A Conversation with Brian Aucone, Senior Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation at the Denve

The Denver Zoo has long been one of the most well respected and popular zoos in the nation, starting with the 37 tenure of the late legendary zoo director Clayton Freiheit. Much of this is due to the zoo’s excellent animal care staff and one of its stars is Brian Aucone, the Zoo’s Senior Vice President for Animal Care and Conservation. Before coming to Denver, he was general curator and interim director at the Oklahoma City Zoo. here is his story.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

A Colorado native, Aucone’s career started as an intern at the Denver Zoo. Then he went on to get his first full time zoo job as a herpetology keeper at the Dallas Zoo. “It has one of the top herpetology programs in the world so it was a great first step in my career,” Aucone recalled. Soon he got an opportunity to show he was capable of a higher position. “For nine months, the Zoo was without a curator so Ruston Hartdegen, who is now the curator of the Dallas Zoo, and I took over the responsibilities as interim supervisors,” he explained.

@ Dallas Zoo

In 2002, Aucone moved over to the Oklahoma City Zoo. “I started at Oklahoma City as herp and aquatics curator,” he said. “So I worked all the reptiles and all the animals in their aquatics building. The OKC Zoo is a fantastic gem with a lot of community support and a helpful city tax for capital projects.” When he came to the Zoo, they were in the design process of Oklahoma Trails, a fantastic 8-acre representation of the ecosystems and wildlife of the state. “Oklahoma Trails was already in the works when I got there and they were about done with the design,” Aucone elaborated. “The intent is you’re walking from the northwest corner of the state to the southeast corner. We used water as a cohesive theme for the reptiles and amphibians so when you start it’s a trick of a stream while at the end it’s a full pool of turtles. The stream gets wider and wider in each habitat. I was involved with all of the reptile and aquatics parts like the American alligators, the alligator snapping turtles and all the fish. Oklahoma Trails has continued to blossom- all the plants have grown in and it’s all great.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Soon after Oklahoma Trails, Aucone had a “nerve-raking but proud moment” when he became interim director of the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Bert Castro had left to direct the Phoenix Zoo just as we went down the design path with the whole Asian exhibit,” he stated. “It included a variety of Asian animals including Asian elephants. We were basing the cost and design of the area off of a master plan done in the mid 1990s. However, we understood if we stuck to the projected budget and wanted to have a top-notch Asian elephant facility and breeding program that budget wasn’t going to cover it. I had to ask the board of directors for $ 9 million to do the elephant habitat right. It was nerve raking since that’s a lot of money to ask for as interim director but it was the right thing to do. We ended up doing just elephants first and now they are doing the rest of Asia in another phase.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

“We were halfway done with construction for the elephant habitat when I got offered the job at Denver,” Aucone added. “I came back to OKC for the grand opening and it works very well. The elephants have a very large habitat where they can go through a number of different spaces. The barn is state-of-the-art and the whole facility is great for managing the elephants. It was designed not just to hold females but also males. We were looking to form family groups and we accomplished all those goals.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Coincidently, when Brian Aucone came to the Denver Zoo, they were also in the midst of developing of a state-of-the-art facility for Asian elephants. As then general curator, he played a large role in the project. “Toyota Elephant Passage was an amazing project,” Aucone elaborated. “ It was really testing what we had done with lions, hyenas and wild dogs in Predator Ridge but putting it on steroids and making it work with bull elephants. We took the ideas of rotation we used in Predator Ridge to use with Asian elephants, Indian rhinos and Malayan tapirs.”

@ Denver Zoo

The Denver Zoo decided to focus on bull Asian elephants, which tend to isolate themselves from family groups. “We focused on bull elephants since that was most needed for the population in North America,” Aucone explained. “We work with other zoos to manage the Asian elephant population and there was a worry we’d run into an issue with what to do with males when they’re forced out of family groups. They become solitary but not completely solitary. We took on the challenge of needing space for bulls, wanting to make dynamic habitats for them and finding out how to put them together regularly. It’s been quite challenging but it’s worked great. We have introduced all the bulls together and we have a diverse herd as our youngest is 9 while our oldest is 47. We have even put the two younger bulls together is musth and they showed a lot of natural behaviors.”

@ Denver Zoo

Aucone and the rest of the team at the Denver Zoo pushed modern technology and elephant management practices to make Toyota Elephant Passage a complex and enriching space for the Asian elephants that live there. “We have 1.2 million gallons of pools where the elephants can swim,” he elaborated. “We have varied habitats and have a great storyline talking about the challenges elephants face with human-wildlife conflict. A lot of thought has gone into the rotational aspect to make sure the animals and people stay safe and the animals don’t come into conflict with each other. It’s like a board game where you think of all the scenarios so we’re prepared for all of them.” The rotating habitat works since Indian rhinos and Malayan tapirs have similar habitats and preferences to elephants. “They also like to swim and have lots of space,” Aucone added. “They’re a natural fit.”

@ Denver Zoo

Toyota Elephant Passage also includes a massive, modern indoor facility for the elephants, rhinos and tapirs. “We have eight indoor spaces for housing these animals in inclement weather and a community room for them to interact with each other,” Aucone stated. “Just the community room is four times the size of what they had before for indoor holding, nevermind the other holding areas. Outside, we got away from the idea you have an animal who goes into the same space every day. It’s very enriching because the three species can smell and see each other. We put a lot of enrichment into the spaces as we have multiple places where we can hang enrichment, pools for swimming where the elephants can fully submerge and places where the keepers can hide food and have the animals seek it out. The keepers always think of ways to make changes in the habitats the elephants, rhinos and tapirs go through. There are all kinds of opportunities throughout Toyota Elephant Passage. We have squeeze chutes for medical procedures and training walls for positive reinforcement behavior training.”

@ Denver Zoo

@ Denver Zoo

Since Toyota Elephant Passage opened in 2012, Brain Aucone has been promoted to Senior Vice President for Animal Care and Conservation. “I’m one player in a big group of people working to help save wildlife,” he explained. “Conservation is all about people- you can’t save wildlife if you don’t engage people. We have over two million guests a year and we need to help people connect with wildlife. They won’t save something they don’t have feelings for. You can’t get that connection the same way from watching TV or reading a book. You have to see them, smell them and understand them in person. We take the opportunity to educate people about the plight of wildlife. We have a strong field conservation project helping save wildlife around the world. I look at how we can have the broadest impact we can to affect the conservation of wildlife.”

@ Denver Zoo

In March 2017, the Denver Zoo opened the Edge, a new home for Amur tigers. “The tiger habitats in the Feline Building no longer met the needs of the animals so if we wanted to keep tigers we needed something much better for them,” Aucone recalled. “We got some bond money from the city so we looked at different options to use it for. I brought up tigers saying we either need to phase out tigers or build them a brand new habitat. We used all in house people to design and construct the exhibit. It gives our tigers much more space. We went on the rotation idea as we have two habitats we can rotate the tigers between. We also have a maternity den, off exhibit yard and a quarantine facility."

@ Denver Zoo

“In the Edge, the outdoor habitats are far better than they previously were from both a guest and tiger perspective,” Aucone elaborated. “Tigers can climb and get up over the guests. They spend a lot of time up there watching over the people. Guests can look into holes where the tigers could be right on the other side. You can smell and feel their breath. It gives a greater sense of interaction so people can have a stronger appreciation for these cats.”

@ Denver Zoo

The new space for the tigers is much more naturalistic than the old one. “We already had some big trees on the site we built the edge so we incorporated those to create a wooded environment,” Aucone said. “We have training walls where keepers train the tigers for behavior and guests can see us work with them. We have climbing poles that we tried with lions where we can hang enrichment items or mat and get them to climb up there and get it. It lets them use their athleticism. The new space gives the tigers more of a workout since they have so much more space to climb. In the back we have a lot more space for their care and places where we can work with the animals. They’ve got far bigger pools for swimming. It’s a much more dynamic habitat than they previously had.”

@ Denver Zoo

Animal care training and enrichment is at the forefront of everything done by the Denver Zoo’s animal care staff. The Zoo is always looking at progressive ways to manage animals and provide great lives for them. Brain Aucone used Predator Ridge as an example. “Predator Ridge is all about social predators,” he explained. “We have two prides of lions, two clans of hyenas and one pack of wild dogs. We designed Predator Ridge to manage and rotate these animals. They go through the same spaces and can even see each other across pathways. You’ll find a lot of natural behaviors as the wild dogs and hyenas will defend their territories. We have great training programs for those animals.”

@ Denver Zoo

“We have a curator for behavioral husbandry who works with all the teams,” Aucone added. “They work with us to create priorities for behavior and enrichment. We work to get that accomplished with all these animals. For instance, we have a very large primate collection and since they’re always thinking back at you they’re complex to take care of. They take a lot of effort by our staff to keep them enriched and engaged. For hoofstock, we find them to be as challenging and interesting as the others. we have an excellent animal care staff that deals with hoofstock. We work closely with our gerenuk and have trained them to do their natural standing behavior. we have had a lot of success with them you wouldn’t think.”

@ Denver Zoo

As Senior Vice President for Animal Care and Conservation, Aucone’s role is different than it was as a curator. “I don’t manage a direct collection like a curator,” he explained. “My role is about our long-term future, how we integrate our medicine, animal care and field conservation programs and what our long term goals are with our collection and field conservation work at the Zoo. we’re always trying to be progressive and innovative. We’re having conversations at how we’re first and foremost a conservation organization. Everything we do is about conservation and we should use that to frame how we talk about ourselves. We’re doing a lot of important work and we have to take that to the next level with our guests in recognizing what we’re doing for wildlife.”

@ Denver Zoo

The Denver Zoo carries out critical conversation efforts all over the world. “We have a main set of projects we do,” Aucone stated. “We’ve been working in Mongolia for 21 years with cinerous vultures, argali sheep and other animals. We’ve been able to expand a Mongolian national park to meet the movements of the animals. We’ve also increased community engagement in the park and taken it from just being a park legally to one the community is actually involved with. We’ve been working in Botswana for over ten years primarily with wild dogs and looking at how to reduce human-carnivore conflict.”

@ Denver Zoo

“We’ve also been working in Peru with Lake Titicaca frogs which are endemic to the region,” he continued. “We’ve worked in Vietnam for six years to save critically endangered snub-nosed monkeys. We’ve working with local communities to protect them.” The Zoo is also doing extensive conservation work locally. “We work in Colorado with the pika and how climate change impacts them. We’ve remonitoring wildlife movement when looking to build corridors under highways to protect them. We also run an active national wildlife refuge down in New Mexico where we’ve introduced bison back to the plains and are studying how that impacts other animals. We’re utilizing that information to inform managers on how to manage livestock while also being great for the environment.”

@ Denver Zoo

Aucone is determined to keep the Denver Zoo a major leader in not just the zoo field but global conservation. “I’m really proud of how we’re always asking ourselves if we’re doing the best we can,” he reflected. “We always want to improve and learn. We’ve built on our behavioral enrichment program a lot in the past few years. We’ve hired a nutritionist to run our diet program and be much more purposeful and educated in our diets. We hired an animal welfare expert to develop parameters to monitor the animals to find key indicators of good welfare and monitor welfare on a daily basis to make sure we’re providing the best. From an animal care standpoint we’re always looking forward and trying to be the best at animal care we can.”

@ Brian Aucone

#DenverZoo #OklahomaCityZoo

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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