Setting Zoos in Motion: A Conversation with Anne Baker, Retired Director of the Rosamond Gifford and

Dr. Anne Baker served as Director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse from 1993 to 2006 and Executive Director/CEO of the Toledo Zoo from 2006 to 2012. Renowned for her excellent leadership, commitment to animal science and sensitive, thoughtful management of staff, she served as the first female president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in over fifty years. Baker helped elevate the stature of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo and brought profound cultural change while at the Toledo Zoo. Since retiring in 2012, she has served as Executive Director of Amphibian Ark. Here is her story.

@ Anne Baker

Anne Baker began her zoo career as a predoctoral fellow at the National Zoo in Washington DC, studying the development of social behavior in primates in Sri Lanka. After receiving her PhD, she became Curator of Primates at the Brookfield Zoo just outside Chicago. At the time, the zoo was led by the late Dr. George Rabb, regarded as one of the most influential figures in the development of the modern zoo. “George Rabb had an incredibly clear vision of what zoos should be,” Baker remarked. “[The Brookfield Zoo] was a very stimulating atmosphere and it was a great time to be there.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Baker came to the zoo soon after the opening of Tropic World, a first-of-its-kind indoor tropical rainforest that mixed different species of primates together in the same space. “The way Tropic World was set up, with mixed-species exhibits of relatively natural groups of social primates, made it a stimulating environment,” she explained. “We mixed several species of primates [according to which continent they were from] with other species including tapirs, otters, pygmy hippos, anteaters and birds. It wasn’t naturalistic [as] the substrates were hard and the trees weren’t real but it was a very social environment. For primates [as social species,] that’s the best form of enrichment.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

Even more impressive than Tropic World was the behavioral husbandry and training work done by Anne Baker’s primate team. “We had one of the very early training programs,” she remarked. “We were fortunate as we had excellent marine mammal trainers [at the Brookfield Zoo who cared for dolphins, seals and sea lions] and brought them over to help us in Tropic World.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

This training allowed the apes to voluntarily participate in their own care. “We had two diabetic orangutans and got them to allow us to test their blood and give them insulin [without being put under anesthesia],” Baker stated. “We had to hand raise two baby gorillas born at the zoo and train them [in order to] integrate them back into the group. We got a two-year old hand raised gorilla and did a lot of training to get her integrated into a social group. Those were some of the first voluntary procedures for primates [in zoos.]”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

In 1993, Anne Baker moved to Syracuse, New York to become Director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, then known as the Burnet Park Zoo. Only a few years earlier, the entire zoo was rebuilt to reflect modern standards. “Rosamond Gifford Zoo was an opportunity,” Baker reflected. “I really felt there was a lot of potential for a smaller zoo in a smaller community to have an impact in conservation education since the zoo was so much of the focus. [It was an opportunity to] get people to think more about the natural world, how they impact it and how they can lessen that impact.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Immediately, Baker started to work hard to make the zoo better for both animals and people. “We tried to expand the revenue generating potential of the zoo, [which would allow us to] do more for conservation,” she commented. One of the first projects was renovating the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s front entrance area, making it the first green building in central New York. “The [entrance] when I got there didn’t allow for good visitor traffic and we needed more space to gather up school groups,” Baker said. “We created a much better entrance with gardens outside containing native species and a flowing pond collecting water from the roof. We also expanded the gift shop and created a facility available for rentals to generate money.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

“We did our own catering, which really helped as that brought in quite a bit of revenue,” Baker remarked. "We started an event called Brew at the Zoo and set up brew stations around the zoo after hours to get adults to come in. That was a good way to expand our audience to young adults who might not come to the zoo otherwise.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Another initiative of Anne Baker and her staff was to strengthen the quantity and quality of the zoo's animal habitats. “We renovated the primate area and made it into more of a rainforest theme,” she recalled. “We did a submarine exhibit that took people back in time and underwater through the cycle of evolution. We thought if we want people to come to the zoo, we should have animals they want to see. We did a survey to see what animals people would like to see and tigers and penguins were among the top five.” As a result, habitats for Amur tigers and Humboldt penguins were added to the zoo’s main loop in 1999 and 2005 respectively.

@ Scott Richardson

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

“Both [tigers and penguins] were part of collaborative breeding programs and the Humboldt penguin SSP (Species Survival Plan) was looking for more institutions to have Humboldt penguins,” Baker remarked. “We had a fair amount of space for tigers and gave them two really nice outdoor habitats. The penguin exhibit had to fit into a certain space but it contained enough space to work [and create an immersive experience.] We started with 18 penguins. The penguins bred their first year in the habitat and now they have over 40.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

Anne Baker helped transform the Rosamond Gifford Zoo into an institution with a stronger focus on animal welfare and conservation. “We highlighted animal welfare as a very important aspect of what we did at the zoo,” she elaborated. “It was at the top of mind at our insistence. You want animals to have good welfare.” The zoo put considerable efforts into saving animals in New York state. “We worked with the Department of Environmental Conservation on amber snails (a highly endangered species) and pond turtles,” Baker said. “We focused on local species. Since there wasn’t a lot of money for conservation, we thought it was most important to concentrate on projects in the community.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Baker became a leader in the zoo field through her involvement with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), especially her time serving as President for a year while at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. She was the first female president of the organization in 50 years. “That was a very interesting time,” Baker reflected. “Elephants [in zoos] were a big topic in the media when I was president. I went to the Animal Welfare Committee [in AZA] and said I want to know what makes a happy elephant. Happy is obviously an anthropomorphic term I used loosely but I wanted to know how we would know if an elephant had good welfare. That was the kernel that got the whole [study of elephant welfare] started. If you look at new elephant exhibits that have been developed, they’ve really relied on that study and paid attention to the findings of that study.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

On a broader scale, Anne Baker attempted to “bring science into the art of animal management” during her time as AZA President. “Animal management is a combination of art and science and needs to be science-based but have an understanding of animals on a very fundamental level,” Baker explained. “That’s something I’ve been very focused on throughout my entire career- using the science, what we know about animal behavior and how animals have evolved- to influence and direct how we manage them.”

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

@ Rosamond Gifford Zoo

In 2006, Anne Baker moved to Ohio to become Director of the Toledo Zoo. While her predecessor Bill Dennler had transformed the urban zoo into a world-class facility with over one million visitors a year, the zoo had entered a state of turmoil after he left. “There was a lot of animosity between different camps in the zoo,” Baker recalled. “Things had gone on that really divided people in opinion. They needed to get past that, come together and work as a collaborative unit again.”

@ Toledo Zoo

Baker had the leadership, sensitivity and team-building mindset to resolve these tensions. “When I was in Syracuse, I had done work with the Center for Conflict Resolution and served as a trainer there,” she remarked. “One of the first things I did [at Toledo] was go around and listen to people. I talked to every single group with and without their supervisor to understand how they felt and to let them to know they were heard and we could work together to solve the issues. We did a culture survey [when I first got there] that showed we had significant issues with the zoo’s culture. We repeated the survey again two years later and things had improved dramatically. We worked with a faculty member at the University of Bowling Green to administer and monitor both surveys and they were amazed with the progress we made.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

The Toledo Zoo continued to rely on passing tax levies to support capital projects, a model started by Bill Dennler. “When I arrived, the zoo had been in the papers a lot and people weren’t happy with it so the first capital levy failed,” Anne Baker stated. “We came back six months later and passed the levy, which took a lot of work, being out in the community and helping people feel comfortable with the zoo again. That allowed us to work on three major projects- Nature’s Neighborhood (a children’s zoo), Tembo Trail (renovation and expansion of the zoo’s elephant facilities) and the renovation of the Aquarium.” The projects opened in 2010, 2012 and 2014 respectively. The levy also allowed staff to address a number of deferred maintenance issues. Levy money was augmented by an extensive capital campaign. “I got some good information from Bill Dennler about the fundraising side of the zoo,” Baker said.

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

“Nature’s Neighborhood, which won the AZA Exhibit Award, was a really innovative, different kind of Children’s Zoo,” Baker commented. “Many Children’s Zoos used to just be a farm in the zoo. Our goal with Nature’s Neighborhood was to get children to think about nature and we did this using the concept of nature play.”

@ Toledo Zoo

Nature’s Neighborhood took interactive experiences and nature play to the next level. “We had a stream we encouraged children to play in,” Baker added. “[We did] a climbing wall where kids could climb and watch goats climbing next to them. We had lots of opportunities for parallel play where kids did the same activities the animals did [in order to] get them to see the world through the animal’s eyes. A lot of kids these days aren’t having experiences out in the woods so we tried to creates some of those experiences.”

@ Toledo Zoo

Tembo Trail allowed the Toledo Zoo to continue to have African elephants and manage them in a modern fashion. “We really expanded the elephant area and let guests have indoor viewing of the elephants for the first time,” Anne Baker commented. “When guests are in the indoor area, they can be surrounded by elephants on three sides. [The new exhibit] let us create a better management facility so the keepers could manage the elephants safely. It’s a space that has tremendous opportunities for enrichment.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

Anne Baker’s last project at the Toledo Zoo was the Aquarium, which opened after she left. “The aquarium was a really old, 1930s WPA building,” she explained. “It had very small tanks so we replaced a space that had been for people with a big tank which people could walk around. [We gave the tanks] a much more naturalistic feel. We got rid of the little tiny box exhibits and made some big tanks with better visitor viewing experiences. We put in a touch tank so kids could have experiences with animals. We really modernized the aquarium.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

One of Baker’s initiatives at the Toledo Zoo was to make the zoo’s staff and audience more racially diverse. “We increased diversity, striving to reflect the diversity in the Toledo area,” she said. “We focused on increasing diversity of staff and reached out to diverse communities. We welcomed them and let them know we valued their involvement with the zoo."

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

Additionally, the zoo grew significantly in terms of conservation impact. “We really worked hard on conservation programs,” Anne Baker commented. “One of the things we did was build a butterfly house that included a major breeding facility for Karner blue butterflies. For a number of years, the Toledo Zoo had been working with a variety of partners on a reintroduction program for the Karner blue. We wanted to highlight this program and engage visitors in butterfly conservation. We also were very involved in the Kihansi spray toad program. They had become extinct in Tanzania and we happened to have a number of the toads. The incredible staff in the herp department figured out how to breed them and shared our knowledge with the Bronx Zoo. Between the two zoos, we were able to build a large captive population and eventually return them to their natural habitat. We also continued conservation efforts in Aruba and in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

While at the Toledo Zoo, Baker and the zoo’s Director of Behavioral Enrichment and Training became very involved in the Elephant Welfare Project, the study that came from Baker’s time as AZA Chair. The project was the recipient of a million-dollar Institute of Museum and Library Services grant and involved 94% of AZA facilities with elephants. “It was a study that essentially asked the elephants how they thought we were doing with their care and welfare,” Baker recalled. “One interesting thing that came out of the study was it wasn’t so much space for the elephants but what was in that space that mattered. Also, the opportunity to have multiple social interactions was very important.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

Anne Baker and her team concentrated on elevating animal welfare at the zoo and giving more opportunities for professional development. “Toledo has someone whose sole job was to pay attention to animal welfare and ensure we had good enrichment and training programs,” she remarked. “Toledo has done an incredible job with training animals to accept injections and shots without immobilizing them. We had a lot of opportunities for staff to attend meetings and trainings. If there was training we felt was beneficial, we would support it.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

The zoo also began to become more transparent in its messaging and outreach to the public. “My philosophy has always been if you can’t tell anyone and everyone what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it,” Baker claimed. “That’s how we operated at the Toledo Zoo. We also made an effort to bring technology into the zoo- do QR codes for phones, develop the Facebook page and have some animals ‘develop’ their own blogs to connect us better.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

At the end of 2012, Anne Baker retired from the Toledo Zoo. “I decided it was time to retire as I felt we had a lot of things in motion,” she reflected. “We passed the levies and built Tembo Trail and Nature’s Neighborhood. The zoo was in good financial shape, the staff was pretty happy and I felt it was time to leave. I could hand the zoo over to someone else who’d have new directions and start with a zoo in good shape.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

“Zoos are going to continue to evolve in their engagement with conservation,” Anne Baker reflected. “People don’t want zoos just to be simply places to see animals. When they understand the conservation mission of zoos, they become much more positive. It is imperative for zoos to do everything they can to promote conservation of animals in the wild. We know parents expect their kids will learn when they come to the zoo and we want children to learn more than just elephants are big and gray. We want them to learn about animals in the wild and what’s happening to them.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

“A father told us when we were working on a levy campaign that they watched Animal Planet and programs about animals on TV but when they came to the zoo it made it all real,” Baker continued. “Zoos are a way for people to really connect and care about something. Our mission at the zoo was getting people to care about animals and inspiring them to act on behalf of animals.”

@ Toledo Zoo

@ Toledo Zoo

“I’m really proud of helping, along with a number of my zoo colleagues, to bring the focus on science in zoos,” Anne Baker concluded. “That’s the medium I grew up with at the Brookfield and National Zoos where we really brought science into how we managed animals. I’m also really proud of the elephant study, the culture change at the Toledo Zoo and leaving both the zoos in Syracuse and Toledo well-positioned to continue to advance. I went back to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo not long ago and Ted Fox (the zoo’s current director) has done a phenomenal job. The zoo is just shining and to see him take the zoo to the next level is really rewarding. I feel really good about the people I’ve worked with going on and becoming zoo directors or advancing their careers in other areas.”

@ Toledo Zoo

#ToledoZoo #RosamondGiffordZoo #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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