founded this group because of my own desire to meet more professionals who look like me and to see more black people come into my chosen field. I did not realize how much the entire minority community in the zoo and aquarium field was craving the same. I was even more encouraged by the support given to this effort by the entire Smithsonian community.  With the support of the zoo community, as well as the Smithsonian family, AMZAP has a bright future!  We hope that your students will be inspired by the diverse faces they can see through AMZAP and can see themselves working in a zoo or aquarium in the future.

You can find more information about AMZAP at our website,, or on social media on Facebook and Instagram. You can also write to us at [email protected] with any questions. We hope to hear from you!