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Connecting people & animals at Edinburgh Zoo

RZSS CEO on conservation projects big and small, and the importance of getting up close and personal with the natural world

David Field_CEO RZSS

David Field was appointed as CEO of The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in 2020. He came to the position having been a section moderator at Edinburgh Zoo early in his career.

In previous roles, he was zoological director of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), curator of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and assistant director of Dublin Zoo. An honorary professor of the Royal Veterinary College, he has also served as chairman of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA) and is the current president of the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers.

Field speaks to blooloop about Edinburgh Zoo’s mission, the challenges of the previous 18 months, and the organisation‘s plans for the future.

A young zoo fan

“I actually joined the zoo community when I was 12 years old. It was August 1980. I’d been to an agricultural show in Himely Hall in the West Midlands. There was an organisation there showing called the friends of Dudley Zoo. They had some snakes and animals in a display about the zoo.

“My aunt, who was with me, saw I took an interest and bought me a season ticket. I went to the zoo with my season ticket the next day. I recognized some of the people there from the display; they gave me some of the most incredible experiences.”

Penguins Edinburgh Zoo

“They took me to meet and feed the male gorilla, and then to give a beautiful orangutan, Joe his goodnight drink, which was a watering can of Ovaltine. As I went to give him his drink, he grabbed the spout and moved it aside, leaned forward, and just looked at me, and, you know what? There was an incredible emotional connection. I’m not ashamed to admit I fell a little bit in love that day.

“I knew there and then that I wanted to do something to improve the lives of these animals and to do something for conservation in the wild. So at 12 years old,  I knew I wanted to be a zoo director.”

Getting up close and personal

On that first zoo visit as a twelve-year-old, he also met a chimpanzee called Coco:

“I’ve continued to know her forever and a day. She’s now at Whipsnade Zoo. I didn’t see her for the best part of 10, 15 years, but she recognized me almost immediately, even then. I can just go down there, call her over, and she comes running. She’s still one of my best friends.”

Monkey_Edinburgh Zoo

Zoos were very different in those days, he points out:

“A 12-year-old kid wouldn’t get the same experience as I got now, but it was utterly incredible. For me, it was less about learning about the animal, and more about being so close to those animals; about that emotional connection that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And that’s what still fires me every day.

“For everybody that comes into the Edinburgh Zoo or the Highland Wildlife Park, my vision, my aim, my objective is that they first get these emotional connections with animals. If they get that, then they want to go on to learn more about how to look after them, and what more they could do.”

Edinburgh Zoo connects people with animals

Field has the privilege of being able to get really close to animals and to be part of their lives. He explains how he affords a similar feeling of connection for people within the framework of the zoo:

“That full sensory experience is what people want and need to create that emotional connection. It’s not the massive multi-million-pound exhibits that do it. Instead, it’s the close connections with animals. It’s about making you feel that you’ve stepped into a very special place.”

Sloth Edinburgh Zoo

“We have just opened a new sloth exhibit here. It’s a conversion of an old building, and it has sloths and armadillos in there – and it gives the impression the visitors are almost within touching distance of the animals.

“They’re absolutely not, but they feel as though they can almost feel the sloth’s breath upon them; that they can hear when the armadillo eats. They’re so close. The fact that they are so active and close to people that people are part of that environment is the sort of simple thing which makes all the difference.”

Immersive experiences

In terms of immersion, he says:

“We often talk about immersive exhibits, but we need to immerse people not in the re-creations of habitats, but in the animals’ lives. That’s what makes the connection. That’s what means people understanding what the name of the animal is, where they come from, what’s happening to them. So, it’s really important to build on those connections.”

Keeper_Experience_Armadillo_Edinburgh Zoo

“From there, we can teach everybody everything that they need to know. But that emotion is the first and foremost step that we have to deliver.”

Ensuring animal welfare at Edinburgh Zoo

Addressing the question of whether there is a conflict between the need for people to experience and connect with the animals and the need for some of the animals to stay hidden away and not engage, Field explains:

“It comes down to knowledge, professionalism, and our approach. The fundamental of a good zoo is that every animal is in a positive welfare state. For some individual animals, their positive welfare state is right up at the front of the enclosure going, ‘Hi, visitors; hi, I love you. How are you?’

“For some, it’s about stepping back. It’s about ensuring there is a choice for the animal. Even in the sloth exhibit, if those sloths don’t feel sociable, they can toddle off to the farthest corner of the exhibit, completely away from people, and hide themselves away, if they choose.”

Hippos Edinburgh Zoo

“But I think we also need to understand that these animals are vital ambassadors. It’s a bit of a cliche, but they are hugely important in turning people back onto nature. They have a massive responsibility.

“These are not animals that are going to go back to the wild. So we actually need animals in our zoos that are very, very comfortable around people, and to think about the individuals themselves: if we have animals that are not comfortable around people, we need to put them in a different environment.”

Sparking positive changes

Engaging people, connecting them to wildlife and encouraging them to make small, positive changes in their everyday life involves reaching diverse audiences:

“There is a level of preaching to the converted, of course,” he says. “But we need to make sure that we also empower those converted to take the next step. We have our traditional audiences who love us and want to the work; who want to support us and to know how to support the wildlife. We’ve got a responsibility to them.”

Babu_Sun bear_Edinburgh Zoo

“But whether it be as a conservation organisation for mission impact, or as a business – I’m not ashamed to say that our visitor attraction is our business model – we need to reach out to different, non-traditional audiences.

“There are all those people, for example, that really believe in conservation, but will go to a wildlife reserve or will go out bird watching, but who won’t come into the zoo. We have a lot of work to do to reach out to these people. The only way that we will do that in some respects is through our mission work.

“But the important thing is to open our gates to all, to have the debates, and, and to be prepared to go right upfront with people who say,’ I haven’t been to the zoo for ages. I’m not sure it’s right.’ First of all, come in and walk around the zoo with me, and let’s talk about what a good, modern zoo is about, and then let’s talk about what we are doing beyond the zoo gates.”

A zoo for all

There is another audience, too:

“It is an audience I’m passionately committed to. For me, the zoo is one of the most democratic and one of the most open and equalising of organisations. We can give a real opportunity to everyone to experience nature. It is my ambition for us to become the most accessible and inclusive visitor zoo in the country, in the world, so that everybody, without exception, has the opportunity to experience nature.”

Gentoo Penguin_Edinburgh Zoo

“That inclusivity includes people with challenges, whether that be cognitive or physical or financial or social. The unique aspect of a zoo plus the power of animals for strengthening individual wellbeing means that we are absolutely perfectly placed to provide people with the opportunity and the benefit of experiencing nature.”

Baby panda born at Edinburgh Zoo

Last summer, a red panda kit was born at Edinburgh Zoo.

Field comments:

“It’s lovely. It’s fantastic. It is not, however, conservation. A good, responsible zoo won’t come out and say, ‘We’ve bred a red panda; isn’t that great for conservation and saving the world.’”

Red panda_Edinburgh Zoo

“It is, of course, amazing. It has a unique ability to help us engage with people, and, potentially, get to some of those new people who might just want to come in and find out more. That engagement and our theory of change around engaging people and then towards conservation action is a fundamental strategic endeavour.”

Conservation initiatives

RZSS is, however, undertaking conservation breeding initiatives:

“We are part of the classic Partula snail conservation programme. It’s not just about tigers, pandas, elephants. One of the most exciting breeding initiatives that we’ve been involved in this year is the Pine hoverfly.”

The pine hoverfly is so rare in the UK that no one has seen an adult of this species in the wild for over eight years. In the UK, this critically endangered insect, an important pollinator, is currently restricted to just one site; a small forest patch in the Cairngorms in Scotland.

Pine Hoverfly_RZSS

To help boost the population, RZSS has undertaken an ambitious conservation breeding project for pine hoverflies:

“It is one of the rarest invertebrates in the Cairngorms. In a shed which we call our Pine hoverfly breeding facility, we have bred over 7,000 larvae this year. The adult flies have hardly been seen in the wild for God knows how long, and we are now just gearing up to release them back into the wild, closing that circle.

“It is an incredibly exciting initiative. That’s what zoos can do. I’m really passionate about it – having just come back to Scotland, having that as a real flagship endeavour is huge and exciting.”

Edinburgh Zoo and the IUCN

There is also a wildcat programme. RZSS has been involved with Scottish wildcat conservation for over 10 years and continues to play a critical role in long term recovery efforts for this last remaining native cat species in Britain, one of the few remaining British native predators, performing an important ecosystem function.

“And we’re now also starting to look at other species that we can do,” he continues. “Zoos are centres for species survival, and this is a whole new IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] initiative, which we can be part of.”

RZSS-wildcat

People tend to think of species conservation in terms of the big, charismatic mammals:

“We are working with some amazing charities and organisations, such as Buglife, and Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC).

“This is a really important point at this time. The IUCN recognises good zoos for their conservation objectives, their conservation mission, and what they can provide. We are in this biodiversity crisis side by side. All of us who are working in so many different realms, as far as conservation is concerned, need to put our slight differences aside and come together because deep down, we all care about animals.

“We care about the environment, and we want to save nature. The call-out there is, let’s put these little criticisms and differences aside, and let’s work together to save biodiversity. We’ve got so much to do.”

A positive outlook

He feels the challenges facing the natural world can still be overcome.

“I’m a born optimist,” he explains. “I believe that humans have the technology and the will to overcome. It won’t be the politicians, it will be us. It will be the people and it will be society that does it. What I do know, and I know for an absolute fact, is that conservation works. We’ve just got to do more of it.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has

“There is a Margaret Mead quote that says, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

“That is a clarion call to all of us.”

Giraffe About Town

Edinburgh Zoo is working with creative producers Wild in Art to present a large-scale public art event in Edinburgh in the summer of 2022: Giraffe About Town.

The event is in celebration of Edinburgh’s extraordinary heritage and cultural diversity. The giraffes will be displayed for two months in locations across the capital, highlighting iconic spots and hidden gems.

“The Giraffe About Town project follows a wonderful number of projects that the organisation Wild in Art has done,” says Field. “They did an amazing one in Jersey with gorillas a couple of years ago. Because we have just opened a new giraffe enclosure, the possibility to do one about giraffes here in Edinburgh was just too good an opportunity to miss. “

Facing challenges

“There’s a real fundraising opportunity and there’s a profile opportunity. There’s all the business case around it, but there was something more.

“I came and joined the zoo in June 2020. I was a keeper here 25 years ago, and I came back. Over the last 18 months, there was a period over June, July, August last year where we were very open and transparent about the challenges that we were facing and the help that we needed.”

Nubian giraffe

“What was amazing was the way that the community of Edinburgh and of Scotland responded: the Highlands for Highland Wildlife Park; the Edinburgh community here for Edinburgh Zoo. I honestly think Edinburgh fell in love with its zoo again and truly valued what they might have lost.

“So when it comes to Giraffe About Town, there is an element of us giving back. There will be this incredible trail going around the greatest city in the world, with these beautiful exquisitely painted monoliths of giraffes standing tall. This is going to bring the city alive again; it’s also going to bring tourists in. It’s a way for us to say thank you to the community. It’s about partnership.”

Community responsiblity

After the last eighteen months, he explains:

“We feel very strongly that the role of Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park in the community is fundamental to our future and fundamental to our strategic objectives going forward.”

Yang Guang RZSS

“We are putting a community impact area into our future strategy because we believe in the unique resources of the zoo and the power of the animals to strengthen the communities where we work and to help to improve and strengthen the wellbeing of individuals. Giraffe About Town is just one part of our community social responsibility, our community payback.”

Looking ahead

He turns to the projects in the pipeline for RZSS:

“For the Highland Wildlife Park, we have a really exciting project that is going to come about. Just a couple of weeks ago we got confirmation from a whole range of funders that we had received 5 million pounds worth of funding to develop Scotland’s Wildlife Discovery Centre.

“This is going to transform the Highland Wildlife Park. We will be creating a whole series of accessible and sustainable hubs right across the wildlife park. You are surrounded by the beauty of the Cairngorms.”

“This Wildlife Discovery is not about buildings; it’s about activities and programmes, which will immerse you in the Cairngorms, in the people, the place, and the animals. It’s about giving access to as many people as we can to the Cairngorms and their history.

“We will start building this Scottish Wildlife Discovery Centre early next year and will open in 2023. It will truly transform the Highland Wildlife Park.”

Transforming the visitor experience at Edinburgh Zoo

“The other thing that we did was about showing the love for the zoo. There were so many jobs here I wanted to do 25 ago when I was first here that still needed doing. We repaired paths. We removed old buildings, we painted, we spruced it up. Everything that was a little bit tired, we’ve shown it love.

“We looked at all those areas where there had been complaints about the zoo over the past few years.

“The food offering has also been transformed. We’re about to just start work on a whole new posh fish & chips restaurant, a whole new marquee area. We are really trying at this point to look after the visitors, as well as improving the animals’ areas.”

Tegu_Keeper Experiences_Edinburgh Zoo

“I look at it from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When a visitor that comes into the zoo isn’t getting their basic needs looked after – decent toilets, decent food, being able to see animals – and we then want to get to the top of that pyramid, where we’re talking about people becoming conservationists in their daily life, they aren’t just going to listen. And I don’t blame them.

“If you get a terrible cup of coffee, that doesn’t make you open to listening to some talk about a little endangered bird in an Indian ocean somewhere. So, we’ve got to get the basics right.”

He is convinced, at this point, that they are getting the basics right:

“Membership is increasing, and the number of patrons that we’ve got has risen threefold over the last year; the response that we are getting from companies, people, and other NGOs and charities who want to work with us is increasing. We’re on a roll.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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