The Landscape and Biodiversity of the American Southwest: A Conversation with Craig Ivanyi, Executiv

Since 2010, Craig Ivanyi has been Director of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, a zoo that focuses exclusively on animals from the Sonoran Desert region. However, it is much more than a zoo and represents the region in a holistic way. “The blessing and curse of the Desert Museum is that it’s a combination of many things- zoo, aquarium, art museum, aquatic arena, botanical garden, natural history museum and research institute,” Ivanyi remarked. The Desert Museum is one of the most well-respected zoological institutions in the world and Ivanyi has kept it cutting edge and innovative. Here is his story.

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Ivanyi has spent his entire career at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. “When I studied ecology at the University of Arizona, I connected with the herpetology curator at the Desert Museum and asked if I could volunteer,” he recalled. “The only animal position accepting volunteers was herpetology. Not long after being there I grew to have great appreciation for that group of animals.” Even though he had no intention of working in zoos, Ivanyi soon ended up working at the Desert Museum and never left. "I never planned to work in zoos- I wanted to be a wildlife biologist," he stated. Starting at the Desert Museum opened my eyes to zoos as a career. It wasn’t until after 12 years of working there that it occurred to me it was a career.”

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When Ivanyi came to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, it was in the process of a major expansion, the Mountain Habitat exhibit. Opened in 1986, this immersive complex featured mountain lions, black bears, Mexican wolves, deer and other animals native to the mountains in the desert. “Beforehand, the mountain lions and bears were in traditional chain link concrete enclosures but now they had naturalistic habitats,” Ivanyi said. It was only a preview of what was going to come later. “As much as it had this open air, natural landscape exhibit approach, we still had a traditional mindset in the way exhibits were interpreted,” Ivanyi elaborated. “The Mountain Habitat made it a much more naturalistic, interesting and enriched space for those animals but didn’t take advantage of things outside of birds and mammals. You wouldn’t find a reptile, amphibian, fish or invertebrate. That [mindset] changed when David Hancocks came in [in 1989].”

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Renowned for helping pioneer the concept of immersive habitats during his time at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Hancocks truly believed zoo exhibits should recreate naturalistic environments as holistically as possible and represent the diversity of life as completely as possible. “David was a landscape architect by training,” Ivanyi noted. “He did a great job at questioning what we do and pushing the boundaries. When he started I was a keeper in the reptile department but was Collections Manager for Reptiles and Amphibians when he left.”

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Hancocks took the exhibitry of the Museum to the next level. “David Hancocks developed new plans and the next exhibit that opened was the Desert Grasslands, which took a deeper, more robust approach to exhibitry,” Ivanyi remembered. Among the animals featured included prairie dogs, burrowing owls, snakes, toads and salamanders, but it taught visitors about much more. “It talks about the soils and the different kinds and how different animals process soil,” he continued. “It was really looking at the intersection of those animals with their habitat. We just did a similar thing with our black vultures, turkey vultures and caracara where we made it much of a deeper habitat approach than something that was merely an attractive landscape.”

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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum would end up winning the AZA Exhibit Award for Desert Loop Trail, which featured javelinas and coyotes in state-of-the-art environments. Vital to its success was Ken Stockton, Director of Design and Planning brought in by Hancocks. “[Ken and David] were really about getting barriers out of your face,” Ivanyi explained. “Ken envisioned the mesh that became known as Invisinet. He used it as a way to contain animals without it being obvious they were contained. The javelina and coyote habitats all use that.”

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After Hancocks left, Ivanyi continued to rise in the organization, going to the positions of curator, general curator and assistant director. “I’ve had eleven different positions at the museum and had the ability and knowledge to advance through the organization,” he said. In 2010, he was selected as Executive Director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. “I never planned on being Executive Director, but I was in the right place at the right time,” he elaborated. “The longer and further you go in this business, the farther away you get from the things that brought you into this business. As director, you spend your time with donors, projects and HR. However, as director, you can have a greater impact on the institution.”

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Ivanyi became Executive Director during the height of a recession so he needed to find other ways to generate revenue and expand the audience of the museum. “We had lost a lot of tourism so we recognized we had to do programs that attracted locals,” he remarked. “We looked for more interactive exhibitry, the growth of our art institute and launching a new capital campaign. We also looked for [financial] sustainability- rebuilding reserves and being less dependent on philanthropy for the operating budget.” Despite the recession, the Desert Museum kept robust attendance and continued to do well.

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One of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s most unique features is its Art Institute. “The Art Institute is a fully endowed program,” Craig Ivanyi explained. “We had a lady come down from Colorado who wanted to start an art institute to teach conservation through art. It started with one class while twenty years later we have 650 students taking 100 classes. It’s an amazing program and I don’t think many people would have anticipated the growth we’ve seen. We look at the program as having three different elements- classes, gallery displays and our traveling exhibit. Our traveling exhibit helps us expand the reach of the museum and send what we have to offer outside of our region.”

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“We’re in the process of constructing a two-story building for the Art Institute,” Ivanyi continued. “One of the things that’s most amazing is we have people come out wanting to learn how to draw and paint and then come to the point where they have a deeper appreciation for the natural environment. We did surveys and over 90% of our students said they came to refine their artistic ability but they learned all about the rich region we have and looked at how people impact environments. [The program] has a really strong, deep impact on how people see the desert.”

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While there are no elephants, primates, lions, tigers, giraffes or other exotic animals at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, its focus on the Sonoran Desert allows it to provide an entirely different and compelling experience. “When it comes to the challenges and strengths of being a regional organization, you can ask how compelling can it be to see what’s in your backyard but the reality is when you’re out there [in the wild], you’re probably not going to see many of the animals we have on display,” Ivanyi remarked. “They’re seeing things they know are there but don’t see. For a traditional zoo, megafauna are the major draws so it says a lot that people are interested in things actually in their backyard.” The focus also allows the Desert Museum to be more comprehensive and representative of an ecosystem and its diversity of life in a manner traditional zoos could never be. “We go into incredible detail and have things no one else has,” Ivanyi added. “I have 15-20 lizards just from one region.”

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Another asset Ivanyi saw in the Desert Museum is its local wildlife is actually exotic in the eyes of many. “We benefit without question from Tucson being a tourist destination,” he explained. “You have to remember most people have been to traditional zoos so to some degree they might lose their appeal. When people come here from other countries, it’s exotic. I’ll never forget a guy from Europe walking around looking at this landscape and saying oh my god this is an alien landscape. I’ve been involved with a book called The Ark and Beyond and the chapter I helped write focuses on the strength of regional organizations and how complementary they can be. They can allow us to facilitate a lot more conservation work and give people something different to look at.”

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“I’m not telling you to get rid of lions, tigers and bears; What I’m saying is what might help step out of the norm is having local animals,” Craig Ivanyi concluded. “You can highlight what’s special about your region, which gives pride to the people who live there and can distinguish yourself from the norm. You can show them what no one else has in a local environment where you can do something different.”

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One of Ivanyi’s most significant actions as Executive Director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was working with the Museum’s former Executive Director, Robert Edison, to launch a capital campaign “with the primary goal of rebuilding our economic reserves and growing its endowment.” “Lots of people will donate when there’s something you can physically see and touch,” he noted. “It’s a lot harder to get money to stick in the bank.” The capital campaign has let the Desert Museum continue to create new projects. “This allowed us to do Vulture Culture, which talks about nature’s sanitary engineers,” Ivanyi stated. “The Art Institute expansion is also part of that.”

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The most bizarre project coming up is a packrat exhibit. “We’re building another exhibit on packrats. It’s going to be a highly engaged learning experience where you go into a man-built environment that simulates a packrat nest,” Craig Ivanyi elaborated. “You’ll be able to climb up through prickly pear and cholla cactus, along with nets simulating spider webs. It’ll give a glimpse into the life of a packrat and show the value of packrats. Most adult [humans] think of a packrat as thousands of dollars of damage to their car while kids see them as delightful. We’re going to try to get people to understand that, if they need to eliminate packrats, how they do so is important. If you feel the need to kill a packrat the last thing you should use is poison.”

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Another project coming up will focus on the Sonoran Desert on the Mexico side starring jaguars. “Often people think of just Arizona as the Sonoran Desert but most of it is south of the border,” Ivanyi stated. “[This region] also includes desert grassland and tropical deciduous forest. The jaguar just barely enters Arizona and we are going to develop an exhibit complex that features the jaguar and some other animals [from the Mexico side.] We’d like to relocate the Mexican wolves, too.”

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In 2013, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum opened the Warden Aquarium to talk about the rivers connecting to the seas adjacent to the Sonoran Desert. “The aquarium was something the founders planned on doing but never built,” Ivanyi commented. “We built one that focuses on the connection of Arizona’s rivers to the Sea of Cortez. Two thirds of the fish in our state are threatened and endangered. We did a small-scale aquarium that has a huge story. It gives a sense of diversity to the Desert Museum.”

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Ivanyi pointed out a major priority of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is education. “We’re in our 45th year of our docent program,” he continued. “We have on grounds and off grounds education programs that go to schools and bring zoos to them. Conservation education is at the core of what the museum stands for. Our mission is to get people to care about this environment and make decisions to protect it. There are the programs but also the informal education approach through things like our touch tank that get people to understand the Sea of Cortez as heavily threatened. In it are five species of sea turtles, five whales, the vaquita and over 900 islands. One of the biggest threats to it is [human] seafood consumption so sustainable seafood is an element we try to get people to embrace. We focus a lot of our education on the biodiversity of this region and the threats to it. We also do cultural programs where we look at native peoples and their connections to the desert to explain how people have lived in this region for thousands of years.”

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The Desert Museum’s education programs go hand in hand with its conservation effort. “When you start looking at conservation, we have the benefit of being a regionally focused organization and all of our efforts are in this region,” Ivanyi explained. “There are the traditional field projects like buffel grass control, which stops a highly invasive grass from Africa, which if runs unabated will take over the Sonoran Desert. We’re coordinating research efforts on those strands of grass. We have a long-standing effort with pollinators and we do way stations for butterflies. We also have a whole bunch of applied conservation programs where we’re involved in reintroduction initiatives. Because our region is fairly dry, there are a lot of semiaquatic species that are struggling so we’re asked by federal agencies to hold those animals.”

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“We were one of the first places that bred and championed Mexican wolf reintroductions,” Ivanyi continued. “The presentations we made got the reintroduction voted in. We’ve been involved with Gulf preserves since the 1950s. We’re the reason the Rancho Monte Mojino, in Mexico, got started, which keeps the most northern tracts of tropical deciduous forest intact. We’re also doing captive breeding of different frogs like the Tarahumara frog which disappeared from Arizona in the 1980s. We’ve since helped bring them back to the state.”

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Craig Ivanyi is a big believer zoos need to show concrete evidence positive change is happening because of their efforts. “We have to show conservation is happening because of what we do,” he reflected. “It’s one thing to come to a zoo, it’s another thing to make a different decision because of the knowledge you get from a zoo. We need to show they did something because of what they learned. We need to be able to have surveys that show a year down the road, visiting the Museum impacted their life. If someone went to the Desert Museum and eats sustainable seafood after, that’s a direct conservation outcome because of their visit.”

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"As the director, the mission is the job but you need to have the resources,” Craig Ivanyi concluded. “It’s important we have humility and the willingness to admit when we’re wrong. I look at the museum and always say to people the institution is not about me and I need to surrender my ego to its ego. The people I admire the most are the ones who surrender themselves to the mission and go on to succeed with the mission. If you succeed with the mission, your reputation will benefit. It’s about institutional delivery and figuring out where your organization needs to go to keep its standing. That only happens when you have a really engaged and highly talented team.”

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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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