Holistic Animal Care and Conservation: A Conversation with Brandie Smith, Associate Director of Anim

Brandie Smith began her zoo career as a behavioral research intern at the Pittsburgh Zoo in the early 1990s. “It was an incredible experience,” she recalled. “I learned a lot, including the fact that behavioral research is not for me. I don’t have the patience for it.” Smith then went on to graduate school to study population biology. During this time, she served as a curatorial intern at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia and volunteered as a registrar and keeper aide at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. After getting her master’s, Smith was hired as a rhino keeper at the Dallas Zoo.

@ Smithsonian

Soon, Smith’s career would turn in a different direction. “I went to the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) conference to talk about population biology,” she said. “Kevin Willis was in the audience and he introduced me to Mike Hutchins.” The late Hutchins was then the William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science for AZA and hired Smith on his staff in 1997. She credited Hutchins for being an important mentor and inspiration. “Mike pushed zoo people to think differently,” Smith reflected. “And he was a great boss. He set the bar high for the people he hired and then just let them do their jobs. It was not about him being the best but about all of us doing our best work for AZA. His ego was in doing the right thing.”

@ Song Hutchins

As Vice President of Animal Conservation for AZA, Smith worked with the Species Survival Plans (SSPs) and Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) to create the vision for the population management center. “Bob Lacy and Steve Thompson oversaw the Population Management Center,” she said. “They provide expertise to manage the SSPs and TAGs.”

One of Smith’s most important accomplishments was co-authoring with Hutchins he Elephant Planning Initiative. That document captured as a turning point in the way elephants were managed in North American zoos. “There was a revolution in the way that elephants were being managed and AZA tried to help facilitate that process,” Smith claimed. It involved getting a wide variety of perspectives from elephant experts, including critics of zoos, to find solutions to improving elephant welfare. “Mike tried to listen to everyone,” Smith elaborated. “We worked together to move the initiative forward and turn ideas from the experts into standards. We looked at husbandry and management, at welfare and at conservation and research commitment for elephants.”

@ Song Hutchins

In 2008, Smith became Senior Curator of Mammals at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “I wanted to be back in a zoo,” she mentioned. “I knew a lot of people here, held them in high regard and wanted to work with them.” However, the position had new challenges. “Being the curator at a zoo is the hardest job you can have,” commented Smith on the commitment it takes to manage an animal collection and be responsible for staff.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

At the time, the zoo’s Associate Director was Don Moore, who Smith credited with promoting the highest standards of animal care at the zoo. “Don has a clear vision of what all zoos can be and he implemented a lot of change,” she elaborated. “He brought AZA best practices and raised the bar.” She also credited him with giving her the time and incentive to complete the work needed to receive her Ph.D., which focused on the genetic management of groups. “It was really difficult working a full-time job and writing my dissertation,” Smith added.

@ Smithsonian

At the time, the National Zoo was constructing Elephant Trails, a $56 million reimagination and expansion of its facilities for Asian elephants. The facility was inspired by Smithsonian’s long history in Asian elephant research and conservation and provided a modern, complex home for the zoo’s largest resident. “The first thing I had to do was find a new home for Happy the hippo [as Elephant Trails was going to take over his home],” Smith remembered. “We sent him on a breeding recommendation to the Milwaukee County Zoo.”

@ Smithsonian

Opened in 2010, Elephant Trails provided the pachyderms a great amount of choice and control. It featured multiple habitats for the elephants to move through, a trail for them to explore, a number of pools and enrichment devices and an expansive indoor dayroom perfect for socialization and complete with sand flooring and skylights. “Elephant Trails is one of the best elephant exhibits around,” Smith claimed. “You feel the openness and expansiveness and see the pool, trek, grass and sand. People know the elephants are happy.”

@ Smithsonian

Although she was in charge of most of the zoo’s mammals, Smith was more directly in charge of the zoo’s giant pandas, its most iconic residents. “The first thing my mom asked me when I came to the National Zoo was if I’d work with pandas,” Smith remarked. “It is an honor to work with an iconic, unique species and it’s incredible to know their behavior and be part of this big conservation project.”

@ Smithsonian

People around the world follow the giant pandas through the Panda Cam on the zoo’s website. “The Panda Cam is run by trained behavior watchers who are doing research,” Smith pointed out. As a result, the cam often captures the pandas at their most active moments.

@ Smithsonian

Smith noted working with pandas does not keep one out of the spotlight. “The world is watching you when you work with pandas,” she laughed. “Panda keepers have to be calm and able to deal with the spotlight and politics.” However, working with giant pandas enlightened Smith to how interesting they are. “Giant pandas are bears that eat grass,” she remarked. “They’ve uniquely evolved to take advantage of ecological resources. Pandas also have pretty calm demeanors. Especially when you compare them to the other bear species on Asia Trail, the sloth bears.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

For years, breeding giant pandas proved to be difficult for the National Zoo. “There is a 24 to 48-hour window for pandas to reproduce,” Smith claimed. However, a number of changes were made in how the team approached managing pandas to maximize breeding success. “We hadn’t had a cub in years, but we never gave up,” Smith remarked. “We worked together, made changes to their management, worked hard and had cubs again in 2015.”

@ Smithsonian

Smith noted a number of unique quirks that come with working at the National Zoo. One of those is infrastructure. “Because the zoo is old, facilities are a challenge,” Smith said. However, Smith mentioned being part of the Smithsonian Institution gives the zoo a number of unusual resources. “If we want to get a closer look at elephant bones, we can go to the Smithsonian Archives and look through drawers of bones to help us learn more about the feet of our elephants,” she stated. “We can use reference specimens to understand our animals and how to work with them. We also have a huge conservation and research staff.”

@ Smithsonian

In 2016, Smith became the National Zoo’s Associate Director of Animal Care, which put her in charge of the zoo’s entire animal collection. “My entire career was mostly focused on mammals, so it was a fun challenge to learn all the taxa,” she said. “Now I’m responsible for all animals, nutrition, vet care, pathology and registrar.” Smith had completed AZA’s Executive Leadership Course, which helped prepare her for the position. “That course creates a great network,” she noted.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Smith credited Dennis Kelly, the zoo’s director from 2010 to 2017, for letting her take a larger role in the zoo. “Dennis thinks very logically and scientifically, which is a good fit for operating a zoo,” she remarked.

@ National Zoo

A primary focus for Smith as Associate Director of Animal Care has been animal welfare. “I look at animal welfare from a holistic perspective,” she reflected. “It is training, enrichment, engaging habitats, veterinary care and nutrition all together. We ensure we have exemplary animal care.” To take animal welfare to the next level, the National Zoo has an Assistant Curator of Animal Welfare whose entire responsibility is to evaluate and improve wellness throughout the collection. Additionally, the National Zoo regularly conducts animal welfare reviews to ensure high standards.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

The National Zoo has a number of future plans including Experience Migration, a complete renovation of the Bird House currently under construction. “We’re building it to tell the story of North American migratory birds,” Smith elaborated. “The old Bird House was failing so we decided to change it. It will be unique and let us learn about caring for North American birds. It will be exciting and engaging.” The exhibit will educate guests about migratory birds and the challenges they face. Other plans for the zoo include a renovation of the zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center and Small Mammal House.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Smith shared some thoughts on the future of zoos. “Zoos are generally going in the right direction but we shouldn’t apologize to our critics,” she reflected. “We are the experts in animal care. We need to talk about our expertise. We dedicate our lives to the care of our animals.” She also saw merit in zoos being more deliberate and analytical in the decisions they make. “We’re seeing people be more thoughtful of what they display, doing more unique things and branching out to tell better conservation stories,” Smith remarked.

@ Smithsonian

Smith took great pride in the accomplishments of the animal care team at the National Zoo. “Being part of the Smithsonian Institution is special,” she concluded. “I’ve been privileged to work in this profession, working with some of the most amazing and most incredible colleagues in the world.”

@ Smithsonian

#NationalZoo

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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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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti