A Conversation with Elaine Bensted, CEO of Zoos South Australia

@ Zoos SA

Elaine Bernsted became Chief Executive of Zoos South Australia (which manages the Adelaide Zoo and Monarto Zoo) in 2012 after being Chief Executive of TAFE. “The zoos had expert staff in animal management but they were in financial trouble,” she recalled. “The board was looking for someone who had been schooled in budget, finance, marketing and promotion. They thought my expertise could be applied to the zoos.”

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

@ Zoos SA

A private organization, Zoos SA was in debt. “They borrowed money to do required capital improvements but ended up with a debt they weren’t able to repay,” Bensted explained. “There was uncertainty about how we’d turn that around. We did the same thing you do in any business. We looked at our expenditure, became more efficient in what we spent money on and our use of staff and raised different forms of revenue to bring in money. Our expenditure is the same as it was before but our revenue is now much higher. We’ve been able to start repaying our loan and investing in new facilities.”

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

The team at Zoos SA found innovative ways to earn revenue. “We focused on our membership programs and have had a 76% increase,” Elaine Bensted remarked. “We run a lot more events and education programs. We put a focus on corporate sponsorship where we give a company free zoo tickets and they give us something for free. It was a combination of getting more people to the zoo, more members and more revenue streams [that let us turn around financially.]” Even during this time, both zoos remained committed to having resources for optimal animal welfare. “We’ve got highly educated and talented animal staff and always look at how we can continue to improve that,” Bensted added.

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

Zoos SA has been working on long-term planning. “We have a 20-year master plan of how we want both our sites to look at,” Bensted articulated. “We also have key performance indicators throughout our business to give staff more certainty of direction and how we’re going. The master plan asks the question of what we’d like the zoos to look like in 20 years time and how we can make our decisions in that long-term context. At Monarto, we’re going to build a new entry on the other side of the zoo and introduce accommodation and early morning and evening safari tours to make use of sunrises and sunsets.”

@ Zoos SA

Geoff Brooks @ Zoos SA

In 2017, the Monarto Zoo opened Lions360, a groundbreaking animal experience. “Lions360 reversesthe concept of a traditional zoo exhibit,” Elaine Bensted explained. “People walk through a tunnel and come out in a dome in the middle of our 25-acre lion habitat. People pop up in the cage and the lions might be next to them or jump on top of the dome. You’re surrounded by lions.”

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

“At Adelaide Zoo, we opened a playground built on nature play principles,” Bensted stated. “It tests children of all ages and abilities to engage in nature. It has elevated walkways with ropeways [and other experiences.] It was developed to meet the needs of children with different psychological and physical needs and has been extremely popular.” Among the zoos’ future plans include a new gorilla exhibit, a habitat for Sri Lankan leopards, the addition of more white and black rhinos to Monarto and the possible addition of African elephants to Monarto.

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

Zoos SA has the advantage of having two very different facilities, the Adelaide Zoo and the Monarto Zoo. While the Adelaide Zoo is a smaller city zoo, the Monarto Zoo is a large open-range zoo. “They are two very different properties,” Elaine Bensted elaborated. “Adelaide Zoo is in walking distance of the city district but is very lush and makes you feel miles away from the city. Monarto Zoo is an hour’s drive from Adelaide and the largest zoo in Australia by a long way. There we have the opportunity to hold large groups of different species. [For instance,] at the city zoo we have a pair of lions while we have a pride of 11 lions at Monarto.”

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

@ Zoos SA

“I love the island with our White-Cheeked Gibbons and Siamangs in big trees at the Adelaide Zoo,” Bensted remarked. “We also have a great rainforest aviary where you can see all the birds together. At Monarto Zoo, I love driving through the African Plains with the giraffes, zebras, elands and ostriches. It’s got a very open African feel.”

@ Zoos SA

@ Zoos SA

The Adelaide Zoo is the only zoo in the southern hemisphere to exhibit giant pandas. “They are really popular and attract a large number of visitors who come just to see the giant pandas,” Bensted noted. “We provide funding support to China that helps with giant panda conservation and we’re hopeful the pandas will breed here in the future.”

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

Animal welfare is at the heart and soul of everything done at Zoos SA. “We use the five-domain process developed by the Massey Institute,” Bensted elaborated. “For every animal, we ask how we can maximize opportunities for positive welfare outcomes. How can we make the diets as enjoyable as possible? With almost every animal we have, we question how to maximize enrichment and diet. Zoos in Australia and New Zealand, in some ways, are leading the world with animal welfare focus and its forms part of our accreditation process.”

@ Zoos SA

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

“We’re renowned for our work with wallabies and have released several species back into the wild,” Bensted continued. “Our breeding programs have helped save wildlife in South Australia and we do a lot for endangered birds like Orange-bellied Parrots. We also provide support internationally to help rhinos, Sumatran orangutans, tigers and other species. I’m trying to push legislation that makes it mandatory to label products with palm oil. We’ve been pushing and trying to get Government to make that change.”

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

A major priority for Zoos SA is behavior change. “We try to get visitors to change their behavior,” Bensted stated. “Our keeper talks cover reduce, reuse, recycle. We talk about unsustainable palm oil and what people can do differently [in terms of] product use and political advocacy. We talk about responsible pet ownership and how feral cats kill Australian animals. We let the public to know that if they make small changes, it can have a big impact on other species they share the planet with.”

Geoff Brooks @ Zoos SA

Geoff Brooks @ Zoos SA

Elaine Bensted expressed great pride in both institutions under Zoos SA. “The fact we’ve got two very unique experiences is special,” she reflected. “Also, we have an amazing group of staff and volunteers. They help make sure our visitors have a fabulous experience and know about our strong, genuine commitment to conservation. We all know what we want to achieve and are working for that.” Currently, Bensted sits on the board of the Australasian zoo association, which ensures all 96 members move effectively together.

Adrian Mann @ Zoos SA

David Mattner @ Zoos SA

“Zoos will become more vital to critical conservation work,” Elaine Bensted concluded. “There’s a huge rate of extinction of different species and good zoos are making a big difference in that space. Zoos in the future will be more critical in conservation work and ensuring children grow up with a love of nature and protecting nature. I’m most proud of getting Zoos SA back to where we’re financially stable and can focus on conservation work rather than dollars and cents. That’s allowing us to do what we need to do.”

@ Zoos SA

#AdelaideZoo #MonartoZoo

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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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