Second Nature: A Conversation with Dr. Jill Mellen, Former Education and Science Director at Disney&

For the past four decades, Dr. Jill Mellen has been one of the most influential people in zoo animal welfare. Doing her time as Education and Science Director at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, she helped raise the bar of animal care and conservation not just at her zoo but at zoos across the nation. Mellen is currently semi-retired but still serves on the Animal Welfare Committee at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and works as a zoo consultant. Here is her story.

@ Jill Mellen

An Illinois native, Mellen studied biology at Illinois State University “in the middle of a bunch of cornfields.” She would go on to get a masters in animal behavior but needed a job to support her. “As luck would have it, I saw a posting for Seasonal Children’s Zoo Supervisor at the Miller Park Zoo,” Mellen recalled. “That meant the zoo borrowed farm animals and made a children’s zoo for the summer. I didn’t know what ‘it’ was but I knew then I wanted to do ‘it’ for the rest of my life. I did my master’s on raccoon behavior but continued working at the zoo. As I was completing my master’s degree, I went to the Animal Behavior Society and saw a posting for a position at the Oregon Zoo. That was so fortunate for me as I was at the right place at the right time.” She was hired to work at the Oregon Zoo as part of a grant by Hal Markowitz, considered by many to be the father of environment enrichment, then called “behavioral engineering.” “I remember going home and telling my mom and dad I was moving to Oregon,” Mellen stated. “To their credit, they bought me a few suitcases and put me on a plane.”

@ Jill Mellen

When Jill Mellen arrived at the Oregon Zoo in 1976, it was almost unrecognizable to the zoo today. “It’s interesting now for me to walk around the Oregon Zoo as there are still some core buildings there but so many wonderful new things,” she stated. “When I first started in the 1970s, it was a traditional zoo. I have many wonderful memories including getting to witness the birth of several baby elephants. That’s an experience I will always treasure.” At the time, the zoo’s director was the late Warren Iliff, who would later direct the Dallas Zoo, the Phoenix Zoo and the Long Beach Aquarium. “I have a warm spot in my heart for Warren,” Mellen reflected. “He was a high energy, idea man. It was interesting to work around him. Warren moved at such a speed and was a genuinely nice man.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“My early responsibilities at the Oregon Zoo were to provide and supervise opportunities for local undergraduates to conduct research at the zoo,” Mellen explained. “For all the behavioral engineering research, we recruited students from local colleges who, through me, were trained in behavioral observation techniques.” This was done in conjunction with the behavioral engineering work Hal Markowitz was doing (which paved the way for animal enrichment.) “Hal’s whole premise about behavioral engineering was that he combined experimental psychology of how animals learned and the opportunity for animals to work for food,” Mellen elaborated. “Animals show a strong preference for working for food.”

Kathy Street @ Oregon Zoo

Throughout the zoo, behavioral engineering opportunities were placed by Markowitz in exhibits. “Hal did this in a number of exhibits and it varied from enclosure to enclosure,” Jill Mellen stated. “There was a troop of mandrills that had a reaction time speed game. Blue [the adult male mandrill] earned everyone of his 40 pieces of monkey chow through this computer game. The visitor could test their reaction time in relation to Blue.” The idea of behavioral engineering was it would give the animals something to do to challenge them physically and mentally.

@ Oregon Zoo

As groundbreaking as it was, Markowitz’s work was controversial in the zoo community. It even led to him being fired by Warren Iliff in the late 1970s. “They didn’t agree on the premise of behavioral engineering. Warren and a number of zoo colleagues thought it was too artificial that you’d put a dime in and turn the monkey on. It got more and more political and eventually Warren fired Hal. All the behavioral engineering was removed from the enclosures and the staff responsible for developing and maintaining the behavioral engineering equipment lost their jobs.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Despite this, Jill Mellen believed Hal Marowitz’s work was brilliant and essential. “I consider Hal Markowitz the founder of animal enrichment,” she elaborated. “It was his vision and focus. His work at the Oregon Zoo inspired the concept of animal enrichment. As the argument for and against behavioral enrichment raged, a researcher at Zoo Atlanta wrote an article saying that both sides were right. We need naturalistic exhibits to give the animals a more rich environment but we can do that in a lot of different ways. That shook the tree and got people focused on what does this mean- behavioral enrichment.”

@ Scott Richardson

In fact, the first ever conference on environmental enrichment was hosted by Mellen and David Shepherdson at the Oregon Zoo in July 1993. The book, Second Nature: Envrionmental Enrichment for Captive Animals (edited by Mellen, Shepherdson and Hucthins), was an outcome of that conference. “David and I wanted to take a scientific approach to enrichment,” she explained. “In the 1980s, people were doing environmental enrichment when they had time. It wasn’t really thought of as mainstream animal husbandry. It was almost all keeper driven and was seen as icing on the cake.”

@ Oregon Zoo

The Oregon Zoo became even more focused on animal welfare with the hiring of David Shepherdson. “David Shepherdson was hired from the London Zoo and he was a strong name in the field of environmental enrichment,” Mellen noted. “We began asking questions about whether enrichment could be science based. We wanted to know if we could ask and answer questions using science for environmental enrichment.” Sherpherdson is still with the Oregon Zoo today. Now, behavioral enrichment is a cornerstone at all accredited zoos.

@ Oregon Zoo

Jill Mellen got promoted from research coordinator to Director of Behavioral Research. “I did a lot of behavioral research that was applied- what’s the social structure of this group, how can we manage aggression, how can we manage reproduction,” she remarked. “Eventually, I felt I needed a PhD; my mentors agreed I needed one. I went to Steve McCusker (then General Curator at the Oregon Zoo, later Director of the San Antonio Zoo) and asked if I could take a leave of absence to get my PhD. I went to University of California Davis under the direction of Gary Mitchell (also Dr. Terry Maple’s mentor.) I loved Davis- I loved everything about graduate school and did my PhD on reproductive failure in small cats ( small cats include ocelots, margays, bobcats and Pallas cats.) I wanted to understand why small cats bred so inconsistently in zoos. I ended up collecting data at eight zoos so I was one of the first people to do an interzoo study.” Mellen credited the study with helping her get a holistic understanding of how different zoos worked.

@ Jill Mellen

After returning to the Oregon Zoo in the late 1980s, Mellen’s influence became more widespread in the zoo community. “In 1989, Mike Hutchins called me up and said he had this idea for a Taxon Advisory Group,” she recalled. “He said he wanted me to work with David Wildt, a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, to co-chair the first Taxon Advisory Group- the Felid TAG. Dave and I started working together and we accomplished a lot. We co-chaired that TAG for over ten years and really moved forward in using science to help manage felids in a zoo environment.” Additionally Mellen served as the co-chair of the Behavioral Husbandry Advisory Group.

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1996, Jill Mellen became one of the first employees of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a massive animal park that opened in 1998. “I had done some workshops with Beth Stevens on behavioral research and she had been working at Disney,” she recalled. “She asked if I was interested so I came down to an interview. I loved living in Oregon but it was a medium-sized zoo and, in terms of promotions, I was where I was going to be. I flew down to Orlando and got interviewed by a bunch of different people. It was really exciting getting to walk around the construction areas that would become Animal Kingdom. At the end of a long day of interviewing, I went back to my Disney hotel overlooking Bay Lake and the Magic Kingdom and was very conflicted. This seemed like a very exciting opportunity for me, but I loved living in Oregon and working at the Oregon Zoo I looked out the window, there was a huge fireworks display and I thought Wow! It’s meant to be that I work at Disney. Turns out at the Magic Kingdom there’s fireworks every night of the year but I thought it was a sign I should move to Florida and join the Disney crew.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Putting together Disney’s Animal Kingdom was a huge task. “It was overwhelming, exciting and challenging,” Mellen elaborated. “I’ve never used my brain so much in my whole life. It was so exciting to open this big zoo starting from literally scratch. When I started there were seven animal people. My job included putting a framework of science over the art of animal management.” The team was determined from the beginning to using cutting edge animal care and husbandry. “We said environmental enrichment and husbandry training will be key to what we do,” Mellen remarked. “Miles the giraffe was the first animal we transported in and we had seven meetings about how we’re going to do this. We tried to figure out the best way to do it.”

@ Disney

“As the staff began to grow, everyone had different ways of doing things so the growing pains of what’s the right way or Disney way emerged,” Jill Mellen continued. “I hired Marty Sevenich MacPhee, who was at the Brookfield Zoo, as our Curator of Behavioral Husbandry. I would say probably the most exciting part of the first few years is once we got the park open we had the opportunity to develop animal enrichment and husbandry training programs. Working with Marty was exciting as she’s so leading edge. We developed the idea of the SPIDER model- the six steps people use when setting up their enrichment or training plan.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Great thought was put into the procedures Disney’s animal care staff would use in developing husbandry training and enrichment. “It was about being more thoughtful and purposeful in enrichment,” Mellen stated. “Does the enrichment work? What was the behavior we are trying to encourage? If we haven’t identified our goal, how do we know if our enrichment worked?” Staff from many zoos and aquariums expanded on these concepts and this programmatic approach/SPIDER model is now widely used at many zoos and aquariums“I’m really proud of what we accomplished and how it became a model for other zoos to build on,” Mellen added. “We talked to AZA and started an AZA class on enrichment and training programs. Hollie Colahan (Vice President of Animal Care at the Denver Zoo) now manages that course.”

@ Grayson Ponti

One of the techniques Disney used was a series of sound cues to get the savanna animals in for husbandry training and feeding. “We brought the savanna animals in at night so we could check on them and let horticulture get out there and water the vegetation,” she explained. “Marty MacPhee said we’ll ring a bell and the giraffes will come in, we’ll push a buzzer and the eland will come in, we’ll ring a cow bell and the mandrills will come in and so on. We used husbandry training to manage animals in such a positive way and at the time the way we used it for everything from veterinary care to management was unique. It was leading edge stuff at the time. Now, many zoos and aquariums have used and improved upon those techniques.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Mellen described the park’s group of gorillas and their management team as an example of the progress Disney’s Animal Kingdom made in letting animals participate in their own care. “The gorillas were always amazing to watch in training,” she remarked. “Adult male gorillas are prone to heart disease so you want to monitor that. One of the things we know about cardiac ultrasound is the readings are different it the animal is immobilized. The primate team said ‘Why don’t we train the males to come up to the mesh barrier and do the cardiac ultrasound with the gorilla’s full cooperation?’ Many zoos do that now with their male gorillas standing for an ultrasound but Disney was the first.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

“One day, one of our female gorillas was holding her arm funny,” Jill Mellen remembered. “The veterinarian said I want to get the X-ray. [Instead of putting her under anesthesia,] the keepers asked ‘Can we have 24 hours to get her trained to extend her arm through the mesh barreier for the X-ray?’ They never had to immobilize her and she extended her arm for the X-ray. The relationship the keepers have with those animals and how animals learn to cooperate in their own care is amazing.”

@ Disney

Another major area at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the habitat for a family of African elephants. “I remember, at the opening of the park one of the keepers [who had worked with two of the elephants at another zoo] watched those two elephants going out into the habitat for the first time and said ‘Welcome to paradise,’” Mellen said. “It was exciting seeing those elephants become a great family. In terms of using science at Disney, we studied the vocalizations of our elephant herd. We knew from previous work in the wild and in other zoos that elephants produce and hear vocalizations below the range of human hearing. To better understand the functions of these vocalizations, the keepers trained the elephants to voluntarily wear collars that were fitted with voice active cell phones. The Science Team monitored both vocalizations and behaviors to better understand how elephants communicate. A lot of that technology has been applied to studying elephants in the wild.”

@ Disney

In 2002, Jill Mellen was promoted to the position of Education and Science. She was influential in continuing the focus of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in zoo education and conservation. “We created Kid’s Discovery Club where interns, after receiving in-depth interpretive training, staffed interpretive stations around the park telling kids what they could do for conservation,” Mellen noted. “It was about encouraging kids to change their behavior. I’m very proud of that. Another thing I’m very proud of is we really got more science in education and more education in science. For example, to see if the Kid’s Discovery Program accomplished its goals, we used science to assess what kids learned and what conservation messages they took home. We added more education to science by providing opportunities for our scientists to share what they were doing with the guests. I will never forget Disney scientist Joseph Soltis talking to five year olds about the vocalization of elephants. Joseph made science fun and easy to understand.”

@ Disney

One thing Disney’s team tried to do was take advantage of the unique audience coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom atypical of other zoos. “Visitors were unlikely to be local,” Mellen explained. “Also, when you talk to a zoo visitor at the Oregon Zoo or the Cleveland Zoo, they’re there to see animals. With Disney, there’s not this preconceived I’m going to learn about animals mindset. People might say ‘Wow those hippos are real.’ If our job was to inspire conservation action, we had to have a different mindset when people are walking in. It was always a fun challenge to understand where a person was coming from and find the best way to connect and engage with them and inspire conservation action.”

@ Grayson Ponti

One of Jill Mellen’s favorite projects was being part of the recent Elephant Welfare Study, one of the largest and most influential zoo behavior studies of all time. “We looked at a wide range of welfare indicators in over 270 elephants living at 70 different zoos. This one of a kind project was the brainchild of Kathy Carlstead, Research at the National Zoo and later at the Honolulu Zoo.” Jill remembers Kathy saying, “Jill, we’ve got to do this.” She wrote a grant proposal and obtained funding to plan and implement this seminal study on elephant welfare. “I think it’s the biggest invested zoo research study that’s ever been done,” Mellen recalled. “As part of the planning we were able to invite an incredible array section of scientists and elephant managers to participate. All the scientists and elephant managers were so insightful. It was incredibly fun to be a part of the design and implementation of the study.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The results of the study have been used as guidelines to shape how American zoos manage their elephants. “The expectation when we were about to read this at AZA was for us to say that space was the only thing that mattered,” Mellen recalled. “Instead, we found that a series of changes to husbandry (more feedings spread throughout the day, more variety in social groups, giving the elephants more choices in where they spent time) made important differences to the elephant’s welfare. The results were the quality of space was more important than the quantity of space and it was all about management style. We found it was important to mix and match different groups and that if we gave elephants access outside during the night, the fact they had that choice impacted how they spent their day. We found out elephants in zoos walk almost as much as elephants in the wild and if we fed elephants throughout the day, it’s better for their health and weight. These were all things that were doable. I remember being part of the discussion with the Animal Kingdom elephant team and going through the results. You could see the wheels turning and the elephant team saying we could do this, this and this. Many of these problems could be fixed through management changes.” The results from this study are available free online (PLOS One, 2016.)

@ Grayson Ponti

Jill continued her work with AZA while at Disney. She chaired the Animal Welfare Committee, chaired the Ethics Board and Over her twenty years with the company, Jill Mellen said conservation of wildlife and wild places become increasingly important to the Disney Company. “It’s now a core value of the Walt Disney Company,” she commented. “Disney has minimal graphics so the primary way to share conservation messages was through face-to-face interactions, especially with something like conservation which is complicated. Being able to engage and connect guests with the animal they were looking at and talking about what Disney is doing to help them in wild places was really valuable. That’s an important connection. Visitors want to know zoos and aquariums are taking really good care of their animals. Once they hear that, they’re ready and willing to listen to conservation messages.”

@ Disney

In 2016, Mellen retired from Disney with a legendary career behind her. “I was wanting to retire to Oregon since it’s the best place on earth to live,” she explained. “I decided I wanted to leave when I loved my job and was very happy and healthy. I wanted to leave on a high note. I knew I didn’t want to stop learning- I’m still consulting and doing some AZA work but I wanted to do it from back here in Oregon. I have such fond memories of working at Disney but was ready for the next stage of my life.” Additionally, Mellen volunteers on the Oregon Zoo Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee. “It’s exciting to see what new habitats the zoo is planning,” she added.

@ Jill Mellen

“Zoos are at a crossroads now,” Jill Mellen concluded. “We need to talk about what we’re doing in a proud way. I’m proud I’ve spent my entire career in zoos and aquariums. AZA zoos provide an important connection to communities and inspire conservation. There’s nowhere better to make a connection with animals and learn what one can do to help animals. Zoos are absolutely heading in the right direction and we continue to raise the bar and providing optimal care. We’re always working to do better. The future involves continuing to self-evaluate and raise that bar. I’m most proud of being a zoo and aquarium professional and part of this great community.”

@ Jill Mellen

#DisneysAnimalKingdom #OregonZoo

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