Saving Species: A Conversation with Renee Bumpus, Senior Director of Conservation at the Houston Zoo

Few zoos are as focused on saving species and wild places as the Houston Zoo. Not only does the zoo do an extraordinary amount of conservation work but it also thoroughly integrates the concept of saving species to every aspect of the zoo and communicates the message powerfully to the public. The Houston Zoo frequently uses the tagline, "Every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild." Much of the Houston Zoo's success is due to Renee Bumpus, its senior director of conservation. Here is her story.

@ Renee Bumpus

Renee Bumpus always knew she wanted to work with wildlife. Her first job was working in a pet store near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where she grew up. “One of my co-workers was studying to be a zoo veterinarian,” she recalled. “She also worked at the local zoo, Crystal Gardens, and invited me to visit behind the scenes. I got to know the curator, John Creviston, who answered all my animal husbandry questions and gave me unique insight into the zoo and conservation world. My co-worker then got an internship at Mountain View Conservation Center, a private facility in Langley, BC, and invited me to assist with some of her work. I was deeply intrigued and thrilled with this unknown facility and my excitement and interest must have been evident. After my first visit the owner, Gordon Blankstein, offered me a position.” Bumpus was hired as an animal care specialist at Mountain View. “They had a unique and diverse collection, with extremely rare small cats, gazelles, primates, birds and other species, which very few zoos had,” she explained. “It was the only facility in North America at that time to have Asiatic golden cats, rusty spotted cats and brown hyenas.”

@ Renee Bumpus

During her 12 years at Mountain View Conservation Center, and living on the property most of the time, Bumpus was involved in developing protocols for preparing international species for reintroduction. She became passionately involved in African painted dog breeding and conservation. “We bred and raised a lot of African painted dogs," Bumpus remarked. "We had huge spaces for these dogs so they had room to dig their own burrows for pups. They had come from Africa, so their genetics were very valuable. At one time, we had a pack of 36 in one enclosure and 12 in another. I hand raised the rejected puppies. They lived in my bathtub for their first few weeks. Wow - did they stink!"

@ Houston Zoo

“Word got out about our painted dog captive husbandry and breeding success and we were approached by a painted dog researcher from Africa, Dr. Greg Rasmussen," Bumpus continued. "I invited him to Mountain View for a fundraiser. On his visit he observed we were raising the dogs in a very natural way and asked me to go to Africa to train his staff. Mountain View supported my trip to Zimbabwe to assist Painted Dog Conservation with research and to train the Zimbabwean staff in wild dog husbandry and record keeping. The work with the Zimbabwean staff strengthened my understanding of the importance of empowering local people in protecting their own wildlife for long-term, sustainable, community-based conservation.”

@ Houston Zoo

Bumpus also worked on local species recovery projects. She assisted with efforts to save the Vancouver Island marmot, once listed as the rarest mammal in the world, from the brink of extinction. “Many of the remaining wild marmots were brought into captivity for breeding. Most people doubted this species would survive. Particularly important in saving the Vancouver Island marmot was the fact that we brought all stakeholders to the table to figure out how to maintain suitable habitat for the marmots. The logging companies, scientists, captive animal facilities, government and private sectors were all part of the recovery effort,” Bumpus elaborated. “The logging company employees attended the recovery team meetings. They didn’t have a connection to wildlife in the beginning, but once they felt valued and part of the process it was transformational. The loggers got to name the captive-bred reintroduced marmots. They chose colorful names like Lips and Chainsaw. They watched over them carefully and reported sightings of “their” marmots to the researchers. Most importantly, they started to influence their logging companies’ decisions. Practices shifted to protect habitat for the marmots, which benefited all wildlife in the area.” The project gained international recognition. “When I saw Jane Goodall she would would ask me how the marmots were doing,” Bumpus noted. “Through this project, I learned the principles of effective conservation and witnessed what was deemed the impossible become the possible once all stakeholders were valued equally. This experience substantially contributed to my foundation of what is necessary to successfully implement conservation strategies and practices."

“I was focussed on conservation work and I loved the idea of breeding animals for reintroduction, but through this experience, I realized the fact that the marmots not being on public display was a detriment," Renee Bumpus reflected. "Mountain View was not open to the public but allowed private tours. It became apparent to me that the public’s interest in saving an animal strengthened when they had the opportunity to see that very animal eye to eye."

“Peter Riger, VP of Conservation at the Houston Zoo, contacted me in 2006 to ask if we could do a presentation on the Vancouver Island marmot recovery efforts at the Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation conference," Bumpus recalled. "I was surprised he knew about the project. At the conference I saw the Houston Zoo’s in situ conservation reach and impact was impressive and I was excited to join the Houston Zoo team when Peter offered me a position in 2010.”

@ Houston Zoo

Bumpus, now as Sr. Director of Conservation, built on the foundation set by Houston Zoo’s former director, Rick Barongi, along with Peter Riger. “Rick was the energy and Peter was the drive behind the Zoo’s conservation success,” she elaborated. “Rick was extremely passionate about conservation, but when I started at the Zoo, the conservation department was siloed. The Zoo staff felt distant and unfamiliar with the Zoo’s conservation work. I knew the inherent strength the Zoo itself had in conservation needed to be revealed and the conservation content made relatable in order to see the progress Rick hoped for."

@ Houston Zoo

"I realized I needed to look at Houston Zoo as a community-based conservation project," Renee Bumpus articulated. "I’d learned from my experience at Painted Dog Conservation there was immense long-term species saving impact when they successfully empowered the local community to own the conservation work, and the Zoo was no different. But truly integrating conservation into the Zoo’s identity was a huge undertaking - it took us six years of focusing on empowering the staff and board members to feel that ownership and deep connection to conservation."

@ Houston Zoo

“My goal has always been to have each Zoo employees know they are saving species,” Bumpus stated. “I frequently reassured Rick and Peter that as the Zoo’s understanding and ownership became stronger, conservation impact would become stronger.”

@ Renee Bumpus

While Houston Zoo is all about conservation, it refrains from using that word; rather, it uses the phrase “saving animals in the wild” instead. “I could see audiences outside the science world felt distant from the word 'conservation," Bumpus stated. "They also frequently misunderstood it. We needed to describe what we meant by conservation to enable everyone to feel connected to it. The term “saving wildlife” is much more comprehensible and energizing for people.”

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

Renee knew that each Zoo department has ways to directly serve conservation projects. “I ask our conservation partners what skillset needs they have and provide them with a list of each Zoo department’s specialties,” she explained. “Good community-based conservation projects are essentially small businesses, but are run by scientists without the skills needed to run a small business. [At zoos] we have those skillsets. Our development staff helped our shark conservation partner in Belize with their donor database. We support a gorilla project in Rwanda that needed assistance with accounting, so now one of our accountants trains and mentors them in quickbooks. We have 42 staff involved in different conservation efforts worldwide. This is what enables staff to feel closer to the conservation work and our partners feel a deeper sense of support and a greater appreciation of the Zoo.”

@ Houston Zoo

Bumpus helped strengthen the Houston Zoo to become an internationally renowned conservation organization. “We had an employee intern from Save the Elephants at the Zoo for a year and he said, 'You’re doing what we do, but you have more people coming to you to learn how to protect wildlife, so it feels like you are even more effective',” Bumpus continued, “My mission is to know everyone working in the zoo feels their zoo work has the same value as someone who is collaring an animal in the wild.”

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo’s culture of conservation has been significantly strengthened by the leadership of Lee Ehmke, who became President and CEO of Houston Zoo after Barongi retired. “Rick set the foundation and launched it [while] Lee brought structure,” Bumpus explained. “Lee has a very strategic approach. He told me he came here because of our unique conservation model and philosophy. He went right to work planting conservation into the Zoo’s identity through the Zoo’s new mission, vision, and strategic plan. Conservation does not have a separate area in the strategic plan, it is imbedded in the Zoo’s brand strategic priority. This has ensured that conservation is synonymous with Houston Zoo.”

@ Houston Zoo

As the conservation culture grew at the Zoo, Bumpus saw the great need for their conservation partners to understand their new identity. “We feel it is important to keep our conservation partners well informed about our evolution,” Bumpus remarked. “These partners are an important audience as they are frequently advocating for us within the wildlife community. We keep them updated on all our on-grounds conservation action programs and campaigns.”

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

Conservation partners have been particularly impressed by Houston Zoo’s messaging campaigns. “The aim is, when our visitors exit our gates they are inspired and know what they can do at home to reduce the threats to wildlife; they have changed their way of thinking," Renne Bumpus said. "They’re now animal savers and ready to move to the next level."

@ Renee Bumpus

“Our partner from a whale conservation project in Argentina gave a talk at the zoo,” Bumpus remembered. “She saw our campaign to reduce plastic and was so impressed that we were doing a specifically targeted campaign that directly affected her species. She asked if we could replicate the campaign in Argentina to address this issue in her country. This work reframed the way she viewed zoos. She now sees us as a place where the public connect to animals rather than just looking at them, and are guided to ways they can save them.” Bumpus continued, “We created a Conservation Impact Managing position to increase our focus on tracking and evaluating our conservation effectiveness.

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

“We also recently hosted a behavior change workshop with environmental psychologist, Dr. Doug Mckensie-Mohr who specializes in designing programs to promote sustainable behavior," Bumpus remarked. "Doug feels zoos have a unique platform to influence behavior change. He is eager to work closely with zoos to get a clearer picture on how we can increase and track effective change.” Bumpus remarked. “We focused the workshop on plastic reduction and included as many Zoo staff as possible. We also funded local conservation organizations, other zoo and aquarium staff, mayor’s office staff, grocery store staff, and waste company staff for it. In addition we brought our marine conservation partners from Belize and Argentina to the Zoo to attend. It was clear that changing behavior is going to be the key to moving the needle in the species recovery compass."

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

“I’m most grateful for being able to leverage future conservation leaders," Renee Bumpus reflected. "I love seeing the results of empowering zoo professionals and conservation partners.” Bumpus also sits on the board of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders and mentors young people in the conservation field. “Empowering people in the wildlife field is critical," Renee Bumpus concluded. "When people are inspired and, most importantly, feel supported, they will always find solutions to seemingly impossible problems that will save species from extinction."

@ Renee Bumpus

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