A Conversation with Peggy Sloan, Director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Peggy Sloan, Director of the North Carolina Aquarium in Fort Fisher, thoroughly believes in the value of aquariums as opportunities for conservation and to inspire the public to take action. Throughout her career, she has been proactive in solving puzzles related to ocean conservation by participating in regional and national partnerships. Sloan has led the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher towards more involvement in field conservation. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA.) Here is her story.

@ NC Aquarium

Coming from a science background, Sloan found her career path while in the Keys. “When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I started volunteering at the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in the Keys,” she recalled. “I thought I’d pursue research and education on the water but it all came together when I saw the impact of connecting people with dolphins. I wanted to get people to love animals and nature as much as I did. I saw this transformation when people made a connection with dolphins and jumped from passive enthusiasts to passionate advocates.”

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After spending seven years overseeing and growing an education department at DRC, Peggy spent two years working at the Brevard Zoo under then director Margo McKnight. “Magro is one of the most visionary people in our field,” she noted. “She changed the way people viewed the zoo and came up with the idea of people kayaking through the zoo to experience a deeper connection to nature.” While at Brevard Zoo, the AZA annual conference took place in Orlando, which Sloan pinned as a cornerstone moment. “I really began to realize I belonged in the community of zoo and aquarium professionals,” Sloan remarked. “There’s something special here in this profession and the impact wecan have to help my ultimate mission of conservation.” In 2001, she left to work at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. “I was attracted to living in coastal North Carolina and missed working on ocean conservation,” Sloan remembered.”

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When Sloan came to the aquarium, it was just about to reopen after a major expansion. “The community was really excited to have their aquarium back and it was an opportunity to engage people in new experiences,” she said. “The aquarium tripled in size and expanded on what the old aquarium did well- local animals.” Since the aquarium was reopening, Sloan found she had a blank slate in her role as Education Curator. She immediately began to build up the aquarium’s programming with a great team of educators. “Our access to the surrounding marsh and beach provides the perfect classroom,” she elaborated. “We added teacher workshops and summer camps teaching everything from science to animal care to conservation. Our great educators grew programming, experiences and access for different audiences. We also introduced community events like Trick or Treat Under the Sea, the aquarium equivalent of Boo at the Zoo, and expanded opportunities around every major holiday. In addition to wanting to inspire appreciation and conservation, we wanted to serve our community by being a fun, safe and engaging place to spend time.”

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While Education Curator, Peggy Sloan became much more involved in the broader zoo and aquarium community. “Chris Gentile (then Director of Education at the Riverbanks Zoo, now Director of the Western North Carolina Nature Center) reached out to me and asked me to chair a regional communications plan for AZA’s Conservation Education Committee (CEC) in the Southeast,” she elaborated. “That was a great opportunity to learn from neighbors and colleagues and build relationships, grow programs and benefit from being part of the AZA community. [On the regional communications plan,] we really looked at where we had regional cultural challenges and shared a lot of best practices.”

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The experience set fire to Sloan’s continued involvement in the AZA. “There’s so much good work to be done and one way to help make that happen is to volunteer,” she explained. “Serving on any AZA committee clarifies the idea that we as members are AZA. I joined the CEC and for six years worked with my colleagues from around the country to solve problems like nature deficit disorder, communicating climate change impacts and why zoos and aquariums matter. It was an incredible opportunity to build optimism and grow a community of like-minded friends and colleagues.”

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In fact, Peggy Sloan’s experiences with AZA colleagues thinking about and working on big issues inspired her to change her career path at the aquarium. In 2011, she became Director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. “I was increasingly involved in work on issues that needed to be addressed through organizational and cultural change,” Sloan reflected. “To wanted to influence positive change, I needed a seat at the decision making table. I didn’t really feel ready to lead and at the same time was compelled to try. That feeling never goes away”

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“As director, a few things motivated me the most: creating dedicated conservation funding, expanded conservation impact and providing opportunities for staff growth and recognition,” Sloan elaborated. “Our staff takes great care of animals, engages people in learning and creating wonderful visitor experiences. We were, and are, meeting our mission of inspiring appreciation. However, we were less focused on inspiring, and engaging, conservation. We have talented, dedicated, smart staff in all areas of operations. Many of these people rose from volunteer and intern ranks or have been with the aquarium for most of their career. They have so much to offer the aquarium profession, and so much to gain from colleagues in the broader aquarium and zoo community. Becoming a director allowed me to prioritize conservation and staff changes and that’s been fun and exciting.”

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As director, Peggy Sloan wanted to see the aquarium grow. A major first step was building up the aquarium’s conservation work. “Six years ago our conservation work was primarily opportunistic assistant with sea turtles and occasional grant funded projects,” Sloan remarked. “We had an opportunity to create a dedicated conservation fund by becoming intentional in what we asked for from our audiences and our support group the N.C. Aquarium Society. Likewise, getting our staff more exposure to the broader profession and encouraging them to contribute and learn was a matter of setting intentions and priorities with resources.”

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While the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island has an award-winning sea turtle hospital that is “absolutely fantastic in terms of engaging people and creating this really powerful connection” and the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores provides assistance to hatchlings, the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher participates in sea turtle rehabilitation in a tertiary way. Instead of sea turtles, a major focus has been on sand tiger sharks and gopher frogs. “Two years ago the North Carolina Aquariums and Florida Aquarium became members of Southeast Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation (SEZARC),” Sloan said. “SEZARC traditionally worked on reproduction issues with tremendous success on zoo hoofstock. However, in this case, we were interested in figuring out how to breed sand tiger sharks. Sand tiger sharks have rarely reproduced in aquariums but through the initial support from N.C. and Florida Aquariums SEZARC was able to hire a researcher to coordinate the existing work on elasmobranch reproduction and bring together an alliance of sand tiger shark stakeholders working with AZA’s species survival plan coordinator, veterinarians and field researchers on how to breed sand tiger sharks.”

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“The coalition has really come together,” Sloan continued. “Aquarium membership in SEZARC has expanded, creating more opportunities for growth and Florida Aquarium sponsored two workshops to create a conservation plan for these sharks “With our sister NC Aquariums and support from AZA colleagues, we’ve been able to fund and implement research both in the aquarium and out of the field. We’re learning about the natural history and reproductive tendencies of sand tiger sharks. There’s a data gap for sharks on the North Carolina coast so we’re well positioned to help gather information to add to field work farther north and south.” Another conservation priority for the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher has been the Carolina gopher frog. This effort is supported by funds raised through visitors opting to “round up” for conservation. In its second year, the gopher frog program attracted a new donor specifically interesting in saving frogs, an indication the conservation work expanded the audience and increased donors.

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Staff development has been a huge priority for Peggy Sloan. “It’s very difficult in the state systems to give financial incentives,” she explained. “We’re very limited in options for giving raises and advancement within the system is a challenge. The thing we can do is encourage people to grow, learn and make a difference solving critical issues such as extinction. Primarily with private support, we give staff learning and leadership opportunities. Six staff from Fort Fisher attended AZA’s annual conference and serve on or chair committees. These people are doing great work and learning at the same time. Getting a big picture view and bringing it back home helps deliver the message of the power of our collect impact. We’ve hosted the Regional Aquatics Workshop, Marine Educators Assocation and other professional meetings and encourage staff involvement in professional organizations. We make sure staff is engaged and they grow in line with our mission. Individual growth may at times by more valuable than money.”

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Sloan reflected some on the unique challenges aquariums face in comparison to zoos. “Saltwater and electricity are challenging,” she noted. “Life support system and conditioning of space is expensive. Generally, an aquarium probably costs more to run per square foot than a zoo. And a zoo has some dangerous carnivores. I admire the responsibility my zoo colleagues take on managing the safety of people and animals. Aquariums generally don’t face the kind of animal safety issues zoos contend with. We do have to think about SCUBA safety and maintaining balanced aquatic ecosystems requires technical chemistry skill in addition to animal care expertise.”

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One of Peggy Sloan’s actions at the aquarium has been adding a seasonal bungalow. “It transitions between butterfly house and a lorikeet exhibit in alternate years,” she said. “Zoos have more immersive exhibits and an aquarium creating that kind of an experience can be a challenge. With the bungalow, we can tell a good conservation story about pollinators and have people connect with animals. Butterflies and lorikeets land on you and come to you which is a different kind of interaction than a touch pool where you reach out to an animal. That was a big departure for a traditionally fish-focused aquarium.” The aquarium has also added technology exhibits. “We got a big grant from NOAA to address climate change impacts through marine mammal stories,” Sloan noted. “We did teacher trainings, created content and provided program in an inflatable geodome and build exhibits about whales and dolphins using game components. Technology is one of the tools we’re experimenting with to find out how we can embrace the changes we know are coming.”

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@ NC Aquarium

The North Carolina Aquarium’s next project will be an exhibit for Asian small-clawed otters. This will be a departure for the aquarium since it will be an exhibit outside of their exotic animal gallery that won’t house an animal from North Carolina. “We got the money to build an otter exhibit and the obvious thing would be to do North American river otters, but within AZA’s SSP there’s a long waiting list for North American river otters,” Peggy Sloan elaborated. “We looked at the bigger picture and recognized Asian small-clawed otters have a very strong SSP but need more breeding animals and homes. We can build an Asian small-clawed otter exhibit designed around what makes otters thrive and how we can have as many opportunities as possible for people and otters to connect. We’re going to tell the story of why we have Asian small-clawed otters instead of river otters. If you tell the right story, it can show people the bigger picture. We’re going to make this an example of the success of the recovery of North American river otters, the challenges still facing Asian small-clawed otters and our commitment to conservation partnerships.”

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Even more ambitious is the upcoming renovation and expansion of the aquarium. “My vision is to embrace our environment,” Sloan stated. “One thing that struck me when I came here is the aquarium is in a beautiful place where the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic meet. Inside the aquarium, you are separated from the surrounding environment and I’d like to change that. We’re going to see how we can make the wildlife around us part of the aquarium experience. We’re thinking about going up and making the journey a rooftop experience. We’re thinking of ways as we expand to provide meaningful experiences for people with and for animals.”

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Peggy Sloan currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Being on the AZA board is an extension of the opportunity to volunteer,” she commented. “I get to serve with such wonderful people completely committed to making the world a better place through zoos and aquariums. It’s rewarding to have meaningful and productive conversations about being better, doing more and creating positive change. In my three years most of the conversation has been about wildlife conservation- that’s why we exist, we need to make that clear, we have to move faster and figure it out. What I see and what makes me so optimistic and hopeful is everyone is so committed to the big picture. We can disagree on the process or progress but we all agree we have to work together on conservation.”

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“We don’t control the narrative about aquariums, zoos, extinction, animal welfare or other issues AZA accredited aquariums and zoos,” Sloan remarked. “We do control our actions and this determines how others talk about us. We know a lot of people care deeply about animal welfare and conservation just like we do. If we can come together where we agree, maybe we have a greater chance of success. Many leading AZA aquariums and zoos have successfully partnered with unlikely players to accomplish specific conservation goals. I see a more intentional movement in that direction.”

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The North Carolina Aquarium is being proactive in its messaging. “We’re always trying to message in the most productive way,” Peggy Sloan elaborated. “We try to focus on the positive, which can be so hard to do. We focus on success stories of the animals we have around us like bald eagles, pelicans and whales: animals here because people cared enough to protect them 40 years ago. People can make a difference and we want to encourage them to engage. This is not my story or the aquarium’s story- it’s our story. We try to be as inclusive as possible and make it clear why it matters that we save animals and habitats. That’s the messaging we’re trying to get out there.”

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“I’m most grateful for the opportunity to work with such talented, dedicated professionals in North Carolina and across the globe who everyday get up to make the world a better place,” Peggy Sloan concluded. “To be successful I think we have to recognize the strengths and opportunities around us and bring in people who want to go towards a brighter future for people and animals. Engaging talented and compassion people who understand that their role in the aquarium’s success contributes to something bigger and ultimately critical to the future we share.”

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