Architect of Animal Experiences: A Conversation with Gerry Creighton, Operations Manager, Animals an

Dublin Zoo has evolved into a leader in animal wellness and modernization among European zoos. Having its origins in 1831 as a Victorian zoo, many enclosures were extremely dated and in desperate need of help when Gerry Creighton started working as a member of the Animal Care Team in 1985. “The Irish government stepped in during the 1990s and gave us financial support and provision of additional land in Phoenix Park” Creighton recalled. “Now, it’s one of the most progressive zoos in Europe. We have very high standards of animal care and our habitats are some of the finest you’ll see. The people of Ireland have taken the zoo to their hearts [as] they appreciate these habitats where the animals can express specific species behaviors. We have reached 1.2 million visitors per year, with the population of Ireland less than five million. The zoo is a real part of Irish society.”

@ Gerry Creighton

“The core behind what we do is animal wellness,” Creighton elaborated. “We go back to nature for design and inspiration. We look back to how these animals live in the wild. The gorilla habitat, for example, has 15,000 plants, comprising 200 species, all edible for the gorillas and they’ll forage daily throughout the year on the varieties that are in bloom. They have several 50 to 70 foot natural tall trees, like Oak trees, that were incorporated into the initial habitat design that they climb and play on. They’ll act like wild gorillas. It really represents this species, their biological needs and how they function socially, emotionally and physically. People see the value [of our zoo] and there’s no stone left unturned on animal wellness.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Gerry Creighton

Vital to the success of Dublin Zoo has been its TV series, The Zoo. “Our director , Leo Oosterweghel, decided it was time to have a TV show [that was] an honest account of zoo life,” Gerry Creighton explained. “People describe it as an emotional rollercoaster. You see births, deaths, trials, tribulations and whatever happens. It’s such an open, transparent and ethically right way of approaching it. One of the real tests for me during production of the show was a decision made regarding the zoos very old lioness, Sheila, whose euthanasia procedure was filmed on the show. We explained how her quality of life was being challenged. We got thousands upon thousands of emails asking if the keepers were okay. [That shows how] we educate guests about the decisions we have to make.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Dublin Zoo is world-renowned for its Asian elephant program, having had eight births in the last decade. As elephant manager, Gerry Creighton has steered the program as it’s evolved from an old school, free contact management system to a progressive, protected contact management system focused exclusively on positives. “Prior to eleven years ago, I had managed our elephants in a free contact system. Then we had two old elephants in a 1950s house plagued with husbandry and structural problems,” he recalled. “I suggested that in order to improve wellness, management styles needed to change. We needed to allow them to just be elephants, get a multigenerational herd and have behaviors learned from one generation to the next. The modern elephant keeper is now an external architect for the habitat of the herd, one who constantly changes the topography and creates a whole new environment and experience every day, without inserting themselves into the herd as a dominant force.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

The animal care staff at Dublin Zoo began taking a step away from the elephants, threw out the bullhooks and gave them freedom to exhibit the full spectrum of natural behaviors with the opening of the Kaziranga Forest Trail in 2007. “We made a solid habitat for the elephants allowing them to express the behaviors of a herd of elephants,” Creighton stated. “We just give them what they need to do what they need to do.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Even more important to elephants in human care than space is the quality of that space. “Space is a wonderful thing but first it’s about quality of life,” Gerry Creighton reflected. “It’s how the elephants utilize the space. We’ve created a habitat with rotational feeding hoists, sand pillows for them to sleep on and a sand floor up to seven feet deep. We have a cohesive family group and a situation where we never close a door between separating a mother and calf. We just borrow a few moments of their life to inspect and train them for veterinary access and foot care, but the herd can always come together in a couple of seconds if needed. Training begins for the younger calves around at 7-8months old with its main emphasis on detection and prevention of EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes virus), a deadly strain of the Herpes virus that can be fatal to both Asian and African calves in the wild and in human care. Cohesion of the group is of utmost importance- it’s how they behave and operate. They need to be together. The young bulls are in the presence of the breeding bull when the females are in estrus and when matings occur as these are the sights, sounds, smells and hormonal responses that are required to teach these young bulls the behaviors required to be successful bulls and breeders. These important herd moments act as an investment for the future, giving the young elephants the skills they can use later in life. We allow them the choice, opportunity and control to experience these events and learn from them.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Creighton and his team use science and cutting-edge animal wellness knowledge to support their approach. “We’ve backed it up with real science to show how well these elephants can live in human care under the right circumstances,” he remarked. “Our elephants sleeping patterns are comparable to those in the wild and from studying our herds dynamics at night we know which elephants are sleeping together, which bonds are the strongest. This allows us to make informed decisions based on mirco groupings or sub herd formations when considering external moves to facilitate the global breeding program. The elephants have an endless supply of browse and feed like wild elephants, which is distributed in varying methods around the indoor and outdoor habitat. This allows the natural ‘resource movement’ feeding pattern associated with wild herds. We have also carried out a locomotion study which showed us that our elephants move around their habitat in similar patterns and distances comparable to wild elephants. They cover approximately 10 to 12 miles a day. We are showing the world that elephants have a future in situations where we allow them to live and behave like elephants. They have all these opportunities and only just drift in during the morning to do our care. There’s no need for structural routines and there’s no standing around waiting for something to happen. It’s a remarkable journey our zoo has been on.”

@ Gerry Creighton

@ Gerry Creighton

While the zoo is progressive today, Gerry Creighton knew the zoo when it was a totally different institution. “My father was a lion keeper and then Curator of Mammals,” he recalled. “I’ve been at the zoo as long as I can remember. They had a place called the Pets Corner where keepers’ kids would learn. At 16, I was given the post of trainee keeper and worked primarily with big cats and elephants. I worked free contact with elephants for many years before we decided to reinvent how we kept elephants in our zoos. We brought in Alan Roocroft, elephant specialist and consultant and together with Paul O’Donoghue , Assistant to the Director, put a plan together to create a program that would essentially draw a line in the sand and leave the past where it belonged. This modern proactive protected contact program would center on an elephants biological, physiological and psychological needs.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

“I’ve watched the zoo change from an old Victorian institution with steel bars and tiled floors to a vibrant modern zoo, filled with naturalistic habitats that visitors are immersed in, ” Creighton continued. “In the 1990s, we were at the point where people were more educated with regards to the natural world and the needs animals have. We started to rightly get criticism for having monkeys, apes and lions behind bars. It was then that we got the support of the government and our current director, Leo Oosterweghel from Melbourne Zoo, began his posting. He had a great vision of where he wanted the zoo to go and started to change the culture to one where animals come first and people second.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

To have the modern zoo, the facility incorporated an entirely new philosophy for both staff and visitors. “We let the animals have areas to retreat and encouraged the visitors to be patient and look around,” Gerry Creighton stated. “One of the first areas we remade was our primate islands, to replace the old monkey house and allow primates increased outdoor opportunities. We then received additional land in Phoenix Park to build the African Plains. We moved our giraffes, zebras and hippos over and created a mixed species habitat with white rhino, giraffe, zebra, ostrich and oryx [and hippo nearby.] You could see these big majestic animals sharing a habitat together and showing their full range of behavior. The visitors coming into the zoo could now marvel at these large herbivores roaming plains and open spaces. We consulted with the public and experts around the world but the core of the inspiration came from the wild and what these animals need to survive.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

With the opening of Kaziranga Forest in 2007 , Creighton became Operations Manager for the zoo in addition to the leader of the elephant program. “Jones and Jones, the Seattle based zoo architectural company, worked with us on that project and we came up with a wish list of what we would want for these elephants and how they would want to live,” he remarked. “Rotterdam Zoo had reached maximum capacity with their elephants and needed to split the herd so there was the potential for a strong nucleus of a family. We received two sisters and one of their daughters. We were so so lucky to have a strong future with this group of related elephants. Our matriarch was considered a difficult elephant in free contact but she has reached her potential in protected contact. We decided ‘why don’t we just let them be elephants and let them give birth in the herd’. We never looked back, the births were textbook and we went on the journey for a very, very solid future.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

One unique feature of Dublin Zoo’s elephant program is that the bull can move in and out of herd life, allowing him to socialize but have his own space should he choose it. “We built a separate bull house away from the cow house [so] the bull can drift in and out,” Creighton explained. “It replicates a natural situation. We worked with Chester Zoo who had cared for Uplai, our selected bull, and looked at the bull’s social background. He continues to be so calm and collective around his calves. He shows them what to do. He is a great role model for his young sons and for their future and the future of elephants, this is what they need to be exposed to.”

@ Dublin Zoo

“Elephants need to teach elephants,” Gerry Creighton reflected. “We can’t teach them. It’s not about what we can bring to them but how they live collectively. We allow them to do all that. We don’t even have to do much for their foot care as we have supplied and created the right substrates. It’s comfortable for their bodies.”

@ Dublin Zoo

Creighton wants to use the lessons learned from Dublin Zoo’s program to help Asian elephants in zoos around the world thrive. “We need to consider a global Asian elephant plan and work collectively across the continents,” he proposed. “We need wellness standards that are global and agree elephants need to be elephants in multigenerational herds. When you give them that choice to live as they should live, the results are amazing. We want people to see what we’re doing and let them see the results of us standing back and letting elephants spend more time together. We are the architects of the habitats that let them live like elephants.”

@ Dublin Zoo

In 2016, Dublin Zoo opened a state-of-the-art habitat for orangutans. “The orangutan exhibit is a wonderful new habitat for a truly arboreal species,” Gerry Creighton said. “The idea was they’d go on high ropes and actually go over the heads of the visitors. We built them artificial trees to encourage arboreal behavior and the feeding repertoire. Inside the trees are lift feeding systems where, at certain times of the day, we send the food high up into the branches in puzzle feeders.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Additionally, the orangutans share their space with siamang gibbon. “The siamang gibbons and orangutans have a great relationship and show inter species behaviors,” Creighton added. “You’ll notice when you walk around the zoo the absence of manmade structures. We can grow lots of plants from regions around the world and we’ve done that on orangutan island. The mental stimulation and physical condition of the apes has dramatically improved as they’re constantly climbing up the trees and investigating the ever changing habitat.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Gerry Creighton gave several other examples of modern habitats around the zoo that let animals display natural behaviors. “Our Sea Lion Cove has a saltwater pool and allows the sea lions go through different depths and different temperate zones,” he elaborated. “With our flamingos, we don’t clip their wings and have created a large flight aviary where they can flap their wings and fly across the pool. It’s a real show of our intentions when it comes to animal wellness. We’ve opened ‘Zoorassic’, a newly renovated reptile area with an evolution story, almost a museum feel but with wonderful, natural looking habitats for reptiles. It’s a wonderful education facility where students can learn about dinosaurs, reptiles and how they’ve evolved, encompassing Darwin's Theory of evolution in a fun interactive manner. With anywhere between 70-80,000 students from all levels of education passing through the zoos educational program having clear, interesting, factual areas for learning cannot be underestimated.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

While Gerry Creighton has a very strong interest in elephants, he directly oversees all animal components of the zoo. “It’s like being general curator in the U.S.,” he stated. “I have 60 to 70 staff who directly report to me.” He’s been essential to raising the quality of the zoo. “A huge part of what we do is we don’t lock animals in at night, we give them the constant ability to use choice and control,” Creighton articulated. “Enrichment is a term I don’t like. It implies something extra you have to do because something is missing. We don’t consider our feeders that release browse to be extra. It’s a fundamental part of what animals require to live and what they need to show specific species behaviors. We don’t use car tires in the chimp house, or artificial looking objects in the habitats. We use items made of natural materials for them to use. I don’t want people to see gorillas playing with a tractor tire. We’re losing an opportunity to communicate the emotional intelligence of these animals if that’s all we do.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

“We use our imagination,” Creighton continued. “We can enhance their lives using natural objects. Is it better to see an elephant push a tire or a root ball full of clay, insects, smells? It’s the same natural behavior but we give them natural trees to do it. Our industry has been watched very closely and it’s very important we get people to understand what these animals need to do well in human care, and this is natural behavior. We let them show that natural behavior, not just a chimp playing with a cardboard box. They’re too intelligent for that. These are animals that need to be mentally and physically challenged.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Dublin Zoo’s focus on animal wellness and transparency in animal care serves as a model for the zoos of the future. “Zoos need to work together,” Gerry Creighton reflected. “We really need the educational role of what we do to be hugely important. The modern zoo has to become responsible for part of the wild. I would like to see us manage a park in-situ, in the wild, and educate people on the ground living and sharing their back yards with these fabulous species. You’ve got to breed endangered species in your zoo and support projects [by more than] just handing a check. We need to get much more actively involved in saving habitats in the wild and taking responsibility for them. That will make reintroductions more feasible.”

@ Dublin Zoo

@ Dublin Zoo

Gerry Creighton is very proud of the achievements of Dublin Zoo. “We have shown, by bringing the public onboard and showing the highs and the lows of zoo life, we can get them to understand the core of what we do is wholly for the animals and we’ve got a smart, educated staff,” he concluded. “The zoo is making a real contribution. If we can do it, every zoo can do it. We’re representing these animals like they should be combining biology and psychology and so facilitating expression of wild-type behaviors and group dynamics while showing how intelligent they really are.”

@ Gerry Creighton

#DublinZoo

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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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