Celebrating a Life Devoted to Saving Species: A Conversation with the late Dr. Michael Hutchins, for

As the zoo and conservation community mourns the untimely passing of Dr. Michael Hutchins, I thought it would be appropriate to share an interview I conducted with him this past fall. Hutchins was a true warrior for zoo conservation, as evidenced by his influence as William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science for the Association of zoos and Aquariums. Additionally, he wrote and edited over 200 publications including the influential texts Second Nature and Ethics on the Ark, created the AZA’s Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), led the Elephant Planning Initiative, launched the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force and served on the Disney’s Animal Kingdom Advisory Council. Hutchins was a mentor and friend to me and I’m very grateful for his time and generosity. Here is his story.

@ Michael Hutchins

Michael Hutchins’ introduction to the zoo world came when he was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I was studying animal behavior and got to know Helen Freeman (who later started the Snow Leopard Trust) and Jim Foster (veterinarian at Woodland Park Zoo who became a doctor for mountain gorillas in Rwanda)," he recalled. "I helped Helen on her first study of snow leopards in zoos. She was a wonderful person. I also did research on Kiki and Nika, gorillas at the Woodland Park Zoo. They were young animals who had been wild caught.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

At the time, the Woodland Park Zoo was implementing an ambitious master plan based on the concept of immersive habitats, which not only let animals live in a naturalistic setting recreating their environments but also transported guests into the same bioclimatic zone. The zoo’s director was David Hancocks, a landscape designer by training. “David Hancocks was designing the habitats,” Hutchins remarked. “I took him on his first camping trip.” Hancocks brought him on as a research associate. “I worked a summer on exhibits renovations,” Hutchins mentioned. “David had very strong feelings about how exhibits should be and we put in things to make habitats more complex. I put together literature on gorillas to provide information for the architects.” Simultaneously, Hutchins was teaching at the University of Washington and conducting research on rocky mountain goats.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

While on the faculty at Washington, Hutchins began conducting research classes at the Woodland Park Zoo and developed “the first class that used animals at the zoo and quantitative applied behavioral research.” It focused on how to collect data on animal behavior. One of his students was Dr. Jackie Ogden (later Vice President of Animals, Science and Environment for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts), who studied golden monkeys when they were at the zoo in 1985. The discoveries made in the research classes were immense. “We found out the areas primates groom each other are the areas they can’t read [by themselves],” Hutchins remarked. “That’s pretty adaptive. Jill Mellen, Beth Stevens and I turned that course into a workshop called Applying Behavioral Research to Animal Management.”

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In 1985, Michael Hutchinson began a curatorial internship at the Bronx Zoo working with zoo giants General Curator Jim Doherty and Director Dr. Bill Conway. The internship was designed to expose Ph.D. scientists to the hands-on experience that went into animal care. “We got to work as keepers in every area of the zoo with mammals,” Hutchins remembered. “Once we got more experience, we started writing graphics and designing exhibits. When they moved the snow leopards from the Lion House [to Himalayan Highlands], I carried one on each shoulder. [The experience made me] appreciate keepers and the hard work they do.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“I eventually ended up going on rounds with the veterinarians every morning,” Hutchins continued. "Emil Dolensek was an incredible vet and [also] took care of all the horses in the city. One day, we had a dead male giraffe in the truck and had to pop the head down so the kids wouldn’t see it. Another day, to get the gaurs in the truck, we had to make them dizzy and bring them in.”

@ WCS

At Conway’s insistence, Hutchins was hired as Conservation Biologist at the Bronx Zoo after finishing his curatorial internship. “I started to develop a research program, built relationships with the universities and created a manual on research at the Bronx Zoo,” he remarked. “I got keepers and curators more involved in research.” Hutchins’ work facilitated more efficient science and research at the zoo. “If you wanted tissue samples of a tiger, we provided the protocol,” he added.

Dennis Demello @ WCS

Hutchins moved up to the zoo’s coordinator of research, where he conducted several projects. “[For instance,] we documented breeding behaviors in birds of paradise,” he mentioned. While others were intimidated by Bill Conway, Hutchins found the boss easy to work with and credited him as a mentor. “I got along with Conway so well because I was able to defend myself in a detrimental manner,” he laughed. Hutchins grew close with a number of other members of the iconic staff including Jim Doherty and renowned field biologist George Schaller.

@ WCS

Conway was famous for his ability to wine and dine the biggest philanthropists of New York to fund his cutting-edge exhibits. “One of the incredible things about being there was everyone in New York gathered there,” Hutchins recalled. “I met the Rockefellers, Henry Kissinger [and other iconic New Yorkers.} They had a Chase Manhattan IAB in Jungle World (the zoo’s immersive indoor tropical rainforest showcasing the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia) and Conway said he wanted me to be there. I [was asked to take] Lady Astor around Jungle World. There a guy asked me where I went and I said UW. He said, ‘Me too! I’m chair of the Ford Motor Company.’”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

At this time, the New York Zoological Society (which ran the Bronx Zoo) became the Wildlife Conservation Society. It would go on to be one of the most powerful conservation organizations in the world. “They went through the planning process on WCS [to rebrand and reflect a more global focus],” Hutchins explained. At the same time, the Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park Zoos came under the society. “The city asked Bronx to take the city zoos since they were in such bad condition,” Hutchins remarked. “They redesigned and built those zoos.”

@ Michael Hutchins

In 1990, Michael Hutchins was offered the position of Chair of Conservation and Science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “I had a conversation with Conway about the AZA job and he said the position would give me a central post to impact what zoos do and give me more recognition than I would [if I stayed at the Bronx Zoo],” he recalled. “I got hired because I knew something about the history of zoology. I was asked tough questions on zoologists and was the only one who got the answers right.” Hutchins moved to DC and would spend the next fifteen years driving the role of conservation and science in zoos.

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At the same time, Hutchins developed Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), which managed the population of species in accredited zoos and aquariums and which species member institutions focused on. The goal of the TAGs was to ensure zoos focused their efforts in an intentional way and made meaningful contributions to select species rather than insignificant pockets of success with a wide array. “We said we should be thinking about ways to save animals in nature rather than the Noah’s Ark paradigm, which suggested capturing animals for captive breeding,” Hutchins elaborated. “We needed a way to focus on broader taxa and do collection planning. We developed the contraceptive center and population management system to keep populations sustainable. You’ve got to build sustainable populations of animals since you [usually] can’t take them from the wild. Reintroduction is only a last-ditch effort. We talked about the importance of collection management and how flagship species are really important.”

@ Michael Hutchins

Hutchins proposed supporting efforts to save wild animals in their natural habitats become the primary purpose of zoos and aquariums. Meanwhile, breeding efforts in zoos would be focused on providing ambassadors for these insitu efforts. “Captive breeding should not be the whole solution to saving endangered species,” Hutchins articulated. “There must be a stronger connection between zoos and insitu conservation and collection management should be related to larger conservation goals. This [idea] was highly controversial [among some in the zoo community as] we questioned everything they did.”

@ Michael Hutchins

Michael Hutchins hired Brandie Smith, Bob Weise and Kevin Willis to help him promote a stronger conservation agenda for zoos. “We were up every night getting ready for the conferences,” he remembered. “We gave a lot of talks and wrote a lot of papers. The profession was changing and there was a lot of excitement about the future of zoos. We did the AZA Annual Report of Conservation and Science to report what zoos were doing. We began environmental enrichment and started to organize things that would make a difference like the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.”

@ Michael Hutchins

The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force allowed zoos and other conservation organizations to come together and fight against the hunting of African primates for meat. “That got people to realize {bush meat} was a problem in Africa and we got a grant from the World Wildlife Fund to create a curriculum on it for African colleges,” Hutchins stated. “We even did a big event on Capitol Hill [about the bushmeat crisis.]”

@ Michael Hutchins

Another important task for Hutchins and his team was to raise awareness for the conservation work done by zoos. “We got out the word of what zoos were doing to the public through publications,” he stated. “I published a second edition of the Grizmek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, the most popular animal encyclopedia in the world.” Among his most significant publications were Second Nature, which he co-wrote with Dr. Jill Mellen and Dr. David Shepherdson, and Ethics on the Ark, which he co-edited with Dr. Terry Maple, Dr. Beth Stevens and Dr. Brayn Norton. The former focused on the importance of environmental enrichment in zoos while the second featured essays from animal experts discussing and debating the ethical questions related to zoos. “Second Nature and Ethics on the Ark were the beginning of animal welfare being taken seriously in zoos,” Hutchins claimed. Around the same time, Maple started the Animal Welfare Committee in the AZA to put the spotlight on welfare issues.

@ Michael Hutchins

In the 1990s, Hutchins joined the Advisory Council for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a group that brought together many of the most influential zoologists including Bill Conway and Terry Maple. The purpose of the council was to provide guidance to the Walt Disney Company as they built Animal Kingdom and to ensure they did the right thing for animals and wildlife conservation. “Starting before they began building the park, we had regular meetings dozens and dozens of times,” Hutchins recalled. “We would tell them to do and not do things and they listened to us. One really good thing that happened is we got them to become even more invested in conservation and helped [conservation] become part of every aspect of the company. We even impacted how they portrayed animals in their movies and how green their food services and cruise ships were. They took conservation very seriously.”

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The Advisory Council helped propel Animal Kingdom to be a world-class institution with top-notch animal care and extensive contributions to conservation. “We thought innovatively about what Disney’s Animal Kingdom could be,” Hutchins elaborated. “This was the first time a theme park had been integrated with live animals on this scale. They wanted people to learn about animals and did it effectively.” The council continued for several years after the park opened to ensure it maximized its potential impact on conservation.

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One of Hutchins’ most important accomplishments was, alongside Brandie Smith, coordinating the Elephant Planning Initiative. This extensive study has been credited with shaping the fashion in which elephants are managed in zoos. “It looked at the future of elephants in zoos and how to address problems {such as] space, free contact and health,” he added. “We said keeping elephants is a privilege, not a right. I suggested we should maintain elephants in female groups with males around. I was very unpopular with some but was proven right.” The recommendations in the initiative set the course for less zoos having elephants and focusing on building stronger herds in larger spaces in order to boost their mental and psychical health at the zoos that kept them. The AZA has since mandated that every zoo with elephants keeps at least three females or two males.

@ Michael Hutchins

Hutchins took the at-the-time bold stance that elephants should be managed in a protected contact setting. In this management style, a barrier would always be present between elephants and their caretakers and they would be managed exclusively through positive reinforcement and voluntary contact. “I wrote eleven to thirteen articles on elephants that all got published,” he said. “I did an article on the injuries and deaths of keepers because of free contact. Protected contact is a much safer technique.” Again, Hutchins was unpopular with some elephant managers for criticizing free contact but the AZA has since mandated all zoos that keep elephants manage them in a protected contact setting.

@ Disney

Michael Hutchins was also an active member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “I was the coordinator of the committee of conservation for WAZA and we discussed how to work together,” he explained. “We created the World Conservation Strategy about how zoos should do conservation. We said we should take advantage of the millions of zoo visitors to promote global conservation.”

@ Michael Hutchins

In 2005, Hutchins left AZA and the zoo world. “Fifteen years is a long time to do anything,” he reflected. He became the director of the Wildlife Society, which publishes peer reviewed publications. “We did a mentor program in the wildlife profession and started a new book series on wildlife topics,” he recalled. “I organized a lot of wildlife meetings and served on many committees.” In 2013, Hutchins moved to the American Bird Conservancy to work to work on the impact of renewable energy on birds. “We’re trying to change federal and state policies and fight poor winds killing birds and bats,” he remarked. “A third of our birds are in trouble and we’ve got to do wind right.” In the last few years of his life, Hutchins co-founded World Safaris, which provided safaris for zoos, natural history museums and universities to pump money back into zoo conservation programs. Sadly, on January 15, 2018, Michael Hutchins passed away unexpectedly at the age of 66.

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Michael Hutchins left behind a rich legacy having helped zoos become prominent forces in animal welfare, science and conservation. Many of his ideas have helped modern zoos thrive and make a genuine difference. “I’m most proud of the creation of TAGs and legacy of collection planning and thinking of zoo conservation in a broader sense,” Hutchins reflected. “The Elephant Planning Initiative and Bushmeat Crisis Task Force had a big impact on those species. There’s a move towards our vision of what zoos could be.”

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“The potential of zoos is not even close to being reached,” Michael Hutchins concluded. “Zoos need to constantly get better and do a better job telling the public what they do. They’re starting to do that.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Michael Hutchins

#BronxZoo #WoodlandParkZoo

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