From the Newspaper to the Indianapolis Prize: A Conversation with Paul Grayson, Executive Vice Presi

Paul Grayson is the longest-tenured employee of the Indianapolis Zoo and has been with the institution for its entire history at its White River State Park location. Currently the zoo's Executive Vice President, he has served in a variety of different roles and watched the zoo evolve into a world-class institution at the forefront of conservation. Here is history.

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Paul Grayson began working at the Indianapolis Zoo in 1980 prior to its move to White River State Park. “The origins of the Indianapolis Zoo are pretty interesting,” he articulated. “The zoo started as a fictitious zoo in a newspaper column after World War II. Then Lowell Nusbaum decided Indianapolis needed a zoo so he would use the column to describe what would be going on at the zoo any given day. In 1964, the Indianapolis Zoological Society raised the money to build it and open its doors to the public. The old zoo was located in a city park near east Indianapolis. It was about 25 acres with 300 animals and just over 30 full-time staff. In the 1980s, we did a study to see if the zoo could expand at its current location or should relocate. It was determined there were too many limitations [where we were] and we should consider relocating. There was also discussion about converting industrial space into a new urban park called White River State Park. The park planners thought it would be a good anchor of the park to have a zoo so we relocated the operation to downtown Indianapolis in 1988.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The concept of the zoo when it opened in 1964 was designed as a Mother Goose storybook theme, although it gradually got more exotic animals and had elephants, tigers, leopards and giraffes by the time Grayson arrived at the zoo. “It was a very small, intimate zoo,” he remembered. While he was a junior member, Grayson got to sit on the planning sessions for the new zoo. “There was a symposium on the future of zoos in the early 1980s where leading thinkers in zoos talked about their vision of the zoo of the future,” he remarked. “Many of those ideas were embraced in the zoo that was ultimately built at White River State Park.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Instead of being arranged by type of animal, the Indianapolis Zoo was organized by biomes. “The organizing principle of the zoo was to build it around biomes, which was a bit different than how zoos had been organized before,” Paul Grayson stated. “It was decided the zoo would take an ecological approach. We chose to add species that not only told [valuable] stories but differentiated us from other zoos. The Midwest has the most zoos of any region in the country and many of those zoos are well established. Indianapolis was the new kid on the block so we needed to establish a unique identity. One of the ways we did that was we had a heavy emphasis on aquarium elements at the Zoo.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Oceans, one of the biome regions of the zoo, would feature a variety of marine species such as bottlenose dolphins, walruses, sea lions, penguins and polar bears (since departed.) “Walruses are extremely rare in North American facilities,” Grayson elaborated. “They’re challenging to keep, but extremely interesting. It’s important to keep those animals in front of the public as they’ll be one of the first animals affected by rapid climate change in the Arctic. “The zoo is one of only two major American zoos (Brookfield Zoo being the other) to have a dolphinarium. “We have ten bottlenose dolphins that reside in a 2.5 million-gallon aquatic complex with four inner-connected pool systems about 27 feet deep,” Grayson said. “We see these animals as ambassadors for [challenges faced by dolphins in the wild.]”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Oceans inspired the Indianapolis Zoo to invest in ocean conservation. “We’re in a partnership with The Nature Conservancy of Indiana and The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. The Zoo uses dolphins as an emotional hook for people to become aware and concerned about the dead zone, a zone of oxygen depleted water at the mouth of the Mississippi River,” Paul Grayson mentioned. “Indiana plays a unique role in that we have a disproportionate amount of nutrients that end up in the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore will be an important player in restoring the ecological health of that body of water.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

One unique thing about the Indianapolis Zoo is that it has never received any tax support for sustaining its operations or supporting its capital growth. “The Indianapolis Zoo has always been private and never received tax support,” Grayson explained. “The only assistance we’ve ever hard is a long-term lease on the land. Everything that has been built at the zoo was raised through philanthropic dollars. It’s always been the desire of the trustees to pay our own way in the world, which has been reflective of the conservative values of our state.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

In 1988, when the Indianapolis Zoo opened at its new location, Paul Grayson served as Director of Education. The challenges to getting the new zoo up and running were immense. “It was the first zoo built from scratch in decades,” he remarked. “It was a ridiculously ambitious project for us to take on. The first year we opened we were dealing with an incredible heat wave, with daily temperatures over 100 degrees. There was a severe drought so we had this brand-new landscape we were struggling to keep alive. Since we did not hit all of our attendance projections and we had to pay our own way in the world, we were struggling with financial issues in our first several years of operation.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The zoo had to be lean on expenses and find ways to operate efficiently. “We had to make some tough decisions the first year when we realized our attendance projections might have been too aggressive,” Grayson recalled. “We had to work hard at understanding what our potential was and getting our revenue lines adjusted accordingly. We had to be very entrepreneurial about raising money and get very smart and frugal in our expenditures. Now we’re financially very secure and have a very large endowment we’ve been able to build over the years. We have large amounts of cash reserves available. Those early years taught us some very important lessons and we continue to pay attention to what the public expects from us. I’ve had a number of different roles in the zoo, which gives me a board perspective of what different departments bring.”

Shannon Petticrew @ Indianapolis Zoo

The Indianapolis Zoo has had three presidents over its time in White River Park: Roy Shea, Dr. Jeffrey Bonner and Mike Crowther. “Each leader of the zoo really stood on the shoulders of those that had gone before them,” stated Paul Grayson. “Roy Shea was an extremely strong leader who led the building of the new zoo. He had the zoo in his blood very early on. Jeffrey Bonner came out of the science museum world and was an academic. The major contribution he made was he developed a very good fundraising apparatus. He also implemented an ambitious travel program taking potential donors to places around the globe to get them excited about the things the zoo wanted to entertain. Mike Crowther came in with an aquarium and attractions administration background and had a very strong marketing and creative writing background. He brought a level of creativity and entrepreneurship that’s allowed the zoo to expand.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Gabi Moore @ Indianapolis Zoo

Beginning during Bonner’s tenure, the Indianapolis Zoo began to become more invested in conservation. Tremendous strides in conservation were made under Crowther’s leadership. “We began supporting a series of conservation initiatives,” Grayson elaborated. “The most visible program we have is the Indianapolis Prize, which has quickly become the world’s leading award for animal conservation. It includes a $250,000 cash award and a medal to the recipient. We use that program to put people who labor in obscurity into a limelight that approximates the Academy Awards and sport celebrity attention. Mike Crowther has created an atmosphere where that kind of attention is paid to individuals. We can show people how conservation works and demonstrate how conservation is an area where individuals can make a difference. That’s really inspiring.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Paul Grayson’s role has shifted from education to administration. “A lot of my roles in the last twenty years have been overseeing major capital projects at the zoo,” he explained. In 2002, the Indianapolis Zoo opened African Elephant Preserve, a modern home for the zoo’s growing family of elephants. “The elephant habitat came about because of our success with birthing African elephants,” Grayson stated. “We were the first zoo to successfully inseminate an African elephant, bring an African elephant full term, birth and successfully rear through artificial insemination. I’ve lost count of how many calves we’ve had born here. We needed more space. We wound up taking a part of the zoo that had not been developed and turned it into a home for our elephants.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“It has a number of features that make it a good space for keepers and elephants to coexist,” Grayson continued. “The yards are quite large including some off-exhibit and we can move the elephants frequently between locations. We have very large water features where the elephants can swim.”

Jon Glesing @ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The zoo’s former elephant habitat was adjusted to house white rhinoceroses. “Rhinos have different needs than elephants so we got rid of the water feature and turned that deep space into a mud wallow the rhinos love,” Grayson remarked. “That helps them cool and protects them from the sun. They’re a little harder on the grass than elephants so it’s harder to maintain grass. They eat it up like a lawn mower.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

While off-show, the Indianapolis Zoo boasts an excellent veterinary hospital. “The hospital is state-of-the-art and extremely well thought out, designed and equipped,” Paul Grayson said. “We have three full-time veterinarians, three full-time veterinary technicans and two veterinary keepers. It has everything you’d expect a modern zoo hospital to have including a treatment center, the latest imagery equipment, a surgical suite and pathology laboratories. We have one of the highest ratios of vets to animals in the country to make sure our animals have superb care.”

Jackie Curts @ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The most ambitious project in the Indianapolis Zoo’s history is the $26 million Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, opened in 2014. “The Orangutan Center was in development for eight years and at one point we were looking at doing a center with all four great ape species,” Grayson elaborated. “When the financial markets collapsed in 2008, we had to dial back our ambitions. We talked to major potential funders who told us not to back off of the scale and scope of the project but to phase it in. We decided to start with orangutans as they are the most threatened of the great apes and the most likely to go extinct in the wild at their current rate. There was a pressing need to tell that story and get people involved and concerned about it.”

Shawn Knapp @ Indianapolis Zoo

Ian Nichols @ Indianapolis Zoo

The Orangutan Center was carefully designed to meet the physical and psychological needs of the red apes. Instead of creating an immersive rainforest, it incorporated modern architecture and an enriched space. “The facility is designed all around orangutans,” Paul Grayson stated. “You see significant vertical elements, even in the day rooms. It’s fifty feet tall and climate controlled. Outside, the towers go up to 70 feet in height. Orangutans are most comfortable moving above the ground so we gave them plenty of ways to move around in the air. [The Center] serves as a functional urban forest. The apes could care less if there are artificial trees or murals in there. We could spend a lot of money on creating the illusion of an artificial forest but that doesn’t do the apes anything. The best way to approximate the wild is to give them what they need even if it doesn’t look like [the wild.]”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“We [also] designed it for their social needs,” Grayson continued. “They’re not truly solitary but prefer to spend the majority of their time alone. Here they can pick and choose who and where they want to associate. The orangutans can move freely around the facility and the fully adult males have the opportunity to be fully separated from each other in satellite facilities.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Shawn Knapp @ Indianapolis Zoo

Even more impressive, the Orangutan Center serves as an active orangutan research station. “We created a facility focused on not just exercising their bodies but also their minds,” Paul Grayson articulated. “There’s the learning laboratory where the apes go in and work on cognitive exercises. They work on everything from symbolic language skills to basic math skills to game theory. The orangutans love to learn and are happiest when solving problems. Computers create artificial problems [like those] they’d find in the wild.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The opening of the International Orangutan Center signaled a strong commitment from the Indianapolis Zoo to contribute to orangutan conservation. “We have a strong partner we work with in Eastern Borneo, which has a significant population of orangutans,” Grayson stated. “We’ve engaged in reforestation efforts there where we’re connecting forest segments that have either been fragmented or lost entirely through unsustainable logging. The general public can participate in that by sending in donations. It takes only ten dollars to take a tree from a seed to something an orangutan can use. That goes a long way in Borneo. We’ve also partnered with the IUCN on an assessment on the impact of climate change on trees important to orangutans.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

This year, a habitat for long-tailed macaques will be opening in the Oceans section of the zoo. It will be a reimagining of the Zoo’s former polar bear habitat. “These will be the only ones in a North American Zoo,” Grayson remarked. “They are a monkey hat enjoys swimming and diving underwater so the large pool system we have will be utilized by the macaques. They often live near the ocean and swim and forage in it. They’re a very good conservation story as they’re an animal that thrives in close contact to humans. That lets us talk about the types of adaptations humans and animals make as they coexist together.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Paul Grayson currently serves as an Executive Vice President of the Indianapolis Zoo. He has helped the institution flourish as a private nonprofit. “We’ve done quite well for ourselves since our humble beginnings,” he reflected. “We’ve grown into something very remarkable. We’re actually probably a better zoo for not having government support. When you pay your own way in the world, you’re very aware of where your money comes from and are cautious with what you do. The risks you take are calculated and it forces you to give better services to the public since they vote with their feet. 60% of our operating budget comes from earned revenue- admission, food service, retail, rides and membership. The remaining 40% comes from philanthropic support.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Over the years, the Indianapolis Zoo has progressively improved its animal care. “We have all the enrichment programs and a very strong veterinary program,” Grayson explained. “We never feel we’re done with animal welfare and have made significant investments in it. We’ve added a Ph.D. nutritionist to make sure the animals are getting the best nutrition they can. We also try to make sure the keepers have opportunities to get involved in appropriate professional organizations to broaden their knowledge. We have travel programs that let keepers go out in the wild and see the animals they care for to bring that knowledge back.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

The Indianapolis Zoo is currently working on a master plan to guide it into the future. “You’re going to see more and more blurring of the lines between those who work with animals in the zoo and those involved in conservation in the wild,” Paul Grayson reflected. “I remember at the AZA conference in 1989 they had the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park as the speaker. He said they watched very closely what we do in zoos as they were beginning to realize managing ecosystems like Yellowstone is really managing captive populations of animals. I see more and more of that happening as wild places for animals become smaller and fewer. I also think the expectations of the public for the care and wellbeing of animals are going to increase. That’s a good thing for the animals in our care and for zoos. It’ll keep us working harder.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“37 years is a long time to be somewhere,” Paul Grayson concluded. “I would say what is most important to me is the relationships I’ve made with the people I have been given the opportunity to work beside- staff, volunteers, Trustees, vendors and consultants.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo


You Might Also Like: