The Future of Zoo Conservation: An Interview with Dr. William Conway, Retired Director of the Bronx

Perhaps no one has had as much positive influence and impact on the modern conservation zoo as Dr. William Conway. He was the director of the Bronx Zoo in New York from 1962 to 1999 and president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, its parent group, from 1990 to 1999. Many have proclaimed Conway as being the greatest zoo director of all time and during his tenure he redefined what a zoo is and what role they should play in conservation. In New York he did this by creating groundbreaking immersive habitats recreating certain bioclimatic environments around the world and showing the importance of protecting the wildlife which live there. However, he claims his “biggest accomplishment was creating the international conservation program.” The Wildlife Conservation Society does hundreds of programs in 53 countries. “That’s where conservation takes place,” Conway remarked. “It’s great having gorillas in New York but you’re not saving gorillas there.” Dr. Conway was very gracious and did a half hour interview with me about the future of zoo conservation.

@ William Conway

Conway did not sugar coat and immediately discussed how dire the situation for wildlife is around the world. “Right now about 95% of all terrestrial vertebrates are humans or domestic animals, “ he said candidly. “Less than 5% are wild animals. That’s dropped significantly since 1970. There are many figures that are very, very discouraging. Birds are down 50% of what they were. What we’re dealing with now is a very desperate extinction crisis.” Conway was very serious and clear about the fact the zoo’s main job first and foremost is to save species for extinction through global in situ conservation. “The best things zoos can do is fight for parks and reserves around the world,” he said.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

During his time at Bronx, he worked to build state-of-the-art habitat complexes which not only provided top notch care and welfare to animals but also educated the public about the plight of these species in their natural ecosystems and connected them with the conservation fieldwork the Wildlife Conservation Society carries out in the field. Among these were World of Birds, Wild Asia (an educational monorail ride through naturalistic habitats for tigers, Indian rhinos, Asian elephants, babirusas and a variety of Asian hoofstock), an expansion of the African Plains, JungleWorld (a realistic indoor recreation of a Southeast Asian rainforest), Himalayan Highlands (featuring snow leopards) and Baboon Reserve. His most famous achievement was his last habitat complex to open, Congo Gorilla Forest. This breathtaking area transports visitors into the equatorial rainforest gorillas call home and lets them see them interact in family groups and behave naturally. In addition, it stresses the race these apes have with extinction and the critical importance of in situ conservation to saving them.

@ Wildlife Conservation Society

Conway immediately recognized building these habitats was very difficult. “I have never been able to make a zoo exhibit as big as I’d like it to be,” he said. “Everything we do is a compromise in terms of the limits of space and money. You’re constantly wrestling with that sort of thing. The main thing you need to do is decide what you want to do. I had to close down two buildings to build Congo and do a lot of fundraising. Most funding for exhibits is two kinds- local government or local government plus public/private foundations. We had several foundations involved with Congo and help from the City of New York. Those are all part of the job. Not easy. We have the largest zoo conservation program in the world by far and we managed to do that through private contributions and federal money we had gotten from developing cooperation with other organizations. The conservationists are also involved in the fundraising. Many foundations and private donors do not wish to speak to fundraisers- they want to talk to the people who are doing that work.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Funding for new habitats was difficult but so is the design and construction. “Having decided what you’re going to do, you bring in your staff, your curators,” stated Conway. “For Congo I brought in people from the field who had worked in Africa and they sat with our staff at the zoo and people from our exhibits department for weeks. I had various sketches and ideas and other ideas came up. Everybody participated and we got ideas from the entire staff. We had some of our staff who worked in Africa come in and work with us. That’s the way you do it. Congo turned out pretty well within the limits of the space and budget we had. You do the best you can and you have to do it in a way that is responsive to the wellbeing of the animals but also within the limits of space and budget.”

@ WCS

However, Conway stressed that it’s not about exhibits at the zoo but conservation in the field. He even said that, if he could have done anything in his professional career differently, he “would have become a field biologist.” “I still feel that the work we have to do now is mostly in the field,” Conway explained. “One of the wonderful things zoos are dong now is contributing to the field. AZA zoos contributed over $185 million to in situ conservation work last year. I started that committee in 1990 and it’s a very major contribution.” His favorite thing about Congo Gorilla Forest is that “we assigned the full admission charge to in situ conservation and since we opened it in 1999 we’ve contributed over $14 million to the Central African conservation effort. That’s the sort of thing that really counts.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

When talking about the zoo of the future, Conway said “all zoos in the future should essentially be fundraisers for conservation in the field.” He has done a great amount of work for conservation in South America particularly in Patagonia. “I’ve gotten over a dozen parks established in Patagonia for penguins, sea lions, elephant seals and other animals,” Conway proudly proclaimed. “I took my vacation time and went down there to work year after year.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

When it comes to zoos, Conway is adamant “zoos are all about animals” and sees the importance of having them on site. “Zoos should have animals and there are several things that are happening,” he explained. “Recent studies suggest as much as 70% of human populations globally will be living in cities by 2050. That’s not very far away and they’re moving in at considerable numbers leaving landscape on the outside. The only contact these people will have with wildlife will be at zoos.” While Conway recognizes some zoos are doing “very good work”, he feels all zoos “ought to get a lot better” and zoos “should be specializing and using more imagination.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Conway believes a zoo should only have an animal if they exhibit it well and give it the best life possible. “The quality of the habitat an animal is in is as important as its quantity,” he stated. “It should be an exciting habitat and have a great amount of rotation and flexibility. They’re going to use it every day for the rest of their life. They need more space, flexibility, quality and imagination. This all has to be done within the limits of budget and available space.” Conway doubts certain animals such as whales and some migratory birds can be given satisfactory habitats in zoos but feels many-including megafauna such as elephants and gorillas- can be. “Theoretically you could exhibit elephants satisfactorily in zoos,” he elaborated. “I do feel most elephant habitats should use more imagination but I think it can be done well if in adequate numbers and with a good amount of space. Elephants do get sufficient exercise in a number of zoos. There are many, many ways to exhibit elephants and with imagination you could do all sorts of things with elephants.”

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However, Conway firmly believes zoos should do so much more than have animals living in habitats. “I see zoos becoming a different kind of organization,” he said. Conway wants them to evolve into a much more engaging and dynamic learning experience. “I see them becoming wildlife conservation centers,” he said. “They should be a place where you book tours to explore natural places around the earth. I see zoos as having first-rate animal libraries and having videos from the field for sale. I think zoos should have the kind of courses where you get more education than normally occurs at most zoos. There’s just an immense number of things that can be done at zoos.” Conway’s belief is that only zoos that are contributing to conservation and education should exist and “zoos that are not good should be closed. There are a number of them which most people would agree should be closed.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The last part of the interview involved Conway giving me frank but insightful and stellar career advice. “You’ve taken on a very challenging career idea,” he told me. “There are all sort of difficult questions you’ll have to face in zoos or wildlife. The U.S. is managing stray horses on western lands. Over 67,000 of them. They’re destroying the land. What do you do with them? Very difficult ethical and moral questions plague our field working with animals. It’s much easier working for a conventional conservation organization that doesn’t take responsibility for its animals. You’re going into a field that is fraught with extremely difficult and sensitive questions few people are prepared to face.” I ended the conversation by thanking him for sitting down and talking to me as well as all he’s done for zoos and conservation. He responded by saying, “Good luck.”

@ WCS

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