A Culture of Conservation and Sustainability: A Conversation with Beth Stevens, Retired Senior Vice

During her twenty years with the Walt Disney Company, Beth Stevens helped cultivate a culture of conservation and sustainability throughout not just Disney's Animal Kingdom but the entire company. One of the first employees of Animal Kingdom, she moved up from Director of Conservation and Science to Vice President of the entire park. Stevens then went on the be Senior Vice President of Environmental Initiatives for the entire Walt Disney Company, influencing everything from the park's carbon footprint to the way animals were portrayed in films. Here is her story.

@ Disney

After finishing her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in biology with an emphasis on animal behavior, Beth Stevens did a curatorial internship postdoc at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “They wanted to bring more scientists into the zoo and show them the potential role of zoos in conservation,” she remembered. “It was a two-way street. They were looking for a recent Ph.D. to do a two-year postdoc and it seemed like an amazing opportunity for me. That proved to be a really great experience.” Stevens worked alongside the zoo’s curators while conducting research. “I studied the breeding behavior of flamingos and what factors related to their reproductive success in captivity,” she added. “While I was working with the Curator of Birds, I helped put together the new wetlands exhibit, which gave me experience in acquisitions, quarantine, introducing animals into their habitat and creating graphics.”

@ Smithsonian

After finishing the postdoc, Stevens was recruited by Dr. Terry Maple to join the conservation and science team at Zoo Atlanta. “I had studied animal behavior in Kenya through a Georgia Tech class taught by Terry Maple,” she recalled. “It was honestly that class that completely changed my world and made me want to get a Ph.D. in animal behavior. Terry was very encouraging when I applied to the position at the National Zoo and then he brought me to Zoo Atlanta in 1989.” At the time, Zoo Atlanta was undergoing a renaissance. “It was a pretty magical time at Zoo Atlanta,” Stevens reflected “There were a lot of us at once working under Terry and many have gone on to prominent positions in zoos across the country.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

Beth Stevens started as a research scientist. “My initial role was to study animal behavior at the zoo using science,” she stated. “Terry’s whole vision was integrating science into every aspect of zoo management. We studied several animals and their behavior and did everything we could to make sure they were behaving in a natural way. If an animal normally spends 60% of its time feeding and foraging, you want to simulate that in a zoo environment through behavioral enrichment. We used science to improve animal welfare and enhance the visitor experience. We studied visitor behavior to find out which visitor experiences were most impactful. We taught young people about science at the zoo and led them to do their own research. We used a lot of partnerships with local universities and schools to bring science into different aspects of the zoo.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

Stevens was promoted to Head of Conservation, Science and Education at Zoo Atlanta. Her responsibility was to find ways to engage the public in the zoo’s science and conservation work. “We piloted distance learning in Georgia to bring the zoo to kids around the state,” she remarked. “That was a great way for us to get the message out and engage kids in the science we were doing at the zoo.” Stevens also continued her research with flamingos. “We looked at ways we could stimulate the flamingos to perform breeding behaviors,” she explained. “Flamingos live in flocks and perform breeding displays in a synchronized way. The more intense the displays, the higher the probability of successful reproduction. We used sprinklers to simulate rain. We had flamingo chicks, which was great.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

One of Beth Stevens’ biggest accomplishments at Zoo Atlanta was co-editing Ethics on the Ark with Terry Maple, Michael Hutchins and Bryan Norton. This influential text and the discussions within it have been credited for raising the caliber of animal welfare in zoos and aquariums and helping guide the future of zoos. “Putting together Ethics on the Ark was a really major project,” Stevens elaborated. “We brought together people from all sides of the arguments who care about animals and animal welfare, whether zoo people or not. They don’t always have the same idea of what great animal care and welfare looks like and that was a chance for us to come together and have everyone around the table talking about it.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

Stevens credited Maple’s leadership for influencing her management style at Disney. “A lot of what I learned from Terry I took with me to Disney,” she reflected. “What was really, really important to us at Disney was to create a park that was dedicated to excellence in animal care and conservation. Of course, coming from Zoo Atlanta, I brought with me [the acknowledgement of] how important it is to take a scientific approach to animal care and management and the importance of education at all levels. Our mission was to have our guest leave the experience caring more about animals and the planet.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 1996, Beth Stevens became one of the first employees of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a massive project that would incorporate the most modern and forward-thinking practices in animal husbandry and habitat design. “I met the vice president of the park, Bob Lamb, at an AZA conference,” she recalled. “He was the one who called me to talk about the conservation and science position. He knew that was a very important position for Animal Kingdom to have. I really wasn’t ready to leave Zoo Atlanta but the more I talked to people on the Disney team, the more I realized how dedicated Disney was to the new park and doing it right. At Disney, there would be millions of guests every year so the opportunity to reach millions more people with a conservation message was really exciting. I wanted to work with a company that was going to do the right thing and was ready to inspire many people to care about animals.”

@ Disney

@ Disney

Prior to the park’s opening, many members of the zoo industry were skeptical about how Animal Kingdom would turn out. “Very early on, people would call me and say I heard this rumor you’re going to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and I would say it’s true,” Stevens looked back. “They were skeptical if Disney’s actions were going to speak louder than their words.” Part of her responsibility was helping put together a top-notch animal team for the park. “For the first several hires, we had to work really hard to bring people on and start to create our own reputation for our commitment [to animals and conservation],” Stevens said.

@ Disney

A few of the first hires turned out to have a profound positive influence on the future trajectory and stature of the park. “Dr. Jill Mellen [the park’s future Director of Conservation and Science] was our first scientist,” Beth Stevens pointed out. “Dr. Anne Savage was our first Conservation Biologist. I helped recruit Jackie Ogden [the future Vice President of Animals, Science and Environment for Disney Parks and Resorts] into her first role as Curator of the Conservation Station. We recruited Marty McPhee [from the Brookfield Zoo] to head up enrichment and training. We recruited three curators of education, each focused on a different target audience. Kris Whipple focused on school groups, Amy Groff focused on cast members and Kathy Lehnhardt focused on the guest experience.”

@ Disney

“When you bring talent in from 80 other zoos and aquariums, you have to spend time defining what success looks like as you have 80 different definitions,” Stevens elaborated. “We had to define what success was at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and how we’d work together to make that happen. We defined success as our animals all being healthy and living in natural environments in natural social groupings. It also meant having the animals most comfortable in places visible to guests since the best way for guests to have an inspirational experience is to see our animals and learn something about them. Success for us was making sure we provided enough inspirational experiences for our guests so they left caring more about wildlife and wild places than when they walked in.”

@ Disney

The team took on the Herculean task of bringing in thousands of animals, taking them through quarantine and introducing them to each other and their environments. They also had to ensure the animals were visible to the millions of guests to the park while also keeping the animals stimulated and engaged. “We never took our eyes off of where our mission was and taking great care of animals,” Beth Stevens remarked. “When you’re introducing animals into new environments, studying them comes into play and you understand what parts of the environment they are most comfortable in, and why, so you can change that and have them visible for the guests. Out on safari, we would put cut browse out every day and put it in places that were visible to guests. Sometimes it was just moving water sources or bushes.”

@ Disney

“Since our tigers have such a strong sense of smell, their olfactory environment was so important,” Stevens continued. “Our keepers would go out and use perfumes to make their environment stimulating so the tigers would explore all these new smells. We made sure the animals had all different kinds of feeders to work with. You’d hide the food for the gorillas and they would have to work for it. [These were all] types of enrichment ideas which stimulated positive behavior.”

@ Disney

Disney’s animal care team established cutting edge behavioral training programs to enable better care and promote natural behaviors. “The training made it possible to monitor the animal’s health in a way that was not stressful,” Beth Stevens explained. “The giraffes were trained to walk through their hugger everyday so it was no big deal if one day you needed to inspect something on a leg or some other body part. A big part of our training philosophy was that if you needed to, for instance, do something with the tusk of a hippo, they would open their mouth and let you do it. You could have lions present their tail [for blood draws] without anesthesia. It really lowers the stress levels of the animals if you can treat [your procedures] like it’s part of their everyday routine.” Today, many of the techniques developed at Disney can be found throughout the zoo profession.

@ Disney

An asset to Animal Kingdom’s team were the aquarists at the Living Seas, located at Epcot. “The Living Seas staff were great,” Stevens recalled. “We absolutely had them help out, especially with places with water environments like in the African aviary and the Asian small-clawed otter exhibit.”

@ Disney

@ Disney

Stevens from the very beginning worked to establish conservation, science and education at Animal Kingdom as among the best in the world. “A very key hire early on was Dr. Anne Savage as conservation biologist,” she remarked. The world authority on cotton-top tamarins, Savage brought conservation experience and had implemented it in a zoo setting during her tenure at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. “[Savage] ran our wildlife tracking center where we tracked the hormones of the animals we were trying to breed,” Stevens remarked. “She also developed groundbreaking research on elephant vocalizations we could apply to conservation of elephants in the wild. [We ensured] there was always an animal welfare, conservation and an education component in everything we did.”

@ Disney

As important as the park’s animal husbandry was, the team made sure the focus was on inspiring guests to care about wildlife and be conservation-minded. “The whole thing about Animal Kingdom is it’s about telling stories that are going to have an impact,” Stevens articulated. “The story is not about animal training but about animals and the threats to their survival. If you go to the bird show, you see an amazing amount of training but the emphasis is on the birds, their behavior and conserving them. We emphasized having conservation messages in all our stories.”

@ Disney

Gradually, Beth Stevens took on responsibility for all of the animal care at the park. “I became Vice President of Animal Programs with Animal Kingdom, the Living Seas, the Ranch, conservation, science and education under me,” she explained. “Then I became Vice President of Animal Kingdom, which added all of the operations. I now had attractions, food and beverage, merchandise and entertainment under me.” Even though her scope expanded beyond animals, Stevens made sure saving wild animals and wild places remained at the heart and soul of everything Animal Kingdom did. “One of the things that was so important to me was making sure every discipline in the park had a role in our conservation message,” she explained. “I made sure [the other teams] understood, for instance, why we didn’t have straws or lids in our park and what was going on from an animal perspective.”

@ Disney

“I think one of the things I’m most proud of was the culture of conservation we had within the park,” Stevens reflected. “All 3,000 of our cast members were committed to this higher purpose. We were a Disney theme park that was all things Disney and on top of that played a role in conservation and made a difference. Having that extra purpose and mission really brought the cast members together.”

@ Disney

The different teams at Disney’s Animal Kingdom found unique ways to engage in the park’s mission and spread the message. “In our merchandise shops, our cashiers would ask guests if they wanted to add a dollar to their purchase for the Disney Conservation Fund,” Beth Stevens remarked. “The special ones would talk about the projects supported by the Disney Conservation Fund. We had a cast member who, on her own, raised $30,000 in one year just by asking people to add a dollar to their purchase. She was so excited about the projects we funded around the world that she got our guests excited about them too. Our custodians would come up with games with kids that would teach them about recycling. Those types of things just made you so proud of everything in the park.”

@ Disney

Eventually, Beth Stevens left Animal Kingdom to become Senior Vice President of Environmental Initiatives for the Walt Disney Company. “I worked with the whole Walt Disney Company on reducing our environmental footprint and inspiring our guests, viewers and fans to do their part in reducing their environmental footprint. We had ambitious goals on conserving water and reducing emissions and waste, and found different ways to connect kids with nature and inspire them to care. We found a way to measure our footprint and were very successful at meeting targets [throughout our businesses.]”

@ Disney

The values of conservation and sustainability of Animal Kingdom now became incorporated throughout the company’s businesses. “In consumer products, they came up with very clever ways to reduce packaging,” Stevens remarked. “They did quite a lot in the way of packaging that had an educational impact. Also, we put together educational guides in conjunction with the Disneynature movies that were great for teachers around the country to use.”

@ Disney

In 2006, Beth Stevens served as Chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “That was very exciting as AZA has a great mission and some amazing members,” she remembered. “When I was chair, we brought in a new President, Jim Maddy. We were rebranding the AZA and I did a lot to help set up the board to be a policy setting board. We worked with our membership to get everyone’s input on the new branding.”

@ Disney

In 2016, Beth Stevens retired from the Walt Disney Company. “I felt like it was time for me to do it as I wanted to focus more on helping nonprofit organizations,” she explained. “I’m currently chair of the Board of the Jane Goodall Institute. It’s an amazing organization and Jane has inspired hope in audiences around the world starting with her work in Gombe and now through her Roots and Shoots program. Jane is all about inspiring people to make a difference for people, animals and the environment. What we do at the Jane Goodall Institute is work to further her mission through chimpanzee conservation in Africa and Roots and Shoots in the U.S.”

@ Disney

“Zoos have a really powerful role to play, especially as the world becomes more urbanized,” Beth Stevens concluded. “Zoos are becoming an important place for people to connect with nature, experience animals and learn about wildlife and conservation. I think what I’m most proud of is the work I’ve done to help inspire millions of zoo visitors, theme park guests and movie goers to care a little more."

@ Disney

#DisneysAnimalKingdom #ZooAtlanta #NationalZoo

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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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