Zoos Fighting Extinction: A Conversation with Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria and President of the

The CEO of Zoos Victoria, Jenny Gray is rapidly becoming one of the most influential zoo leaders in the world and a major champion for zoo conservation. She runs three excellent facilities in Australia, the Melbourne Zoo, the Werribee Opean Range Zoo and the Healesville Sanctuary. During her time there, Gray has made saving Victoria’s endangered species and teaching visitors how to coexist harmoniously with our planet her top priority. “We’re all about conservation and have taken every step in the direction of being first and foremost a conservation organization,” she declared. Jenny Gray was recently elected the president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA.) Here is her story.

@ Zoos Victoria

Before becoming a zoo director, Gray worked as a banker. “For some reason, I thought I’d be happy working for money but I’m really driven to do good,” she explained. “When I went for the job, I was able to show banking was probably the biggest deviation of my career. I had a civil engineer background so I knew about infrastructure. Also, I had run a bus company so I knew about how a visitor who doesn’t come is a wasted opportunity. There were a lot of similarities in the operational part of that to what I do at the zoo. The only piece I didn’t know was the animal and every zoo I’ve worked at is full of people who know all about animals.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Jenny Gray began her zoo career as director of the Johannesburg Zoo in South Africa. “The Johannesburg Zoo is a fairly small inner city zoo,” she recalled. “When I took over, it was in quite a bad state but we managed to get good funding and rebuilt a lot of it. It’s fair to say in a country like South Africa the zoo plays an important social role. The zoo was open to all races even during Apartheid so it was one of the few places in Johannesburg both black and white families could visit. Also, the reality is animals are remote and far away in Africa and the vast majority of our visitors would only get to see a lion in a zoo. We thought everyone in Africa deserves to see a lion.”

@ Zoos Victoria

In 2008, Gray moved to Australia to become director of the Werribee Open Range Zoo. However, soon she would get promoted. “After being the director of Werribee for six months, the director of the Melbourne Zoo left so I became the director,” Gray recalled. “Then the CEO of Zoos Victoria left so I became the CEO. It was a perfect moment when I arrived. Conservation was just one of the four pillars we were focusing on. We changed after the Christmas Island bat became extinct to saying we don’t want to just be a zoo that does conservation but a conservation organization. This emerged from workshops and became the desire of the whole organization.”

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While all three institutions are owned by the state of Victoria, located close together and very high quality, they have different specialties. The Melbourne Zoo is an urban city zoo known for its immersive habitat design. “What really impressed me at Melbourne was the immersive design,” Gray stated. “When you’re walking through the Trails of the Elephants or the Gorilla Rainforest, you could be in another country.” On the other hand, the Werribee Open Range Zoo is a safari park featuring a drive-through portion. “Werribee was originally a property to hold herds from the Melbourne Zoo but at a certain point it opened up,” Gray explained. “At Werribee it’s all big herds, big open spaces. A big drive-through experience.” The Healesville Sanctuary focuses exclusively on Australian animals. “Healesville has always had a strong program of breeding local species and they were working with about nine of the most critically endangered species in Victoria,” Gray added. “They already had knowledge of how to breed and look after critically endangered species.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

One characteristic that is across the board at Zoos Victoria is excellence. The zoos have long been known for their immersive, dynamic habitats. “There’s no doubt if you can change the context, you can change how people see animals,” Gray remarked. “We did a new baboon habitat at Melbourne- the old one was a square mesh Victorian enclosure. On the first day, they hovered by the door and made holler calls at the sun since they hadn’t seen it before. We also took the bachelor gorilla herd at Melbourne to a massive new space at the Werribee Open Range Zoo. To create a new habitat and move animals into it is really rewarding. These are all moments where I would cry as I get so caught up in what we do to give our animals a better life.”

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“One of the nice things about having three zoos is we can have them play different roles,” Gray continued. “Werribee has a lot of bachelor herds. When we have a surplus of giraffes, they can join the bachelor group at Werribee and just wander around and be giraffes. Same with bachelor gorillas at Werribee. We think of the whole of life care and give our animals that.”

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“We’ve done an enormous amount of construction projects at our zoos,” Gray stated. “At Melbourne, we did a whole children’s zoo called Growing Wild with meerkats and giant tortoises to help kids understand animals that live on the ground. We transformed our old bachelor gorilla area into a beautiful lemur walkthrough area. We did new lions and wild dog exhibits as well and we’re about to do a new area for predators- tigers, snow leopards, Tasmanian devils, coatis. That will open in December. We recently did Wild Sea with fur seals. At Werribee we did gorillas, African wild dogs and an Australian zone with koalas, kangaroos, parrots and a nocturnal house. Kangaroos are opening at Healesville in December.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

“Of them I think I’m most proud of gorillas at Werribee,” Gray elaborated. “We spent a lot of time thinking about what a bachelor group would need- lots of mounds, space and areas for them to get away from each other. I’m very excited about Leopard Ridge because we started the design with what the animals need. We think about how do we make these spaces dynamic from an animal point of view and make this visible to the public. We’re going to use a lot of one way glass so people can still see the animals but the animals can have their space. We’re starting to design from the animal’s point of view and building them a home to just let them be them. We’re not just retrofitting in what animals want.”

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One of Jenny Gray’s main accomplishments during her time at Zoos Victoria is starting a detailed plan to save every critically endangered animal in Victoria from extinction. “We were really clear our role is we’re here to prevent the extinction of species,” she elaborated. “We have 21 animals on our fighting extinction list and we’re making sure we have both the plans and resources to change the trajectory of those species. For instance, we’re working on the eastern barred bandicoot, which is extinct in the wild in Victoria. About two years ago, we released them onto Churchill Island. They’ve done incredibly well to the point we’re looking to release into a second massive island and we’re funding fencing for a third island. We’ll have three standing populations with 200 of these animals. No one has done an animal recovery in Australia before. We’ve changed from a small player who worked primarily on breeding to a catalyst and driving force to get this done. We’re very excited about the recoveries of our species. We have plans and parks for all the animals on the list.”

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Additionally, Zoos Victoria has looked at revolutionary ways to inspire change in the behavior of its guests. “We’ve done an enormous amount of work with our visitors and what behavior they need to change to save animals in the wild,” Gray explained. “Last year, we released a campaign looking at ocean plastic. We went to Lord Hall Island and heard about the sheer water ticks. They had a massive jar of the plastic and the largest thing ending up in them was plastic balloon clips. We’ve shown in 100 meters of beach we can find hundreds of balloon clips coming up on the shore. So we’re proposing for people to blow bubbles instead of blowing balloons. We’ve gotten thousands of people to pledge not to use balloons and we’re about to sign our 100th organization who will take balloons out of all their promotional material. It’s a massive project and I think is showing what we’re really capable of. We’re becoming like an advocacy organization. The people who visit zoos like animals and already want to make a difference, which gives us an edge.”

@ Zoos Victoria

The balloon campaign is only the latest of the behavior change campaigns Zoos Victoria has carried out. “We’ve done one on beads where we buy beads from rural woman in Africa and sell them in our gift shops,” Gray remarked. “That’s putting kids back in school and giving people an alternative livelihood to competing with wildlife. We also did a campaign about getting men to play soccer instead of poaching. We had one about toiler paper and another about recycling mobile phones. We even turned the whole city orange to convince the city to go to sustainable palm oil. It’s not about putting signs up in your zoo and feeling you’ve done enough. Zoos need to be braver in how they advocate for causes. I’d like to see zoos do as much for conservation as they do for Halloween.” Zoos Victoria is a perfect model for other zoos to emulate when it comes to advocating for conservation and sustainability.

@ Zoos Victoria

Additionally, Jenny Gray has led Zoos Victoria to having conservation messages at the forefront of every piece of messaging the zoo does. “Everything in our messaging has changed from our digital presence to the signage at every enclosure at all three zoos,” Gray stated. “We have our fighting for extinction logo. Everywhere we can, we’ve changed the messaging.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Unlike other zoos which have focused on supporting a wide variety of projects around the world, Jenny Gray has concentrated on doing more hands-on work for animals from Australia. “We really have focused on animals within Australia,” she elaborated. “I think at some level we should be looking after primarily the animals in our own backyard. If every zoo did that, we’d be a lot better off now. Sometimes the animals in your backyard aren’t the sexy things. We know Australia has the worst track record of animal extinction in the world so it would be hypocritical if we told people in Africa to save their animals when we’re not saving or own. We are in a range state where animals are in all kinds of trouble.”

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However, the zoo does dedicate some efforts to saving animals around the world. “Each year we run three smaller grants so we look for partners doing community based conservation,” Gray remarked. “We move it around so we can touch on different species at different times. We’re also certified carbon neutral and channel funding into carbon offsets in biodiverse rich areas. We’re protecting rainforest in Africa, South America and Indonesia by doing this."

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Gray’s enthusiasm when talking about the species on the fighting extinction list is contagious. “On the list, we have Leadbetter’s opossum, a number of frog species, honey eaters the stink insect, Tasmanian devils and orange bellied parrots,” she said. “We are one of the big breeders of Tasmanian devils. They suffer from a fatal tumor disease in the wild. For those on the list where it’s appropriate we hold populations on site. We have breeding programs for display but mostly breed for release. The local animals always get beaten up popularity wise by elephants, lions and tigers but we have a campaign called Love Your Locals, which introduces them to these amazing animals.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Jenny Gray acknowledged importing and exporting animals from Australia is quite the challenge. “There’s enormous challenges in terms of road blocks to moving animals out,” she remarked. “More and more when colleagues ask me can we get the animals the question is why and do they have deep pockets. It’s very hard to import and export animals from Australia. We have massive barriers to what we can have. Because we’re an island state and there’s real fear of biosecurity, there’s extreme protocols to brining animals in. For instance, we can’t bring a single bird into Australia. However, there’s no need to bring in exotic birds when you see the beautiful Australian birds we have and they bring a much better message of protecting their habitat in Australia. We have to work with other zoos to make sure we have sustainable populations in our zoos.”

Chris Tzaros @ Zoos Victoria

Jenny Gray recently wrote a book called Zoo Ethics, which all starts with animal welfare. “I think the simplest ethic we all agree is to cause harm to another for no good reason is wrong,” she reflected. “That should be the overriding premise. Compassionate conservation says we should minimize the harm to individuals and not see this as a simple one or the other thing and think is this good for the individual, is this good for the species. We ask if this is justified, humane and effective. Are we really saving the species? We work with animal relationships and interdependence. They rely on us for everything that happens in their lives, which puts a moral obligation on us. We have to make decisions laden with moral content. They are all decisions which have an impact on the welfare of a particular animals. You’re weighting up these different layers of ethical decision making.”

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Animal welfare is taken with utmost seriousness at Zoos Victoria. “We start with the animal welfare code that says what our commitment to our animals and their care is,” Jenny Gray explained. “We have an annual ritual where we look at every enclosure and ask twenty questions about if these animals live in a positive welfare state. We also have a program called Willy Wonka, which is all about innovative ways to care for animals through enrichment. We have a Ph.D. specialist in animal behavior who’s our expert. We do a full investigation of any death that’s accidental by a board. Every animal is hard to look after in human care. There’s a complexity to everything you need to keep up with. It takes innovation and creativity. From the highest level of our board through the training of each keeper, we have a tremendous pressure to improve animal welfare.”

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“Enrichment helps activate natural behaviors,” Gray continued. “You want to be clear on which behaviors you want to get and why you want to stimulate those. You don’t want every natural behavior but you do want the ones animals enjoy. We need to think more about their brains and their cognitive abilities going forward. We’re doing that with more complexity in enclosures. We’re doing puzzle feeders, food they have have to work for and even a program with Microsoft that provides orangutans the equivalent of an iPad and let’s us see how they interact with it. We’re looking at whatever we can understand and assess. It may be something as complex as giving them access to an iPad they can’t break. Choice is very important. We’re stimulating their minds more.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Jenny Gray sees very well the importance of zoos in the future. “Zoos will be around for a long time,” she reflected. “Our fascination with animals will not change anytime soon and neither will our deprecation of the planet. Zoos empower behavior changes that make a difference for animals. We owe the animals in our care an enormous amount and should never be comfortable feeling we’ve done enough.” As for Zoos Victoria, a turning point was when the San Diego Zoo awarded them the conservation word. “It was the first time they acknowledged a zoo for their conservation work,” Gray stated. “Before they had just done people in the field. Now someone like San Diego Zoo pauses and says we’re a conservation organization. That was special.”

@ Zoos Victoria

“It’s the people who work here who make Zoos Victoria special,” Jenny Gray concluded. “They’re smart, passionate people with the vision of a future with wildlife. We probably deserve a planet with just seagulls and crabs but that’s not a planet worth living with. We want all these animals available for future generations. We’re going to find better ways of supporting our visitors and making conservation seem like a fun thing to do. I think our success will be when we no longer have 21 species on our list of critically endangered species. The day we can take species off our list is what we really want. Our campaigns like the balloon one would be amazing achievements. These are the things I see us doing more and more.”

@ Zoos Victoria

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