Serving the Community and Enriching the Gorillas at America's Greenest Zoo: An Interview with Th

In less than ten seconds of hearing him talk, you can tell Thane Maynard loves animals. You can hear it in his voice, attitude and expression. He is also very passionate about the vital role zoos play in saving species and inspiring changes in human behavior to live more harmoniously with the earth. Maynard directs the Cincinnati Zoo, which has a rich legacy of breeding and caring for a variety of endangered animals. The zoo not only does this through science and research at home and abroad but also by inspiring the public. “We are very much a part of the Cincinnati community,” Maynard said. “Cincinnati has long been a zoo town. I’m always out in the community telling the zoo’s story. We’re not a tourist town and don’t have very good weather so we have to be overachievers to make that work. We outdo the Cincinnati Reds and have 1.8 million visitors a year as well as 54,000 families who are members of the zoo. We work hard to be an integrated part of the Cincinnati community.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Since he became director in 2006, he has made the Cincinnati Zoo even better with new exhibits, cutting edge green facilities, a stronger focus on education and a relentless commitment to caring for and protecting endangered species. A big part of this growth is the community support and finances running it. “Capital investments are driving the renaissance of the zoo business,” he said. “The zoo has always been private and gets its funds for new habitats through private donors, so we’re able to build at a much faster rate than zoos who rely on tax levies.” The Cincinnati zoo has also smartly used space in its expansion of the zoo. “Africa and Jungle Trails used to be parking lots,” Maynard commented. “We’re maximizing the land we have.”

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

For many years, the zoo’s director was the legendary Ed Maruska. “He was one of the last lion-hearts of the zoo business,” Maynard explained. “Directors like Charles Hoessle, Clayton Freiheit and Bill Conway. Folks like Ed would let’s say take over a small corner zoo in a Midwest town and turn it into a world-class zoo. He helped grow support for out zoo tremendously.” Many of the zoo’s habitats and programs at the time were revolutionary in the zoo field. “When we opened our outdoor gorilla exhibit and Insectarium in 1978 there was nothing like either anywhere,” Maynard said. “Those were industry innovations that changed the zoo business. In the 80s came more public support and marketing.”

Erica Hill @ Cincinnati Zoo

It was Maruska who came up with the concept of Gorilla World, a groundbreaking habitat. “Ed Maruska was a visionary leader with gorillas,” Maynard recalled. “He was a leader in having them live in naturalistic settings, putting them in a group, breeding them in a group and leaving babies with their mothers. Back then nobody did that. We’ve had fifty gorilla births at the Cincinnati Zoo. You could argue gorillas are the best managed species in human care as the Species Survival Plan (SSP) keeps great track of them.” Little did they know at the time nearly forty years later Maynard would be the one to bring Gorilla World to being state-of-the-art again in the 21st century.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Thane Maynard’s career at the Cincinnati Zoo began in fall 1977. He started in “the education program in the early days of zoo education programs.” The Cincinnati Zoo was a leader in making zoos not just a place where people observed animals but also where they learned about them. “I got the job by being in the right place a the right time,” Maynard recalled. “I got out of a masters program at the University of Michigan and my wife was from Cincinnati. I hadn’t thought about working at a zoo but an education center with five classrooms had just opened at the zoo. Ed was looking for people to lead classes and the rest was history.”

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Ever since that time the Cincinnati Zoo has had one of the best education programs at any zoo worldwide. “We’ve long had a big commitment to education at this zoo,” Maynard reflected. “We founded the Zoo Academy High School in 1976. We offer a big spectrum of programs from ones for babies in strollers to college classes. Today you can ever get a masters degree at our zoo with a joint program with Miami University. Back then it was rare to have such a big department for education.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Since then the education department has continued to grow and thrive. “Our education department is much more in-depth and organized than when I started,” Maynard elaborated. “The theme used to be fun is fundamental and we would often wing the programs. We still care about fun because no one comes to listen to a boring lecture but it’s deeper than it used to be. Today we do a lot of specific programs and we have many people who grew up going to zoo camp here so we always have to find something different.” Education has continued to be a focus as Maynard has been a director and the zoo even opened the first interactive kid’s gift shop at a zoo.

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In 2000, Maynard decided to try something different by going out to Seattle and running a wilderness camp. However, soon he would be back to the Cincinnati Zoo as Vice President. “They say you can take the zoo out of a boy but not the zoo out of a boy,” Maynard stated. “When you work in a zoo for a long time and when you leave to go somewhere else it’s hard to break out of that. At the nature center you were lucky to get fifty people while at a zoo you have hundreds.” When he came back in 2001, Gregg Hudson (now director of the Dallas Zoo) was director. Maynard managed the people side of the zoo. “I helped manage the public face- everything from education to fundraising,” he said. “We have a motto here that the zoo is not just a place but also an event.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

When Thane Maynard became director of the Cincinnati Zoo in 2006, he was determined to make the zoo bigger and better than ever while staying true to the key ingredients behind it’s success. “Our mission is ‘creating adventure conveying knowledge conserving knowledge serving community,’” he explained. “Everything we do is about how it fulfills the mission. We need to provide an adventure. You don’t just see a giraffe you feed it. You don’t just see a cheetah you see it run at the speed of light. Conveying knowledge is the overarching part of what we do in our education program. We have a wide variety of camps and programs. Conserving nature is a vital part of zoos- we encourage people to get involved. Zoos are the best ramp for helping people get involved in conservation. “

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Maynard remarked the fourth part of the mission is the least typical. “Serving community grew out of the fact since Cincinnati has always been in an urban community,” he explained. “We’re right here in this neighborhood and need to be really involved in the community. We realize we’re here for the people of Cincinnati and make sure we’re relevant to the people of Cincinnati. We have education and field programs all over the world but we couldn’t afford to do that without supporting our community.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Over the eleven years Thane Maynard has been director several new habitats have opened. “It takes a lot of connecting with people in the community to raise money for an exhibit,” he commented. “ It’s very rewarding when we’re finally able to open to the public.” Long famous for its success in breeding species of cat, Maynard brought their homes up to modern standards with the opening of the outdoor Cat Canyon for big cats (tigers, snow leopards and cougars) and the indoor Night Hunters for small nocturnal carnivores.

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

Maynard pulled off an even bigger project by expanding the zoo by eight acres and building Africa in multiple phases on a former parking lot. It recreates naturalistic African environments for a variety of popular species including lions, cheetahs, giraffes, flamingos, antelope, ostriches, African wild dogs and meerkats. “We’ve breed two litters of African wild dogs and sent them everywhere from Indiana to Hawaii,” he commented. “Our habitat for them was one of very few recipients of the Living Building Challenge, which means no nonrenewable resources are used for it.”

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The capstone of Africa was the opening of Hippo Cove, a state-of-the-art habitat for the lumbering river horses. “The opening of Hippo Cove was huge for the zoo since it was the culmination of the huge African exhibit,” Maynard commented. “It’s got a huge glass window for underwater viewing and a really nice filtration system. The habitat is great and a model of what we want to do.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

It also brought hippos back to the zoo for the first time since 1999. “We we’re sure how well our male and female Henri and Bibi would get along but they got along really well,” he added. “The mated right away.” Bibi soon became pregnant and was due in March 2017 but “now famously” gave birth to Fiona two months prematurely. The baby hippo’s fight for survival was well documented on social media and she quickly gained millions of fans worldwide. “Thanks to Herculean efforts by our staff she’s made a great comeback and is over 300 pounds,” Thane said proudly.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Perhaps nothing has put the Cincinnati Zoo on the map as much as its Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), founded in 1981. It propelled the zoo into becoming a global leader in conserving, studying and breeding endangered plants and animals. “CREW is the Cincinnati Zoo’s research arm,” Maynard explained. “We have seven PhDs who are mostly reproductive biologists. Things they specialize in include rhino reproduction, endangered plant reproduction, small cat reproduction and polar bear reproduction. Mostly we are typing to assist reproduction in zoos with or cyrobank in liquid nitrogen. We do a lot of artificial inseminations. CREW has played a very import role in animal management. We are very hopeful in playing a more important role since it’s hard to bring new populations of animals into zoos from the wild but it is possible in a test tube."

@ Cincinnati Zoo

One of the main projects CREW participates in is polar bear reproduction. “Polar bears are a big concern for zoos because they don’t reproduce very effectively and many of them are getting old,” Maynard explained. “We are working with US Fish and Wildlife to change the permitting process so zoos can breed orphaned polar bears from Alaska. Our plan is to put together a strategic effort with other zoos for polar bear research in human care. We’re going to put our research together in a collective manner to show the value of polar bears in human care. A lot can be learned about animals in zoos that can help field biologists with wild populations.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The most famous project done by CREW was one to help save Sumatran rhinoceroses in Indonesia, the smallest, hairiest and most endangered species of rhino. The zoo ran a Sumatran rhino breeding program for many years, the first successful one in zoo history. Led by Dr. Terri Roth, this project led to uncharted research and knowledge being learned about the habitats and reproduction tendencies of these highly endangered animals. Since their numbers are so low, the zoo sent its last Sumatran rhinoceros back to Indonesia to help save the species. However, Thane was adamant that “we have not given up on Sumatran rhinos.” The zoo still runs projects to help protect them in Indonesia to save the last population of the species. “I still have hope they’re going to make it,” said Maynard. “I hope they will be like Javan rhinos and mountain gorillas and stay steady and grow over time with our protection.”

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo is also on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability. “We take pride in being the greenest zoo in America,” Maynard commented. “We’ve pushed really hard on our sustainability program. We hired a civil engineer to manage our facilities and help us plan new exhibits. The first thing he did was notice something was wrong with our water bill. So we had to fix a lot of pipes and make it greener. He’s implemented huge water collectors. Now today we use 1/6th the water we used before and use rain water rather than tap water.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“We use LEED lighting throughout the zoo,” Maynard added. “We use less natural gas than a decade ago even though we’re bigger. We were also the first place in town where people could recharge electric cars for free.“ He strongly believes that being involved in local projects such as green initiatives is as vital to conservation as work in the field. “Few people will be involved in the ivory trade but we are all involved in using up resources faster than we should,” Maynard said.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Thane Maynard’s leadership of the Cincinnati Zoo faced its greatest obstacle yet when the zoo was forced to shoot down one of its silverback gorilla Harambe to save the life of a three-year old boy. As tragic of a loss as it was, he made it clear “the death of Harambe made us more than ever want to care and support for gorillas in every way we can.” Maynard took the responsibility of moving the zoo past the incident and not letting criticism or satire stop its famed gorilla program. While it was planned prior to the death of Harambe, the zoo broke ground on its expansion of Gorilla World in fall 2016. “To be able to rebound from this tragedy by elevating the level of gorilla facilities and conservation programs is great,” reflected Maynard.

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo has long had a strong tradition with gorillas. “Gorilla World is our most popular area and we’ve had over fifty births here,” Maynard said. “We partner with the Wildlife Conservation Society on their projects to protect western lowland gorillas.” The zoo decided it was time to make Gorilla World even better. “It was state-of-the-art when it opened but a whole lot has been learned since then,” he said. “Our improvements here are significant. The renovated outdoor space looks great while our indoor facility will nearly double the space we have for our gorillas. We’re very excited to be able to house even more gorillas. We have ten apes in two social groups but will add more animals and eventually even a bachelor group.” Gorillas are very social animals so it is very important to have them in a dynamic social setting as they are at in Cincinnati.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The outdoor space, which reopens this summer, has been updated with more space, a more enriching landscape, a stream and a waterfall. The indoor habitat , which opens in November, will let visitors see gorillas year-round for the first time ever and give the gorillas a brand-new additional 4500 square foot naturalistic space with plenty of opportunities for enrichment and socialization. It will be contained by a greenhouse enabling them to always have immense sunlight and more options of what to do. Additionally, the off-exhibit area will be much larger and use state-of-the-art technology and husbandry.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“The expansion will allow our gorillas to have more space and triple the husbandry area,” elaborated Thane Maynard. “It will be much better for shifting and movement as well as for the welfare and care of the gorillas. A tricky thing about gorillas is wherever they are they want to go somewhere else. This new facility will allow them to do that.” The reimagined Gorilla World will give the gorillas far greater choice and autonomy over their lives. It will also be a far more engaging and stimulating space for them.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

After gorillas, the Cincinnati Zoo will upgrade and expand the digs of its largest residents, Asian elephants. The iconic pachyderms are one of the most challenging animals to care for and house at any zoo because of their immense size and complexity. “You are always challenged to do a great job with elephants because everyone is so invested in them,” stated Maynard. “We’re raising $20 million dollars to double the size of our elephant facility. The elephant house is a Victorian building opened in 1905 and designed to resemble the Taj Mahal. Originally it had elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, tapirs and okapi all under one roof. Then we decided to just have elephants there and took the small yards for all the animals and made them much bigger. Now we’re going to make them even larger by doubling the outdoor space for the elephants and enlarging their indoor space to keep them in a herd.”

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Thane Maynard stressed that the zoo does not accept anything but the best care for its elephants. “We are in the animal welfare business, which means we are keenly interested in making sure the elephants in our zoo are given the best life they can have,” he elaborated. “We have a full time animal welfare department which gives the animals the things they need to act naturally and live a good life. We’re committing to Asian elephants long term- they’re more endangered than African elephants. Their new facility should open around 2019-2020.” The zoo has a variety of other future plans which will be announced in a capital campaign. Maynard is determined to keeping the zoo at the highest caliber for both animals and people. “We’re dedicated to keeping the zoo active for visitors and making it a much more engaging place,” he concluded. “Our entire operations team is an operation of fund. We try to give our visitors the best animal encounters possible so they’re empowered to save them.”

@ Thane Maynard

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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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