Creating a Better World for Animals: A Conversation with Gregg Hudson, President and CEO of the Dall

Since being privatized nearly a decade ago, the Dallas Zoo has become regarded as one of the best zoos in America. In that time, the zoo has opened Giants of the Savanna, a groundbreaking African animal habitat complex that became the first American zoo exhibit to successfully integrate giraffes and elephants, and Simmons Hippo Outpost, featuring state-of-the-art homes for river hippos and okapis. The zoo has also significantly expanded its field conservation efforts around the globe and broken one million visitors in a fiscal year for the first time. This renaissance is largely due to the leadership of Gregg Hudson, who formerly directed the Fort Worth and Cincinnati Zoos. Here is his story.

@ Gregg Hudson

Hudson’s background came in business administration and he worked in business until he became Director of Guest Services at the Fort Worth Zoo in 1991. “I was brought on board a year and a half before they privatized from the City of Fort Worth,” he recalled. “They brought me on in anticipation of this privatization so I could help them on revenue- food, retail, admissions. I worked for the society, which was a support group for the zoo.” When the zoo privatized, the zoo was given a huge facelift. “We opened Asian Falls, World of Primates and a big makeover to the entire zoo and we went on a huge run of attendance,” Hudson added. “We went from half a million visitors to over a million visitors in just one year.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

@ Fort Worth Zoo

In 1992, Ted Beattie (later longtime CEO of the Shedd Aquarium) was brought in as director. “Ted was a huge influence on me,” Gregg Hudson remarked. “This was my first job in a nonprofit and Ted came from the marketing side of things so he was a great mentor as I transitioned into the nonprofit world. He helped me understand the things we did in the for profit world would work in a nonprofit situation. That was an eye-opening thing for me- the same ideas and strategic initiatives in a for profit organization would work in a nonprofit zoo since we do have a tourism revenue aspect. The more resources we can create, the more we can push ahead our mission. The balance of conservation, education and recreation is fueled through these resources.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

@ Fort Worth Zoo

After 18 months as director, Beattie left to head Shedd Aquarium and Hudson was promoted to the director’s chair. “It was an exciting time for the Fort Worth Zoo as we had a huge growth of attendance that happened very quickly and were creating a whole new image for the zoo in Fort Worth, which people were so excited about,” he stated. “My job was to keep the momentum of that excitement and the community bond going. We were blessed with great board leadership that provided important resources and we were able open new exhibits like the cheetah habitat and the meerkat habitat and started the Halloween event and the Christmas event. We opened a new education center and started supporting field conservation for the first time on things like the Jamaican rock iguana.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

@ Fort Worth Zoo

Gregg Hudson credited his time at Fort Worth as teaching him “that balance between the economic side of things and how you support the zoo and make it a community asset.” His biggest project at the Fort Worth Zoo was Texas Wild, which opened in 2001. “It was really talking about the whole ecosystem of Texas, the backyard story of Fort Worth and the impact wildlife and conservation has on Texas,” Hudson said. “It was an exciting project to build.” However, at the time Hudson decided to move on and take the position as Director of the Cincinnati Zoo. “I felt the zoo was at a great spot and I was looking for other challenges,” he commented. “Ed Maruska was retiring so I was recruited to go to Cincinnati”.

@ Fort Worth Zoo

@ Fort Worth Zoo

Hudson found the Cincinnati Zoo to be very different from the Fort Worth Zoo. “Cincinnati is one of the great premier zoos in the country- a beautiful historic zoo,” he noted. “It was a real honor for me to take over the zoo from such a zoo giant as Ed and to help plan its next evolution of development for its future." "We did a master plan, built an animal hospital and reconfigured the organization to have a development office and fundraising office, which it didn’t have before,” Hudson said. “I brought Thane Maynard back (now the director of the zoo) as I felt he was a really important part of the equation in Cincinnati. He’s a great zoo personality that the community really resonated with. Also most of the staff grew up within that organization so I was bringing in some important outside influence and outside perspective.”

Cassandre Crawford @ Cincinnati Zoo

In 2006, Gregg Hudson returned to the Dallas-Fort Worth area as President/CEO of the Dallas Zoo. “From my time at Fort Worth, I knew this market very well,” he stated. “It was a great opportunity to take the things I learned in and out of the zoo world and apply them to such a raw resource as the Dallas Zoo.” At the time, the zoo was in need of new energy and life. “The Dallas Zoo (at that time) was thought of as one of the underachieving big market zoos in the country- one that could never get the pieces working together,” Hudson explained. “It was a city run zoo and the society was helping but they were never able to get over the hump. I saw that there was nowhere to go but up.”

@ Dallas Zoo

Hudson put together a strong vision of where the zoo would go. One of the first areas he concentrated on was guest services. “My first goal was to pay attention to the visitors as they come in, make the experience a positive one and get all the pieces moving in the same direction whether the city, society or staff,” Hudson elaborated. “The zoo needed someone to come in and set that vision. That’s really what I did those first few years. We spent a lot of time on visitor services and the amenities all over the zoo. When you build these big exhibits and spend millions of dollars, you don’t want a bad restroom or food service transaction to ruin that and take away the good will from a high quality experience.”

@ Dallas Zoo

Hudson cited Dallas Zoo history as a reason why the zoo needed to do more than just build great exhibits. During the early 1990s, the Dallas Zoo had undergone a $30 million expansion with the Wilds of Africa, a monorail journey through a wide variety of African habitats. However, nothing was done to increase visitor services and the rest of the zoo was left the same. “It had a lot of bells and whistles that were exciting and attendance was high that first year but it didn’t really build the momentum they were expecting,” Hudson remarked. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Fort Worth Zoo facelifted the entire zoo and saw a huge boom in attendance. “Dallas in the early 90s is a good example of how it takes more than a big exhibit,” Hudson noted. “At Fort Worth we spent a lot of time on aesthetics and amenities as well as improved habitats. If the visitors can’t park, get off the highway and eat good food they won’t come back. That was a great lesson that I used when I came to Dallas.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Additionally, some animal habitats were closed as they became outdated. “It all starts with what’s best for the animals,” Gregg Hudson stated. “We closed down a lot of exhibits because they weren’t adding to our conservation message nor were on par with our new standard for animal care. You’ve got to make sure the animals are put into a good situation first and foremost. We sent our one male lion away in hope we could bring him back, which did happen.” This philosophy has continued today as recently the Dallas Zoo closed Cat Row, a string of outdated enclosures for North American carnivores that were sent to other zoos.

@ Dallas Zoo

In 2009, the Dallas Zoo privatized and transitioned into being a public-private partnership, which brought several new opportunities to the zoo. “We were able to move and create a lot of things all at once,” Hudson explained. “When I first arrived in Dallas, we had a successful bond election that gave $25 million to the zoo for capital programming. Not long after that, the economy took a turn for the worst and the city was looking for a way to best run the zoo. That’s when we first had our talks about privatization.”

@ Dallas Zoo

At the same time, the zoo was getting pressure from animal rights activists to phase out African elephants, which lived in an outdated home built in the 1950s. “We had an elephant die and were getting a lot of pressure to move Jenny the elephant out,” Hudson recalled. “We were front and center in the national debate of whether elephants should be in zoos. I felt it was fundamentally wrong for outside groups to say zoos could not care for elephants in a way that was beneficial to their life. I was very fortunate that in Dallas, I had capital money, the city was willing to think about privatization and they gave me a lot of leeway to create the vision that became the Giants of the Savanna.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Giants of the Savanna, which opened in 2010, would become a state-of-the-art exhibit featuring African elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, cheetahs, antelope, ostriches, warthogs, red river hogs. To this day, it is regarded as one of the best of its kind and helped set a new standard for African elephant management in zoos. “That was a watershed moment for us as we were able to take Jenny from a 1950s exhibit to this beautiful new home,” Gregg Hudson elaborated. “It was a great opportunity to show what we could do for elephants. I don’t think all zoos can care for elephants but, if a zoo is willing to put fundamental changes into their exhibitory, and can invest the economics needed for daily welfare, elephants can thrive in zoos.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

“Along with Gary Lee [principal at CLR Design,] who I had worked with for a long time, we got a chance to really pull from our history and create this ground breaking exhibit,” Hudson continued. “I was fortunate to have 14 acres sitting there waiting for this type of opportunity. We thought about movement, space, flexibility, mixed species and how that all works with giraffes and elephants. We tried to solve a lot of challenges when it comes to animals in human care. We don’t want to see stereotypic behavior, we want to see a lot of natural behavior. The end result [of that challenge] was Giants of the Savanna."

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Jenny the elephant, who had been alone, was integrated in with five other elephants. “We assembled the six elephants, some of them rescued from private institutions, in this new exhibit, integrated them together and saw incredible natural behaviors,” Hudson stated. “I literally had zoo members who followed Jenny on this journey and would have tears in their eyes as they watched her from the base camp deck.” Today Jenny is thriving in Giants of the Savanna and receiving the highest level of welfare possible.

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

The habitat was designed to let elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelope and ostriches roam naturally in herds. “What makes Giants of the Savanna really special is the flexibility of it all,” Gregg Hudson explained. “It’s set up differently every single day so the animals and visitors don’t know what experience they’re going to have. The space is wonderful- it’s a very long linear habitat with a lot of room for the animals to roam and explore. We built it all with natural behavior in mind and there’s a lot of areas for the elephants to browse, push, rub and do what elephants do. We have furniture out there we’re constantly changing and setting up to give a different experience every day."

@ Dallas Zoo

The most ambitious part of Giants of the Savanna was the integration of African elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelope and ostriches. “The natural behavior that comes with the animals moving in and out with the elephants really sets it apart,” Hudson remarked. “We were the only zoo in the country exhibiting elephant and giraffe together. It took a long time to find the right, safest way to do that. We have an incredible staff here that has worked very diligently with those introductions.” The long process began with integrating the elephants and giraffes separately in herds. “Over the course of a year that was all we were doing,” Hudson noted. In 2013, the mission, believed impossible by many, was accomplished and all the species roamed the savanna together.

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Also present in Giants of the Savanna were the predators, lions and cheetahs. For their habitats, the zoo was inspired by the Denver Zoo. “I’ve always been a great student of exhibits as they’re being built and trying to look at them to build on those models,” Gregg Hudson explained. “One of the great things about the zoo world is that we share a lot of information and when you see an exhibit built in one place, you can work with that institution to improve it at your zoo. One of the big influences on the carnivore side [of Giants of the Savanna] was Predator Ridge at the Denver Zoo, a big exhibit at the front of their zoo with rotational carnivores. We didn’t quite have the space to do exactly what they did but we had the ability to create a smaller version of that.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

“We have an interactive area in the middle where we can bring lions and cheetahs for keeper demonstrations,” Hudson added. “We think it works great and we have the ability to move animals in and out all the time. The restaurant window looks right into the lion exhibit and it’s become hugely popular.”

@ Dallas Zoo

In upcoming years, the Dallas Zoo would take an even bigger leap in African elephant management and conservation. “Once Giants of the Savanna was built, we really felt like we were thrust into a leadership role in African elephant management that we never had before,” Gregg Hudson elaborated. “People were coming from all over the world to see our exhibit, the husbandry and the philosophy of the exhibit. We also made some great connections with field projects for elephants and began working closely with the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania. One of the things we began to explore was partnerships with other zoos.” This led to the Dallas Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo coming together to form a partnership to help with conservation in Swaziland.

@ Dallas Zoo

As the zoos began to work with Swaziland, an interesting conversation emerged. “We found out they had great pressure in their parks of having to either cull or relocate elephants,” Hudson explained. “They were trying to reestablish black rhinos and at the same time Southern Africa was experiencing tremendous drought, which was putting pressure on all the wildlife in Swaziland. We began discussions with them to see if there was a way to relocate the elephants to zoos and help them with a long-term conservation commitment on rhino. We really felt it was an emergency situation to get those elephants out of there. Dennis [Pate], Mark [Reed}, Lynn Kramer and myself spent a lot of time working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the process of bringing the elephants to our zoos. It was a several year project but a very thoughtful one about what ended up being what was best for all the wildlife in Swaziland.”

@ Dallas Zoo

In March 2016, five African elephants rescued from Swaziland arrived at the Dallas Zoo. Then, the long process began of integrating these younger animals with the older elephants already at the zoo. “It was a really tricky process as we had four older elephants,” Hudson stated. “We had the core group from Swaziland and as soon as they got here we began the introduction process. We expanded the original quarantine facility for elephants to hold all five elephants in that barn and do the introductions. They knew each other but there were still some group dynamics we wanted to get settled. To complicate that, one of the elephants was pregnant and dropped a calf two months into her stay. We immediately had to baby proof the entire facility.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

While the baby complicated the process, the zoo was able to integrate all ten elephants together. “Over the course of six-eight months, we were able to introduce all those elephants together,” Hudson concluded. “Now there’s multiple combinations of all these elephants in multiple habitats.” However, the team is taking its time on integrating the Swaziland elephants in with the giraffes and other hoof-stock. “We’re trying to be really careful with the integration since the little one is so precious,” Hudson said.

@ Dallas Zoo

Giants of the Savanna was a “real game changer” for the Dallas Zoo. “That put us on a much different kind of trajectory,” Hudson remarked. “We’ve gone from 500,000-600,000 visitors a year to 1.2 million visitors. That’s a great thing in terms of community support. We’ve also been able to add a lot more resources to our conservation programs and being much more active on the national zoo and aquarium front.”

@ Dallas Zoo

In spring 2017, the Dallas Zoo opened Simmons Hippo Outpost, bringing back hippos to the zoo for the first time in fifteen years. “Hippo Outpost is kind of the bookend to the Wilds of Africa,” Gregg Hudson commented. “It’s a really beautiful space.” The complex featured Nile hippo and okapi, the latter a species the zoo has had a long history with. “Hippos were the most requested animal to bring back to the zoo during the eleven years I’ve been here,” Hudson said. “There was a really popular hippo here named Papa who lived here for fifty years [before passing away in 2001.] People wanted to know when we were bringing back hippos. We felt it was one of those iconic species that would fit well with our African section.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Like Giants of the Savanna, Hippo Outpost was designed by CLR Design. It was designed to give visitors the best possible hippo experience while also providing them top notch welfare. “We were fortunate to get a donation from the Harold Simmons Foundation to help build this,” Hudson said. “We also had Diane and Hal Brierley provide the resources for the underwater viewing and a wonderful observation deck. You can see it from both the monorail and the pathway. We have a male hippo from Los Angeles and a female from Albuquerque and they’re getting along great. We spent a lot of time getting ready for them and sending keepers to LA and Albuquerque to train. They spent time getting to know these animals before they moved and the animals acclimated very quickly.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

The new habitat has been very well received and popular with the public. “It’s been a big hit,” Gregg Hudson noted. “The underwater viewing is great but it’s also in this lush landscape area with beautiful big trees. It’s one of the greenest hippo exhibits I’ve ever seen. It has okapi layered into it, which is wonderful. It’s a nice blend of underwater viewing and top viewing.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Gregg Hudson

Next to the hippos are two habitats for okapi, one of the signature species of the Dallas Zoo. “Okapi have been here for a long time and we’ve bred more okapi than any other facility,” Hudson remarked. “We’ve been involved in the Okapi Conservation Project in the Congo for a long time. It’s a great conservation breeding story for us and relates to the field research we support. Okapi are one of the most unique animals I’ve been around in a zoo and Hippo Outpost is a great way to showcase that long history. It’s raised the profile of okapi and our work.”

@ Dallas Zoo

The Dallas Zoo is a global leader in animal welfare and conservation. “To be a highly effective zoo, it starts with incredible animal welfare,” Gregg Hudson reflected. “Today the public is demanding a lot of state-of-the-art husbandry and impeccable animal care but the rhyme to the reason of why animals are in zoos is that we’re helping preserve them in the wild. We partner with conservation organizations like the Cheetah Conservation Fund and the Tarangire Elephant Project. I’m very involved in the GRACE program for Grauers gorillas and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. We’re looking to do more and more all the time. We’re working with a lot of amphibian projects on possible release into Texas and other places. We’re working on developing a whooping crane facility. We’re serving as a resource for field projects and possible release of animals into the wild.”

@ Gregg Hudson

@ Dallas Zoo

Currently, Gregg Hudson is serving on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and will take over as Chair next year. “It’s an exciting time to serve on the AZA board,” he stated. “I’ve now been a part of the zoo and aquarium community for 25 plus years so it was an honor to be asked to serve on that board. As part of my service on the board, I now have a great understanding of how zoos and aquariums can tell their story and how we can tell the public why they are important.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

“I think zoos and aquariums have and will play a very important role in saving animals from extinction,” Hudson reflected. “There will be an ever growing number of species you’ll only be able to see at a zoo or aquarium. Zoo and aquariums are going to have to play an active role in saving those species and providing wonderful habitats and welfare to those animals. For example there’s an issue going on with the Vaquita (the world’s smallest dolphin) which zoos and aquariums are playing a pivotal role on. We, as an association, felt it was important to at least try and save that species. You’re going to see more and more zoos and aquariums stepping out there to play a proactive role in saving species."

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

“I’m extremely proud of the accomplishments we’ve been able to make at the Dallas Zoo,” Gregg Hudson concluded. “There’s a legacy of projects at all three zoos I’m proud of but I’ve taken bits and pieces from all those places to help define the role of the Dallas Zoo in the future. That’s a critical thing we need to be thinking about all the time: Zoos and aquariums of the future have to be engaging and proactive in showing relevant ways of saving species. Our organization in Dallas has an incredible opportunity to help define the important role zoos and aquariums can play in their community and also in conserving and saving species around the world. It’s a big challenge but I am proud to be a part of it."

@ Gregg Hudson

#DallasZoo #FortWorthZoo #CincinnatiZoo

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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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