Activity 5B: Explore

Polar bear mom and her twin cubs waiting for the sea ice to freeze

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International

Types of Advocacy

Relevance is key to the future for accredited zoos and aquariums. And to be relevant, we need to be more than just a fun and educational place to visit. Data shows that visible conservation advocacy improves guest satisfaction and is good for our brands. Of course, each organization must assess what’s best for them, but it’s clear that being seen as an advocate for wildlife is right for every organization.

Types of advocacy

Let’s explore three types of advocacy that are especially pertinent to climate action.

  1. Relationship-building 

  2. Direct engagement

  3. Grassroots efforts

Senator Merkley with a seal in a zoo

Photo: Oregon Zoo

Senator Merkley with a seal


As the saying goes, “make a friend before you need a friend.” 

As zoos and aquariums, we play important roles in our communities as economic drivers and gathering centers, and elected leaders know this. Likewise, we rely on governments for funding and conservation partnerships. 

Your elected leaders–including state and U.S. members of Congress, city council members, regional government officials and ranking wildlife agency staff – want and need to know what’s important to you.

A visit to the zoo, aquarium or a field conservation site can provide elected leaders an opportunity to experience and understand your work firsthand. 

Tips for a successful elected visit

  • Do your homework. Learn about their priorities and where your common ground is. Can you help each other solve problems?

  • Keep it short. An hour may be the most you can get, so focus on a few stops that tell your story and build a case for your needs. 

  • Keep it fun. Include great animal photo ops! They’ll come in handy for years to come and help the elected official’s staff with storytelling efforts.

  • If you have an ask - make it clear and to the point.

  • Elected official can’t make it? Invite their staff! They are equally important.

If you’ve never engaged with elected leaders, the prospect can seem pretty intimidating. But for the most part, they’re just regular people. How do you approach them? What should we be asking of them? And why is it important to create these relationships? Learn more from Congressman Mike Quigley, chair of the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus.

Direct engagement

At every level of government - from county to federal - our elected leaders are working to address climate change and protect species that are impacted. This includes policy to advance nature-based solutions, sustainable energy, and resiliency for at-risk species and habitats, as well as program funding.

Direct engagement simply means communicating directly with elected officials. This may take the form of an ask, a thank you, or an alert. Whether meeting in-person, virtually, or communicating by email or letter, here are some examples of direct engagement with the hypothetical “Polar Bear Act”:

  • Ask: please co-sponsor the Polar Bear Act

  • Alert: Here’s some timely information that makes a case for the Polar Bear Act

  • Thank you: Thanks for co-sponsoring the Polar Bear Act

Grassroots efforts

Zoos and aquariums are unique among conservation organizations because we have vast communities we regularly engage with both in-person and online. This may be the most important form of advocacy for animal care staff. 

Of course, most guests don’t come to the zoo to be bombarded with petitions or pitches to engage in advocacy. To authentically and effectively connect with guests - we need to start where they’re at. Help guests feel safe about asking questions and let your conversation be guided by whatever they want to discuss. Start at a common place of fascination and wonder about the animals in your care, and see where it goes.

Online, grassroots advocacy is everywhere you look. Social media feeds, e-newsletter and websites are all asking us to do something. So how do we rise above the noise? Maintain a welcoming voice, focus on the animal connection, and if appropriate, keep your tone positive and fun. 

Strength in numbers

When zoos and aquariums join forces in advocacy, we can achieve big wins for wildlife. Just in the past few years, AZA zoos and aquariums secured more than $1 billion in COVID relief, $30 million for endangered species and we are close to passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act. We can apply what we’ve learned to take collective action on climate.

AZA’s regional working group structure

Recognizing that each of us operate in different political landscapes, AZA formed working groups to identify policy issues where we have consensus and can collaborate as a region. Individual institutions may, of course, continue to support their own specific priorities as well.

The goals of this new regional working group include:

  • Sharing information and providing resources to enable members to mobilize efficiently on priorities (such as recruiting members of Congress to the Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, securing funding for the AZA community, advancing wildlife policy priorities, and influencing regulations that affect our work).

  • Identifying opportunities to collaborate within our region on our own shared conservation policy priorities.

Informal regional coalitions

Many of us already collaborate with colleagues from neighboring zoos and aquariums on a variety of efforts, from animal care to education. These coalitions can also be powerful advocacy forces to effect change within states. Here’s an example:

Following a tragedy involving a “roadside tiger photo op”, the seven AZA-accredited zoos in Kansas created an informal coalition to help bring an end to private big cat ownership in their state. Speaking with a collective voice, these zoos gave testimony in support of a big cat ban, successfully outlawing big cat ownership in Kansas. They’re called the KAzoos (what an epic name!) and continue to work together on issues affecting wildlife and animal welfare.

Many hands make light work, and our organizations can increase capacity for advocacy by collaborating. Examples of collaborative advocacy include joint op-eds, testimony, letters of support and social media campaigns.


  • What are some advocacy tactics you can integrate into your engagement with guests?

  • What other zoos, aquariums and like-mined organizations can your organization team with to support climate policy?

Photo: Dave Sandford


Continue on to Activity 5C–Reflect.