A Conversation with John Linehan, President and CEO of Zoo New England

Zoo New England oversees both the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo outside of the city. Since 2002, John Linehan has been the leader of both institutions and has led a renaissance for the organizations. During his tenure, Zoo New England has seen new exhibits, improved animal care and top-notch conservation and research programs. Linehan is determined to make both zoos even better in the near future. Here is his story.

@ Zoo New England

Linehan liked zoos as a little boy, but as he became more aware he could see the small, antiquated cages were not in the best interest of the animals. “I loved animals, but our zoos in this area were not very good back then,” he recalled. “I wanted to do field work and conservation. Somebody along the way told me to talk to this guy at the Franklin Park Zoo who has good connections to Africa. He gave me no connections but he offered me a temporary job and here I am 36 years later.” At the time of Linehan’s arrival, the Franklin Park Zoo was “not a highly developed zoo and didn’t have an expansive collection- just hoofstock in chain link fence and birds.” Since a lot of people didn’t have “a whole lot of ambition to change things,” he took it upon himself to boost the quality of the institution.

@ Zoo New England

During the 1980s, the Franklin Park Zoo began to take steps to turning around even though money was limited. As zoo attendant and later senior attendant, John Linehan was vital to these efforts. “With no resources, the first thing was holding people accountable and making them do the work they should be doing,” Linehan said. “Second was beginning to hire good people committed to the right things. Third was improving the lives of the animals. We took down the fences of postage stamp environments, made them bigger and added enrichment to them before enrichment had a name. I wrote breeding programs and talked the curator into bringing in species like wildebeest, hawk-headed parrots and sable antelope. Eventually, we got to make large improvements which took a hell of a long time.”

@ Zoo New England

Linehan split half of his time between the Stone Zoo and Franklin Park Zoo. The Stone Zoo was in even bigger need of an overhaul. “Stone had a larger collection with elephants, giraffes, polar bears, lions and tigers but it was outdated when it opened,” he remembered. “We actually closed the Stone Zoo in 1990 and placed almost all the animals at other zoos. Finally we got it passed for us to have nonprofit management and that called for us to get the Stone zoo reopened. From an ethical standpoint, I refused to refill some of those old, nasty enclosures.” With a few exceptions, most everything at both zoos is new from the time Linehan started in 1981.

@ Zoo New England

John Linehan took pride in having essentially rebuilt the Stone Zoo, along with his decided staff and other supporters, during his tenure. “We’ve done a heck of a lot there,” he remarked. “We did a project called Treasures of the Sierra Madre, a southwestern mountain exhibit with jaguars, cougars, peccaries, bats, roadrunners and various bats and herps. It’s a really nice modern exhibit complex. We also have a northern forest exhibit called Yukon Creek with black bears, eagles, Arctic fox and porcupines. The Stone Zoo is mostly animals from the Americas although there are meerkats, gibbons and snow leopards. The Stone Zoo has some unique geological features so it’s like you’re right there looking at the real life snow leopard habitat.”

@ Zoo New England

Eric Kilby @ Zoo New England

The Franklin Park Zoo’s signature exhibit is the Tropical Forest, which opened in 1989 and features a variety of rainforest animals such as gorillas, mandrills, pygmy hippos, tapirs, anteaters and a variety of monkeys and birds in a large indoor dome. “It was the first modern exhibit built at the zoo in decades, literally decades,” Linehan remarked. In 2007, the gorilla habitat underwent a renovation, which was designed to increase recreational and educational opportunities for the gorillas and guests alike. “I think we have the best indoor habitat for gorillas anywhere,” Linehan stated. “We filled in the old moat and created a more complex environment for them. We put in organic materials and created opportunities so if a smaller gorilla needs to duck they have a safe haven. Our gorillas have a very complex, strong setup behind the scenes where they can be kept in a variety of situations. It lends itself well for training, introductions and everything you need to manage gorillas. The gorillas have an off exhibit outdoor space where they can get sunshine. “

@ Scott Richardson

@ Zoo New England

“We have a fantastic group of gorillas that’s really settled in and has had a lot of babies,” Linehan continued. “We put in a training door so people can see the incredible stuff we do behind the scenes. We made the exhibit three dimensional so the gorillas can climb really high up and connect to different areas.”

Jennifer Williams @ Zoo New England

Since becoming President and CEO of Zoo New England in 2002, John Linehan has worked tirelessly to forge financial stability, greater resources and stronger support for both zoos. “We have been able to get significant funding increases, which was really reliant on our incredible staff and board members,” he elaborated. “We did it almost through sheer will. We built greater public and political support for the zoos and a stronger donor base. We were creative and came up with ways to increase revenue without spending a lot of money- rides, behind the scenes tours and experiences like budgie feeding.”

@ Zoo New England

One area in which Zoo New England excels today is behavioral training for its animals. “We have excellent programs in operant conditioning,” Linehan commented. “We’ve been able to do everything from having lions trained to accept subcutaneous fluids multiple times a day to doing cardiac ultrasound on gorillas without anesthesia to our cats voluntarily presenting their tails for blood draws. Every one of these procedures is done voluntarily through our well-established training programs.”

@ Zoo New England

“When I think of my time at the zoo, I think of it as I made a difference the entire time I was there,” John Linehan reflected. “We’ve imported jaguars from a little zoo in Guatemala and rescued tigers that had been confiscated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We have one white tiger and we teach people about the reality behind white tigers and how they’re an artifact of people who exploit animals.”

@ Zoo New England

Zoo New England is working towards becoming a leader in zoological science and research. “We are doing cutting-edge research with the great institutions of Boston- great universities,” Linehan explained. “We are doing some incredible work in genomic and disease research that’s going to make a huge difference in both the zoo community and wildlife management community and ultimately human medicine. We are really on the move and it’s an exciting time to be part of this organization. We’re brought in fantastic new people. I now have a COO, which has freed me up to have more time to focus outside the zoo.”

@ Zoo New England

John Linehan was clear this is just the beginning of the renaissance at Zoo New England. “We have a lot more exhibits and programs to build,” he said. “We’re expanding our staff to present meaningful messaging and communications to people that will make a difference in how they view the world. They will become active participants in the stewardship of our world. We just opened a new entry plaza at the Stone Zoo and a new Animal Discovery Center, which repurposed an old elephant building. The center is geared towards us highlighting conservation, research and the idea of taking people on that journey to becoming much more engaged and enthusiastic about wildlife, wild places and becoming actual conservationists. We’ve already got some great things underway.”

@ Zoo New England

Linehan pointed to the Franklin Park Zoo’s reimagined Children’s Zoo, called Nature’s Neighborhoods, as a sign of where both zoos are headed. “Nature’s Neighborhood was very exciting,” he elaborated. “Our old Children’s Zoo was a hodgepodge and breaking down. It was totally lacking in theming. What we decided to do was create a great children’s zoo that has a foundation as a place where young urban kids can come learn about the interdependence of species and ecosystems. We used the lens of neighborhoods so they can have something to relate to.”

@ Zoo New England

The whole goal of Nature’s Neighborhoods is to help kids understand the value of biodiversity. “It’s highly interactive so kids learn through experience,” Linehan noted. “Kids need to be out in nature. An awful lot of kids think of nature as the animals in our zoo. In some cases, nature is things as simple as log and rocks. [In Nature’s Neighborhoods,] you can climb up an eagle’s nest and look through binoculars [mimicking an eagles vision]. There’s bamboo where you can climb like the red pandas nearby, a wetlands aviary, an area that’s a transitional area with a rabbit warren as well as an underwater view into a turtle pond where we talk about the turtle conservation work we’re doing. There’s a grasslands maze where you can set off sounds and discover things that is juxtaposed with a prairie dog exhibit. It’s been very well received by kids and parents. We have an interesting donor wall made out of tiles kids in the surrounding neighborhoods painted. It’s a really fun, interactive and educational experience.”

@ Zoo New England

@ Zoo New England

One of Zoo Ne England’s key conservation programs is for the endangered Mexican gray wolves. “We have a really fine Mexican gray wolf habitat [at the Stone Zoo] that’s heavily wooded,” Linehan said. “Having been to their habitat in Arizona, I can say it looks a lot like it and they have a lot of topography to use. We manage the wolves from the SSP so we don’t do operant conditioning or develop close relationships with them as we would with other species.”

Eric Kilby @ Zoo New England

@ Zoo New England

Zoo New England was one of the first zoos to implement Quarters for Conservation, a program where part of every admission is donated to insitu conservation. This has allowed the organization’s conservation efforts to skyrocket. “We’ve been very active in a host of conservation projects,” John Linehan stated. “We’ve long been supporters of snow leopard conservation through the Snow Leopard Trust. Historically, we did a lot with African wild dogs in Zimbabwe and the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. We’ve always been very active with the Sahara Conservation Fund and a tapir conservation project in Nicaragua and have worked with organizations like Panthera, the Giraffe Conservation Fund, the Red Panda Network and the Great Ape Tag. One of our biggest projects is the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Consrvation (PARC) Project in Panama where we partner with institutions including the Houston Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoo and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to save frogs. Our vet is the lead vet for the project.”

@ Zoo New England

Zoo New England is looking to expand its local conservation efforts in upcoming years. “We’re close to acquiring a local conservation group we’ve partnered with for many years locally,” Linehan commented. “Now we’re bringing them into our organization and will really grow that program. They do a lot locally, especially with turtles and salamanders. They bring animals into classrooms.” Additionally, the organization has done extensive work with breeding red bellied turtles and has worked closely with Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife on conservation efforts.

@ Zoo New England

Passion is the key to everything John Linehan does. “My philosophy is I do my work with passion, have passion for our mission and make sure not only the staff carries out that mission and shows it to our visitors but builds that passion in our visitors and donors and gets them to realize what they can do individually," he articulated. "It’s all about individual actions to save the planet.”

@ Zoo New England

“I see zoos really delivering our mission more deliberately,” Linehan reflected. “We’re working on actually turning visitors into conservationists, getting into people’s heads and conveying the passion we have so they share it with others and see the need and beauty of what we’re doing. I see it in a variety of young people in our youth programs. One of them visited me and just got a PhD in primatology. He’s becoming a college professor who will influence so many minds. Zoos need to understand conservation psychology. I think we really need to make most of our population carry our passion for wildlife and understand the human reliance on biodiversity on our planet.”

@ Franklin Park Zoo

“We can’t wave a magic wand- it takes research, hard work and creativity,” John Linehan concluded. “We’re building new coalitions and working with organizations in Boston on biodiversity. This has become a universally accepted priority and you’ll see that at our zoos and with partners. We do that through great exhibitry and great interpretation. We have to find ways to use technology to do that too. We have success when we can reach people at a deeper level. The overall population has to get the conservation message. I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made in our zoos so far and the progress we’ll make before I retire. I care not only about this community but the world.”

@ Zoo New England

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