Connecting People to Living Things in an Emotional Way: A Conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, Dana

“There are three things which can come out of a zoo visit. The first, and least likely, is behavioral change where a zoo visit inspires an individual to change their life’s behavior. The second is much more likely and that’s cognitive gain. That’s where people come out of the zoo knowing more about animals and the planet we share with them. The last and most likely is the thing that makes us most special. It’s that we connect people to living things in an emotional way. I call it affective connection and that happens at the zoo every minute of every day.”- Jeffrey Bonner

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo is often considered one of if not the best zoos in the world. With rich history, free admission, modern, dynamic habitats and a strong commitment to global conservation, the zoo inspires over 3 million visitors to connect with wildlife. While historically the zoo has been run by the likes of George Vierheller, Marlin Perkins and Charlie Hoessle, today it is run by Jeffrey P. Bonner, Ph.D., Dana Brown President and CEO. Scholarly, articulate and forward thinking, Dr. Bonner has made the Saint Louis Zoo even greater and steered it into becoming a leader in the future of zoo conservation. Here is his story.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

When asked to give the 2017 definition of a zoo, Dr. Bonner had plenty to say. “I have always found zoos to be umbrella conservation organizations,” he articulated. “Education and research that take place of the zoo are all fundamental dimensions of conservation. However, field conservation is the thing we do that has the most direct impact on wild things and wild places. There’s a lot of dimensions to what zoos, which can make it hard for people to understand them. Most people who criticize zoos don’t realize how much we do. At the end of the day, we’re fundamentally conservation organizations.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“There are three things which can come out of a zoo visit,” Bonner elaborated. “The first, and least likely, is behavioral change where a zoo visit inspires an individual to change their life’s behavior. The second is much more likely and that’s cognitive gain. That’s where people come out of the zoo knowing more about animals and the planet we share with them. The last and most likely is the thing that makes us most special. It’s that we connect people to living things in an emotional way. I call it affective connection and that happens at the zoo every minute of every day.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Before becoming a zoo director, Jeffrey Bonner was an anthropology scholar and worked in natural history museums. In 1993, he became the director of the Indianapolis Zoo for nine years. Bonner was hired as the President and CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo in 2002 when zoo legend Charlie Hoessle retired. He was determined to expand on the strong foundation set up by his predecessors and ensure the fantastic zoo would be a leader in 21st century global conservation.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“A lot of things happened during my first few years in St. Louis,” Bonner stated. “We established the endowment. Before that we never had in endowment per se so we deposited every gift we got into it. In 2004, we started the Wild Care Institute, our formal conservation arm. In fact, our first gift to the endowment was restricted to conservation, which was exciting as we were beginning our conservation program. We also had three different boards which we needed to bring down to two. I feel the endowment and the conservation arm were the two big things.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo’s Wild Care Institute is a major player in insitu conservation and runs 13 centers around the globe aiming for creating a sustainable future for wildlife and people. “We wanted to create an institute that was highly collaborative,” Bonner elaborated. “We decided we wouldn’t undertake programs by ourselves but partner with other organizations. That’s not really unique to us but I think the extent to which we’ve done it is admirable. We have developed an array of partnerships where we are the credible givers, not the credible takes.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“In terms of our approach, we talk about creating a sustainable future for wildlife and people,” Bonner added. “Having people in the mix is very important. When we make a commitment to a collaborative program, we make a three year commitment. You can’t just give funding for a year or two and have immediate results but you also don’t want to get stuck with a program that doesn’t work. Our commitment makes sense. We have exit strategies to these programs and have left some programs for a variety of reasons. In one case, we left a program because it worked. It was in Nicaragua with two groups who needed title for their land. The zoo came in to establish that the native groups were living sustainably on the land. We found out what the makeup of the animal populations were and whether their hunting was sustainable so we worked with a nature conservancy to get them sustained. We stabilized an environmental zone forever.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Under Jeffrey Bonner’s leadership, the WildCare Institute has been very successful and is interpreted throughout the Saint Louis Zoo. “I think we’ve become an international model and a lot of people either want to partner with us or recreate our model in places we don’t work. I’m really proud of all our projects. Our burying beetle project in Missouri is great because, even though they’re not charismatic animals, we’ve raised tremendous resources for them. We were the first organization to reintroduce them to the wild. Making animals that are not furry or have big eyes conservation success stories is great. We also were the first to breed hellbenders in human care. In both of those instances, we literally are saving a species from the brink.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“Internationally, I love our Madagascar program because we saved it,” Bonner stated. “It was this consortium out of San Francisco that just broke up after their longtime director retired. The Saint Louis Zoo got them to save it and grew it into an international effort. It was a nice rescue story and it’s expanded to include zoos around the world. I also love working in East Africa and our programs in Kenya have been very successful.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Additionally, the zoo had to decide what new habitats and facilities it would build. “Some of the difficulties of making decisions in zoos is that they are so diverse,” Bonner explained. “Some things, like Sea Lion Sound, we built because people wanted us to. We built Polar Bear Point because we felt strongly they were an iconic species for global warming. Some of it was sort of a domino effect. When we made Polar Bear Point and Grizzly Ridge, we needed to a place to put the sun bears and Andean bears so we built them new homes in River’s Edge. People don’t realize a lot of the money we raised in our last capital campaign was not for exhibits but for the endowment, infrastructure and visitor service. It was pretty broad ranging and money from the endowment was a big part of that.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

When Dr. Bonner came to the Saint Louis Zoo, it had just finished River’s Edge, a 10-acre immersive exhibit recreating the environments of Asian elephants, black rhinos, hippos, spotted hyenas, cheetahs and a variety of other animals found adjacent to water. The first exhibit opened during his tenure was Penguin and Puffin Coast, America’s first walkthrough penguin habitat. It lets visitors get inches away from the cold-weather birds and recreates lighting, sights, sounds, smells and frigid waters of Antarctica. “What I like about the penguin exhibit is that it stinks, it’s loud, it’s cold and it’s wet,” Bonner remarked. “Those are four great things because people go in there and they’re transported to something completely different and new.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo also dramatically improved the lives and welfare of its apes and elephants. Fragile Forest, opened in 2005, added lush, dynamic outdoor spaces for the zoo’s chimpanzees and orangutans. “Fragile Forest got our apes outdoors,” Bonner said. “We already had an outdoor gorilla habitat and beautiful indoor spaces for all the apes but this brought our chimpanzees and orangutans outside for the first time.” Now the chimpanzees and orangutans have a naturalistic setting that enables them to exhibit natural behaviors, forage, climb, explore and interact as they would in nature.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo doubled the space for its Asian elephants by opening Elephant Woods, a wooded grassy environment that can only be seen by the zoo’s train. The zoo has the largest family of Asian elephants found in a North American zoo, has had great breeding success with the species and already had fantastic riverbed habitats for them in River’s Edge. “Elephant Woods significantly improved the space for our elephants,” commented Bonner. “It didn’t cost a fortune to build but we were able to do a wonderful area with mud wallows and things that made those elephants more enriched. The elephants love it.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo has a strong commitment to Asian elephants, whose numbers are declining rapidly in the wild. “If you put every Asian elephant alive in Busch Stadium, it wouldn’t be a sellout,” remarked Bonner. “We participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP) here and are very invested in their future. People connect with elephants whey they see them here. That’s the only thing that will help Asian elephants.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2012, the Saint Louis Zoo opened the state-of-the-art Sea Lion Sound, which won an Exhibit Award by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). It is the only zoo exhibit in America where visitors can walk through a tunnel surrounded by sea lions. “California sea lions are not the least bit endangered but they have been at the center of the zoo for over one hundred years,” Bonner stated. “It was important to people to have them since they’ve become a symbol of the zoo. The sea lion show was the last animal show we ever intended to have and will stay a good one.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Even if the sea lions don’t have as much conservation value as other species, Jeffrey Bonner still thinks they are a worthwhile investment. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the visitors that come in,” he elaborated. “I love Sea Lion Sound and our guests have a great experience. We talk about connecting people to animals and they do that at Sea Lion Sound. You can see it and even hear it. They’re excited, enthusiastic and joyful. By connecting people to the sea lions, it works to achieve our mission.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2015, the Saint Louis Zoo opened Polar Bear Point, which replaced outdated historic bear pits with a modern facility for polar bears. The space was designed to enable top-notch polar bear husbandry and welfare as well as tell the story of global warming and the plight of the Arctic. “I went out to the polar bear habitat today and our bear Kali was in the shallow pool,” Bonner remarked. “An interpreter was in front of the visitors talking about how the environment is effecting them and how ice is breaking up earlier. She had their attention and they were listening to her but they were standing in front of an iconic animal playing in the water and engaging visitors. That’s a good strong message there. We also have lots of interpretive graphics to educate visitors and strong connections with polar bear conservation in Alaska. That can’t be beat.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Opening this fall is Grizzly Ridge, a modern habitat for grizzly bears adjacent to Polar Bear Point. “We decided to do a glass fronted exhibit rather than a moated one,” Bonner said. “”We’re going to talk about how bears and people can coexist and give examples of actions people can do differently to help them. There’s a lot of need for people to live differently in order to be harmonious with bears. How can we live side by side with an iconic but dangerous animal? We’re going to help people understand who to coexist peacefully.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2015, the Saint Louis Zoo created an ambitious 25-year master plan highlighting possible expansions for the zoo. Some highlights included an African savanna, a Madagascar exhibit and an Asian exhibit which might feature giant pandas. “We’re going slow with the master plan,” Bonner remarked. “People don’t understand why we do them. We do big holistic plans to find out what small part we want to do. We’re going to start with a redo of the Primate House and go from there. The master plan helps us build exhibits in a way that’ll fit right in with longer term plans. I suspect it will be changed in ten years. Looking back, people will at least understand why we put things where we put them. We preserve areas of the zoo for future development.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo has evolved and grown considerably over the course of Jeffrey Bonner’s tenure. “The public and animal experience is a lot different,” he reflected. “We’ve focused a lot more on the emotional experience with the animals and our research program is much more robust. We didn’t have a formal conservation institute when I came so that was very transformative. The endowment and WildCare Institute are the two accomplishments I’m most proud of. We also acquired the property across the street, which will make an enormous difference in the future.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo is definitely one of the best and most beloved zoos ever built. “People love this zoo,” Bonner remarked. “It’s one of the world’s great zoos and it’s free. It’s amazing that we have such a phenomenal zoo, great experience and fantastic community support without charging admission. That very much makes us special. Generations of people have been able to come to the zoo no matter what their economic status is.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“I’d be really happy if after I left the zoo world, they said I did a great job preparing the Saint Louis Zoo for the next person,” Bonner added. “Charlie did that to me and I would be very glad to let the next person take the zoo to the new level. I talk about field conservation a lot. What happens within the zoo really needs to connect to conservation efforts in the field. You really can’t split them apart and they should be a nice continuum. We hope we have an impact whether it’s a polar bear study or an education program. We can’t understand the lifestyle of animals completely so linking the zoo with the wild is a critical thing. As is linking people with animals.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

#SaintLouisZoo

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