Bio-Functional Habitats and Quality of Life: A Conversation with Douglas Richardson, Head of Living

Douglas Richardson has long been an established authority on animal welfare in European zoos. Over the course of his career, he has worked at the Edinburgh Zoo, Bronx Zoo, Howlett's Wild Animal Park, London Zoo, Bioparco di Roma and Singapore Zoo. Richardson currently serves as Head of Living Collections at the Highland Wildlife Park, part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Under his watch, the park has welcomed the first polar bear cub born in the U.K. for 25 years and hopes to reintroduce Amur leopards into the wild. Here is his story.

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Douglas Richardson always knew he wanted to work in zoos. “I never dreamed of doing anything else,” he recalled. “I wrote to a large number of zoos and, partially by accident, I got an interview with the Edinburgh Zoo. One would think I’d be placed in the children’s zoo, birds section or something fairly safe but they put me in the lion house on day one.” At that time, the profession of zoo keeping had not yet professionalized. “Back then, the zoo was pretty parochial and zoo keeping was not exactly seen as a respectable profession,” Richardson stated. “Some, like myself, were very interested [in animals] but there were many who viewed it purely as just a job and a number were functionally illiterate.”

@ Douglas Richardson

In the 1970s, Richardson ended up working at the Bronx Zoo in New York for a year. “I was over there visiting my parents, visited the zoo, talked to the keepers and got an interview that day that resulted in a position in the mammal department,” he recalled. “It was incredibly interesting working all across the mammal department and I was used as a cover for section heads on their weekends off. It was my first taste of managing an animal section and got to work with species like proboscis monkeys.”

@ Douglas Richardson

In 1980, Richardson began working with carnivores at Howlett’s Wild Animal Park in the U.K. “John Aspinall, who owned the place, was a millionaire and had significant resources,” he stated. “We were able to do things other zoos couldn’t. At one point, I had 22 clouded leopards. There were some issues with how they dealt with tigers and a keeper got killed by a tiger 11 days into my time there.” After spending time at the Dudley Zoo, Richardson became head keeper of carnivores at the London Zoo. The hiring was historic. “It was the first time the Zoological Society of London had hired a section head from outside [of the zoo] in its 150 year history,” Richardson claimed.

@ Howlett's Wild Animal Park

London Zoo was renowned for its rich history and being one of the first modern zoos. “Most of the animal management techniques we take for granted today developed there,” Richardson explained. “The original lion house at the Bronx Zoo duplicated the one at the London Zoo. Every giraffe house in the world is in some way a copy of the giraffe house at London Zoo.” The new head keeper of carnivores helped bring new excitement and innovation to the carnivore section. “I was given the freedom to virtually curate the carnivore collection,” Richardson recalled. “We brought in more interesting things like clouded leopards and built the first major bear exhibit in the UK that relied predominantly on hotwire as a barrier. We were the first UK zoo to breed sand cats.”

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

In the late 1980s, the London Zoo’s future was uncertain. “London Zoo got close to closing because finances were down,” Richardson remarked. “They traditionally didn’t receive any core funding from the government other than covering the zoo’s overdraft, which stopped after a once and for all grant from government. This led to a formal announcement of closure. I was one of the staff members who basically took the management team to task to get the decision reversed. Short end of the story, the zoo has gone from strength to strength and we put it back on the map.”

@ ZSL

The team also raised awareness for the conservation work of the Zoological Society of London. “The biggest secret was the amount of conservation work ZSL did,” Richardson said. “The threatened closure was a very high profile story and it triggered one of the main national television stations to make a thirty-minute documentary on the conservation work done by ZSL and that opened peoples’ eyes to seeing they had a valuable institution worth saving.” Richardson left the zoo as Curator of Mammals.

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

Richardson went on to become Zoological Director of the Rome Zoo. His responsibility was to bring the zoo into the modern era. “There had been nothing built at the zoo since the early 1950s so I had to rebuild virtually the entire zoo,” he articulated. “There was a huge amount of money from the city of Rome to do development. We took care of the worst exhibit first and built a new bear facility. Then we revamped the reptile house, the giraffe house, the children’s zoo and the ape house. In the reptile house, we included features like skylights that could open over every single one of the reptile habitats to allow natural light in and we had the most active reptiles I’ve seen in any zoo.”

@ Bioparco di Roma

His time at London had taught Richardson how to work around historic buildings and this experience was also key to Rome’s development. “It was a site of architectural importance so I repurposed buildings you can’t change,” he added. At the same time, Richardson was managing the entire animal department. He successfully elevated the husbandry and care of the Rome Zoo’s residents.

@ Bioparco di Roma

Next, Richardson moved to Mountain View Conservation Center in British Columbia, a private breeding center. Its specialties included Indian rhinos, Masai giraffes, gazelles and African wild dogs. “We probably had the most extensive gazelle collection outside of the San Diego Safari Park,” Richardson said. “I managed the animals in an appropriate way and improving breeding and survival rates was a significant step forward.” However, the experience turned out to be mixed. “It started out great but became problematic,” Richardson remembered. “I will never work for a privately owned institution again. Eventually, the facility ended up closing.

@ Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Next, Richardson had a three-year stint as a Curator of the Singapore Zoo. During this time, much was accomplished. “We built a state-of-the-art sun bear habitat (who before had been living in the last of the old-style habitats) and revamped older parts of the zoo,” Richardson elaborated. “They had built a new Komodo dragon exhibit so I developed the old one and the area around it into a large natural sun bear habitat with extensive aviary-style holding areas. The cat off-exhibit holding areas were dated so I improved the infrastructure and made it a better area for the cats and safer for the keepers. We also reorganized all the groupings for babirusas at the zoo and Night Safari and got them breeding again.”

@ Wildlife Reserves Singapore

@ Wildlife Reserves Singapore

The Singapore Zoo had a number of unique features. “We had a large off exhibit primate breeding area under me which had Douc langurs, purple faced langurs, Javan langurs and proboscis monkeys,” Richardson said. “It was an easier proposition to do it in Southeast Asia because a wide range of browse was readily available.”

@ Wildlife Reserves Singapore

@ Douglas Richardson

In 2008, Douglas Richardson became Animal Collection Manager for the Highland Wildlife Park, part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (which also oversees the Edinburgh Zoo.) “After being out of the U.K. for 10 years, I decided to go back,” he remarked. “I had been in communication with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and they suggested I take over animal management at the Highland Wildlife Park with the commitment of moving the collection forward.” The park focuses exclusive on cold-weather animals in large, spacious environments.

@ Douglas Richardson

@ Highland Wildlife Park

One of Richardson’s biggest accomplishments at the park has been opening a state-of-the-art polar bear habitat. “Our polar bear habitat makes the best American ones look a touch small as we have 10 acres for them,” he elaborated. The park took an entirely different approach to exhibiting polar bears from other zoos. “We manage polar bears in a completely different way,” Richardson explained. “The primary enclosure barriers are a combination of deer fencing with an electrical component. That let us build very large enclosures very cheaply. The first polar bear habitat cost $200,000 [compared to millions of dollars for smaller bear habitats in America.] you don’t need to spend millions to build good animal habitats.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Douglas Richardson

When the facility was built, polar bears were practically extinct in British zoos. “All of the enclosures for polar bears were traditional concrete ones and the species became the posterchild of the anti-zoo movement,” Richardson commented. “Under pressure, all UK zoos started phasing polar bears out. It was fair to a degree as the way polar bears were being kept was not really acceptable. Our original polar bear was the last zoo specimen in the UK. She was a female from Edinburgh they wanted to move out. I proposed we’d use her as the test animal for the new fence. The original enclosure now houses two adult males with a completely separate female facility on the other side of the park.”

@ Douglas Richardson

@ Highland Wildlife Park

The new facility has allowed guests to experience and observe polar bears in a way they never had before. “The space and climate we provide the polar bears makes a big difference,” Richardson claimed. “We see a completely different level of activity when we have snow. We keep the males together as they are more social than females and keeping a male on its own is a big problem.” Recently, the Highland Wildlife Park welcomed the first birth of a polar bear in the U.K. in 25 years.

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

From early in his career, Richardson focused on the professional status of zookeepers. “I and some other Scottish colleagues were responsible for triggering the first national keeper training course, which has evolved into something international in scope,” he stated. “Raising the vocational status and professionalism of zookeepers is something I’m quite proud of.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Richardson also encouraged innovation among his staff. “My most important contribution from an animal point of view was persuading people not to do the same thing but to try different things like keeping polar bear behind deer wire fence,” he reflected. “A lot of zoos would not feel comfortable trying something like that.” Several projects have been completed under his watch. “We built the Amur tiger exhibit, which you’ll see people pass their photographs off as being from the Russian Far East,” Richardson said. “We manage tigers as a family group where the male is run with the female and cubs. Keeping an adult male separate from the cubs is not good for him and is not what happens in the wild. Recently I designed and built a large off exhibit breeding facility for Amur leopards”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

They will not be seen by the public as the facility is specifically designed to produced cubs for the planned reintroduction project in Russia. “Because of the nature of the facility, the cubs we produce will not have been habituated to humans and so will be candidates for the Russian reintroduction program,” Richardson remarked. “Back in the early 1990s, I was asked how we could go about reintroducing tigers and I developed a basic plan of having tigers in large enclosures within the release site, breed and have the offspring go out of the habitat. [While that never happened,] that plan was picked up for Amur leopards for the reintroduction program. Given our climate and space, Amur leopards were a good fit for us. I wanted to do an exhibit at first but realized we had so much space we could build habitats where the leopards were not habituated to people. That reduces the time required to have cubs ready for release by about five years.” Guests have understood why they can’t see the cats. The public is fascinated that we have a high profile animal we’re not letting anybody see,” Richardson added.

@ Douglas Richardson

To Richardson, animal care and exhibitry go hand in hand. “There has to be high quality animal care but a lot of it is down to exhibits,” he explained. “Spending millions of dollars just on creating an environment out of gunnite, steel and plastic is not necessarily good animal welfare. Very often the habitat is purely the stage and the animals are the living props. I build enclosures that are bio-functional and address the actual behavioral needs of the animal, not the human based idea of the environment they’re supposed to be in. Almost every African plains exhibit I’ve seen is inaccurate as you’ll have animals from southern and eastern Africa roaming together. It just hints of Africa.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Richardson served as the primary author of the EAZA statement on zoo euthanasia, one of the most controversial practices. “No one goes into the zoo world to euthanize healthy animals but, if we’re going to be managing populations, we need to be pragmatic,” he articulated candidly. “It’s difficult as zoos have avoided speaking about the pros and cons of zoo euthanasia. A lot of animals are kept alive way longer than they should be and their quality of life is significantly compromised. We should be making sound welfare decisions based on quality of life.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Richardson addressed the central issues and complexities which come with population management. “If you’re dealing with a species of ungulate that lives in harem groups, you’re going to have more males than you need,” Richardson stated. “Do you expend resources maintaining all these males, many of which will have little value to a breeding program? If we don’t make some of the hard decisions, we compromise our conservation capacity.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Richardson has helped Highland Wildlife Park expand its conservation work. “We just sent European beavers to a reintroduction project in southwest Scotland,” he stated. “I’m also helping to develop a breeding center for the saola and large-antlered muntjac (both critically endangered ungulates that were only described in the 1990s) in Vietnam. I’ve been fundraising for the design and construction of that breeding facility and am on the steering committee for saola as the captive management expert. We’re looking to actually start capturing saola in the summer and are doing a test drive with the muntjac. Along with one of our ungulate keepers, some of my colleagues from America and I are advising on the establishment of a managed population of saiga antelope in range countries. There’s a fairly wide range of things we do.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

“I think zoos are going to become even more important in their conservation work and surpass traditional conservation support organizations,” Richardson reflected. “Since there are so many fragmented populations [of wild animals,] our expertise is required. Our skills in managing small populations are needed to manage the decreasing and fragmented wild ones. U.K. zoos have been punching above their weight given we have almost no funding at all.”

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

“Zoos need to focus more on animal welfare,” Richardson continued. “We need to review space. For instance, if you go to an urban zoo and see a pair of bison, you’re not really seeing European bison. Here you can see a herd of 24- that’s seeing European bison and how they interact. Zoos need to review the species that they focus upon given their individual resources. No urban zoos in the U.K. have polar bears or elephants anymore nor should they. They need larger areas than urban zoos can generally provide.

@ Highland Wildlife Park

@ Highland Wildlife Park

Richardson takes great pride in the accomplishments he has made in animal welfare throughout his career but helping save the saola would be the icing on the cake. “If we bring saola back from the brink of extinction, that will be my proudest achievement,” Richardson concluded. He continues to advocate for the wellbeing of animals both in zoos and the wild.

@ Douglas Richardson

#HighlandWildlifePark #RomeZoo #SingaporeZoo #BronxZoo #EdinburghZoo #LondonZoo #HowlettsWildAnimalPark

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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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