Caring: A Conversation with Stuart Strahl, President and CEO of the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Zoolo

Dr. Stuart Strahl’s love of nature began at a young age. "I was born on Manhattan within a few blocks of Central Park, where my mother took me on frequent walks,” he remembered. “She told me that I always loved animals, from pigeons to squirrels. Mud puddles and the Central Park Zoo (which was a quite dismal zoo at the time) were my favorites, and my mother found it easier to clean up after a zoo outing. Some of my earliest memories stem from those times. Luckily, my parents moved us to the suburb of Pelham when I was two years old. My brother and I grew up exploring the old-growth forests of Pelham Bay Park, fishing the shores of Long Island Sound, and building rafts to catch frogs on a ½-acre wooded spring-fed pond, all within a mile of our home - it seems that we were always outdoors, 'on safari' and exploring nature.” Visits to his grandparents' farm along a tributary of the Wye River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland also added to his sense of wonder about the natural world.

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More importantly, Dr. William Conway, legendary director of the New York Zoological Society (and often considered the best zoo director of all time), moved next door to the Strahl family when Stuart was nine. “Bill Conway and his wife became good friends with my parents, and he had a huge impact on my life,” Strahl reflected. “He regaled my brother and I with his exploits from studying flamingos in the high Andes of Bolivia and Chile, to the vistas of the Serengeti Plains, and the wildlife spectacles along the coast of Patagonia. Bill introduced us to books by William Beebe (a field biologist for the New York Zoological Society from 1895 to 1962), who wrote astounding tales about his expeditions to the Amazon, the ocean depths off Bermuda and studies of pheasants in the Himalayas.”

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It was one of those many Beebe volumes, Jungle Peace (written in 1917), that introduced Strahl to the strange bird that became the subject of his Ph.D. Dissertation - the Hoatzin, a large cuckoo-like bird that nests over swamps in lowland South America. Beebe documented that this bird had claws on its wings like Archaeopteryx, ate leaves and likely had a digestive system like a cow. But it was Conway's influence that prompted him to became a field biologist. "I started down the path of field studies when I was very young, always with Bill's encouragement," Strahl says. "When I took a year off of graduate school and was ready to return, he said, 'Now don't forget about your friend the Hoatzin, Stu!' I had no idea how he remembered that, and was equally unprepared for the professional journey that would follow."

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After three years of research on this species in Venezuela, partially funded by the "Animal Research and Conservation" program of the New York Zoological Society, Strahl was invited in 1984 to apply for a postdoctoral fellow position with the international division of the Society to begin focused conservation work in Venezuela. A year later, he was hired as a full-time Associate Field Biologist based out of Caracas.

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"For a young field biologist it was a huge opportunity," Strahl said, "The Society's goal was to grow field-based conservation initiatives in the region working on-the-ground with young professionals as NYZS was evolving into the Wildlife Conservation Society. My pregnant wife and I moved to Caracas in 1984 with our $10,000/year NYZS post-doc stipend. Six years later I was running the Tropical Americas program for WCS."

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"The biggest change in my career came in South America,” Strahl elaborated. “Living in-country, I was able to explore remote areas and census threatened species while also teaching at a local university. I realized very quickly that although many international conservation organizations were beginning to invest heavily in South America, there were no graduate programs for conservation in the region. This created a huge gap in human capital, and it was clear that training people to do my job in conservation science would ensure continuity and sustainability of NYZS programs, whether those students pursued governmental, academic or field careers. Achieving that was the most fundamental theme that altered the course of my career from just field work to engaging people - especially young professionals.”

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Bill Conway's vision to expand NYZS international field operations on a regional basis in the 1980's was also timely, Strahl said, as it allowed each program to grow in a manner that was focused on national and regional priorities: "In my office I have a photo of the 'Wildlife Conservation International' team at a retreat in South Carolina in 1988,” he recalled. “It was quite an experience to be surrounded by legendary field conservationists such as Drs. George Schaller, David 'Jonah' Western, Bill Conway, Amy Vedder and Bill Weber, Alan Rabinowitz and others. Dr. Schaller was a particularly famous to all of us at WCS. After all, he had studied dozens of charismatic umbrella species, authored a multitude of books and hundreds of scientific papers. George remains a model field scientist whose work has saved many species - and continues to do so. At a meeting George once asked me what the 'vision' for our Latin American program. I said our vision was building human capital to ensure conservation is sustainable."

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"WCS has evolved and grown dramatically since that time, but I remain very proud of the work of the hundreds of professionals who came up through our training initiatives in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and so forth, many of whom now have senior public and private positions in conservation,” Strahl said. During his time at WCS, this helped set the stage for later accomplishments of the Latin American Program by his successor, Dr. Alejandro Grajal, now CEO of the Woodland Park Zoo.

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In 1992, following a series of family deaths and health issues, Strahl left WCS to convert his grandparents’ farm into one of the first "Audubon Centers" in the country (as a side-note, this is one of the achievements of which he is most proud.) After four years on the Eastern Shore, National Audubon Society offered him a position to direct their comprehensive Everglades program. “It absolutely reinforced my thoughts that training professionals and building constituencies around objective science can change the course of conservation,” he stated. “The main issue was to help ensure the push to restore the massive Everglades ecosystem was ecologically sustainable, and that it had broad political and public support from all sectors in Florida and Washington. It was Public Policy 101 mixed with graduate courses in Environmental Science and Restoration Ecology. Economically, there were $20 billion a year at risk in outdoor recreation, ecotourism and conservation-related incentives to restore the ecosystem in addition to the ecological benefits to nature and water supply.”

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Strahl strongly believes a focus on people is as vital to conservation efforts as the more popular focus on animals. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of engaging the public to help them internalize conservation issues. “I became involved in environmental issues back in the 1960s when conservation was a common cause in this country," he elaborated. "Advocates for environmental justice and environmental science worked together to pass the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970's. Unfortunately, that sort of broad collaboration is rare nowadays, and as a result many environmental issues have been labeled as "special interests" instead of common causes. We’re seeing that play out in this country right now as the Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental entities are being taken apart by those who would profit from deregulation. Where is the inclusive public response and public scrutiny?"

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Strahl also contends that urbanization of America has resulted in the irrelevance of nature to many, "Most Americans live in highly urbanized areas with limited access or interaction with wildlife and nature," he explained. "We are less scientifically literate than most developed nations, and our current level of environmental awareness has been twisted by political 'science.' What does that mean? Well, the average Brazilian is twice as literate about the threats of anthropogenic global warming as the average American. It is clear changing the attitudes of America’s voting public is the one of the most pressing needs to this crisis and many others."

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Working in Florida, Stuart Strahl’s passion had become “creating conservation leaders” - people who are more aware, articulate and convincing about conservation issues than their peers - across broad constituencies. "We worked with Audubon Chapters, leaders in the environmental, business and agricultural communities, inner-city communities of color, governmental agencies and many others the to 'mainstream' the concepts and benefits of restoring the Everglades," he stated. "We were able to get over 98% of our conservation science priorities into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan with everyone's help,” he remarked. “The business community was key - they saw the opportunity through Everglades restoration to also sustain the $20 billion ecotourism industry in South Florida, while also creating a more sustainable supply of fresh water. We also helped to design a 'clean' Everglades Restoration Bill in Congress that passed 312-2 in the House and 85-1 in the Senate.”

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In 2003 a search firm recommended that Stuart consider the CEO position at Chicago Zoological Society, which runs the Brookfield Zoo. CZS was looking for a leader to replace the legendary Dr. George Rabb, whose 44-year tenure at that institution included serving as CEO from 1976 to 2003 and Chairman of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union. Rabb and Strahl had collaborated in the 1988-1992 period when Stuart was a Specialist Group Chair under the SSC umbrella. As he looked more deeply into CZS, he became intrigued.

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“While reading copious material in preparation for my first major interview, things began to fall in place,” Strahl recalled. “There was an annual report from 2001 with the title 'Caring.' That was the moment - I was reading that report late the night before catching a plane to Chicago, and it convinced me that CZS was focused on change. Reading George Rabb’s writings about how conservation started with getting people to care about animals, and that the Zoo’s role was to transform those feelings into active caring for wildlife and nature. The Society was operating under those principles, and so was I.”

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In 2003, Stuart Strahl become President and CEO of the Brookfield Zoo. The new role fit the conservationist’s philosophies well. “I’m very focused on international conservation but also what’s happening in the major populations of the U.S.,” Strahl explained. “Eighty-seven percent of Americans live in highly urbanized areas. Wildlife refuges and national parks and forest reserves aren’t accessible to where those people live. In many cases a few miles can be a vast gulf for inner-city residents. Increasingly, though, urban centers are making decisions for America at the voting booth, and the people who are going to make those decisions are increasingly diverse and urbanized.”

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“There is no major national organization with the potential to reach over 100 million urban residents in wildlife education or engage them to become conservation leaders," Strahl articulated. "However, nearly 200 million people per year visit aquariums and zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums years every year,” Strahl continued, “Studies published in peer-reviews scientific journals credit these institutions and science museums as providing the super-majority of STEM learning in this country. Imagine the powerful change if those visits all became transformative experiences that created conservation leaders, reaching into highly urban communities and creating conservation-related job opportunities and careers. That's a huge opportunity for AZA nationally and for accredited zoos in every urban center.”

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With that in mind, Stuart Strahl set out to build upon the programs forged by George Rabb. “Dr. Rabb fathered many outstanding innovations - the first zoo nutrition program, first behavioral endocrinology program, first teaching zoo hospital linking up with veterinary residencies, conservation psychology, and so much more,” he remarked. “It was a matter of taking the best parts of those, testing their effect on a quantitative basis and finding out how to implement them on a broader scale.”

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As the Chicago Zoological Society examined where to go in the future, the number one area it focused on was animal welfare programs. In 2008, the zoo established the Center of Science for Animal Care and Welfare, which conducts cutting edge research on animal behavior and well-being. This has led to the zoo being an international leader in the subject. “We looked at our guest surveys, and people were more open to learning when they enjoyed family time and saw animals that were active and in a ‘good welfare state,'" Strahl elaborated. "We had always been a leader in the science of animal care and well-being but we have dramatically increased our programs in the science of animal welfare to enhance the mental and physical welfare of species over the past decade. How do we collaborate with others to anticipate of the next steps in improving the well-being of animals under professional care? We’ve integrated that with conservation research on animal welfare science here and around the world, and have just hosted the third annual international symposium on this subject, once again attracting over 100 scientists and advocates from around the world.”

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Related to caring for animals in the wild, Strahl has also worked to increase the zoo’s international conservation efforts. The zoo supports a number of field scientists working to save species in home range countries. One of the Society’s premier conservation programs is the Sarasota Bottlenose Dolphin Project, based in Florida. “Dr. Randy Wells has studied bottlenose dolphins in the wild for 48 years,” Strahl commented. “It’s the longest running study of any marine mammal with thousands of dolphins identified. He’s now the world leader on bottlenose dolphin conservation." The project ties in with the zoo’s long history with dolphins, as it was the first facility in the Midwest to have them on exhibit.

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One of the largest steps CZS has taken for conservation was the development of the Vortex computer model in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution back in the 1980s. “Vortex is a predictive model that uses a species’ genetics, demography and environmental factors over time to help conservationists develop a a methodology to save that species,” Strahl explained. “It is in use worldwide by Specialist Groups of the World Conservation Union.”

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“The two principal authors of this model, Drs Bob Lacy of CZS and Jon Ballou of the Smithsonian, felt that we needed to update the Vortex model and put in more complex variables such as human population growth, threats of bushmeat trade, climate change, disease and so forth," Strahl added. "After we found many partners and raised the funds for that project through grants and private funding. The re-write has brought dozens of worldwide experts together to author and integrate multi-variate approaches to species survival both in-situ and ex-situ. This will revolutionize conservation."

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The second area of focus for the Chicago Zoological Society became 'conservation leadership' - now core to the CZS mission – which coalesces all areas related to engaging people under the "Center for Conservation Leadership." Under the direction of Dr. Alejandro Grajal from 2005 to 2016, this Center grew programs nation-wide. The old Reptile House has been transformed into the Mary Anne MacLean Conservation Leadership Center, which houses an integrated team that engages teachers, schoolchildren, teens and communities in valuing and caring for the natural world. Additionally, the Brookfield Zoo launched the first trademarked career track for nature play education (‘Natrestart”) in during Strahl’s tenure.

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Inside the zoo, Strahl and his staff have built on George Rabb’s concepts behind getting people to care through up-close encounters with animals and connections with CZS professional staff. “We focus our interpretive signage, staff presentations and keeper chats on engaging people through empathy, then providing opportunities for them to take action,” he elaborated. “This was the concept of Great Bear Wilderness. As people go through the exhibit, they are drawn into the conservation stories of large, charismatic species of North America: Bison (America's National Mammal), Bald Eagles, Mexican Gray Wolves, Grizzly Bears and Polar Bears. For instance, our guests learn the endangered status of polar bears and the effects of climate change in the arctic, and then see a sign saying ‘You can help. Here’s what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.’”

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“In addition, guests hear about the expert partners who work in the field, and specific steps that are being taken,” Strahl continued. “Our guests also learn how Bald Eagles were brought back from the brink of extinction in Illinois, and how the Bison is being re-introduced to the Northern Plains and elsewhere, and that there is a plan to recover the Grizzly and Mexican Wolves. This is important, because visualizing success in conservation is fundamental to people's interest in taking action. Everyone is given a clear opportunity to take action on their own, or they can donate to the Society's 'Animal Care and Conservation Fund,' which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for programs at the zoo and around the world.

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People are at the core of conservation, and CZS has also done significant work in increasing its professional development of staff and nurturing collaboration among them. “Keepers are passionate about animals - it’s not merely a profession, it's a calling,” Stuart Strahl said, “and they are part of a continuum of animal care professionals and support staff, all of whom care deeply about our mission. We’ve also expanded zoo vet initiative and have several different tracks. We have the only Zoo Vet Radiologist in the country, and she reads radiology scans from all around the world.”

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The Brookfield Zoo has been thinking deeply about how it should move into the future. “We’ve restructured our board around four areas,” Strahl reflected. “The first one is redoing the zoo and what the zoo itself is going to look like to appeal to an evolving public perception of wildlife and nature. The second is how will we reach the public out in the community. Our biggest challenge is reaching out to the community and saying ‘What does conservation mean to you.’ My first hire, Dr. Jo-Elle Mogerman, a dynamic woman from the south side of Chicago, spear-headed our efforts to engage people in some of the most under-served neighborhoods to help find pathways to careers and training, but starting from where residents feel is most appropriate."

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"A big part of rebuilding the zoo is becoming relevant to the communities we serve and forging pathways from early childhood,” Strahl explained. “As a result of these efforts, we draw more than 60% of our non-member visitor base from communities of color (up from 25% 15 years ago). Our King Conservation Scholars program for engaging teens in science, education and community service has grown from 20 to 275 participants and is quite diverse. Of those young people, 65% people are from inner city communities of color, and 95% of those Scholars go on to career pathways in college."

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But Strahl points out that inclusion must be a core institutional movement to foster relevancy. "Last year 60% of my hires were of color, and we are also measuring diversity of our vendors and contractors," he said. “How will the zoo feel in the future and how can we document change in the awareness and actions as they transform into conservation leaders? In keeping with that, the most recent field of focus for the Chicago Zoological Society is social innovation. We are adept in developing broad public-private partnerships that promote positive solutions for social, environmental and educational issues. The Chicago Zoological Society is fully committed to growing as a leader in turning people, no matter where they come from, into the conservation leaders of tomorrow, and to defining the partnership opportunities by which we become more relevant to the needs of the communities we serve. In a time of conflict and strife in America, we see this as fundamental to the future of zoos in urbanized areas, and we know that we can make a huge difference."

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Strahl sees zoos as centers of learning, science and engagement. “People have a natural affinity for animals, and have positive endorphin responses (serotonin and oxytocin release) when they have animal experiences. We are the portal to wildlife, nature and learning for millions of urban residents, and conservation psychology is the key to moving them towards active engagement, and we do that well. Could you imagine if all AZA institutions could turn tens of millions of members and 200 million guests into conservation leaders among their peers? Hmmmm…good question!”

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