Connecting People With Wildlife: A Conversation with Chris Kuhar, Director of the Cleveland Metropar

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is home to over 3000 animal son 183 acres and welcomes more than a million visitors a year. The zoo underwent a major renaissance under the leadership of longtime director Steve Taylor. Some of the highlights of Taylor’s leadership were the opening of several great exhibits: the Rainforest, Australian Outback Adventure and African Elephant Crossing. After 24 years of service Taylor retired from the zoo in 2012 and Dr. Chris Kuhar was hired to continue to work towards being a world-class zoo. Kuhar has not only opened dynamic habitats such as Tiger Passage but focused on making the zoo a prominent force in global conservation and making sure the public knows about the great work the zoo does to save species. This is his story.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Dr. Kuhar’s background comes in animal behavior science. While studying at Georgia Tech, he was mentored by zoo legend Terry Maple best known for rebuilding Zoo Atlanta. “I’ve always approached my zoo career from an animal welfare and science perspective,” he commented. “Terry Maple put science at the forefront of what he was trying to do. He really tried to train his students to be critical thinkers and have a positive impact.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

For five years, Kuhar worked as research manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. His job centered around conservation research inside the park and evaluating conservation programs outside the park. “I focused a lot on gorilla behavior and conservation education,” Kuhar elaborated. “I also evaluated the field projects we worked on. We did a lot of primate projects in Central Africa. A lot of conservation work sounds like the right things to do but without evaluating it you have no certainty what you’re doing works. The idea with education is you’re having a positive biological outcome with animals and the environment. You need to evaluate whether or not the education you’re doing works- did you teach what you meant to teach them and did they behave differently. At Disney we took it from the perspective of how effective are our programs and if not we should tweak them.”

@ Disney

In 2008, Kuhar returned to his hometown of Cleveland to work at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as curator of primates. ”It was a good fit because Dr. Kristen Lukas was director of science here,” he said. “She’s created a very similar program here to what Terry Maple did with Atlanta. I was able to take the knowledge from her program and implement it into animal husbandry.” After a few years, Chris Kuhar was appointed director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

As the zoo’s director, Kuhar takes great pride in the zoo’s extensive conservation program run by Kristen Lukas. “She’s responsible for managing the science program focused on welfare with behavior and reproductive evaluation,” he commented. “The other half of her job is being in charge of our conservation program. We have a number of key programs we work off of.” A major focus of the zoo’s conservation programs is gorillas. “We have a long history of gorillas here,” Kuhar said. “We partner with the Diane Fossey Gorilla Conservation Fund to protect the species in Africa. At the moment Kristen Lucas is there training biologists in Rwanda because a lot of scientific capacity for the gorillas was lost after the genocide. We support all the core functions of the Fossey Fund- tracking and the research that goes on there.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Similar to the zoo’s work with gorillas, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo does vital projects to help Baringo giraffes in Uganda. “We did a giraffe relocation in Uganda to help restore their population,” Kuhar commented. The zoo does a variety of other conservation programs around the globe as well. “We are heavily involved with African carnivore conservation in Tanzania with the Ruaha Carnivore Project,” Kuhar added. ”We support prosimian conservation in Indonesia. We focus on various actions of the illegal environmental trade- elephants, rhinos and tigers. We were also one of the core founders of the Andean Bear Conservation Fund.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

In addition to the zoo’s in situ conservation work, Kuhar is working to make sure the zoo tells its story well and changes possible misconceptions about zoos. “From day one my mindset was focusing on the narrative that some people believe zoos aren’t good for animals and changing that,” he explained. “I had seen the emphasis on animal welfare zoos have and thought some people were judging zoos on a 1955 version of zoos. I wanted to make sure we were doing a better job telling our stories- talking about conservation and animal welfare. We know we’re doing good things and are going to continue doing a better job talking about it. We’re going to be more forward about telling our story.” As a result, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s marketing and communications departments have done an excellent job conveying the critical role the zoo plays in conservation and assuring people know its animals receive top notch care.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

To better reflect the zoo’s philosophies, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo recently been rebranded including a new logo. “It really emphasizes our conservation program,” Kuhar said.. “That was informed by marketing research saying the public expects us to help save animals in the wild and take great care of the animals we have here. We’ve really tried to align our mission. Our marketing campaigned is based off of conservation and helping save species, which is a bit different from the traditional model focusing on the fun stuff. We need to make sure we talk about the important stuff and how we care for our animals.”

Dale McDonald @ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

This focus has been reflected in the zoo’s new habitats in recent years. The first major step in this direction was the opening of African Elephant Crossing in 2011 when Steve Taylor was still director. “We’ve seen an evolution in our thinking about animal spaces and African Elephant Crossing was our first step in that direction,” commented Kuhar. The area features multiple spacious naturalistic habitats the zoo’s five African elephants can migrate between as well as a state-of-the-art barn. Their spaces are perfectly designing for roaming and foraging complete with deep pools for swimming, muddy wallows for cooling off, trees and several enrichment opportunities. It is perfect for visitors getting up close to the massive elephants and learning about their conservation. “The facility encourages the elephants to stay active and move, which keeps them healthier,” Kuhar said.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Kuhar and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo have built on this foundation with the opening of Rosebrough Tiger Passage, a state-of-the-art, dynamic facility for Amur tigers. Providing five times the spaces the big cats used to have, they roam four interconnected habitats and travel from one to the other through overhead pathways above visitors. Each space gives the tigers an enriched, stimulating experience perfect for their welfare and interpretive features educate visitors about tiger conservation. “We took what we did in African Elephant Crossing a step further in Tiger Passage,” Kuhar explained. “We’re going to continue to have multiple spaces for the animals and rotate them- which increases the value of those spaces and encourages activity. We surrounded the guests with the tiger space. We’ve got four spaces and two cats which allows us to allow them more variety and encourage exploration. This puts the animals first.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“If you build the right space where the animals do what they do, that will increase the guest experience,” he elaborated. “They will see the animals climb, explore and be themselves. What we’re really trying to focus on is what the animal should be doing and do they have the opportunity to do that. It’s all about what the animal should be doing- does it dig, does it climb. Much of that is built into the design of the new habitat. The key components to Tiger Passage are the flexibility, movement and exercise.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Tiger Passage is one of the most dynamic and enriching tiger habitats ever built in America and Kuhar is determined to give the zoo’s other animals the rich lifestyle afforded to the tigers. “We’re going to break ground on our new Asian Highlands this year, which will feature snow leopards, red pandas and Amur leopards,” he stated. “We’re also going to do a new habitat for cheetahs. A few years down the line we will be building a state-of-the-art gorilla habitat. We’re really going to go further with this concept of expanded habitats and flexibility in the management and design of animal spaces.” Eventually Kuhar wants to update other animal spaces including ones for the zoo’s bears.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

In addition, the zoo is focused on making sure all the animals receive top-notch care and enrichment. “Enrichment is not just adding a toy- it’s filling a gap that allows an animal to perform a natural behavior,” Kuhar explained. “The team has done a great job with that. Our team has had success with training from blood draws with lions and tigers to nail trims with bears to feeding with gharials. We’re really emphasizing the training piece because it provides critical information on the wellness status of our animals. What the keepers are able to do with the animals continues to amaze me. We have friendly competition between the different keeper departments, which is a great mindset to have.”

Dale McDonald @ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

An important focus for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s future will be to continue to focus on its conservation and education programs. “We’ve got a long history with education, which we’ve done a good job at getting in the public eye,” Kuhar stated. “The emphasis on science education and connection with kids is vital. Being a zoo we have that science education experience that’s not chalk and talk. All kids love animals and that’s why animal picture books are so popular. The ability to connect them with science is really great and we’re trying to grow on that connection. Inspiring personal responsibility to take conservation action is part of our vision. “

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Kuhar sees conservation as not just doing field work but inspiring people to take part who otherwise might not be exposed to conservation. “We want people to leave the zoo inspired to help animals and know we’re here to help,” he reflected. “There’s a lot of great conservation organizations doing a lot of great work but besides zoos no one visits them. Zoos and aquariums have the rare ability to convert nonbelievers. We have the opportunity to engage people who just came to have fun. They leave and want to do something. It’s an exciting time at the zoo and there’s a lot of really good stuff going on."

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

A big asset to Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is the community support it receives. “One of the reasons I came back to Cleveland is the community loves the zoo,” Kuhar elaborated. “There’s a connection there which is extremely valuable.” This gives the zoo even more ability to become the best it can be. “The programs we have growing her and the staff we have here- it’s a great place to work,” Kuhar said. “We feel in a position where we’re not limited and we’re trying to think creatively of new solutions to make the world a better place. Our zoo is fantastic because of the programs under it and we’re going to be getting rid of a lot of old exhibits to better reflect our mission. We’re trying to make our zoo better. Elephants, bears, apes- those are the big species for a zoo like us and we need to make sure we’re providing the right care for them.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Last, Kuhar talked about the hardest and most rewarding parts of his job. “The challenging part of any zoo director’s job is balancing what you want to do and what you are able to do,” he candidly said. “We have so many ideas but it’s about time and money. You’re constantly making decisions about limited resources and how to apply them. The most rewarding part is when people come to the zoo and say 'Wow, I didn’t know that.' I hear a kid talking to his dad once saying this is a great tiger exhibit, will they be able to do that with all the animals. It means we’re on the right track, which is immensely rewarding. It’s great seeing kids engage with conservation programs too.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti