Taking On the Legacy and the Zoo A Conversation with Jim Breheny, Director of the Bronx Zoo, Executi

For decades, the Bronx Zoo has been one of the biggest, best and most conservation-minded zoos in the world. During his long tenure at the zoo, legendary conservationist Dr. William Conway and his team broke unprecedented ground by opening world-class immersive habitats, elevating standards of animal welfare, achieving scientific discoveries and turning the New York Zoological Society into the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the premier conservation organizations on the planet. The zoo’s current director, Jim Breheny, who is also General Director for all WCS zoos and the NY Aquarium, is determined to keep that legacy alive. He also has taken that legacy a step further by striving to keep zoos and aquariums relevant in the 21st century and communicating to others what the Bronx Zoo does. Here is his story. I was fortunate enough to spend an hour and twenty minutes in Jim Breheny’s office talking to him about his life and thoughts on the future of zoos.

@ Bronx Zoo

One of the biggest lessons Breheny had learned over his career was the importance of being transparent and letting guests know the intricacies of the care the zoo’s animals receive. “What we find is that the public really likes is to interact with the staff who care for the animals and ask them questions,” he said. “They’re anxious to talk to a zookeeper. The thing we’ve learned about our show, The Zoo, is that the public responds very well to seeing staff interact with the animals.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Jim Breheny has been part of the Bronx Zoo family since he was fourteen years old. “The only job I ever applied for was the one when I was 14,” he commented. Breheny’s career began working part-time in the Children’s Zoo and camel rides, which at the time were run by the Education Department. “When I graduated from college in 1981, it coincided with the opening of the new Children’s Zoo reimagined with five themed areas- homes, locomotion, sense, defense and contact,” he remarked. “I got the supervisor position for the Children’s Zoo and camel rides. I did that for four-five years and then became a curatorial science fellow, which was a two-three year position. When that was over I became Assistant Curator of Education Animals and ran the animal side of Education.”

@ Bronx Zoo

@ Bronx Zoo

After Conway retired in 1999, the Bronx Zoo restructured and “created a fourth department” called Special Animal Exhibits, which Breheny led. It contained the Children’s Zoo, camel rides, Butterfly Garden and program animals used in education. Soon after, he became Associate General Curator as longtime General Curator Jim Doherty was close to retirement. “In 2004, I became General Curator, the job I always wanted,” Breheny noted. However, in 2005 he was promoted to the position of Director of the Bronx Zoo and Vice President of the Wildlife Conservation Society, helping also oversee the Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and New York Aquarium.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

Having been at the zoo for decades, Jim Breheny already had a great understanding of the Bronx Zoo’s history and culture. “I grew up here so I’ve always been very comfortable here and conscious of my abilities and limitations,” he elaborated. “I always had good relationships with Bill Conway, Richard Lattis and Jim Doherty and great respect for Conway and what he’s meant to zoos and aquariums. He certainly moved the profession forward more than any single individual with everything from these amazing dynamic immersive exhibits to zoos being active agents in conservation.” Breheny has accepted the challenge of staying true to that tradition. “A lot of my responsibility is continuing that legacy,” he remarked. “It was the right direction.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Breheny was candid that the job has not always been easy. “We had some financial challenges after 9/11 and the economic downturn in 2008,” he commented. “The zoo relies on visitation and, after 9/11, attendance was down. In 2009, we had to make cuts and close some exhibits and we’ve never restored any of those cuts.” The zoo closed four exhibit areas which they felt “would have the least impact on visitation.” “We had to change the way we did things,” Breheny stated. “We closed exhibits not up to standards. The World of Darkness was a great exhibit when it opened but I feel it was a good decision to close it down.” Through these times, attendance has remained “steady” at approximately 2 million visitors annually and the zoo has continued to do well financially. The Bronx Zoo has a number of ideas for future exhibits including a resurrected World of Darkness, a Safari Adventure area that will expand on the current African Plains and address how wildlife is displaced by human activity, new exhibits in the old Monkey House including indoor and outdoor habitats for primates and pygmy hippos and a Latin American section.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

Jim Breheny was adamant that the zoo values quality over quantity. “Way before I started making decisions, the zoo had a Great Ape House with gorillas, orangutans and chimps and it was decided we would make a commitment to focus on gorillas,” he stated. As a result, orangutans and chimpanzees were phased out and the zoo became a world leader in gorilla husbandry, exhibitry and reproduction. “Certainly we have made a commitment to have the animals we exhibit tell visitors about the challenges these species face in the wild,” Breheny reflected. In particular, the zoo has focused on animals directly connected to the conservation work WCS is conducting across the globe.

@ WCS

@ WCS

One way Breheny has departed from his predecessors ideologically is that he has made the inner workings of the Bronx Zoo much more accessible to the public. This philosophy has led to the Animal Planet series The Zoo, which takes viewers behind the scenes of the Bronx Zoo. “We’ve begun to be very open and transparent in everything we do here,” Breheny explained. “The Zoo is a culmination of that.” He pinpointed one particular incident as the beginning of this change of mind. “Holly the gorilla had an ailment and we said we wanted to tell her story and let people know about the treatment and care she was receiving,” Breheny recalled. “We got a New York Times reporter to follow the story. When we contemplated the idea of doing this, we had never before invited someone in to follow a story like this real-time." The reporter followed Holly’s progress as she was successfully treated.

@ WCS

@ WCS

This transparency was a huge risk but also an opportunity. “I got tired of the negative things you’d hear about the zoo without the opportunity to address it,” Jim Breheny noted. “Sometimes untruths were stated but once it’s out there it’s hard to correct it. People had no idea what a modern zoo was about. ” The zoo then spent five years developing a TV show giving an inside look into its operations. “At first I was very reluctant,” Breheny remembered. “It was a huge risk and we were a very conservative organization. If you go to Congo Gorilla Forest, you struggle to see a building there. We pay attention to sightlines and try to set the stage for these exhibits to be as powerful as can be. We didn’t focus on animal holding areas and we never did any behind the scenes tours.” Eventually, the decision was made to take the gamble and create the show.

@ Grayson Ponti

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

The decision paid off. “Once the show aired, it was very well received by the public and other zoos,” Breheny elaborated. “We’ve been thanked for doing it. It’s much easier to show what zoos do than explain it. People were impressed by what they saw. ”

@ WCS

@ WCS

With all these big accomplishments, one might be surprised to find the thing Jim Breheny is most proud of – and it relates to a tiny toad. “I’m most proud of our involvement with the Kihansi spray toad, a tiny little toad found in one area of Tanzania,” he mentioned. “They only lived in this one microenvironment in the spray zone of a waterfall but Tanzania built a dam that changed the flow of the river feeding the waterfall in the gorge. We were asked to collect whatever toads remained and establish an assurance colony. Shortly thereafter, they were declared by IUCN as extinct in the wild. We partnered with the Toledo Zoo to develop husbandry protocols and begin propagating the species. Unlike most frogs and toads, the Kihansi spray toad gives birth to live young; they don’t lay eggs. So we had to figure out how to successfully raise these tiny toadlets. We built a biosecure amphibian propagation center and bred thousands of toads, enabling the Bronx Zoo to send toads back to Tanzania for release in a restored habitat. At one time, you could hear these toads calling in the Bronx but not in Tanzania. Now they are home once again. It’s a story of the dedication, skill and expertise of all these people working together for this little toad. It was really great to have a part in restoring an amphibian species that was extinct in the wild and bringing it back.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Another achievement Breheny cited was creating a cohesive collection plan for all of WCS’s zoos and aquarium.. “In the beginning, each of our parks had its own collection plan,” he explained. “We wanted an integrated collection plan where people could understand why we exhibit and maintain the animals we do. It was a monumental task categorizing the species we keep. We decided we would concentrate our exhibit and propagation efforts on species with high conservation value. People can read the collection plan and learn why we have what we have. It show there’s integrity and reason behind our decisions.”

Dennis Demello @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Additionally, Jim Breheny’s tenure has seen some new exhibits and animals come to the zoo. In 2015, the zoo opened the renovated Children’s Zoo, which was “a great refresh.” The largest project done during his time as director was Madagascar, which showcases the work done by WCS on this island off the east coast of Africa. “Madagascar was the first “green” renovation of a landmark building in New York City,” Breheny recalled. “It was an extremely challenging project as we set out to build an exhibit in an existing shell with cutting edge, “green” technology. It showcases an area where WCS has done significant work and we can talk about our work and educate the public about the unique challenges of island species. Ecosystems are really fragile on an island.”

@ Sue Chin

@ WCS

When asked if he had a favorite exhibit, Breheny had a quick answer. “JungleWorld’s my favorite,” he said. Opened in 1985, the indoor exhibit recreates the rainforest of Southeast Asia and powerfully conveys the need to protect that ecosystem from human destruction. “It was really a milestone exhibit for us and gives you the same fantastic experience year-round,” Breheny continued. “It was the first exhibit featuring a slice of an environment. There are many species but the star is the rainforest itself. It was the first exhibit to have mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates all together and to showcase the diversity of life in an ecosystem. It’s a place of reverence- almost temple like. As the vegetation has matured, as you walk through, you’re aware there are animals all around you – even if you don’t see them!”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

“What makes the Bronx Zoo special is our history,” Jim Breheny reflected. “We have these amazing dynamic immersive habitats and make them relevant to animals in the wild and WCS’s work in the field. All the curators at the Bronx Zoo throughout its history have been involved in fieldwork to find out how to better care for animals and protect them in the wild. We’ve wholeheartedly dedicated ourselves to conservation and are helping move the ball forward in the zoo and aquarium profession. Zoo directors used to want to provide a great entertainment venue but now zoos have a greater responsibility.”

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

“We have an obligation to the care of our residents and sustaining animals for the future but also to use our animals and exhibits to tell the story,” Jim Breheny concluded. “We have a sense of urgency to advocate for species like we did with 96 Elephants. If zoos can cooperate and develop a movement to make a change that would be our greatest accomplishment. We’ve got to be completely dedicated to that mission.”

@ Grayson Ponti

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