If you work at a zoo as a curator or veterinarian, the most important software you almost surely use every day is the fast developing ZIMS (Zoological Information Management System) provided by ISIS. It is no doubt the most important software in the world of zoos currently.
Founded in 1974, the International Species Information System (ISIS) maintains the largest database in the managed animal care community world-wide, including detailed information on more than 3,000,000 animals and 15,000 species, putting the organization and its members in a unique position to initiate programs in wildlife conservation, population sustainability and bio-diversity.
The non-profit organization is governed by the member-elected Board of Trustees which sets mission, goals, policies, and fees for the organization. The 27-member Board consists of zoo and aquarium Executive Directors from around the world, as well as senior representatives from various leading regional zoological associations. Their vision for ISIS is to continue to improve and share best practices in animal management – husbandry and medical care.
We asked Mr. J. Peter Donlon (Director, Global Member Development) for an interview to talk about the present and the future of ISIS. He kindly accepted our invitation, so you can read the conversation below.
elajos: Thank you for accepting this interview.
J. Peter Donlon: It is my pleasure. We are always interested in opportunities to share information about the important work that our members and ISIS are doing across the global community.
elajos: We are regular ZIMS users. It is a part of our work so its importance is beyond question. There were several inventory systems in the past. Why do you think ISIS became the most successful and global now?
J. Peter Donlon: Good question. 40 years ago the global zoo and aquarium community came together and recognized the need for wildlife records management solutions. One outcome was the creation of ISIS. From the very beginning, we received strong support from members across the world. Zoological leaders recognized the critical need for animal records management to assist with initiatives in collection planning, staff communications, husbandry and medical care, breeding, and conservation. Today, we have almost 1,000 members in 87 countries. There are more than 12,300 individual ZIMS users.
elajos: However, as I can see, there are some zoos (including big zoos with great traditions) which are not members. What is your opinion, what would be the reason for this?
J. Peter Donlon: We are always asking ourselves the same question. What can ISIS do to better serve these institutions? I think institutions choose not to join ISIS for a variety of possible reasons. Some facilities might not be interested in investing in their records management function; and some zoos operate more independently and might have less interest in sharing animal care information beyond their local area or region. Some zoos have staffs where a solution like ZIMS (which is currently only available in English or Spanish) poses problems.
Thicius: What other languages will follow Spanish? Do you have any idea?
J. Peter Donlon: The next language will be based on member requests. We want to identify a language used by a large number of current members, and where there may be a large number of prospective members who are hesitant to join ISIS due to language needs. It's a fairly complex process to translate ZIMS into another language – it took about 5 months to complete the Spanish translation with the valuable help from numerous volunteer translators and regional associations (ALPZA, ACOPAZOA, AZCARM).
elajos: I think the lingua franca of the zoo community is English, so language shouldn't be a large problem. But, as you said, some institutions are hesitant to share animal care information – I think it may be the main reason.
J. Peter Donlon: Possibly. But the value from providing ZIMS in various local languages is that it encourages members to use ZIMS more easily across different staff levels within their organizations. Some zoos are certainly still careful with their animal information – something they see as being proprietary to their specific institution. We try to reduce that concern as best we can.
elajos: Have you experienced any change in this attitude?
J. Peter Donlon: Yes, very much so. As governmental and the public’s perception of zoos has evolved, more zoos realize that success with cost management, breeding, conservation and population sustainability initiatives requires collaboration and sharing of species information – within their local area and worldwide.
elajos: There is a big running project, the ZIMS for Medical. Could you inform us about the present situation?
J. Peter Donlon: Yes, the ZIMS for Medical enhancement was launched about 1 year ago. Since that time, adoption of this enhanced software module by the veterinarian users has been much greater than we had anticipated. Today there are over 360 institutional members using the medical functionality. There already are over 31 million medical records in ZIMS today!
As a result of this success, a $300,000 grant from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services, USA) was recently provided to ISIS. This grant will enable ISIS to use the database in brand-new ways, initially creating three services encompassing roughly 1,000 species each. The first will compile a broad drug formulary of treatments; a second will classify commonly used anesthesia drugs and dosages; and the third will identify species-specific medical problems.
elajos: It is great! What will be the next similarly big project?
J. Peter Donlon: The next big project is incorporating population management functions into ZIMS. Design work has begun with EAZA, WAZA, AZA’s Population Management Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, and many other community experts. We want to replace SPARKS – the population management software - with much greater capabilities. ZIMS currently includes features for population management such as Studbook Keeper News – births, deaths and moves for a specific species, sorted by date; Specimen Report; Taxon Report; Population Overview – four graphs analysing the captive population of species over time; and TAG Report – a list broken down by region of all animals of a taxon, further broken down by gender. ZIMS for Population Management will add to these current features with studbook management, data validation tools, studbook comparison tools - just to name a few.
elajos: We are waiting for these developments. But, I have to ask: as ZIMS is getting 'larger', does it increase maintenance expenses that could lead to a raise in membership fees?
J. Peter Donlon: Any software product – especially one as comprehensive as ZIMS – takes funds to support and continually improve. Our members have provided us with a long list of future needs. Today, 97% of our budget goes directly to member requested initiatives – making us very efficient. But we're always looking for additional sources of revenue. We have signed up a number of corporate sponsors to provide additional help in funding future development. Sponsors include Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, the design firm Studio Hanson Roberts, and The Zoological Lighting Institute. We look for grant funds, like the recent IMLS grant for $300,000, to provide the funds for specific member-requested projects. And our membership growth in new regions of the world helps bring in new funds. 56 new institutions joined ISIS in 2013, and 91 new members joined in 2014.
Thicius: A somewhat different topic. Taxonomy is a very important factor in this database. What are the primary sources and how flexible is your taxonomy system? My experience is that curators/biologists are very sensitive to this issue.
J. Peter Donlon: We work closely with our members on this critical issue. We maintain a taxonomy list and our members are constantly suggesting corrections/improvements/ enhancements. We are fortunate in having many members that are experts in numerous fields and with a wide variety of species. We coordinate with IUCN to follow the taxonomy IUCN uses as much as possible, and IUCN itself generally follows Catalogue of Life.
elajos: As I can see, this taxonomic system is flexible enough now.
J. Peter Donlon: Yes – but we have to constantly work to maintain that flexibility.
elajos: Do you have connections with authorities? For example, in Hungary the CITES authority has a parallel inventory system. They know ZIMS well, because we often send reports as verifications of origin. Is it possible to integrate them to ZIMS?
J. Peter Donlon: Yes, we work closely with various CITES country offices around the world. We are currently in discussions with CITES UK on how ZIMS can better support the UK members’ needs. Additionally, we've had discussion with DEFRA in the UK; US Fish & Wildlife; and IUCN. We’re in the middle of a 10 year partnership with the Central Zoo Authority, the government ministry in India, where they fund the ISIS member fees and training for 36 of the leading zoological institutions there. The objective is to build and strengthen the animal records management function in this country with such important bio-diversity. Depending on the needs of our member community, ISIS is open for discussions on similar opportunities in other countries.
Thicius: The other favourite topic of the curators is the A/W list. I know the last part has evolved, but is it possible that ZIMS will have a similarly complex available/wanted application as the current (and outdated) EAZA A/W list?
J. Peter Donlon: You may be aware that last year, EAZA and ISIS collaborated on a new, simplified way for member zoos and aquariums to identify and manage animals that are available and those that are wanted. The new functions are already integrated into ZIMS. This new ZIMS service replaces the old EAZA A/W. EAZA and the Endangered Species Programme (EEP) Committee were responsible for identifying key user requirements, since European institutions have a strong need for this type of solution in their species management initiatives. EAZA and ISIS are reviewing the new and improved A/W list in ZIMS to see if any other enhancements can improve the value of this list even further.
elajos: I have a suggestion, is it possible to integrate a message sender system, for warning us about a new interesting animal (which we look for or somebody wants our surplus) in the list?
J. Peter Donlon: Excellent idea. This kind of suggestion has been requested in the past by other members. It is now on our enhancement list. We've recently created User’s Group from the membership – the purpose is to have community users help us identify and prioritize future enhancements.
elajos: Finally, I would like to ask you about your best moment in a zoo, what was it and where?
J. Peter Donlon: 2 weeks ago I participated in the Brazilian Zoo Association conference in Foz do Iguacu. The host zoo was Parque das Aves. This was a wonderful zoo started 20 years ago which today receives over 600,000 visitors. There was a beautiful blending of flora and fauna with a walking path throughout the zoo. The wild-like aviaries with toucans, and scarlet and blue macaws was one of the largest that I've seen. Being able to see these magnificent and intelligent tropical forest birds so closely – and learn about the important conservation projects - was a wonderful experience.
elajos: Thank you for the interview.
J. Peter Donlon: Lajos, it has been my pleasure. I hope to see you at EAZA in Poland in the fall.
Thicius: I wish you a lot of good ZIMS Moments in the future! :)