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From ZSL: The Rise of the Registrar

In this guest post, ZSL Zoological Registrar Hannah Jenkins addresses the changing role of zoo registrars, from recording day-to-day events to conducting the data analytics that inform species conservation worldwide.

By Hannah Jenkins, Zoological Registrar, Zoological Society of London

“And what do you do?” …

I don’t know about you, but this question is one I always find difficult to answer. What do I do?!

Sure, I register births and deaths, but it is way more complicated than that.

“I manage the animal data” sounds boring.

“I look after the animal records” – far too easy!

I haven’t found a way of explaining the role that sounds exciting, gives the job the OOMPH it deserves, nor the history it encompasses.

(in your best movie trailer voice please…)   

In a world…

Before…

Computers…

At the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), we have always kept animal data. Right from the get-go.

It may not be in the standardised format data lovers like us want, but it is definitely there.  

Since its founding in the early 1800’s, Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has kept data on species in its care. Before computers, ZSL staff used “day books” to record insights to animal husbandry and medical events.

From our very first day, ZSL London Zoo kept records on everything in large, beautifully presented day books. These books served as an insight into the day’s happenings, whether man, visitor or beast.

The day page noted down arrivals, births, deaths and dispositions for the animals, as well as how many ‘servants’ were on duty, how many visitors we had (privileged or not), temperatures of particular animal houses and the money taken at the gate. In the later 1800’s, we increased our animal recording efforts by maintaining animal record cards. These cards were kept for every animal in the zoo (excluding those troublesome fish and invertebrates). For the species of mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian, we currently have an archive of over 130 drawers full to the brim of thousands and thousands of individual animal cards.

These cards are an excellent look into the past, seeing the amazing species we once had (I mean thylacines, come on…!). The cards held basic data on the animals, such as taxonomy, habitat or location of collection, sex, date of birth or arrival, date of departure or death. And sometimes, if you are really lucky, you may even get parental information or a few weights!

The Rise of the Registrar

In the last few decades we have seen an enormous shift in the focus of zoo records.

With changing technology and the introduction of zoo record-specific software, we have been able to drive a change in our standards of zoo record keeping. No longer are we just keeping records on how many of x and how many of y, we are documenting all areas of behaviour, reproduction, contraception, training, diet… – the list is endless! If you can guess it, someone will have recorded it!

Though I’m not saying that we hadn’t before. Our zoos have always had dedicated animal teams recording all their information into diaries. But the storage of this data has certainly changed, the understanding of the importance has changed and the data itself has changed.

National, regional and international “support groups” have been established. Groups of dedicated and highly knowledgeable colleagues came together to form The Zoological Registrars Association and the BIAZA records group, to name a few. These groups, with the hard work, dedication and expertise of its members, created such an amazing network of colleagues that are full of information, support and friendly advice. These groups began setting standards across our community. Allowing us to have the wealth of information we have today.

Hannah Jenkins and her father, on “Bring your parents to work day” at ZSL. Photo

Records are becoming more and more accessible with the changing times. More of us are training our keepers to negotiate ZIMS and even to enter data (provisional data entry is both my best and worst friend at the moment). Keepers are able to see the information they collect, see how it is being used and valued. They can see where their data is going and how it benefits the global community.

Yes, records and registrars have changed a lot since the 1800’s.

But we are still changing. Nay, evolving.

But what do we do?

We do so much more than just record births and deaths; we are the superheroes of zoo data.

No two registrars are the same, that I can tell you. Our roles have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but records define us, and unite us!

Here are just a few ideas of how we can answer that question: 

We are data managers. We manage our institutional animal data. We set the standards of what we expect our teams to be recording. We curate our records as much as curator’s curate their collections.

We are moving away from entering the daily reports ourselves and giving ownership to those collecting the data. We use new data skills to design new processes, databases and data structures for managing records, moves, species planning and populations.

We are data analysts. Sure, we can answer questions like “how many animals are named after the amazing Hodor” (19!).

We can also answer “how has the percentage of our coral collection identified to species level changed in the last two years” or “how does age at transport affect longevity”.

We interrogate our data. We can investigate complex data to produce outputs that influence husbandry decisions. We are also pretty good at making funky graphs.

We are teachers. We train zoo staff in animal records. I have never trained so many people in one subject in my life! Over the course of the last there years I’ve trained well over 150 people to use ZIMS, both at ZSL and in the wider conservation world.

We have moved all our keepers onto ZIMS for daily reporting and given the ownership of the data to those who know it.

I still manage the acquisitions and dispositions, but giving keepers the ability to enter notes, weights, identifiers etc has given them the opportunity to see why it is useful, why we are recording it, and how they can use historical information to their benefit.

I’ve found the whole process extremely beneficial, and it has completely changed the relationship between our roles.

We are population managers. With the on-going move from SPARKS to ZIMS, registrars are being recognised for the awesome data managers we are. Our data skills are sought  after to support studbook keepers and even run our own studbooks.

We have the expert knowledge and skills that population managers need to easily clean up their studbooks and manage their data. We can spot and understand errors and inaccuracies that we have become accustomed to seeing in our daily roles, and pass on our ZIMS tips and tricks that we’ve learnt along the way.

We are conservationists. The data we curate is being used to save species.

Data that we contribute to is being used by, collated and analysed by Species360 to influence CITES policies.

We are also contributing to saving animals caught in the illegal wildlife trade. I have seen first-hand how the data we collect on our zoo animals, such as anaesthesia, drug usage and mortality and morbidity are being used in rescue centres in Vietnam to save animals caught in illegal trade.

We are awesome.

From all of us at Species360, Hannah, we agree! You, and zoo registrars working around the world, ARE awesome!! Thank you for all that you do to help improve animal welfare and inform species conservation.

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