The Zoophoric Millennial: A Conversation with Grayson Ponti, Writer of Zoophoria (Interviewed by Bil

Grayson Ponti, 23, loves zoos and aquariums. A quick scan of his Facebook site and you will see pictures of him and his family visiting all sorts of institutions growing up. He has already visited over 75 of our accredited facilities with a goal to visit them all. About eighteen months ago he had the idea of interviewing as many of the past and current leaders in the zoo and aquarium profession and got the help of Jason Jacobs (CEO, Sacramento Zoo) and Rick Barongi (Former Director, Houston Zoo) to get started. Since then he has interviewed well over 200 experts within our field, including those that are retired, currently leading our institutions and associations, and up and coming leaders. Very few of us have the time or privilege to have these types of meaningful discussions with our peers and leaders, yet he has been doing just that about every other day.

@ Grayson Ponti

Like many, I enjoy reading Grayson’s interviews of our zoological leaders as I think our future is certainly born from our past. Although I have been privileged to consider many of his interviewees as friends over the years, it is wonderful to hear perspectives outside of the AZA conference environment. As a person that has been trying to improve the connection between young leaders and the organizations I work with, I thought it would be interesting to turn the tables on Grayson and get his perspective of all of the stories, advice and ideas he has received from zoo leaders.

@ Grayson Ponti

Although I met Grayson a few times virtually, I first got a chance to spend some uninterrupted time with him at a Thai restaurant in Washington DC harbor in December 2017. Although our dinner was an opportunity for me to interview Grayson about what he has been learning about the history and potential future of zoos and aquariums, it was pretty clear about five minutes into our dinner that Grayson had other ideas. Although I had written a small list of questions to better get his thoughts as a Millennial/GenZ about zoological organizations, Grayson had other motives. He had so many questions one after another that it was difficult to eat our Thai dinner, let alone get my questions answered. It was pretty clear who was interviewing who by the time appetizers were over.

@ Grayson Ponti

Since that “who is interviewing who” interview almost a year ago, Grayson has continued his engagement within our field. I was proud to consider him a part of our team at SeaWorld for the summer of 2018, and I have enjoyed our conversations at zoo and aquarium conferences and online often very late at night. Some of his other contributions to the zoological community have included writing the cover story of the Association of. Zoos and Aquariums' June 2018 edition of Connect magazine on sea turtle cold stunning and being a Wildlife Advocate for the Wildlife Conservation Society, working with WCS to educate elected officials on environmental priorities relevant to their public duties. I recently asked him for some additional thoughts since our first interview last year to gain some insight to what he has been witnessing. Here is what he said:

@ Grayson Ponti

You’ve now interviewed well over 200 of the past and present zoological leaders. What are three things that you have consistently heard from all of them? What is the most surprising thing you have heard?

One thing I like to say about the interviewees for Zoophoria is the are simultaneously very similar but also radically different. What I see across all of them is that zoos, aquariums and conservation is more than a job and even a career to them- it is a lifestyle. I have heard studies that zoo professionals have the same level of calling as priests and astronauts and, in my book, Zoophoria has confirmed that. You hear it in their voice and see it in their determination to solve problems and do right by animals.

@ Grayson Ponti

The three major points I see in what Zoophoria interviewees have had to say is zoos and aquariums have to provide exceptional animal welfare, contribute significantly to conservation and education and tell their stories better in order to stay relevant and have an impact. Just about every interviewee, old or young, zoo or aquarium, male or female, American or international, has said those points in so many words. From my perspective, it is agreed upon throughout the industry and its alumni that zoos and aquariums must take great care of their animals, protect animals in the wild and the public must know about that work.

@ Grayson Ponti

What differentiates each interviewee and makes their story interesting is their perspective and interpretation of how to achieve those goals and what the relevancy of zoos and aquariums is. Some interviewees have implied zoos and aquariums are doing exactly what they need to do while others have stated they have so much potential and need to do the three things mentioned above much, much better.

@ Grayson Ponti

Even the definition of what IS conservation and education is up in the air. Some professionals have suggested captive breeding and getting guests to see animals up close is conservation in itself. Others, particularly the visionaries of past generations and younger professionals, have insisted inspiration is not enough and conservation impact should be measured by in-situ dollars and resources. Views on education have a similar tension. Some interviewees have portrayed education in a zoo and aquarium setting as learning facts about animals and summer camp classes. Others articulated learning comes from entering emotional pathways in guests and education programs must be evaluated to prove guests are learning and fostering behavior change. There is a great variation in people's answers as to if many zoos and aquariums are making a substantial impact on wildlife conservation or if just a few are.

@ Grayson Ponti

This leads to the bigger conundrum- should zoos and aquariums proceed as they are or must they make radical physical and philosophical changes to be the best they can be? It seems to be agreed for the most part the basic concept of a zoo should stay the same- guests viewing a wide variety of exotic animals up close is a must. Multiple esteemed veterans of zoos and aquariums have articulated zoos as we know them today will continue as long as humans remain innately fascinated with exotic wildlife and have the desire to get close to it.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

The debate rises in how this concept should evolve, especially as there is great sensitivity and emotional investment on the part of the interviewees. Just about every significant change in the profession has involved significant tension and “cultural wars” in the profession- the development of Species Survival Plans and Taxon Advisory Groups being a great example. Some old-timers resented [and still do] the loss of biodiversity that came with focusing on certain species and phasing out others and being told whether or not they could breed their animals. However, many others saw SSPs and TAGs as vital to maintaining sustainable populations in North America and connecting the animals in zoos to a higher purpose.

@ Grayson Ponti

More recently, similar tensions have emerged related to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standards on elephants. Everyone cares about providing the best possible care but what is it- being able to go in with the elephants or taking a more hands-off, safer approach? While the concept of providing opportunities for guests to connect with exotic animals around the world and have a great day out has stayed the same, the specifics of what a modern zoo is have changed exponentially in the last 40, 20, 10 and even 5 years. I see no reason why that rate of growth will not continue.

@ Grayson Ponti

The most surprising thing I have heard actually came from a private conversation, not an interview. While getting a tour of the Jacksonville Zoo from Tony Vecchio, he told me a story of a time when he was presenting a poster on the evolution of zoos at an AZA conference. It discussed how zoos had moved away from cages and the older generation and evolved to natural habitats. Ted Reed (longtime director of the National Zoo and father of zoo luminary Mark Reed) came up to him and said politely, “We weren’t idiots. Back then zoo veterinary care was not well developed and putting animals [in sterile environments] was the best way to make sure they were healthy.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The comment stuck with Tony as it helped him realize it is an evolution and that the zoo professionals of the past were doing the best they could to help animals they could with the knowledge and resources they had even if some of their practices and infrastructures were archaic. It struck me as so often zoos and aquariums seem almost embarrassed of their past and the zoos of yesterday. I realized it is an evolution, just like the rest of society, and we could not be where we are today- naturalistic habitats, operant conditioning, environmental enrichment, positive reinforcement, animal welfare assessments, none of it- without what was learned from the past. The story of that evolution and what it means for the future of zoos, aquariums and animals in the wild is the heart and soul of what Zoophoria is all about.

@ Grayson Ponti

When we first met in Washington D.C., you had volunteered at a zoo but had not yet been employed by one. Last summer, you were an educator at SeaWorld. Tell me about that experience and what was most surprising to you?

You can take the boy out of the zoo but you can’t take the zoo out of the boy. From the time I was little, created zoos throughout the house with stuffed animals, visited every zoo in every city I visited and collected zoo maps and animal books. The moment I turned 13 I became a teen volunteer at the Central Florida Zoo. Throughout my teen years, I came out there twice a month showing guests biofacts and program animals (snakes, tortoises, rabbits, hedgehogs, toads, etc.) and telling them animal facts. While I loved it, I became intimidated realizing how talented animal care professionals were. Science was not my strongest subject and I had a conflicting dream in wanting to be an animator. I thought I could never be as good as the keepers I looked up to were.

Map of San Diego Zoo circa 2006 in Grayson's personal collection

At Kenyon College, I majored in English and saw myself becoming working at an environmental nonprofit or going to environmental law school. Leading tours at a nature center and volunteering at a farm continued to exercise my passion for nature. However, my heart still rested in zoos. During my senior year of college, it dawned on me there were jobs in zoos besides animal science and decided I would pursue being an educator or public relations person at a zoo or aquarium.

Vintage zoo postcards and photographs from Grayson's personal collection

Because of my degree, I focused on P.R. until I decided to go out on a whim and applied for the seasonal educator position at SeaWorld Orlando. It could not have been a more perfect opportunity for me. While I had volunteered at an elementary school twice a week in college, been a counselor at a writing camp and served as an AmeriCorps a Title 1 elementary school in Washington DC, SeaWorld let me apply what I already had known about teaching into a zoo/aquarium setting and learn what great informal environmental education is.

@ Grayson Ponti

Great education at an aquarium is not projecting a slide of a sand tiger shark and giving a lecture full of vocabulary and dry facts about sharks while passing around a shark jaw and doing the same thing for the nurse shark. It is “If you touch a stingray, one of the first things you’ll notice is that they’re slimy. That’s because they’re covered with mucus. YES, MUCUS! While we associate mucus with sinus infections. Their mucus is essential to their survival and is like their equivalent of sun screen and bug spray.” It has to be engaging, accessible and relevant. My SeaWorld experience was a great crash course in environmental storytelling, complete with a great toolbox of interpretation, connections, analogies and simple but compelling actions. I credit Sandi Shilling and Jim Stevens for showing me the “SeaWorld way” of narration.

@ Grayson Ponti

I learned quickly that, as a zoo/aquarium educator, the way you tell someone something is just as important if not more so than what you tell them. During my first week, the director of education John DeLuca told me “You can convince someone a stingray is a mammal if you’re passionate enough about it.” Because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s policy on staffing open water exhibits, I got to educate guests at almost every animal exhibit and gained ample experience talking to a wide variety of guests of different ages, backgrounds and interests and got opportunities to figure out how to best engage all of them. Also, each exhibit had a particular theme (change for Wild Arctic, celebrating differences for Pacific Point, learning for Dolphin Nursery, everyday heroes for Turtle Trek, etc.) but educators had the freedom to write their own talks. Basically, I was the mouthpiece for SeaWorld at every exhibit I worked.

@ Grayson Ponti

So much of what I learned at SeaWorld came from watching the techniques other educators used and incorporating them into my own tactics. The ones that inspired me the most were ones who focused on understanding more than on facts and used their personality to excite guests about the park’s animals. I constantly shared ideas with my peers and picked their brains on what they felt worked. I also incorporated some of my own ideas. For instance, I would sometimes play recycling games with kids as I felt that was a great way to instill an environmental ethic without getting preachy or over their head. One of the most important things I learned was to focus on one easy-to-do but compelling conservation/care message rather than a laundry list of distant actions.

@ Grayson Ponti

One of my best memories during my time at SeaWorld was, after giving a talk on the microphone about Sarah the manatee and how SeaWorld rescued and cared for her, talking with two teenage girls about how they could help manatees by picking up trash on waterways and listening to idle speed signs while boating and them saying “I think I can do that.” I wondered if building empathy for Sarah through personalizing her and using appropriate anthropomorphism led them to that conclusion. Either way it was pretty cool.

As for surprises, I think the biggest surprise was how much power to tell SeaWorld’s story, foster behavior change and help guests have a positive, educational experience I felt I had despite only being low on the totem pole. Being able to stand next to an animal, tell its story and help guests connect with it is simply magical. It’s the real deal.

@ Grayson Ponti

After working at SeaWorld and having interviewed so many zoo professionals, what do you think are the main similarities and differences between a for profit zoological organization (like Disney, the SeaLife Aquariums or SeaWorld) and a non-profit zoo/aquarium?

The short answer is the difference is not as vast as some might think. I have noticed there is tension in the zoo community about identifying as attractions. Some in the community imply zoos and aquariums are better than attractions as they are conservation organizations and are about more than entertainment. However, the reality is zoos and aquariums cannot deliver their missions or care for their animals unless they bring guests in and most guests come to zoos and aquariums for a fun day out. Nonprofit zoos and aquariums have to operate like a business and consider the guest experience whether they like to admit it or not.

@ Grayson Ponti

The main differences between nonprofit and for-profit zoological institutions are their structure and business model. For instance, SeaWorld is a publicly traded company with aggressive financial goals and a great deal of corporate red tape. This influences decisions and how the institution approaches marketing itself. A nonprofit zoo or aquarium’s business model is not as complex and is more straight forward in marketing itself. On the flip side, for-profit institutions do not have to deal with local governments and search for capital money/public funding.

@ Grayson Ponti

That said, a large percentage of people ultimately come to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Sea Life, etc. to see animals and their conservation, education and animal welfare goals are the same as nonprofit zoos. What they do have is the unique opportunity to bring in an audience that would not typically come to a traditional zoo/aquarium. One of the best things about working at SeaWorld was to have guests come in just wanting to have fun but leave wanting to help manatees, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other marine animals.

@ Grayson Ponti

Zoos and aquariums often talk about connecting with Millenials and GenZ audiences, but I think most organizations would say they need to improve. Being in that generation, how do you think zoos and aquariums need to change to become more relevant to these audiences?

The zoo and aquarium community has talked extensively about the need to be relevant to millennials and GenZ audiences (and substantial numbers of both visit and support their facilities) but I often wonder if the way they approach this issue is the most effective. Most conversations on the issue I see focus on animal rights activists and perception, but I feel the question at hand is part of a much larger shift in how people interact, communicate and process information that impacts so much more than zoos.

@ Grayson Ponti

A lot of things are happening at once. The most obvious is society is urbanizing and, combined with the rise of technology, becoming more and more separated from nature. There are so many things that make noise in people’s day to day lives it’s easy for people to forget there are beautiful ecosystems and wildlife just under our nose. If you live in New York, you probably don’t realize there are seahorses under the Brooklyn Bridge and coyotes roaming Central Park.

@ Audubon Society

Second, there is so much information available at people’s disposal it has become democratized. In the 1970s if you wanted to go out to eat and see a good movie, you’d read informed reviews by food and film critics. Now you look at Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes. No one person is your expert- your phone is the expert. Because of social media, a wider variety of opinions have a mouthpiece and influence without being discerned as legitimate. While older generations tended to be very set in their ways and priorities, newer generations are much more malleable and quick when it comes to changing opinions.

@ Grayson Ponti

Third, the political and social climate has made younger generations more cynical in their perceptions of organizations, particularly for profit ones. Unlike previous generations, millennials and GenZ audiences care about supporting good causes and are more likely to question the intentions of others. In a zoo and aquarium setting, it matters greatly to them that animals are well taken care of and the organization supports conservation. These are essentials, not add-ons to a place to have a great time.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

Finally, the advancement of technology and access that comes with it has taken away the specialty of seeing something. For instance, it used to be you could only see a Disney animated classic every seven years in the cinema or you would have to wait seven more years to see it with the next generation of kids. Now you can download every one of them on the internet. I suspect young people take for granted how special it is to see an elephant, gorilla, tiger or polar bear in the flesh as it’s easy for them to say they can just see a nature documentary.

@ Grayson Ponti

Rather than just trying to improve perception, zoos and aquariums need to break these barriers mentioned above to best connect with millennial and generation Z audiences. The greatest asset and appeal zoos and aquariums have is they are an escape from the things that make noise in society- real animals, connection with nature, opportunity to get away from technology, etc. A number of zoos have done unique after-hours events geared towards young adults that have been very popular and a great way to market towards that demographic. Some successful examples of this include the Shedd Aquarium's Jazzin at the Shedd and a number of zoos capitalizing on the Pokemon Go Craze in 2016. Some zoos have even gone as far as to do a zoo camp sleepover for adults.

@ Shedd Aquarium

There are a number of ideas that could help zoos and aquariums bring in and engage these audiences- digital media (Cincinnati Zoo's chronicle of Fiona the hippo being a great example), partnerships with well-respected groups (millennials love Animal Planet so they watch The Zoo, etc.), bipartisan advocacy groups and campaigns (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Palm Oil App, WCS’s 96 Elephants, Woodland Park Zoo's Seattle Youth Climate Action Network and Zoos Victorias’ Don’t Wipe Us Out being good examples) and accessible storytelling all being good examples. Putting zoos and aquariums on top of peoples’ minds by doing unexpected, hip, out-of-the-box events and initiatives is a great way to expand their audiences and find more people to invest in conservation.

@ Animal Planet

@ Cassandre Crawford

Another asset I see is having staff on grounds to talk to guests. Millennials and GenZ audiences tend to value personal interaction. Having educators and keepers talk to them directly is a great way to do that. Last, make compelling messaging that is quick, easy to understand and compelling. Our society and media moves so fast it’s hard to get millennials to stop and read a sign. Don’t give a lecture- come up with a cool slogan and logo. Come out and hook them in. The more we reach out to Millennial and GenZ audiences, tell them our story and make them realize they can have relevant experiences and help save species by visiting our institutions, the more successful I believe we will be in engaging this demographic and winning their confidence.

@ Grayson Ponti

I know that you are always trying to connect with past zoological leaders to interview them. What is one leader that is no longer with us that you didn’t interview but wish you could have, and why?

Tough choice but I’d have to say Charlie Schroeder as he was such a prominent figure during a turning point in zoos and his vision for the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park foreshadowed a lot of the innovation we’ve seen in the last 40 years. Schroeder established a sense of self in San Diego at a time when many zoos thought of still themselves as simply a collection of animals. It would be interesting to talk about how his vision has and hasn’t been realized and how he helped plant the seeds for zoo’s becoming conservation organizations.

@ Rick Barongi

A few other contenders- definitely William Hornaday as he established the values of conservation and education at the National Zoo and Bronx Zoo (where he served as its first director) long before AZA even existed. I would like to talk about his thoughts on the second golden age of the Bronx Zoo under Bill Conway, Jim Doherty, John Gwynne and others and ask him if he had those type of ideas all along. Also, definitely George Rabb (Brookfield Zoo) and Clayton Freiheit (Denver Zoo) as I’ve talked to many of the other silverbacks from their generation and feel the story feels incomplete without them. Rabb passed away two months after Zoophoria started and I regret greatly not getting in touch with him in time as he was such an important player. The zoo educator side of me wishes I had talked to Jeff Swanagan (Columbus Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, Florida Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium) and Carol Saunders (Brookfield Zoo) as they were so influential in the development zoo education. Last, I would have loved to talk to Marvin Jones as his knowledge of zoo history was unparalleled.

@ WCS

Now that you have talked to so many people, you have a unique and informed perspective that many of us don’t have (unless of course you have read all of the interviews on Zoophoria). If you could have the zoological field change one thing, what would it be?

Simple- have them do more of what they already do and be bolder. Zoos and aquariums have the perfect infrastructure to facilitate conservation action and social change but, as Brad Andrews (former Chief Zoological Officer of SeaWorld-Busch Gardens) once told me, they have to do it "smarter, better, faster." The sixth mass extinction crisis is happening now and we do not have time to sit on our hands. The zoological community is filled with bright, dedicated people with a lot of ideas that are sometimes discouraged because of time, money and fear. We need to find ways to make those innovative ideas happen and be open to doing everything we do better. I see some truly spectacular exhibits, programs and conservation initiatives but feel they could do even more if zoos and aquariums work more closely together and truly mobilize their audiences into a movement for conservation.

@ Grayson Ponti

One of my favorite sayings is the Jeff Swanagan quote "Touch the heart to teach the mind." That's the first step but if we can use it to convince everyone who steps foot in an accredited zoological institution that saving species is relevant to their everyday life and mobilize them to take conservation action, we can really make a difference.

@ Grayson Ponti

Bill Street has been a leader in zoo/aquarium conservation and education for the past 25 years, having worked at SeaWorld Orlando, Shedd Aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. From 2011 to 2018, he served as. Corporate Curator of Conservation at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens and was heavily involved in the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. He served as Grayson's corporate boss while at SeaWorld and has served as an important mentor to him. In 2019, Bill will become Senior Vice President at the Indianapolis Zoo.

@ Grayson Ponti


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