Solving the Jigsaw Puzzles of the Natural World: A Conversation with Dr. David Jones, Retired Direct

With over 500 developed acres, the North Carolina Zoo is the largest walkthrough zoo in the United States of America. Focused exclusively on recreating the habitats of Africa and North America, it is known for its enormous animal spaces, beautiful landscape and abundance of artwork. It is truly one of the best zoos in the world. From 1993 to 2015, the zoo was lead by Dr. David Jones, who formerly directed the Zoological Society of London. He oversaw much progress and growth at the zoo including significant expansions and renovations of habitats for African elephants, polar bears and chimpanzees. Here is his story.

@ North Carolina Zoo

Jones began his zoo career as the first full time veterinarian at Whipsnade Wildlife Park, the sister institution to the London Zoo. “There were only six zoos in Western Europe that had a full time vet of at the time,” he recalled. Soon he would rapidly advance through the ranks of the Zoological Society of London. “I went from the veterinarian to the director of animal collections to director of both zoos to CEO of the whole shooting match,” Jones added. He oversaw so much more than just the London Zoo and Whipsnade Wildlife Park. “ZSL is a huge research organization and has a library full of scientific collections,” he stated.

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

David Jones found a number of challenges with running the organization. “The thing about London Zoo is it’s a very constrained space,” he explained. “You could fit it into one of {North Carolina Zoo’s] exhibits. London Zoo is also constrained by having big issues with tearing buildings down and replacing them with modern buildings. You were very limited in what you could tear down. What they’ve done rightly is have fewer larger animals.” ZSL had financial struggles as well. “London Zoo has never gotten regular grants from the government,” Jones added. “The late 80s were quite difficult as that was a period when people were beginning to travel more outside of London. One of the reasons London Zoo had great attendance in the postwar years was people didn’t travel much. We had to downsize quite a bit but we pulled ourselves through.”

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

Jones played a key role in reshaping the direction in which the Zoological Society of London went in. “I advocated well through the 80s that we had to really rethink what the emphasis should be,” he elaborated. “The idea of the national zoo just being focused on London was getting out of date and the zoo itself needed to change. That idea wasn’t getting much traction at the time because there were a lot of traditionalists who wanted to see a large living museum collection [like there’d always been.] I got London back into field conservation. They had been largely academic but I got the field conservation side to develop rapidly.”

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

In 1993, David Jones was recruited by the Governor of North Carolina to become the director of the North Carolina Zoo, a relatively young institution started in the late 1970s. He saw a lot of potential to be done at the zoo impossible in London. “I had been at London for 25 years- quite a long time to be in one place,” Jones reflected. “The other thing to bear in mind about London is it’s a traditionally run institution. It still was quite inflexible in the ways it ran. When this opportunity arose the [North Carolina] Zoo was less than 20 years old. I saw a huge, very beautiful site and a young, flexible staff. They knew exactly what the potential of this place was and it was a good time [for me] to change over.”

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

Part of why Jones was hired was because of his international experience. “I had traveled very extensively around the world,” he stated. “I came to it with a lot of experience of where the zoo world needed to go in how it interfaced with the public and other institutions. What I was seeing [as the challenge] was how do you integrate what’s done in the zoo world with the animal welfare and conservation world. I had extensive connections in those fields unlike most zoo directors so I brought to this zoo a huge network in related fields and the view we could do a lot more with our relationships with the international zoo community. All of that helped the North Carolina Zoo, with its rural position, get better known.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

At the time Jones became Director of the North Carolina Zoo, the African section had already built but North America was just in construction. While most of the planning and funding had already been done, the 200-acre expansion would open in phases over the first four years of Jones’ time at the zoo. “In North America, the exhibits separated out,” he remarked. “We were making a good use of natural landscape and not crowding the exhibits together. There’s a lot of punctuation between spaces- each was a separate entity.” Among the animals featured in this massive expansion included polar bears, seals, sea lions, grizzly bears, black bears, red wolves, bison, elk, mountain lions, American alligators and otters. Soon enough the zoo was nearly doubled in footprint and collection.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

After the opening of North America, David Jones concentrated on expanding what the zoo already had. “What characterized the next fifteen years was reconstructing a lot of those exhibits and making them much bigger and better,” he explained. “Things like the elephant and African Plains revamp, the chimp exhibit and the polar bear expansion all followed that philosophy. Very often our large zoo don’t keep up with older exhibits. If you look hard at our big zoos you’ll see great new stuff but also old stuff that should be torn down. We didn’t worry too much about making the collection bigger but better in the message we wanted to put over. You never want the visitor to be embarrassed by what they see.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo’s location in rural Asheboro has created advantages and disadvantaged for the zoo. “The upside of a rural position is we have the largest land area of any zoo in the world and we’ve bought land purposefully,” Jones explained. “The disadvantage of being where we are is visitation. We just got over 800,000 visitors annually after going three quarters of a million for twenty years. The population of the state is increasing, which builds a greater potential audience. It will show if the North Carolina Zoo’s location was a good decision since it has so much land area and a lot of flexibility in what you can do with that land.” Additionally, unlike most zoos, the North Carolina Zoo is run by the State of North Carolina. “You’re always going to have to depend on the state,” Jones remarked. “The problem with that is you come under state rules and regulations which can be quite controlling. You’re constantly juggling the financial mix. You don’t have the same flexibility most major American zoos have, who directly respond to a board.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

During David Jones’ tenure, much effort was done to improve the zoo’s guest services although more was left to be done. “Nothing was done with having large function spaces or a full-service restaurant,” he commented. “We did much more efficient gate operations and a very well run transportation system because of the size. All of the existing food outlets have been renovated. Generally handling visitors has improved considerably over the years.” However, the main priority was improving spaces for the animals.

@ North Carolina Zoo

One unusual feature about the North Carolina Zoo is its extensive art collection scattered throughout the zoo. Much of this originated out of Jones’ personal interests. “I’ve always been interested in the arts and have been exposed throughout my growth to all sorts of art,” he elaborated. “I’m a collector of landscape paintings and naturalistic prints. In all the time I was there, a lady named Ellen Greer was our head of design and graphics. She was very much arts oriented. The two of us felt, particularly with the scale of the place, that we could use art in many forms to enhance the overall pleasure of the visitor and get them to think more broadly about what they were seeing in terms of living exhibits.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

“We were challenged by a couple who were members for a long time to create a sense of arrival before the entrance,” Jones continued. “That gave us money to launch an international competition in which the bronze elephants won. They also very much liked the second piece in the competition, which became the cubes in front of the North America gate. That started a whole program of additional artwork. We’re probably the only zoo in the world that has a detailed arts masterplan, which covers about 95 themes and 40 of them have been completed. We have a rule that all our artwork has to be original. We’re very much the envy of the art museum in Raleigh.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The first major renovation the North Carolina Zoo carried out of an existing facility was an extensive reimagining of the chimpanzee habitat, opened in 2001. The facility was changed from a moated exhibit to one viewed through glass, allowing guests to get much closer to the apes. “We added a lot more geography and climbing structures including natural looking ones,” Jones noted. “It’s big enough to house one of the largest chimpanzee troops in the nation. The chimpanzees come right up to the public. We have a lot of interpretives [about chimpanzees and chimpanzee conservation.] A lot more features for chimps and people.” The zoo has had great breeding success with chimpanzees.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

One of the largest projects ever done in the history of the North Carolina Zoo was Watani Grasslands, a major expansion in the zoo’s African elephant and white rhinoceros programs and facilities. “That whole area [the original elephant, rhino and African Plains exhibits] was a fairly early exhibit in building the African continent but its been tweaked so the whole public experience is much, much better,” David Jones explained. “Most of the money spent on Watani was on the new elephant house, public viewing areas and giving the elephants double the space they had before. The antelope and rhino handling facilities were redone too.” What the zoo did was it combined the former elephant and rhino habitats to create a 7 acre environment that is often lauded as one of the best in the country. The zoo’s white rhinos were integrated with African antelope and birds in the 37 acre African Plains next door. Additionally, the amount of rhinos and elephants kept a the zoo doubled.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

“More space for elephants was the driving point [for the project],” Jones remarked. “The old elephant off-exhibit holding facilities were not up to where they needed to be from a welfare point of view. A lot of welfare thinking went into giving the elephants much more to do. We gave a lot more flexibility in the experience the elephants had. The white rhinos fit nicely on the plains and integrated well. A big point was also integrating the public viewing into the exhibit- the peninsula, the intepretives and the horticulture.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

David Jones is a big proponent of less zoos having elephants and building larger herds at ones that can provide for them well, “Back in my London Zoo days I advocated we shouldn’t keep elephants at London Zoo since their exhibit was totally inappropriate and museum like housing,” he elaborated. “A lot of Watani Grasslands was trying to stay ahead of thinking about elephants. If you’re going to keep those animals, you’ve got to provide them with the best facilities you can manage. One of the things we have done is bring in Erin [Ivory], the new head of the elephant program who is extremely good. You need to have a first-class leader with elephants- someone who sees what’s got to be done.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

“The management of our elephant program is far better than it’s ever been before,” Jones continued. “The novel thing Erin is trying to do is get animals together who in zoos wouldn’t always be together. If elephants, particularly older elephants, have been brought together as strangers, it’s very difficult to get them to gel as a group but she’s done a fantastic job getting them into a single unit. We’ve invested a lot in making our elephant program exceptional and the uniqueness we have is the ability to provide space and increase that space. It’s a model other zoos should use.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

A similar philosophy was taken in dramatically expanding the zoo’s polar bear habitat to include a much larger and more natural landscape. “The original polar bear exhibit opened oson after I came but the knowledge of polar bear distribution, behavior and ecology was very space at the time,” David Jones elaborated. “The thought was polar bears spent most of their time in the water, which has been found not to be true. You’d have a pool full of water but very limited land space. The old exhibit was very good from the point of view of the pool but we badly needed to give the polar bears much more sparse. That led to the expansion of that habitat with the idea we’d maintain the pool but also have much more space and the ability to separate animals.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“The whole thinking there was to provide more three dimensional experiences and space for the bears and give the public a much more interesting experience,” Jones continued. “A unique feature to our exhibit is we saved an enormous amount of money by having so many skills on staff. It would have been double the price at many other places.” A problem the project faced was finding polar bears to live there. The United States was undergoing a shortage of polar bears because orphaned bears could not be imported from Canada. Fortunately, the zoo was able to locate two polar bears to live in the exhibit.

@ North Carolina Zoo

The polar bear exhibit turned out to be one of the largest and most elaborate ever built. Much attention was put on landscaping. “To create really lifelike exhibits that are satisfying, the way they look is really critically,” David Jones remarked. “That’s where having really good design staff with sculpting and modeling ability comes into it.” Instead of recreating the block ice of the Arctic Circle, the habitat recreates the tundra with ample grass and trees. This environment is used to help support the exhibit’s interpretives about climate change and how it impacts polar bears.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

In 2015, Forest Glade, the North Carolina Zoo’s gorilla habitat, was renovated to better accommodate a larger group. “The gorilla exhibit was not increased in size but what we did very recently was we completely revamped the nighttime holding facility,” Jones explained. “That’s been doubled in size and given them a lot more space. We have a much bigger group than we had historically. The exhibit now is much more interesting with water features, climbing opportunities and heated areas by the windows.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

As mentioned above, David Jones sees the efforts of the zoo world as interconnected with the wider animal welfare community. “I chaired what is now the world’s largest equine organization, The Brooke,” he said. “I helped grow that substantially and now run the U.S. branch. If you chair a big animal welfare charity, you come into close touch with all these other animal welfare people. because the zoo community has often been passive with the animal welfare community, there wasn’t much dialogue going on between them. That’s getting better now.” Jones brought this mentality with him to the North Carolina Zoo. “One of the things I was able to do with founding Wild Welfare at the North Carolina Zoo was we were able to do a lot of work in countries like Brazil, Vietnam and Japan and improve their animal welfare thinking considerably. Animal welfare is the major feature of most zoos and the public is going to expect it. We’ve had a very high standard of animal welfare at the North Carolina Zoo for many years. We’re now in the process of helping write national zoo legislation in Vietnam and Japan.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“When I came into the zoo world 48 years ago, animal welfare as a topic wasn’t a high priority,” Jones continued. “The pure science of animals was the big thing at ZSL. When I started, we knew barely anything about anesthesia or nutrition and were working in the dark a lot of the time. Now our knowledge of animal has expanded leaps and bounds. Zoos’ attitudes towards animal welfare have largely been driven by immense knowledge and changing opinion. It’s contributed to a much better understanding and recognition.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

David Jones also significantly expanded the zoo’s conservation efforts. “The network of people I brought from London helped a lot,” he stated. “I had been on the council of World Wildlife Fund UK and chaired their conservation committee. I got in touch with people in Cameroon running the West African program and an old classmate of mine who was chief game warden of Uganda. We now have four fulltime PhD level professionals on staff in conservation. I know Pat Simmons [the current director] wants to see that expanded.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

In 2015, Jones decided it was time to retire from the North Carolina Zoo. “I had been in the zoo business for 46 years, longer than most people survive in it,” he reflected. “I’m a strong believer in getting out when you still have your wits.” In fall 2015, Pat Simmons took his place. She has continued the momentum and progress made by Jones and plans to expand the zoo even more. In upcoming years, the continents of Asia and Australia will be added to the North Carolina Zoo.

@ North Carolina Zoo

When asked to comment on the future of zoos, David Jones stated “the way animals are kept is going to be key.” “The main thing for zoos is to showcase the variety and diversity of the animal kingdom and help them figure out the jigsaw puzzles of how species are interdependent with the natural world,” he concluded. “That should be the mission of all zoos. One has to be careful to make sure standards of husbandry are the highest they can be. You can’t just build, build, build and have a curatorial museum approach. In recent years, there has been a lot more awareness for the need to partner with the animal welfare community. Networking with the conservation community more effectively will be key.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

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