A Conversation with Dr. Nancy Hawkes, Director of Animal Care at the Woodland Park Zoo

For decades, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has been one of the most well respected zoos in the nation. It has a rich legacy of creating immersive habitats which let visitors see animals thriving in replications of their natural environments. The Woodland Park Zoo has won more AZA exhibit awards than any other zoo besides the Bronx Zoo. Beyond building impressive habitats, the Woodland Park Zoo ensures all of its animals receive the best care possible. For the last fifteen years, much of the credit for this goes to the leadership of Nancy Hawkes, the Zoo’s Director of Animal Care, and her team. Here is her story.

@ Nancy Hawkes

Nancy Hawkes began her career working at the San Diego Zoo’s Center of Reproduction for Endangered Species (CRES) working on a post doctorate. “CRES is a really unique place,” she recalled. “It’s organized like a biology department at an academic institution. They are part of San Diego Zoo Global but have their own fundraising and director. I was interested in reproduction at a broad level and was able to work a lot on a different projects within the Comparative Physiology Division headed by Andy Phillips. I started working with reptiles like green iguanas and American alligators. With the green iguanas, we worked with a headstart program with the Belize Zoo while with the American alligators, our work focused on sex determination and figuring out how we can develop management techniques for them by learning more about how egg incubation temperature affects sex of offspring. Another postoc, Allison Alberts (who later became the director) and I developed a large behavioral study of a group of green iguanas where we where able to study them in a large group while the guests were able to see them. It was kind of neat to be able to do field science right there in the zoo.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“A couple of years later I transferred into the Reproductive Physiology Division, headed by Barbara Durant,” Hawkes commented. “Nowadays CRES is at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido and is called the Institute for Conservation Research, but in those days it was based at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. We would go up to the park to develop techniques for assisted reproduction like semen collection and freezing with a variety of animals including cheetahs, rhinos and gaurs. We’d go out with the keepers in pickup trucks and collect semen from an animal while they were getting a veterinary procedure done. I learned from the keepers how much skill and finesse it takes to work with these animals. It was pretty intense a lot of the time and there never was a dull moment. I loved it. I got to work hands on with the animals but also go back into the lab.” After five years at San Diego, she moved to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

At the National Zoo, Hawkes became more interested in the “public side of the zoo,” focusing less on research. “At Smithsonian I did a curator internship designed to bring more scientists into management under the mentorship of Ben Beck,” she recalled. “I did a bit of everything there. The internship had me rotating between different departments, even public affairs, education and graphics. I learned a lot about how a zoo operates and all the different stakeholders invested in it. Learning that whole system was something I had never been exposed to.” During her time there, Hawkes even oversaw the development of an exhibit called the polinarium in the Invertebrate House, which featured a greenhouse with flowering plants, butterflies, honey bees and hummingbirds. “I did everything from graphics design to animal acquisition along with one of the keepers Paul Hawkes (who later became my spouse) and even traveled with two hummingbirds on my lap back from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum feeding them with an eyedropper every ten minutes,” she commented.

@ Smithsonian

“I also was so fortunate at Smithsonian to become involved in assisted reproduction for elephants,” Hawkes stated. “I had a great fortune of working with Thomas Hildenbrandt (German elephant expert), who was there are the same time I was doing a fellowship with Dick Montali, an amazing zoo pathologist. He had been developing ultrasound technology for use in large animals and thought it could be used to assist with artificial insemination in elephants, who have very unique reproductive anatomy. He’d never had the chance to try out the technique in a live elephant. We wanted to breed the young and healthy female Shanthi but we had no bull. So, with the support of legendary elephant expert and curator John Lehnhardt, Thomas and I developed the first proposal to actually start this program at the National Zoo. It was a really fun project and a great piece of work I feel has really helped improve the welfare of zoo elephants. It’s a safe, humane procedure as it’s all done through positive reinforcement and the elephants always have the choice of whether they want to participate. It’s a great alternative to having to put an elephant in a truck and go to another zoo to get pregnant.”

@ Smithsonain

Nancy Hawkes then went on to become the Curator of Primates and Small Mammals on the opening team for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. She was one of the first animal care professionals hired by the park and had heard about the project from former colleague Rick Barongi. “One of the most exciting things was nothing was there when we arrived,” Hawkes remembered. “There was only a small group of us there when it opened. I learned a lot about construction, plumbing and electrical systems as everything was being built while we were there. We got to build this new animal park from the ground up. We also got to hire all of our staff, which was great since I believe the most important thing we do for animal welfare and the guest experience is to hire the right people. I learned a lot about hiring, interviewing and selecting people there.”

@ Disney

“Since there were only maybe 12 of us there before the park opened, we got to do everything which was very exciting,” Hawkes added. “The first animals to arrive were the giraffes. It was very exciting the day that Milo the giraffe, the first animal to arrive at the park, walked into the barn. When we were getting the gorillas, it was all about sending our staff to the Lincoln Park Zoo to spend time getting to know the gorillas that would be sent to Disney. We got to know the animals, their personalities, their diets, their routines and likes and dislikes before they even set foot there. Then we accompanied them on the trip down to Florida. They were transported by FedEx, a great partner and collaborator with us in terms of moving animals and allowing staff to be there with them while they’re moved.”

@ Disney

“ We’d always bring a little bit of home with them,” she continued. “We’d fill garbage bags with hay and bedding from their previous home and spread it out in the holding areas where they’d be living. It’s like with kids moving to a new house- you want them to have their favorite blanket, favorite toy and favorite thing hanging on the wall in their room. We always make sure our animals are as comfortable they can be. The most important thing you can do for animals is keep them in appropriate social groupings so keeping these gorillas in their natal groups when moved was ideal."

@ Disney

The challenge then came making sure all of Animal Kingdom’s primates acclimated to their habitats well. “The first time we put our colobus monkeys out on hippo island they all got out in minutes,” Hawkes recalled. “It kept repeating so we realized it wasn’t going to work and we had to make some changes. You never know if a habitat will work until you actually let the animals out there.” Mostly the process went smoothly. “The habitats at Disney were large and spectacular so most of the primates did just great and thrived in that environment,” Hawkes stated. “Their spaces were so lush and complex. The weather was pretty amicable to the tropical species. The availability of browse at Disney was remarkable. They have a huge browse plantation on their property to use for the animals. All of it was a really great experience. We were also fortunate to be able to leverage the resources of the Disney Conservation Fund to allocate funding to many amazing conservation projects each year around the world.”

@ Disney

@ Disney

In 2003, Nancy Hawkes moved out west to the Woodland Park Zoo to become General Curator. “My husband and I had been to the Woodland Park Zoo together, presenting on the Smitsonian Pollinarium exhbit at the 1995 AZA Conference and we both said we’d really like to wear there someday,” she said. “Deborah Jensen was the new director and she came from an NGO conservation background, which I was excited about. I was excited to work with someone who had that perspective. She really built our field conservation program, which does outstanding projects around the world.” The Woodland Park Zoo is known for its award-winning global and local field conservation programs, including recovery projects for regional species like Western pond turtles and Oregon silverspot butterflies, which Nancy’s animal care team is deeply involved.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Standards are held very high at the Woodland Park Zoo, whether for the animals who reside there or for those being released into nature. “Our philosophy is always evolving as standards are always changing and new information always comes into play,” Hawkes elaborated. “Science is constantly advancing in animal welfare, reproduction, nutrition, medicine and geriatric care. Animal welfare always comes first. That’s a complicated thing as none of us know everything and we’re constantly learning. We understand how we take care of our animals has a direct impact on the guest experience. Our guests are very sophisticated- they want to see animals who are well cared for and healthy.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Hawkes acknowledged there needs to be a balance between making animal care transparent and making visitors feel as if they are in the animal’s natural habitat. “We have a long tradition of immersive exhibits here,” she stated. “Guests feel like they’re in Alaska as they wander down Northern Trail. However, we need to be able to tell the story of how we take care of these animals. We’re now trying to figure out how we can bring the care to the front without detracting from the immersion experience.”

@ Scott Richardson

Knowledge and understanding of ecology and behavior is vital to the Woodland Park Zoo’s animal care staff providing the best they can for their animals. “We always start with an animal’s natural history,” Hawkes explained. “We think about what let’s say grizzlies need to be successful. They need space, something to do complexity, a certain variation in their diet, a preventative medicine program to keep them healthy and veterinary care when things come up. Mostly, we want our animals to have as much choice and control as possible. We do that in a variety of different ways. We offer complexity in their environment, provide a robust enrichment program that’s not static or predictable and give them opportunities to socialize with other animals, have alone time, have time near guests, have time away from guests, be in water, be in grass or rub against a tree.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“Our keepers are very creative and always working on trying new ways to give animals more choice and control,” Hawkes elaborated. “For instance, we occasionally get dump trucks full of snow and give it to the wolves and grizzly bears to play in. We see great behavior with the wolves and grizzlies when we have snow. We try to give our animals as many of the types of the experiences they would have in the wild as we can, of course within safety limits.” Other fundamental aspects of providing animal care are not as obvious or fun to talk about. “It’s not as exciting to talk about but record keeping is very important,” Hawkes stated. “Data collection and developing protocols to guide our work is essential. With enrichments, we don’t just give them something to play with but try to target a particular behavior. We give our gorillas large leaf browse because it has good nutrients for them and allows them to tear leaves off as they would in the wild. Then it’s our job to make sure that it’s working and activating that kind of behavior, and continually evaluating to see if we’re still on target. We keep track for that through record keeping.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

A great asset to Nancy Hawkes and her animal care staff is shared knowledge between other zoos. “One of the great things about working in AZA zoos and aquariums is that we’re very collaborative and constantly share best practices,” she explained. “We exist as a network professionally for each other to manage these species with which we have the great privilege to work. It’s important to be able to share that information effectively with other institutions to continually improve the care we provide.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“All of our animals have purpose-built habitats for them,” Hawkes said. “The gorillas habitats are some of our oldest but they’ve stood the test of time. They were the first habitats to provide live plants for gorillas and are still among the best gorilla habitats I’ve ever seen. Gorillas are challenging because they’re large animals, live a long time and live in family groups so it’s really important to have multigenerational breeding groups.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Hawkes and her team put a large emphasis on caring for elderly animals and letting them live well until the very end. “It’s important to recognize changes as animals age, particularly our gorillas and orangutans as they develop many of the same ailments humans develop as they get older,” she said. “We’re working with two of our silverbacks who have had some dental issues. They’re getting older and it takes a very skilled keeper to notice that fairly early on. Since our animals are living longer, geriatric care is becoming more and more important. Understanding animals and how they go through different phases of life is crucial. In recent years, our Animal Health Department, under the leadership of Darin Collins, has developed an innovative rehabilitation medicine program, incorporating treatment modalities such as massage, acupuncture and laser treatments that have proven effective in easing some of the discomforts of age that our animals experience.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

One of the gems of the Woodland Park Zoo is its award winning, state-of-the-art Humboldt penguin habitat. “It wastes virtually zero water and it’s really fantastic,” Hawkes said. “We’ve bred 60 penguins here and they’re thriving. They live in a large colony and act as they would off the coast of Chile. That’s really gratifying to us. It’s a testament to the care we provide for them.” She did acknowledge keeping track of so many penguins every day can be a challenge and how impressed she is that the keepers know each penguin by name.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Hawkes commented on how mixed species habitats can be difficult to manage. “On the African Savanna male zebras might pick on gazelles so we have to keep a close eye on that and manage it very carefully,” she stated. “We just switched out bontebok, who didn’t work out well. We’re going to make our Grant’s gazelle herd larger instead. Mixed species exhibits are all about compatibility. They’re really challenging for our staff but interesting and dynamic.” Throughout the zoo, hidden moats make it appear as if predators and prey occupy the same space. “This helps people understand how they might be living together in the wild,” Hawkes added. “It helps us tell the story.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Crucial to stimulating the Woodland Park Zoo’s animals is behavioral husbandry. “We use positive reinforcement training,” Hawkes explained. “We always want animals to participate in their own husbandry as much as possible. Our orangutans are trained to present different body parts and open their mouths so we can look at their teeth. This allows us to draw blood and check their blood pressure without needing to immobilize them. Training all depends on the relationship between the human and the animal, which takes time to develop. We have to work hard to ensure consistency from one keeper to another so the animal is not focused on the person but on the training. The orangutans know they get rewarded for positioning their shoulder on the mesh. This takes a lot of coordination, staff training and leadership in terms of maintaining accountability and good communication. We work hard to do that, and again, are continuously evaluating to improve the care we provide.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“We prioritize veterinary training but we also do it for recall and shifting,” Hawkes continued. “If we have a big windstorm and a tree comes down in the lion habitat they will respond to a recall cue to go into their holding area. More sophisticated things like artificial insemination take months of training. That takes daily practice to keep trust. We can also train a tiger to stand up on their hindlegs as they would do if they had prey up in a tree or were trying to scratch the tree trunk.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Training demonstrations let guests see the animals exhibit natural behaviors. “It allows guests to see how amazing it is when a tiger is standing to its full height,” Hawkes remarked. “With our colobus monkeys we show how the animals are trained to come up to an area close to the guests and show how they are leafeaters and manipulate browse. The keeper can talk about the unique digestion of colobus monkeys, how they have particular needs in their habitat and why it’s important to think about the animal’s ecology and the develop conservation programs that preserve their habitats. We’re then able to talk about things like the bushmeat trade as well.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Nancy Hawkes takes great pride in being the Director of Animal Care at the Woodland Park Zoo. “Our respect of the natural history of the animals and focus on putting them in context is quite special,” she reflected. “This legacy of immersion habitats helps transport people to where these animals come from and understand how these animals live. People also have opportunities to make emotional connections with individual animals and understand better how they live in the wild, connecting them with our conservation programs. I also think this is a place of learning. We have amazing opportunities here for people to engage beyond being a guest, from being a preschool day camper learning about animals to a graduate or veterinary student involved in research. The most challenging part of my job is also the most rewarding, which is everyday is new and unexpected things happen. I think the fact we provide a learning experience for people of all ages is the most important thing we do besides the day-to-day care of animals. We connect people to nature and provide them an out of the classroom, in person experience with wildlife and help them learn how to better appreciate and live with the natural world.”

@ Nancy Hawkes

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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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