Living Landscapes: A Conversation with Fred Koontz, Retired Vice President of Conservation at Woodla

Fred Koontz is an expert in the science of small population management and understands the opportunity zoos can play in that realm. He worked at the Bronx Zoo as Curator of Mammals at a time when the zoo was dramatically growing its involvement in insitu conservation. After a 13 year absence from the zoo industry, he became Vice President of Conservation at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in 2011. During his six years there, Koontz developed a living landscape program for the Pacific Northwest, tied the zoo's new Banyan Wilds with a commitment to Malayan tiger conservation and changed the way the institution talked about conservation. Here is his story.

@ Fred Koontz

Fred Koontz came into the zoo world when science was beginning to become a much larger part of the equation. “When SSPs (Species Survival Plans) started in 1981, zoos made a step forward to being science based,” he remarked. Wanting to continue in this direction, the Bronx Zoo started a curatorial training program to groom Ph.D. scientists to become animal people in zoos. After spending six years at the National Zoo as a Smithsonian Predoctoral Fellow and completing his PhD in Zoology, Koontz came over to the Bronx Zoo in 1984. “The idea was the Bronx Zoo was looking to train scientists as curators through an internship program that taught them the practical aspects of managing an animal collection,” Koontz elaborated. “I was fortunate enough to get picked by Jim Doherty (the zoo’ s longtime general curator) and was supposed to do the internship for 18 months but 12 months in they had an opening for an assistant curator. I was delighted to get chosen as Assistant Curator and spend ten years working for Jim.”

@ Fred Koontz

Koont’z interests aligned well with those of the SSPs and wildlife conservation. “I was interested in the science of captive breeding programs and in zoos undertaking conservation projects,” he explained. “In the late 1980s, there were a number of new advisory groups in AZA helping to make that possible.” Koontz would become heavily involved in the development of several of these AZA committees, including the Small Population Management Advisory Group, Old World Monkey Taxon Advisory Group and the Field Conservation Committee.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

As much as zoos were interested in becoming more scientific and contributing directly to conservation of animals living in the wild, some animal care staff and zoo managers resisted this direction. This strained the relationships between people who grew up working in zoos and the scientists and field biologists the zoos began supporting. “There was a dynamic tension between the art and science of animal care,” Koontz reflected. “At times at the Bronx Zoo, there was a big divide between the field biologists and zoo staff. There was often a tension between how money was spent and where the emphasis should be. Where should limited conservation dollars be spent? At the zoo or in the wild? What is the purpose of a zoo? These questions are still being asked today.”

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“Even still, zoo biologists today all agree that ultimately our conservation goal is to save animals in nature,” Koontz continued. “The big issue is how can we make zoos as affective of a tool for saving wildlife as possible. We have all these zoos and a lot of investment in them, so the question is how can we maximize zoos’ contribution to wildlife conservation and creating a more sustainable world.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ WCS

During Koontz’ time at the Bronx Zoo, not only was the zoo itself in rapid growth through the leadership of Bill Conway but so was the conservation work done outside the zoo. Soon the New York Zoological Society, which operated the Bronx Zoo, became the Wildlife Conservation Society, reflecting a dramatic increase in the scope of its global conservation work. “It was a fantastic time to be there,” Koontz remembered. “Every year, we opened a major new exhibit while we continued to grow the field program. When I first came to the Bronx Zoo, there were only a couple of people in the field division while when I left 15 years later it was a $75 million annual operation. The future was in front of us and we were going to be more science based and effective in wildlife conservation.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

Koontz noted that in some ways zoo visionaries were a bit idealistic in their ambitions at the time. “In the beginning, we thought we were going to make faster progress in zoo-based breeding programs for endangered species and in the field conservation area,” he articulated. “By 1990, for many of us, it started to feel a bit overwhelming as the task was becoming greater and greater, whether the economics of building new exhibits or the challenge of a shrinking, overpopulated world. We weren’t quite as ambitious after that and we became more realistic in what we could do.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

One of Koontz’s first tasks was helping the Bronx Zoo get ready to open Jungle World, a milestone project recreating a Southeast Asian rainforest. Not only did it immerse guests into the environment but also told the story of the rainforest and the threats that faced it. “When I came, we were all hands-on deck for Jungle World,” Koontz remembered. “I helped Jim and the keepers acclimate animals to their exhibits and make sure everything was safe. I also carried out a few research projects. For example, we observed detailed spatial behavior of proboscis monkeys to get early warning of when to separate female juveniles before they were ostracized by their father.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ WCS

In 1987, the Bronx Zoo hosted giant pandas for a temporary six-month stay. “When the pandas were at the zoo, with the keepers’ help, we did a spatial study to improve the exhibit design so our guests could better see the often sleeping pandas,” Koontz noted. “We had to fly bamboo in from George and we were constantly watching and caring for these animal stars, along with the help of their accompanying Chinese expert team.” For nine years, Koontz and his wife (a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo) lived in one of the houses on zoo property. “We always had injured or sick animals at home that we were caring for and the job was 24/7,” Koontz mentioned.

@ Fred Koontz

One of Koontz’s responsibilities was finding gelada baboons for the award-winning Baboon Reserve, opened in 1990. “There weren’t enough gelada baboons in captivity to start a good long-term SSP so I traveled to Ethiopia and worked out a project where we’d catch wild baboons and in turn start a national park for the preservation of Gelada baboons. I was interested in connecting insitu conservation with zoo populations and this would have been an innovative effort to link a field park in a developing African country to a zoo exhibit and have wild founders of a zoo population managed properly from the beginning. Unfortunately, there was a coup in Ethiopia, the government changed over and all the people we made agreements with were replaced. Instead Jim had to gather up geladas from zoos all over the world. I always felt so bad about this outcome as it would have been an excellent model for linking an nature park with a zoo exhibit. Wildlife conservation is not easy!”

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Koontz felt the team at the Bronx Zoo when he was there was one of best in zoo history. “I liked very much working with Conway and Doherty,” he recalled. “Bill Conway was such an inspiration on the vision for zoos going into the future. That was the part that really inspired me. Meanwhile Jim was an expert on the art of zookeeping and knew how to design an exhibit that was safe for the animals, keepers and public but also worked for education. Between Doherty, Conway, John Gwynne, Lee Ehmke, Sue Chin and others, it was also an amazing place to be at to learn about zoo exhibit design. The reason we were building so many incredible natural looking exhibits was so zoos could teach ecology inspire people to connect with animals and want to save them in the wild. Conway and Doherty gave zoo jobs deep meaning. In those days, we felt we were changing the world.”

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One way in which the work of the Bronx Zoo and other institutions impacted the field of conservation was small population management. “Many conservation biologists today don’t appreciate the large role zoo biologists had in developing the science behind small population management of endangered species,” Koontz elaborated. “Zoos were among the first to manage the demographics and genetics of small populations and, through IUCN’s Captive Breeding Specialist Group (now Conservation Planning Specialist Group), led the way for managing many small populations in nature. It was exciting to apply to field projects the science we were doing in zoo management, particularly in the science of SSPs and how we’d structure AZA.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

This science encouraged collaboration among zoos. “Developing the science behind small populations and realizing no one zoo can keep enough of any animal [to save it] gave a new reason for zoos to work together,” Koontz explained. “We’re one of the few industries that cooperates [to such an extent.] We couldn’t do it otherwise. The SSPs were instrumental in creating cooperation between zoos and making a statement that zoos were about conservation.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

SSPs represented a major change in the way zoos managed populations, especially for mammals and birds that were becoming more difficult to obtain from the wild. “Once we defined our collection animals as founders from the wild and their descendants, we largely considered our populations as ‘closed’ to further wild import,” Koontz stated. “The aim in most cases was to increase their numbers to an appropriate level to maintain 90% of their genetic diversity of the zoo population for one hundred years. The idea was to keep zoo animals that would have the genetic opportunity to be reintroduced to the wild if they needed some day. Over the years, we realized that reintroducing zoo animals from the zoo would be limited. This is not to say unimportant; just limited due to loss of habitat and high cost of such efforts. We did consider other methods, for example, “extractive reserves” where we would work with managers of natural areas to conserve wild populations in nature and carefully select some individual animals from time to time to send to zoos as ambassadors.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Soon, Koontz’s role at the Bronx Zoo would change. “In the early 1990s, a number of businesses were starting learning departments and I convinced Conway and Doherty to let me move from being a mammal curator and start the Bronx Zoo’s Science Resource Center,” he recalled. “The center was about trying to use the zoo through technology to enhance the field conservation division. For instance, we helped do the first satellite tracking of forest elephants in Cameroon by using zoo elephants to test and develop the equipment. Also, Bronx Zoo Ornithology Curator Chris Shepherd wanted to increase incubation success of white-naped cranes so, working with Chris and Dr. George Stetten, we developed an artificial radio telemetry egg that was switched with a real crane egg under the nest, which let the birds actually incubate it and us measure continuously the temperature, humidity and rate of the egg turning.”

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“My most memorable research conservation program was a translocation of howler monkeys in Belize from 1992 to 1994, which I was co-leader on with Dr. Rob Horwich and Ernesto Saqui,” Koontz continued. “With the help of a large team, including Drs. Ken Glander, Wendy Westrom, Scott Silver and Linda Ostro, we translocated 64 howler monkeys from 14 troops into the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, where the monkeys had become locally extinct, and the team studied them for six years. The translocation worked and this new population continues to survive and grow today. I am most proud of this project because it involved zoo staff, field biologists, graduate student researchers and the local community members- all working as one learning team.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

In 1998, Koontz left the zoo industry. “I had been at the Bronx Zoo for 15 years and I started to feel like I wanted to do more field work and less zoo work,” he explained. Koontz went on to spend 12 years working as International Program Director for Wildlife Trust and Executive Director of Teatown (a Hudson Valley nature center.) However, in 2011 he would come back to his zoo roots. “I always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest and Deborah Jensen (then Director of Woodland Park Zoo) was looking for someone with zoo, education and international field experience,” Koontz remarked. “I decided it was a great opportunity and next thing you know I was moving to Seattle.”

@ Fred Koontz

@ Woodland Park Zoo

One of the nation’s premier zoos, Woodland Park Zoo was becoming more invested in field conservation. “Deborah was very interested in field conservation and their primary project was Lisa Dabek’s tree kangaroo program,” Koontz said. “Deborah wanted the zoo to be a leader in field conservation. I was coming full circle in my career. I had started my career in zoos and thought it would it would be nice to finish up my career by coming back to zoos and reconnecting with zoo colleagues.” Dabek’s renowned tree kangaroo project in Papua New Guinea was used as the standard to drive the zoo’s conservation efforts. “Deborah was very open to working together to develop the field program and I used Lisa’s project as a model to convince people zoos were no longer just interested in just doing species conservation but also ecological and habitat conservation. We’d use an endangered species as an ambassador to start a broader conservation dialogue with the local community.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

This led to a holistic approach to conservation at Woodland Park Zoo. ‘We started to blend the concept of ‘living landscapes’ as what we’re after- a place where people, biodiversity and protected areas coexist,” Koontz elaborated. “The strategy was to get people to understand why we wanted wildlife conservation as a key component of healthy living. Human kind is facing its biggest challenge ever, creating a sustainable planet. We want zoos to be part of this revolution to create a sustainable world and wildlife diversity is a big part of that. The projects [we did] were really just entry points to get into a region, work with local communities and start to shape values of human behavior to be consistent with creating a sustainable world. It’s valuable, of course, to save endangered species but the added value is to convince and help people to create a sustainable world. We thought the regional approach would help people be more likely to engaged."

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo had already supported seven long-term field projects in Asia and Africa that together were called Partners for Wildlife to focus its conservation efforts. “We created an eighth one called Living Northwest, [for which] we got more involved with a long-time collaborator, Washington State’s Fish and Wildlife Department, and became more involved in local projects,” Koontz commented. “We reframed it as why we want these animals in Washington State and how protecting wildlife diversity is essential to having a high quality of life here. We talked with the public about things such as the ecological benefits of carnivores. We want wolves in Washington because predators are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems. We need to make our living landscapes sustainable and livable for all people and wildlife.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“We hired a carnivore biologist, Dr. Robert Long, who worked on restoring predators,” Koontz continued. “We hired him to put an emphasis on carnivore conservation in Washington State. I got quite involved in the policy of the Fish and Wildlife Department and the zoo hosted a brainstorming meeting on wildlife leaders in the area to discuss how state wildlife agencies can take on a larger and more diverse conservation mission.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

In 2015, Woodland Park Zoo opened Banyan Wilds, modern habitats for Malayan tigers and sloth bears. In connection, the zoo became an active participant in Malayan tiger conservation. “My first assignment in 2011 was to develop a tiger project in Malaysia so we’d have a project we could tie in with the exhibit when it opened,” Koontz remarked. “In 2012, we formed a partnership with Panthera and started a ten-year commitment to develop and donate million dollars to a tiger project in Malaysia. The whole project is up and running today around Taman Negara, a key national park in Malaysia and our local partner organization Rimba is doing a great job. I’m proud the new exhibit gave a financial and programmatic commitment to a specific site in the species range and a direct linkage to the field program.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

The interpretive signs of Banyan Wilds were all connected to the project. “In the exhibitry and graphics, we talked about what the zoo and its partners were doing for tigers in Malaysia,” Koontz commented. “There’s a media board with pictures from Malaysia. The newsletters and website highlighted their work and we had a volunteer tiger team for the first year give extra lectures and events. Many field programs have one-two years of funding but the tradition at Woodland Park Zoo is to stick with projects long-term. All the other landscape projects we’d been doing for many years- Hutan in Borneo supporting elephants and hornbills, Siberia with the International Crane Foundation [and so forth.]”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“The biggest change [I brought to Woodland Park Zoo] was talking about why we’re doing conservation,” Koontz reflected. “The idea of a living landscape is showing we’re not just about saving species but helping people create a more sustainable world for all. We even held discussions sessions at a local pub where people would have their burgers and beer and I’ve had field biologists discuss topics like conserving predators. It was all adults and helped engage a new zoo audience of young millennials. We did four of those sessions a year.” In 2015, Jensen left the zoo and Alejandro Grajal took her place, with a focus more on “using the zoo to leverage social change.” In 2017, Koontz retired.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“I think zoos need to be move involved in their own local community conservation,” Koontz elaborated. “In the U.S., we need to get more integrated with state fish and wildlife agencies and help people learn about the conservation needs of animas where they live. Zoos have to demonstrate they’re making a difference on the ground and that the world is different from an ecological point of view because we have zoos. Zoos need to get more involved in policy and be more hands on in their own communities. One of many legacies of the city zoo phenomenon was zoos did not get involved in local politics, but now that they’re mainly nonprofit directed, they have the opportunity to get more involved in policy issues. That’s hugely important as, if we get more involved in policy, people can see the balance of what we do and why zoos are important.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“Today, in any of the developing countries, you can find someone well informed, passionate and who wants to make a difference,” Fred Koontz concluded. “This was not the case when I started my career. My generation created an infrastructure for conservation biologists around the world and now they are leading important conservation projects worldwide. That new human resource is our biggest success.” He felt one thing hadn’t changed. “I still think the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo is the best zoo in the world,” Koontz added with a smile.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

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