Desert Conservation Through Preservation, Education and Appreciation: A Conversation with Allen Monr

While his background lies primarily in aquariums, Allen Monroe was named President/CEO of The Living Desert in Palm Springs, California in 2014. The Living Desert is unique in the zoo world as it concentrates exclusively on animals from deserts around the world. Its mission is to achieve desert conservation through preservation, education and appreciation. Monroe is leading the zoo into the future. Here is his story.

@ The Living Desert

Allen Monroe’s fascination with nature began at a young age. “It all started with a love for animals,” he remembered. “We had many animals [I found] that spent time in our house. The rule with my parents was if I could catch it, I could keep it. That got me interested in zoology and conservation as a kid and led me to getting a conservation degree.” Monroe began his professional career by working with aquatic animals at the Fort Worth Zoo for a year before coming to the National Aquarium in Baltimore right after it opened in 1981. “I was an aquarist there and took care of what was called the Adaptations Gallery, which highlighted different aquatic species and their adaptations,” he remarked. “Fort Worth was my first exposure to the professional zoo world and what was involved in operating it while I was able to work with more animals and have a larger audience at the National Aquarium.”

@ National Aquarium

Monroe went on to work in the Aquatics building at the Oklahoma City Zoo. “After the success of the National Aquarium, many cities looked at how to build aquariums and the Oklahoma City was one of them,” he stated. “They got a new aquarium up and running. That was the first construction project I was involved as I dealt with all the different contractors and got the life support up and running. I was involved in the animal acquisition, which included native species from Oklahoma and tropical fish.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Then, Monroe went to the Indianapolis Zoo, which was being rebuilt at a new location. The new zoo would incorporate extensive aquatic elements. “Indianapolis Zoo was a career opportunity and I moved from animal technician to curator,” Monroe elaborated. “Based upon my experience with construction, I was able to become curator and work with designers in the final year of construction. The Indianapolis Zoo was themed around biomes and I was responsible for the Waters Building.” The area featured dolphins, polar bears, sea lions, walruses, penguins, sharks and other aquatic species. “One of the most exciting things we did was we had a collection of tufted puffins and were able to get those species to breed,” Monroe said. “We got to do some incubation studies and worked with the birds to determine incubation temperatures.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Monroe went on to work at the Oregon Coast Aquarium as Director of Animal Husbandry and Life Support prior to it opening to the public. “I worked with exhibit designers and contractors during the last year of construction to fine tune construction efforts,” Monroe recalled. “I was able to hire the staff, acquire the animals and put in place policies, procedures and programs.” The aquarium focused exclusively on animals endemic to the waters off the Oregon Coast. “They were fortunate as they have a diversity of popular and colorful animals to choose from whether starfish, giant Pacific octopus, seals, sea lions and otters,” Monroe commented.

@ Oregon Coast Aquarium

@ Oregon Coast Aquarium

“One of the challenges [at Oregon Coast Aquarium] was dealing with an open sea water system,” Monroe explained. “You’re importing a wide variety of animals in that water so typical quarantine is not really possible in preventing exposure to organisms. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the highest level of water quality and keep the animals in a health state. You also have issues with bio-fowling as all those mussles and barnacles love to be inside pipes. It took skill and finesse to manage those systems and clean them up.”

@ Oregon Coast Aquarium

@ Oregon Coast Aquarium

In 1997, Monroe went to become Director of the Capital of Texas Aquarium, which was never built. “I had the opportunity to bring my skills in aquarium operations to a city that was landlocked and didn’t have a major zoo or aquarium,” he remembered. “There was an abandoned power plant [where we were going to build the aquarium] and I thought it was a good opportunity to invest back into it. I started a private nonprofit, worked on building a board of directors and worked to talk to the city about the potential of that power plant. After several years of effort, the economy changed on us and the facility never got built.”

@ Oregon Coast Aquarium

After several years, Monroe continued to move forward in the profession. “I was disappointed we never got the Capital of Texas Aquarium off the ground but I was still passionate about telling aquatic stories,” he noted. In 2010, Monroe became Director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “The aquarium was state-run and had been remodeled,” he said. “They had brought in larger, more modern facilities. One of them was taking advantage of the nature resources we had there. The coast of North Carolina is great sea turtle habitat and breeding ground so we worked on sea turtle head start programs and beach community efforts to give the sea turtles a better chance of survival. That helped make sure the nests were protected and beach lights were turned off.”

@ NC Aquariums

@ NC Aquariums

The aquarium became a leader in sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation. “We had a program where we’d explore nests after [the turtles] emerged, find hatchlings too weak to get out, take them to the aquarium, raise them and release them into the wild,” Monroe stated. “One of the challenges is there’s these massive cold fronts on coastal areas and sea turtles, if they haven’t migrated, become subject to hypothermia and wash up on the shore. We’d have dozens of sea turtles brought to us any given day who were in such a cold state they couldn’t move. We would develop techniques to slowly get their temperature up again and get them into the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.”

@ NC Aquariums

@ NC Aquariums

The aquarium looked for ways to share these conservation messages with guests. “We imagined from a young kid’s perspective what the sea turtle rehab facility was like,” Monroe remarked. “The folks at [North Carolina Aquarium at] Roanoke Island developed the process of kids pretending to be vets examining the sea turtles and we did that on a smaller scale. It was a roleplaying opportunity for kids that showed what was involved.”

@ NC Aquariums

@ NC Aquariums

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores also concentrated on finding better ways to communicate its work to guests. “We worked on ways to improve communications for guests about the activities we were involved in,” Monroe mentioned. “We developed a program that utilized our scuba diving system and merged it with 3D animation into a character who lived in a virtual world and engaged the educator. The scuba diver would give them a real-time reporter perspective of the topics discussed.”

@ NC Aquariums

@ NC Aquariums

In 2014, Allen Monroe left North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores to be CEO of The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, a zoo in Palm Desert dedicated to animals from arid zones around the world. “It was an institution I thought I could transition from being a good zoo to a great zoo,” he reflected. “It had a lot of great animals and land available.” For almost all of its history, The Living Desert had been directed by Karen Sausman, who built the institutions from the ground up over four decades. Monroe took over a few years after Sausman retired to take the institution to the next level.

@ The Living Desert

First, Monroe worked on getting the Living Desert’s finances in shape. “The zoo had some financial difficulties after the great recession so the first priority was to get its business practices in better shape,” he stated. “We began a fundraising campaign to build an endowment and have a revenue source independent of visitation. We raised over $20 million to give additional financial security and have money to invest in the future.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Next, the Living Desert developed a master plan to map out its future plans. “Prior to that master plan, The Living Desert had grown organically as donors wanted to fund this or that,” Monroe explained. “I brought in PGAV Destinations, a design firm that specializes in cultural attractions, to [design a master plan] that looked at the next twenty years of growth and development. It’s a road map for what the future can look like. [It examines] what is working well, what needs to be repurposed, what we should consider demolishing and what our new habitats might be.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

“We had some exhibits that were developed when the zoo first opened and essentially are rows of cages,” Monroe continued. “Clearly, the way animals are presented has changed so those were the first on the chopping block. We also had other facilities that were newer in design [and that we knew we wanted to keep] such as the great giraffe savanna exhibit. It’s a multi-acre habitat with no visible signs of containment and takes advantage of the mountain backdrops.”

@ The Living Desert

The first part of the masterplan is Crossroads for Conservation, which broke ground in early summer 2017. “It’s a $30 million project with three different phases,” Monroe elaborated. “Phase I opens in October 2018 and that’s a new visitor center and entry pavilion. We’re getting close to 500,000 guests a year so we needed a more modern ticketing booth, visitor amenities, a new gift shop and botanical gardens. Phase II is animal habitats for lions, spotted hyenas and black rhinos, which should open in 2020.” This will bring lions and rhinos to the Living Desert for the first time in its history. “We’ll tell their conservation stories,” Monroe added. “We are already doing programs in Africa and think we can tell that story better.”

@ The Living Desert

“[For the last phase,] we’re going to get a new special events center complete for our fiftieth anniversary,” Monroe said. “It will add new species with a great amount of public interests who serve as ambassadors to tell conservation stories. We want to encourage people of all ages to care more about the natural world and [think about how they] use natural resources, whether oil, water or land use.”

@ The Living Desert

Beyond Crossroads for Conservation, the master plan pointed out other potential area of growth. “We’re going to expand into Australian deserts,” Monroe claimed. However, the Living Desert will stay true to its premise of only housing desert animals. “We have pretty extreme temperatures in our desert so it doesn’t make much sense to bring in tropical species,” Monroe articulated. The upcoming additions will be engaging and educational. “We’re telling the stories of deserts all around the world and we’re not going to have a passive experience,” Monroe said. “You want to engage and interact in a deeper fashion.”

@ The Living Desert

A high priority for the Living Desert is providing behavioral enrichment for its animals. “We’re always working on improving animal welfare and we have an active enrichment program,” Monroe elaborated. “We have a large number of volunteers who help us with enrichment and develop devices that help animals with their natural senses and abilities. Our volunteer enrichment group helps us make pinatas and other things we can put in with the animals to use their natural abilities.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Recently, the Living Desert hired a Director of Conservation. “They’ll help coordinate activities and make them more meaningful,” Monroe stated. “Rather than just sending money to NGOs, we’re looking to partner with other organizations working in entire habitats and helping a variety of different species under threat. We’re taking a more holistic approach to our conservation efforts and have the opportunity to partner with local communities to recognize the variety in habitats and find win-wins with conservation incentives whether ecotourism or turning detriments like snares into jewelry.”

@ The Living Desert

Last year, the Living Desert created a campaign on cheetah conservation. “We branded all of our marketing and conservation efforts into Year of the Cheetah, playing off of Chinese zodiacs,” Monroe explained. “We chose the cheetah as the first animal to highlight in that regarded and renovated our cheetah exhibit to better tell the story of the cheetah’s plight and raise their profile. We started additional partnerships with NGOs like the Cheetah Conservation Fund, who are working to find novel solutions to help cheetahs in conflict with ranchers.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

“It’s the same kind of storytelling with all different types of animals,” Monroe claimed. “The issues are pretty much the same whether on land or water about the changes humans are making, deprivation of habitats and extraction of natural resources. All these [factors] are creating stress and concern in the natural world.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

The Living Desert is working to better show how it cares for its animals. “We’ve worked hard with the Director of Animal Care to make our animal care staff much more on the front of the house,” Monroe elaborated. “We’ve moved them to the front of exhibits to where they have opportunities to engage our guests and talk about their passion- animals and conservation. Before, we didn’t have any kind of animal chats while now we have 24 different animal chats on every single day. Guests can see a long list of opportunities to meet keepers for cheetahs, desert tortoises, peccaries [and other animals] and hear from the people who care for these animals. I think one on one connections with guests is much better than static graphics [as] they engage in storytelling opportunities.”

Benjamin R. @ Living Desert

The zoo has also created more opportunities for guests to interact with animals. For instance, it has increased its giraffe feeding opportunities. “There’s nothing better than getting eye to eye with a 19-foot tall, 2000-pound giraffe and seeing how long their eyelashes are,” Monroe noted. “That cements learning opportunities.” Due to the hot summers, the Living Desert has taken a different approach to celebrating World Giraffe day (normally on June 21. “In the zoo community, the Day of the Giraffe is held on the summer solstice, the slowest time of visitation here,” Monroe explained. “We play on the unbithday and celebrate the Day of the Giraffe on December 21st when the weather here is perfect.”

@ The Living Desert

“One of the things we do [on Day of the Giraffe] is we open up our giraffe exhibit to guests so they can go inside the habitat and go to educational stations set up to talk about the challenges giraffes face in the wild,” Monroe continued. “We found that an engaging way to get guests to see what it’s like from a giraffe’s perspective. After the guests leave, then we let the giraffes out.”

@ Living Desert

Monroe concluded by expressing great pride for the Living Desert and excitement for its future. He stressed it will become a great zoo with an even stronger emphasis on conservation.

@ The Living Desert

#LivingDesert #NorthCarolinaAquariumatPineKnollShores #NationalAquarium #OklahomaCityZoo #IndianapolisZoo

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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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