Doing Something Different: A Conversation with Karen Fifield, Chief Executive of Wellington Zoo

Since 2006, Karen Fifield has served as Chief Executive of the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand. Since that time, the zoo has evolved from a relatively antiquated zoo into one striving for creativity and optimal animal welfare. Some of Fifield's initiatives have included adding a major exhibit on New Zealand wildlife, building a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital where guests can observe the medical care animals receive, installing an animal welfare committee and forming conservation partnerships. She also serves on the Australasia Zoo and Aquarium Board and the Animal Welfare Committee of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Here is her story.

@ Wellington Zoo

Prior to working in zoos, Karen Fifield was a high school teacher for 14 years. Her career took a turn when she saw an ad for a zoo educator job at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. “Long story short I applied for that job and got it,” she recalled. “It was very exciting as it combined my love for animals and people into one job. Taronga Zoo was the zoo of my childhood as I grew up In Sydney.” Over the course of ten years, Fifield moved up the ranks from educator to education manager for both Taronga and West Plains Zoos.

@ Karen Fifield

Fifield quickly fell in love with the zoo atmosphere. “For me, Taronga Zoo was always an amazing place and having that job was pretty special,” she said. “I got to know lots of interesting zoo people. Zoo people are unique. They have amazing expertise and stories and are so willing to share their knowledge. For me, I was like a sponge and was like ‘Tell me as much as you can tell me.’ I got to handraise animals from koalas to fruit bats and learned about a whole range of taxa from amphibians to large mammals. We did a lot of exhibit building around the zoo during this time and added new experiences. I was very lucky.”

@ Karen Fifield

In 2001, Fifield moved to Melbourne and became the Director of Discovery and Learning at Zoos Victoria. “It was a strategic role across the three zoos to deliver outcomes for schools, visitors, online and the community,” she recalled. “It was quite a broad job. Not only did I have my own team but I also worked strategically with a whole range of people. We were doing a lot of new developments and we were building some of the most beautiful zoo exhibits I’ve seen in the world. It was quite an innovative place to work.”

@ Karen Fifield

After her husband died of cancer, Fifield left Zoos Victoria and went back to Sydney for awhile. Soon, however, she’d be back in the zoo world. “A friend of mine was the chief executive at the Wellington Zoo,” Fifield explained. “We knew each other very well and she was going to semi-retire. She said to me, ‘You should apply for this job.’ I hadn’t been working in zoos for nine to ten months and thought ‘Well, I’m happiest when I’m working in zoos. I love working in zoos, I love zoo people, I love animals and I love engaging communities.’ I followed my heart and decided to give it a go.” Karen Fifield became Chief Executive of the Wellington Zoo in 2006.

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo was on the verge of some big developments. “Wellington Zoo is 111 years old and, like a lot of old zoos, it had a lot of awful bits,” Fifield remarked. “The staff were passionate and committed but they were working in a run-down zoo. By the time I got there, the previous executive had put together a plan to invest in the zoo, so one of my first tasks was to give the last push on the business case to get the funding to redevelop the zoo.”

@ Wellington Zoo

Under Fifield’s leadership, Wellington Zoo has focused on species it can do well. “We don’t have wild dogs anymore as we’re a medium-sized urban zoo and social carnivores like them are difficult [to do right] in these environment,” she elaborated. “We brought in small cats, like caracals, instead. We made some changes like that to have the animals which were the best fit to live in our zoo. We do very well with primates, large carnivores and hoofstock. We haven’t had elephants since 1983 as we don’t have the space to do them well. The people of Wellington loved the elephants so we have signs to explain why we don’t have them anymore and to honor the elephants who lived at the zoo in the past.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

Conservation value is another criteria for selecting the Wellington Zoo’s species. “We’ve really thought about the criteria process of the animals that are a good story for conservation,” Fifield continued. “We look or ones that we can support in the field and that are engaging for visitors.” Fifield also put a large emphasis on animal welfare. “One of the messages of a progressive zoo is that we are looking after all our animals very well and their welfare is our primary concern,” she elaborated. “I want to be able to say every animal we care for has had a great day and their quality of life is fabulous.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

Wellington Zoo decided to create a different kind of exhibit for its largest project under its new leader. “I really want to do something different and a bit funky,” Fifield articulated. “We live in Wellington, a very small city but a very funky, groovy and creative city. We have a big movie and creative sector here and I wanted the zoo to be a reflection of that creativity. We tried to be innovative and think about what we could do different. We created Meet the Locals He Tuku Aroha, which takes up a large part of our zoo. It is developed around a number of voices to tell the story of why people love New Zealand- the zoo’s voice, the animal’s voice, the indigenous peoples’ voice, the community’s voice, a child’s voice and a conservation partner’s voice. We took a very old part of the zoo with bird cages and turned it into this beautiful site that’s stunningly wonderful for New Zealand animals.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

While Meet the Locals He Tuku Aroaha only cost $6.6 million, it helped revitalize a large chunk of the zoo and left an important message. “What it’s done is it’s brought all these stories together,” Fifield added. “We call it our love story for New Zealand.” Fifield has tried to use creativity in all aspects of the zoo.

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo has also focused on the guest experience and creative ways for people to think about the zoo. “I think of a zoo visit as being like a movie,” Fifield reflected. “When you arrive at the cinema, you’re very excited about what you’re going to see- like how people come into the zoo and there’s this big excitement as you start to see the animals. Then there’s a lull for a coffee and then an exciting bit. A zoo visit should mirror that. Visitors need time to reflect, relax and think about what the zoo is trying to talk to them about. It’s not about having as many animals as possible but building an experience across the whole zoo that ultimately tells a story. We’re human beings, not human doings. At the end of the day, we want people to change their behavior because they love these animals. if we don’t appeal to feelings, we’ll never get the love. You have to set up the zoo experience in a way where those tigers are magnificent and you are going to save them. We should be setting that up for people and we, as zoo professionals, are responsible for how we set that up.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

In order to improve veterinary care, the Wellington Zoo built a new animal hospital. “We had a very old animal hospital that used to be an old staff house so we built our new animal hospital called The Nest Te Kohanga,” said Fifield. “It’s this amazing facility that not only does our zoo cases but also wildlife brought in from the community and Department of Conservation. Everything we do is on visitor display. That was a bit scary at the beginning because what do we do if an animal dies. However, we want to show we care for the animals well. It also gives us the opportunity to have that conversation. That was a game changer in how people saw us.”

@ Wellington Zoo

Next, Wellington Zoo built a variety of projects that enriched the zoo experience. “We built a theater where we can bring animals out and talk about them,” Fifield remarked. “We’ve even had Jane Goodall speak there a few times. We built a new giraffe house and savanna precinct, an area with reptiles and invertebrates, a new chimp house, a mini monkeys area with golden lion tamarins and marmosets, a café next to a children’s play area where parents can have coffee and kids can play on a spider sculpture and a sun bear habitat. In the course of ten years we have rebuilt at least three quarters of the zoo.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo will not stop anytime soon. “We’re going to [continually] increase the complexity of the zoo and the visitor experience,” Fifield elaborated. “When we build things, we also think about how we’re going to tweak it as we learn more. For example, one of our team members just went to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo [in Colorado Springs] for a giraffe workshop and came back wanting to make changes in our giraffe house. That’s what I love about the zoo world. We can share this knowledge and improve what we do. We will never be finished.”

@ Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo has become a respected voice on animal welfare. “Animal welfare is my thing,” Fifield stated. “I received an honor from New Zealand for business and animal welfare. I think we’re very responsible. Our animals live here so we have to make sure they have the very best lives they can possible have. This is their home so it needs to be as comfortable as our homes. We instigated an animal welfare committee with external scientists [to evaluate our practices.] we need to constantly be challenged and tested about what we’re doing. I’ve had animal rights people [review us] as it’s good to be challenged. They started to see there is a lot of science to what we do and that changed the dynamic of that relationship. We need to have those conservations more and more.”

@ Wellington Zoo

One of the biggest changes Fifield made to the Wellington Zoo was its involvement in field conservation. “When I got here, the zoo was not doing a lot of field conservation,” Fifield recalled. “In an earlier life, it had been one of the biggest advocates for kiwi but that had declined. For me, conservation and sustainability are the absolute tenants of a good, progressive zoos. We have developed the criteria for species planning and what conservation partners we want to work with. We’ve developed our conservation fund and all of our staff can have a leave of conservation in addition to their annual leave to work on a program of their choice. I think it’s amazing and they love it.”

@ Wellington Zoo

“As far as our partnerships, we wanted to look at New Zealand animals as well as global species,” Fifield continued. “We have 13 agencies we work with from Free the Bears to Madagascar Flora and Fauna Group to the Red Panda Network to the Golden Lion Tamarin Association. We brought all the agencies we work with to New Zealand last year for Wild Ideas and they talked about how they work in the field to save these animals. Having them all together was quite phenomenal and they got to talk about what they’re doing to the Wellington Community”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

A major concentration of the zoo’s conservation efforts has been illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. “We believe progressive zoos are about acquiring animals sustainably,” Fifield remarked. For all our animal acquisitions, we give 5% of the cost to TRAFFIC to assist their work in reducing wildlife trafficking. That’s all about our commitment to sustainably sourced animals.”

@ Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo has also focused on reducing its environmental footprint. “A big thing for us is we have a carbon zero certification,” Fifield claimed. “We are investing in more solar panel initiatives, are shifting to electric vehicles and doing more to support ethically sourced retail products. We have brought a sustainability focus across the zoo.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

“Another initiative I want to focus on is building capacity for our staff and getting them to do more research, studying and writing,” Fifield continued. “Our vets are doing some amazing research already. We’re really lifting the animal science capacity across the whole organization to become more professional across the board.”

@ Wellington Zoo

@ Wellington Zoo

Fifield has also been involved in international zoo politics. “I’ve been on the Australasia Zoo and Aquarium Association board for nearly twenty years and served as president for four years,” she noted. “Our association is much smaller than AZA but we have quite a diverse leadership all committed to being progressive and better. We changed our accreditation process to really focus on the five domains of animal welfare. We’re not just looking at policies and animal habitats but drilling down into ongoing practices. If we don’t care for our animals well and visitors think are animals are unhappy, our reputation will falter. I felt that animal welfare could be our Achilles’ heel so as President this was my main focus area.”

@ Wellington Zoo

“I’m also on the animal welfare committee for WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which is exciting,” Fifield continued. “We’re going to be doing some really cool stuff and make sure everyone is accredited by 2020 [to ensure optimal animal welfare.] I’m working with the conservation committee on a sustainability strategy for zoos and aquariums across the WAZA membership. There’s already a massive amount of work done in sustainability in progressive zoos so we’re bringing it together in one framework as a global WAZA strategy.”

@ Karen Fifield

“Zoos have had evolutions throughout their history,” Fifield reflected. “We’re not menageries or collections of curiosities anymore. We are far more sophisticated in how we build our experiences and apply science to what we are doing. As climate change affects the planet more and we understand the need for renewable energy, we are well positioned to get involved in that work. I see zoos as that hub in the community leading the way [in environmental issues.] [It is critical] how we work with conservation agencies to halt species decline. We’ll need to be far more collaborative outside of our community. As humans become more urbanized, zoos will be critical to the wellbeing of people. We can really affect humans and not let them lose sight of who we are but we have to do it well.”

@ Wellington Zoo

“I have to say I’m very proud of my teams over the years,” Fifield concluded. “When I see where the amazing people I’ve worked with are now, they’re some of the world’s zoo leaders. I hope I’ve had some input to their careers and I am very proud of them. I’m really proud of what we’ve done and where Wellington Zoo is now as an entity and place. That means that we must look after things, so that life will flourish. Isn’t that what everyone working in progressive zoos wants?”

@ Wellington Zoo

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