Vehicles for Conservation: A Conversation with Steve Burns, Director of Zoo Boise

As a collective unit, the zoos and aquariums in the American Association for Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) raise almost $200 million for global conservation each year. Although much smaller than many of its peers, Zoo Boise is one of the most conservation-minded zoos in the nation. In 2007, it became the first zoo to have a mandatory conservation fee as part of its admission cost. This focus on saving animals in the wild has a lot to do with the vision of Steve Burns, the zoo’s director for most of the past two decades. Here is his story.

@ Zoo Boise

Burns came to Zoo Boise in 1997 as the executive director of Friends of Zoo Boise, a support organization. “I had worked at The Nature Conservancy before that and was looking for any kind of job with animals and conservation,” he recalled. “Three and a half years later they merged the zoo director job and my job.” Back then, Zoo Boise was virtually unrecognizable to the one that exists today. “The zoo was a very different place,” Burns stated. “We have renovated, expanded or changed about 90% of the exhibits here. Our latest expansion will take care of the other 10%. We used to have a large collection of North American animals like elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and Idaho raptors. There’s a lot of wilderness in Idaho and you can see those animals in the wild so we moved away from being so Idaho focused. The budget was considerably smaller, we did not have a full time veterinarian and there were only 13 people on staff fulltime. We didn’t have the protocols or policy in place we needed to operate. We didn’t even have radios to communicate with each other or backup generators for exhibits.”

@ Zoo Boise

When Steve Burns took the director position at Zoo Boise, it had been through a particular tough time. “The year before I came, we had Feast for the Beasts,” he recalled. “The old director of the zoo was going to put the tigers away and people asked if they could go so he took 17 people to watch. However, he didn’t make sure all the doors were closed before he let the tigers in and the tigers came into the dens with the people. all but one of the guests were able to run away but the director couldn’t get the tiger back in the den. One of the people on the tour was a police officer and was told to shoot the tiger. He shot three times and missed the tiger but shot the woman in the hip. Thankfully, she survived. The story received a lot of media attention, understandably all bad. We were everywhere in the news and the community lost confidence in us.”

@ Zoo Boise

With his new position, Burns had the responsibility of turning the zoo around. His first initiative was to get Zoo Boise accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “We decided as a group we were going to become accredited by the AZA,” Burns remarked. “Past people didn’t want to get accredited but we felt it was important to show the community we had a strong operational foundation. Also, it was an opportunity for the staff to work on a big project that meant a lot to them. we worked fast and hard and were very proud to get accredited the next year.”

@ Zoo Boise

Once funding became available, Zoo Boise began to create new habitats that modernized the zoo. “We ended up getting a large grant so we built Small Animal Kingdom, which features rainforest, island and desert animals,” Burns said. “That area used to be just deer paddock after deer paddock. We were able to convert a number of those yards into Small Animal Kingdom, a big step for us. After that we built a red panda habitat and converted an old beaver/otter area that needed a lot of repairs into a penguin exhibit. Our grizzly and black bears were very old so after they passed we tore down the wall between them to build a bigger space and bring in sloth bears.”

@ Zoo Boise

These first steps catapulted Zoo Boise into becoming a respectable zoo. “Momentum is a huge thing,” Burns reflected. “Attendance continued to climb and we won the community back. We got them ready for a capital campaign to do an African exhibit with giraffes, lions and other species. That exhibit looked very different than anything we did before and we used a corner of the zoo that was really an unused construction dump. In the zoo world, you have this business model which makes us keep building new things. It’s not like an exhibit where you can change the displays and pieces of artwork in the same space. We have to keep visitors in and build new exhibits while also maintaining old ones. This makes zoos need a lot of capital money repeatedly.”

@ Zoo Boise

This project was not only on a much larger scale than anything the zoo did before but much more expensive. “It cost $3.8 million, which was a lot of money for us,” Burns recalled. “We looked to stretch our budget as much as possible. We have an obligation to build a zoo this community can afford. We hired a local architect because when you’re in a small town raising money, it’s good to spend money in that same town. We picked off pieces we knew we could do ourselves. We built visitor fencing and covering walls in house and planted out own trees."

@ Zoo Boise

“We used almost no artificial rockwork in the exhibit- just one termite mound,” Burns continued. “For our lion exhibit, we used slab wood to cover the fence rather than 18 foot tall cliffs with waterfalls. That saved a lot of money.” Africa turned out to be a worthwhile investment for the zoo when it opened in 2008. “The African section was received incredibly well,” Burns recalled. “It was the first time we had lions in a long time and the first time we ever had giraffes.”

@ Zoo Boise

Around this time, Zoo Boise began to become thoroughly involved in conservation. “We had become part of the Pacific Northwest Zoo Alliance working on regional conservation programs,” Steve Burns explained. “At the time, we would raise around $1500 a year for conservation and I felt we really needed to ramp up our game. I knew what was happening in the natural world and how many animals, even iconic ones, were on the verge of extinction. We thought about what we could possibly bring to the table in terms of conservation. What we realized was that we had a collection of animals people wanted to see and people who would come see it. I knew we had a lot of visitors and, if we received money from all of them, it would add up."

@ Zoo Boise

However, Burns decided not to go the traditional donate route. “We knew if we asked for donations, we would get around a 10% response rate,” he stated. “We wondered what would happen if we didn’t ask but simply charged for conservation. We decided we would become the first zoo to have a mandatory conservation fee on top of zoo admission. We had to get the approval of the mayor and city council to do it. The mayor asked what if you don’t want to pay the fee and I said it’s not optional. I had no idea how this was going to go over but we gave it a try. I think we only got two complaints about the fee out of over 300,000 visitors. This allowed us to go from $1500 to $57000 for conservation just in the first year. over the years the fee as increased and we have come to the point where we generate $120,000 through the conservation fee.”

@ Zoo Boise

The conservation fee signaled a major turning point in Zoo Boise’s identity. “I decided to, at least for Zoo Boise, change the definition of the word zoo,” Burns remarked. “We decided for our purposes we’re a garden where animals are on display to the public with the primary focus of funding efforts to save animals in the wild. We didn’t change what we were but why we did it. We’re still a nice place to learn about animals but, given what’s happening to the natural word, that’s not enough. Inspiration is not enough. Conservation costs money. I felt if we could change the reason why we have animals, then we could make a real difference in conservation.”

@ Zoo Boise

Burns and his team began to look at other ways to raise money for conservation. “We began to create a series of visitors experiences with an upcharge like giraffe feeding and the zoo farm where the money all goes to conservation,” he said. “We also put in a solar-powered boat ride where all the money from it goes to conservation. When we redid our sloth bear exhibit, we put in sloth bear feeding and all that money also goes to conservation. Whenever we built a new exhibit, we raise an additional 10% of the funds for conservation. This funding primarily comes from Friends of Zoo Boise.”

@ Zoo Boise

“We don’t just build exhibits, we build vehicles that allow people to take part in conservation,” Burns elaborated. “We’ve generated $2.5 million for conservation. It’s not Zoo Boise putting that money into conservation but the visitors coming to Zoo Boise. That seems like a subtle difference but it’s an important one as the zoo is just what allows people to take part in conservation. Most people aren’t going to leave their families and jobs and go to the Far East to do tiger conservation. What we’ve done is turn the act of visiting the zoo into a conservation action. All you have to do is show up and do things like feed giraffes, which you would want to do anyway. If you want to help more, come back tomorrow or next week.”

@ Zoo Boise

Despite its modest size and budget, Steve Burns has turned Zoo Boise into one of the premier zoos in America for conservation. “What we decided is rather than create our own conservation programs, we would partner with other groups already out there,” he explained. “The first million dollars we gave away was done through a competitive process where we’d pick four groups to fund. We got some valuable feedback as they advised if you want to spend the money more effectively, pick fewer programs and fund them long term.”

@ Zoo Boise

Zoo Boise chose two projects it would focus its conservation efforts on. “The big one is Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique,” Burns stated. “It was once one of the greatest parks in Africa but after 35 years of civil war nearly all the animals in it were killed. There’s a guy from Idaho who’s made it his life’s work to save this park.” Zoo Boise decided to make its primary conservation efforts dedicated to the resurrection of this park. “We helped pay for him to move animals like elephants and zebras back into the park and helped build a science lab for them to do research,” Burns added. “Over the course of a decade, we will have donated over $2 million to them. ”The second project the zoo focuses on is protecting the Annamite Mountains in Laos, home to the elusive saola. This antelope is one of the rarest large animals in the world and was only discovered in 1992. “Our team has been raising money for an anti snare project for the saola,” Burns said. “Our ZooTeens will be educating guests about this project.”

@ Zoo Boise

From now on, Zoo Boise’s new exhibits will exclusively highlight the zoo’s conservation efforts. “All of the exhibits here at the zoo will simply be reflections of our partnerships,” Steve Burns remarked. “We aren’t going to build anymore exhibits that don’t highlight our long-term conservation projects. We’re doing an exhibit area of the Annamite Mountains which obviously won’t have saola but will have gibbons, chevrotains, Sarus cranes, pheasants and various Asian birds and tortoises. This will educate guests about the conservation work our visitors are supporting.”

@ Zoo Boise

Much larger and more ambitious will be Zoo Boise’s Gorongosa exhibit. The $9 million project will be the largest expansion ever done at the zoo. The area will feature animals from Gorongosa National Park including baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs, Nile crocodiles, nyala antelope, African wild dogs, hyenas, African crowned cranes, ground hornbills, spotted-necked otters and white-backed vultures. “We looked at what animals are found in Gorongosa and started narrowing down the list by what we knew we couldn’t have,” Burns said. “We don’t have the space or budget for elephants or hippos. We already had lions so you’ll be able to see them in their existing exhibit from part of Gorongosa. Then we began to see what’s available. Not a lot of zoo exhibits focus on Mozambique so it was a challenge to find animals from other zoos. some of the animals will be representative species. For instance, American zoos hardly have yellow baboons so we’ll have olive baboons instead. We have striped hyenas who will be moved over to Gorongosa to represent spotted hyenas. When they pass, we’ll replace them with spotted hyenas. We always have a whole process we go through in terms of dedicating what we can do a good job taking care of and what animals will tell important stories that are interesting to the public."

@ Zoo Boise

“We don’t want to just interpret the animals,” Burns continued. “We want to tell the entire Gorongosa story. Gorognosa is a million acres- half the size of Yellowstone. The park is also coming back to life. It’s gone from 10,000 hoofed animals after the Civil War to 80,000 hoofed animals.” The exhibit will not just talk about Gorongosa’s animals but also it’s people. “One of the realities of the Gorongosa project is the fact living around the park are 200,000 people who are among the poorest people on Earth,” Burns remarked. “The park asked how they could address the needs of the people as well. Fom the beginning, they started educational programs, medical programs and agricultural programs which we will represent in the exhibit. Half the money we send to Gorongosa goes to the community programs. The local people are our partners so we need to tell their story as well.”

@ Zoo Boise

“The Gorongosa exhibit will feature a few more experiences with an upcharge for conservation,” he added. “We’re trying to figure out ways visitors could feed otters or crocodiles and have even toyed with the idea of how people could safely help deliver food to baboons. We’ve also talked about a virtual reality experience as well. We continue to develop those things so not only are you learning about the project but you’re generating money to help protect the park.”

@ Zoo Boise

Gorongosa will feature state-of-the-art animal habitats. “We’re going to have 2.4 acres of our 12 acre zoo decided to Gorognosa National Park,” explained Burns. “As we and the rest of the zoo world learn more about animal welfare, we want to continue to improve our ability to provide better welfare and built exhibits that help us do that. As we began to design Gorongosa we brought the San Diego Zoo’s curator of animal welfare to help us think differently of the exhibits in an animal welfare perspective. We’re trying to have our habitats change as much as possible so the animals don’t have the same experience all the time. We’re going to rotate the hyenas and wild dogs. We’re going to move around the rocks and logs in our nyala and hornbill exhibit. With the primates, we will be able to easily and regularly change the branches. We even are going to seasonally flood portions of some of the habitats so they have to deal with a flood like they would in Gorongosa. We’re going to have random scatter feeders so the animals will never know when the food is going to come. We’re recreating the experiences animals have.”Burns is adamant Gorongosa will be highly educational. “We’re designing the signage so it might change and say a completely different thing on the next visit,” he stated. “There’s too much to teach people in one visit so it might take four-five times to learn it all. During the dry season we’ll just interpret the dry season while during the wet season we’ll just focus on the rainy season. We also have some world-class footage of Gorongosa National Park we can use free of charge that will be playing there.”

@ Zoo Boise

Steve Burns has been on the board of the AZA for seven years and recently served as chairman of the organization. “I kind of felt like the astronaut who orbited the earth for a year,” he remarked. “You get to orbit the zoo and aquarium world for a year and get to see what’s going on. It was an honor to serve.” This has only strengthened his commitment to Zoo Boise’s identity as a conservation organization. “Having the opportunity to reinvent why we have a zoo has been an incredible experience,” Burns reflected. “I believe AZA institutions are in a unique position to be able to impact wildlife conservation in a way few groups can do. We generate over $180 million a year for conservation. If other zoos committed on the level of Zoo Boise that would be $500 million a year. You don’t have the opportunity to raise a billion dollars in two years very often.”

@ Zoo Boise

“With Boise, we’ve tried to create a working model of how zoos reinvent why they do what they do,” Burns stated. “You definitely learn responsibility as a zoo director- you’re responsible for hundreds of animals. You can’t take that lightly.” He feels very proud of what he’s accomplished at Zo Boise. “It’s very humbling to have the opportunity to work at a zoo for a long time, be able to see this arc of history, see changes and develop long-term relationships with people who work here and support the zoo. It’s been a real team effort and we’ve accomplished a lot. It will be even better after Gorongosa as we’re tearing down the primate house and two aviaries, which are the worst exhibits we’ve had.”

@ Zoo Boise

“We’ve got a great team of people who are very dedicated,” Steve Burns concluded. “The mechanics of what we’ve done are simple- there’s no physics or calculus involved. What it takes to implement the conservation model we’ve done is people buying into a vision and practicing daily discipline. Sending 10% of our budget out the door to conservation is not an easy thing to do but is the right thing to do. Our staff work their butt off and make sacrifices because they believe doing what we’re doing is the right thing to do. Everyone had to say we believe we can have a zoo for a different reason in order for this to work. That’s very special.”

@ Zoo Boise

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