A Healthy Appetite for Innovation and Change: A Conversation with Alejandro Grajal, President and CE

During his time at the Wildlife Conservation Society, National Audubon Society and Brookfield Zoo, Alejandro Grajal proved himself a great student in conservation psychology and an ambitious, forward-thinking zoologist ready to spark change. In 2016, he became President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, one of the best institutions of its kind in the world. Grajal is in the process of implementing his strong vision of zoos as social agents of change leading a social movement for conservation at Woodland Park Zoo. Here is his story.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Alejandro Grajal’s connections to the zoo world began when he was getting his doctorate in zoology. “When I was a graduate student, I got a small grant from the Chicago Zoological Society with a letter signed by the late George Rabb,” he recalled. “That was a big boost to my career. I also got a small grant from the New York Zoological Society (now Wildlife Conservation Society) in support of my dissertation research.” Grajal went into a specialty in conservation and development and was soon hired by WCS. Although his responsibility was managing the organization’s Latin America programs, he got exposure to the work of the Bronx Zoo. “My office was at the Bronx Zoo so I was physically there even though I was coordinating international programs,” he remarked. “I was at the zoo everyday interacting with zoo colleagues. My big mentor there was Bill Conway, who was both a field conservationist and a zoo man. To me, that signaled a clear professional path in which you can do both and be very effective.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Grajal was at the New York Zoological Society when it transitioned to the Wildlife Conservation Society. “There was a very deliberate discussion about getting out of just the zoological component and saying we are about wildlife and conservation,” he explained. “I was part of a large team that was involved in the branding and logo change and all the philosophy that went with the scope of the organization. It was fascinating to be part of the discussion with the zoo world on that transition and how to blend all these priorities, decisions and thinking.” After WCS, he went on to be Director of Latin American Programs at the National Audubon Society.

Graham Harris @ WCS

Alejandro Grajal came back into the zoo world when he got a call from Stuart Strahl, the newly appointed President and CEO of the Brookfield Zoo. “My first boss at WCS was Stuart Strahl,” he remembered. “He left WCS about a year and a half into my time there but we both went into the Audubon Society, where Stuart was director of the Florida program. Stuart called me and described his vision for the Brookfield Zoo.” In 2005, Grajal moved to Chicago to become Vice President of Conservation and Education at the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo.

@ Brookfield Zoo

Grajal arrived at the Brookfield Zoo about a year after Stuart Strahl succeeded George Rabb, who retired after directing the zoo for nearly three decades. Rabb was regarded as one of the best zoo directors of all time and was particularly known for his investment in forward thinking research, animal care science and conservation. “For any organization that has had the same leader for thirty years, you can find all kinds of idiosyncrasies that reflect that person,” Grajal explained. “We found an organization that was in need of some changes but also had incredible assets. The Brookfield Zoo had become an incubator for conservation psychology. It had one of the first animal welfare endocrinology laboratories and one of the most sophisticated zoo veterinary hospitals in the world. It also had a great understanding of early childhood and nature play. The challenge was how to capitalize on those incredible assets and move them forward."

@ Brookfield Zoo

“It was an incredible road,” Alejandro Grajal said of his time at the Brookfield Zoo. “Very exhilarating time!” One of the first challenges was keeping up with the expenses and maintenance associated with such a large zoo. “Like most large zoos, Brookfield suffered from a large backlog of maintenance,” Grajal remarked. “Just dealing with the backlog of maintenance was a giant project in itself. There were also some issues with fiscal balance although those were relatively quick and easy to solve.” Once this was resolved, Strahl, Grajal and the leadership team at Brookfield were able to build on the innovation sparked by Rabb. “We were able to capitalize on an institution that had a strong culture of innovation and learning, which is a rather unique trait,” he reflected. “That was what we inherited from George Rabb and that Stuart Strahl enhanced and expanded.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

“What sticks to me [about Brookfield Zoo] now that I’m a zoo director myself is it’s an incredible asset for an organization to have that spirit of innovation and learning,” Grajal elaborated. “It takes a lot of institutional muscle to make that happen. One of the most amazing attributes of leaders like Conway and Rabb was they created organizations with a healthy appetite for innovation and learning. We’re trying to keep that culture of conservation and learning alive [in Seattle.] Without this kind of cultural trait, it’s very difficult to move forward.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

One of Alejandro Grajal’s biggest tasks was helping create the Center for Science of Animal Welfare at the Brookfield Zoo. The team integrated the behavioral and endocrinology research and curatorial environment with a leading edge veterinary hospital to create an “evidence based center” to examine animal welfare. “It was very creative,” Grajal said. The zoo started using evidence based thinking not just to study animal welfare but also to evaluate nearly all of the zoo’s programs. “With the creation of the Center for Conservation Leadership, we developed evidence based education practices and had one of the strongest audience research departments in the world,” Grajal stated. “We did multi-institutional research projects on attitudes, behaviors and conservation psychology.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Another concentration for the Brookfield Zoo was early childhood and nature play. “We created a professional career track for nature play in zoos,” Grajal explained. “George Rabb created a ‘think tank’ to better understand how to create caring attitudes for nature. The research showed that those caring attitudes are developed in the first six years of life. How we develop those connections is vital. The Hamill Family Play Zoo pioneered the standard of how nature play could be used and presented in a zoo setting. With my arrival, we transformed the Play Zoo from a zoo facility to an international program that developed a professional career track in nature play. We found there wasn’t a career track for nature play in zoos so we created the curriculum, partnerships and practices for a whole new specialty. We also developed the research component with partners and universities to understand how and why those caring attitudes are developed in early childhood.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

The Brookfield Zoo’s decisions and actions were influenced by the principles of conservation psychology. “Carol Saunders was hired by George Rabb to direct a program called Conservation Psychology, which did interdisciplinary research between the sciences of conservation and psychology to understand how attitudes towards nature impact caring behaviors,” Alejandro Grajal remarked. “Based on that, we expanded the very foundation of conservation psychology into a full-fledged research program. Today, conservation psychology is an exploding field- that seed planted at the Brookfield Zoo has sprouted and branched at many other institutions to much better understand how zoos and aquariums are delivering their mission. We now know there are psychological and social pathways to deliver active conservation messages and attitudes. This has changed how zoos and aquariums interact with their audiences.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

These principles of conservation psychology sparked a change in the way the Brookfield Zoo’s habitats delivered a storyline. “In many cases, the delivery of a storyline of an exhibit has remained very factual and content based,” Grajal explained. “Modern zoos are very quickly changing to a better understanding of the pathways that lead to conservation action. The old thinking was that to achieve conservation action, zoos had to explain the [conservation] problems and tell [visitors] the solution. We know that all that content is largely irrelevant in the pathway to achieve conservation action in our visitors. Instead, we know that the right social framework and emotional connections with animals provide a vastly more powerful pathway to inspire change. This has led to a lot more programs [related to] empathy for animals, nature play, creating social conditions for conservation action and removing psychological barriers to behavior and action. The most modern and advanced zoos and aquariums around the world are doing that very quickly.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

The first exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo to apply this research was Great Bear Wilderness, focused on the wildlife of North America. “Great Bear Wilderness came after we conducted massive research into zoo visitor attitudes about climate change and ecological issues like biological connections,” Alejandro Grajal elaborated. “The theme in Great Bear Wilderness was that large iconic North American animals (grizzly and polar bears, bison, wolves, bald eagles) have very deep emotional and cultural connections to humans and represent important conservation challenges and triumphs there for us to see and report. The storylines, theming and presentation of the exhibits were all about emotional and cultural connections to those animals, framing conservation issues, and providing self-evident behaviors that visitors can do in their daily lives to change the fate of these animals. It was one of those thematic exhibits in which we put animals together to serve an objective based on our research in conservation psychology.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

One of the things Grajal felt most proud about his time at the Brookfield Zoo was the professionals he mentored there. “Brookfield Zoo is still one of the great incubators of innovation in the industry,” he reflected. “The zoo has a long history of nurturing and creating talent across the zoo industry in everything from veterinarians to researchers to keepers to educators. I’m very proud of that I made a very strong emphasis on nurturing the professionals of the future and helping the industry.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

In 2016, Alejandro Grajal became the President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Like Brookfield, Woodland Park Zoo has a long tradition and legacy of being one of the most progressive and forward-thinking zoos in the nation. “Woodland Park Zoo is one of those institutions I always thought was very interesting,” Grajal elaborated. “When the opportunity called, I thought it was a good time to start a new chapter in my life. Woodland Park Zoo had a very strong network and base from what previous leaders Dave Towne and Deborah Jensen had achieved so it was an easy transition for me. Also, Seattle is a city busily reinventing itself and leading innovation. That was the double whammy of attraction.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Grajal found a strong base at Woodland Park Zoo to build on. “I found an organization on a very solid footing in every respect,” he stated. “Very strong governance, philanthropy, exhibits, educational programs, financial standing and animal welfare. It was in a real solid position with a very healthy appetite for change and innovation in a city with a very healthy appetite for change and innovation. It is a very fertile environment [to do great things.] I’m all about moving into the future.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Some zoo professionals had warned Grajal the social and political climate may not be friendly to the zoo but he found those reservations to be misinformed. He found the zoo to have immense community support. “I realized those people didn’t know what they were talking about,” Grajal commented. “The zoo is loved by everyone in town and strongly supported by elected officials, the business sector and private and corporate donors. This organization is one of the most cherished and beloved institutions in the region. I came at the right time to an organization in a very good position in its community.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Alejandro Grajal came to Woodland Park Zoo wanting to spark change and innovation but also wanting to stay true to its legacy. “We’re a 118 year old institution,” he said. “We have several generations of Seattleites devoted and dedicated to Woodland Park Zoo. We’ll remain close to our roots in Seattle and to our roots of innovation and new thinking. We’ve created some of the very earliest immersive exhibits and influential education, research and animal welfare programs. We’re going to stick with those very solid roots and continue to invest in them.” Through the transition, Grajal has consulted with zoo legend Dave Towne, who directed Woodland Park Zoo for decades. “Dave has been incredibly generous with his time,” he stated. “We have lunch often. Whenever I feel low, he comes in and pops me up. It’s been a great partnership and I’m very grateful for his support.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo has just launched an ambitious strategic plan to provide a roadmap for the upcoming years. “I’m very excited about the possibilities of the plan and we are exploring a vast territory,” Alejandro Grajal elaborated. “This strategic plan is calling for the zoo to [continue to develop as] an agent of social change for conservation. We have historically been at the leading edge of being a zoo with a conservation agenda and have developed very strong field conservation programs and education initiatives that drive [conservation] solutions. The challenge is, in spite of our programs, that we as a society are still not including conservation in our everyday life. The strategic plan is framing how we can mobilize all of our assets to create a social movement for conservation.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“[We’re looking at) how we drive a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ for the environment,” Grajal continued. “We need to include people with diverse attitudes, cultures and backgrounds into a common understanding of the threats to wildlife. That’s very exciting to me as we have incredible assets.” Among the zoo’s assets are its presence on social media and in politics. “We have 1.3 million visitors a year and about 10 to12 million visitors virtually,” Grajal said. “We have the most popular YouTube channel of any zoo in North America, very strong social media and are very involved in policy making locally and nationally. We’re going to catalyze a social movement for conservation where citizens lead conservation action.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo has a rich tradition of creating state-of-the-art, immersive habitats and has won the AZA Exhibit Achievement Award (best exhibit of the year) more times than any zoo except the Bronx Zoo. Grajal and his staff are going to continue this legacy but are focusing strongly on creating exhibits that emphasize conservation solutions rather than highlighting specific animals or biogeographic regions. “We’re going to base our exhibits on conservation themes that we want to explore,” he explained. “We won’t create an exhibit with any animal as the driving force. We’ll create exhibits about making a social movement for conservation and integrating the zoo experience, the virtual experience and the policy arena in one scope. We have two big physical spaces we need to develop. We have the old elephant exhibit, which temporarily will house rhinos for a couple of years. We’re then going to develop a concept for that space. The other space we have is the Day and Night Exhibit. That building burned last year so we’re now starting to think about how to redevelop that space as a modern exhibit."

@ Scott Richardson

@ Woodland Park Zoo

While the zoo’s upcoming exhibits are still being figured out, there is one concept that is strongly on the zoo’s mind. “We’re thinking of doing something that highlights our involvement with tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, a leading field program we’ve done for 25 years that’s making big strides in finding local livelihoods sustainable coffee and cocoa,” Grajal said. “We want to use that space to tell the story of sustainable solutions and livelihoods and also how our consumer choices can support conservation of one of the most interesting rainforest in the world.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Additionally, the zoo is going to approach saving species in a much more holistic way. “We’re creating a position for conservation initiatives,” Alejandro Grajal stated. “[This is going to be] a conservation leader that will integrate all aspects of conservation- field programs, AZA partnerships, education, sustainability, messaging, social media, technology and electronics. We’re really keen to finding the right person to move that forward.” In particular, the zoo is looking to take advantage of the technology community in Seattle. “We’ve having strong dialogue with the technology companies in the Seattle area about driving technological solutions,” Grajal added. ”Since we’re surrounded by hundreds of technology companies from Microsoft to upstart companies, we really need to make connections between the conservation and technology worlds and create a space where those two worlds can talk to each other."

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo is also upgrading its approaches to animal welfare. “We’re about to start a curatorial position that will be in charge of enrichment and training protocols,” Grajal commented. “We are also planning an audience position that will deal with public perceptions of animal welfare. One of the challenges we face as zoos is that we’ve been defining animal welfare in technical terms understood by scientists. But there is a huge distance in the vocabulary and perceptions about animal welfare between scientists and zoo visitors. We need to understand how the public perceives animal welfare and how the zoo communicates that.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo has had tremendous success connecting to young people, especially through social media. “Our attendance is booming and we’re making strong inroads with the tech community,” Grajal remarked. “We’ve had several events with all these tech companies while also investing heavily in our virtual experience, including a zoo hackathon, our.digital storytelling, virtual presence and social media. We have a specific communications and branding plan for those who don’t come to the zoo [but who we reach] through our virtual experience. Right now our virtual visitation is probably three to four times bigger than our physical visitation and we need to invest in that. We need to go where people are, and, with some young people, that’s the virtual space.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo is committed to remain savvy and accessible in decades to come. “We’re a place that’s also delivering a deep lifetime experience,” Alejandro Grajal reflected. “Ultimately, we are trying to deliver an experience that changes people’s behaviors [in relation to] conservation. Whether it takes place in a physical or virtual space is irrelevant as our ultimate goal is to get people to invest in conservation. So, the zoo of the future will continue to have spectacular grounds that reflect the richness of species and habitats. As Seattle becomes more urban, the zoo becomes a more valuable green oasis. The zoo is a key component of the constellation of recreation and green spaces in Seattle.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“Urbanized publics are having less contact with nature,” Grajal elaborated. “With mobile technologies, we’re becoming more detached from nature. We are also facing a sixth massive extinction spasm where so many species are threatened with extinction. So we have to be very deliberate about conservation. We also need to understand that perceptions of animal welfare are changing rapidly. There’s a sense of urgency with those three issues- extinction of species, animal welfare and human’s detachment from nature. Zoos and aquariums can easily get caught up with everyday distractions and all the things that just make noise. But if we don’t focus on those three things, we won’t be relevant in the future. At Woodland Park Zoo, we’re identifying where we need to go and what our priorities need to be. Those zoos that are not paying attention may find themselves in a couple of decades in the dustbin of history.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“What I hope to do as head of Woodland Park Zoo and a member of the board of AZA is to bring that sense of urgency and explore the solutions that will make zoos relevant in the 21st century and create positive change for conservation,” Alejandro Grajal concluded.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

#WoodlandParkZoo #BrookfieldZoo

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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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