The Three Ps: A Conversation with Dr. Don Moore, Director of the Oregon Zoo

Known for its storied Asian elephant program, emphasis on environmental sustainability and commitment to protecting the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Zoo in Portland is one of the most progressive zoos in the nation. In the past twenty years, the zoo has opened several state-of-the-art habitats and will continue doing so in upcoming years. The zoo’s fearless leader is Dr. Don Moore, who has been in the zoo field since helping to turn around the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse in the 1980s. Moore’s passion for conservation and the environment is contagious and he has never looked back from leading the Oregon Zoo into the future since becoming Director in 2016. Here is his story.

@ Don Moore

From day one, Moore loved the outdoors. “I grew up in a suburban area and there were dairy farms around me,” he remembered. “Weirdly instead of going into law or teaching as my family normally does, I ended up going to dairy farms and going out camping. I helped chase black bears out of campsites.” Moore’s passion grew deeper as he was in the Boy Scouts and had great science teachers in high school. He began to volunteer at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo (then the Burnet Park Zoo) and eventually became hired as education specialist. “I was working at the zoo and allowed to be a grad student at the same time,” Moore stated. “That allowed me to have a foot in the door with zoos and another foot in the door with wildlife management. For animal programs, I would take kestrel, great horned owl and red tailed hawk out to schools. I also took out gray fox, rattlesnakes and opossums. I designed an interpretive trail through the zoo since it didn’t have very many graphics.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

In the mid-1970s, the Burnet Park Zoo was named one of the ten worst zoos in the country by Parade Magazine. The decision was made to totally rebuild the zoo and Siri the elephant was used as the star that got people to vote on the new zoo. Moore was one of the leaders in putting together the new zoo. “A lot of that zoo was envisioned by me,” he explained. “I was able to bring in the entire population of mammals to the zoo and helped develop the whole new concept.” A much greater focus in the new zoo was on conservation education, particularly in regards to North American species. “We did an outside region with North American animals that told the importance of wildlife biology through wild animals,” Moore remarked. “We did great conservation education about wolves and an integrated interpretive program about wolves before releasing red wolves and gray wolves back into the wild. We had one of the largest, most diverse collections of North American hoofed animals.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

“I also had the honor of working with Bob Keeshan, the original Captain Kangaroo,” Moore recalled. “He and I put together 29 animal shorts for Captain Kangaroo during the first year we were open — everything from sloths to meerkats.” He also got to be involved with a lot of hands-on conservation at the zoo. “I went on the reintroductions of red wolves and lynx,” he stated. “Tom LaBarge, Alan Baker and I produced fisher for the first time since 1916 and we produced a paper for IUCN Small Carnivores Specialists about how fisher reproduction could be used as a conservation breeding model.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Next, Don Moore left the Rosamond Gifford Zoo to consult with the Thompson Park Zoo. “That was another zoo that needed a turnaround so I created a native wildlife collection in Thompson Park, a beautiful Olmsted park,” he said. He also helped the zoo privatize. “I was very interested in how zoos privatize and develop good business strategies to do conservation,” Moore added. After two years there and finishing his PhD, Moore was recruited by Bill Conway and Richard Lattis to be Senior Curator at the Central Park Zoo.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“At Central Park, we created a huge enrichment program for Gus the polar bear,” Moore said. “He was exhibiting some stereotypy so we provided a bunch of different enrichment opportunities for him. We had an endowment from the 'Lila Acheson Wallace Reader’s Digest fund' that gave us tens of thousands of dollars annually just for the enrichment program. We did things like put blueberries and frozen treats into ice piles and put in an Endless Pool unit. It turned out the rock around the Endless Pool served as a refuge for live trout so it was a random trout dispenser for Gus. We had a huge training component for him. We were providing for Gus’s body and mind on a daily basis, and when I left, everyone agreed Gus was a happy bear. We were fortunate as the amazing keepers at Central Park Zoo had great training abilities for complex animals like polar bears, sea lions and harbor seals.”

@ WCS

Moore was so successful as General Curator at the Central Park Zoo he was asked to be the Director of the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. “It gave me a bigger glimpse into the retail side of an operation like WCS and the bigger complexity of a huge organization,” he explained. “We would have a directors meeting at the Bronx Zoo every week where all the city zoo directors went.” Moore also took advantage of the in-situ conservation resources of the Wildlife Conservation Society to contribute to field research. “We had this effort called One-WCS so I worked with Kent Redford and others to get staff into the field with WCS field research projects,” he said. “I also continued my work with Polar Bears International while at Prospect Park, and we sent high school students up to Churchill to learn about climate change. That program led to the creation of a huge Polar Bear Week, where PBI outreach and zoos do sessions for schools around the world.” Moore cited Polar Bear Week as an impactful form of conservation messaging.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

In 2006, Don Moore moved to Smithsonian’s National Zoo as Associate Director of Animal Care Sciences. During this time, the zoo was in a state of positive transition. “They were going through strategic changes,” Moore remarked. “The animal care and conservation and research teams became more collaborative. Some of the results of these programs were baby giant pandas and the amazing cheetah and clouded leopard reproduction teams in Front Royal (the zoo’s offsite breeding facility). The collaborations really helped drive not only the reproduction of those endangered species but also animal welfare.” Additionally, much of the zoo was being redone into naturalistic, dynamic spaces for animals. When Moore arrived, Asia Trail had just opened and he would be on the front end of the zoo’s next two major projects: Elephant Trails and American Trails.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Elephant Trails was a massive project that allowed the zoo’s herd of Asian elephants opportunities to exercise, forage, roam, interact and engage in natural behaviors during the summer and the winter. It also represented the legacy of Smithsonian’s involvement in Asian elephant conservation. “Smithsonian biologists have 50 years of experience with Asian elephants in range countries,” Moore stated. “One of the challenges [of Elephant Trails] was telling the rich Smithsonian research stories — the work of biology in range countries, Janine Brown’s work with reproduction and Diane Reese’s students’ work with elephant cognition. They all gave time to help with the new habitat and educational displays. On one end, the graphics are all about field research, while the barn area’s graphics are all about the great care they receive at the zoo and what we learn about the species from elephants in human care.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

The facility was designed to ensure top-notch elephant welfare. “Our vision was to provide the best possible elephant welfare and a 100- to 200-year sustainable herd in DC,” Moore elaborated. “We designed scale models that would allow keepers to move marbles through the ‘habitat’ to find out how this would work and be prepared for every possible situation. We had to design for soft floors and geothermal heating. We had to design for quarantine, arrival-departure and a living area. We had to make sure bulls could be separated or put together with cows. Elephant Trails was a very complex project on a footprint very similar to what we have here in Oregon.”

@ Smithsonian

“Some of our big goals with Elephant Trails were to ensure the elephants could have choice and control, our keepers could access the elephants when they needed to and the elephants would be engaged physically and mentally," Moore continued. "We built places where keepers could not only engage the animals but also the guests. We wanted to inspire visitors. There are 42 live cameras around the site so National Zoo virtual outreach was a consideration in the design.” A major challenge with Elephant Trails was it kept an old building and was being built on a historic site. “The important thing about the renovation of a 100-year-old facility is you’re not just working above ground but redoing electrical wires, plumbing and plenty else underground,” Moore added.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

American Trail started off as a much smaller project than what it evolved into. It was originally just a name change for the area of the zoo where the seals, sea lions and other North American animals were. “The area of the zoo was called Beaver Valley because it used to be where the beavers were,” Moore recalled. “I said John Smith from Iowa doesn’t know this is where the beavers lived so why don’t we call it American Trail. Then the earthquake came and the good and bad news was some of the exhibits were damaged.” As a result of the damage, planned minor changes went major and the entire section of the zoo got redone.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

The results were spectacular. “We had a really strong team on American Trail,” Moore noted. “We did some of the most amazing seal and sea lion habitats in America. That rockwork and beach work looks like a piece of the Oregon coast. The horticulture team did an amazing job on the wolf habitat and Ed Bronikowski was at the top of his game when designing the life-support system for the seal and sea lions exhibit. You can see a building that looks like Cannery Row but what you don’t know is it’s five stories tall and incorporates really specialized sand filters and ozone sterilization. The entire area used to be a straight up and down hill but we made everything ADA accessible.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Additionally, Moore helped elevate the standards at the National Zoo and used his connections to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as an asset. “I was on the accreditation commission for ten years while at the National Zoo and used that as well as my role on the AZA Animal Welfare Committee to help increase our animal welfare accreditation standards to be much higher than USDA standards,” he explained. “I have a bit of a safety platform so I helped increase that too. We did a lot of collaboration between the units at the National Zoo and AZA as well as with Smithsonian and the federal government. Those collaborations were really good. We ramped up science with the division of animal care sciences. I support keepers and curators going out into the field and finishing their academic degrees.”

@ Smithsonian

The zoo attempted to reach out to a wide audience as well in terms of potential employment. “We brought diverse camps into the zoo from the Department of Agriculture to show these students how great of a career they could have in zoos,” Moore stated. “I started the grassroots committee of diversity at the National Zoo. I feel very strongly about increasing diversity and instilling a culture of inclusion in zoos. That’s the future of conservation and conservation education — it’s important to give everyone a voice.”

@ Smithsonian

In February 2016, Moore became Director of the Oregon Zoo. Before coming to the zoo, he was quite familiar with Oregon staff. “I had been on a special accreditation team to see Oregon and I knew them from their animal welfare, behavior and elephant work,” he remarked. “I was one of the original instructors for the AZA’s Managing Animal Enrichment and Training Programs course and they ran it at Oregon several times. When they were looking around for a new director, they asked me to apply.” Moore saw a lot of similarities between what he had accomplished at the National Zoo and the renaissance the Oregon Zoo was undergoing. “They have a $125 million bond issue which covered Elephant Lands, Condors of the Columbia, the Education Center and the polar bear, primate and rhino habitats we’re designing now,” Moore added. “That was all very attractive to me. I had never worked on the West Coast, which lets you make stronger connections to Asian governments when helping with conservation of Asian elephants, tigers, orangutans and other endangered species.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Moore has been taking advantage of this opportunity to create a more integrated conservation approach. “It was an opportunity to use my strategic planning skills to develop an integrated conservation action package,” he commented. The zoo’s new approach to conservation will concentrate on making a huge difference for a few species rather than donating small amounts of money to a variety of projects. “We’re doing deep conservation focused on Asian elephants in Borneo,” Moore elaborated. “We also have 10% of the world’s population of California condors and want to bring them back to the skies of Oregon. We’re working with the AZA SAFE program on western pond turtles and with the state of Oregon on endangered butterflies. We’re collaborating with Native American tribes to conserve California condors and other local wildlife.” These projects are the zoo’s signature projects along with polar bear conservation science and protecting African species.

@ Oregon Zoo

In December 2015, the Oregon Zoo opened Elephant Lands, a six-acre facility designed to let elephants be themselves and to educate the public about the zoo’s history with the species. The zoo has successfully raised more Asian elephants than anywhere else in North America. “Elephant Lands was a tribute to the zoo’s longtime commitment to Asian elephants,” Moore reflected. Some of the achievements he pointed out the Oregon Zoo having with elephants include the discovery of elephant infrasound and the definition of elephant estrous cycle.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

The groundbreaking facility gives the zoo’s herd a worthy home. “Elephant Lands is over a mile in walking distance along the perimeter,” Moore continued. “The elephants get choice and control. There’s a soft substrate everywhere and a huge pool where they can dive and disappear. It’s interesting the National Zoo and Oregon Zoo both are about 65 acres, are on a hill, have a huge elephant habitat and have an incredible commitment to animal welfare and conservation.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

The zoo is invested in elephant conservation in the field as well. “We established a $1 million Asian Elephant Endowment last year and have very targeted use of those funds,” Moore explained. “We have money where we can fund field scientists. We’re funding a woman named Farina Othman who is studying human-elephant conflict in Thailand. We’re also funding two of her rangers.” At the zoo, guests can learn about elephants and their history through a display located inside Elephant Lands’ Forest Hall.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Besides elephants, the Oregon Zoo is also known for stressing animal welfare science. “We are one of the few zoos that has an animal welfare team of scientists on staff,” Moore noted. “Nadja Wielebnowski leads that team and we have David Shepherdson on it too. Nadja has an endocrine lab where we analyze hormones for animal welfare. We have an incredible amount of animal wellness brainpower at our zoo. The commitment to enhance the lives of our animals on an hourly basis is very high.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

This spring, the Oregon Zoo opened a state-of-the-art education center. “One of my first meetings in Oregon was a bond meeting asking if we should have a net zero facility and I said, ‘Of course, it’s a modern zoo education center,’” Moore recalled. “However, it would cost a lot more money. We needed to find the money so Solar World in Oregon donated the solar panels. The solar panels are also on our train station right next door to the Education Center. We have displays that explain about our commitment to sustainability and renewable energy.” Features of the facility also include three classrooms, a tent-camp with a fire pit, a pollinator garden with native plants, an insect zoo, a western pond turtle recovery lab, a nature play area, the Coffee Crossing café, an event space and the NESt (Nature Exploration Station). “We also have a a dedicated space for our ZooTeens and Zoo Animal Presenters,” Moore said.

@ Oregon Zoo

The zoo’s next project is going to be a state-of-the-art polar bear habitat, scheduled to open in 2020. “We do a lot of polar bear science here — metabolic and diet studies,” Moore remarked. “We’re going to give the polar bears a lot of distance viewings, high spots and places to swim. The educational displays are going to be world-class. We even have a ‘percent for art’ program in Oregon that will go to the polar bear exhibit. I’ve seen previews and it’s amazing. The interpretive team is made up of people from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Polar Bears International as well as our staff."Additionally, the Oregon Zoo will be opening a modern primate habitat and expanding its home for rhinos. “Hopefully, we can go deep in conservation mode [with those species] and make a difference,” Moore added.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“The Oregon Zoo comes down to three Ps,” Moore reflected. “The people are some of the most special I’ve ever met, the place is astonishingly beautiful and the projects we do are incredible. This zoo has collaborations with agencies and NGOs that are very strong and will make a difference in conservation. Our commitment to kids here is beyond compare. I think the Oregon Zoo is the zoo of the future and leading the way. They were at a leadership level when I got here but we can take it to the next level through our focused, deep conservation collaborations. That’s what makes the modern zoo a real asset to wildlife and wild places.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“There’s a whole bunch of renovated zoos behind me,” Don Moore concluded. “Being part of the zoo renaissance was really special. Also I’m very proud of collaborations between zoo biologists with wildlife experts everywhere. All people with a passion for conservation are working for one thing — to leave a better future for our children and the planet.”

@ Oregon Zoo

#OregonZoo #NationalZoo #RosamondGiffordZoo #CentralParkZoo #ProspectParkZoo

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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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