When she last spoke with Blooloop in 2014 in her capacity as CEO of Zoos Victoria, Dr Jenny Gray talked about the operation of Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary and the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Australia.

Dr Jenny Gray

Dr Jenny Gray

Blooloop recently spoke to Dr Jenny Gray again to hear about the work she has done since her appointment in 2017 as President of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Gray served as President for two years, until a ceremony at the WAZA Annual Conference in November 2019, when Theo Pagel, Director of Cologne Zoo, took on the role.

“I quite like to call it just President of the World,” says Gray. “I kept meaning to get a shirt with ‘President of the World’ on it, with a little asterisk. And then, on the back corner somewhere it’ll say…’Association of Zoos and Aquariums.’”

Describing the role of President of WAZA as a rare privilege, she says:

“You get to spend time thinking about the world and our role in it slightly differently. One of the things about the World Association is you get together with like-minded people, and talk about these things that are important to you. Like animals and humans and what we are doing on the planet. “

Dr Jenny Gray on the power of an association

“There is so much power in good people,” says Gray. “In this case, the people who run the best zoos and aquariums in the world, getting together.

“There aren’t a lot of us, but we have visions and inspiration and resource. We work with incredible people, we inspire and stretch each other, and we challenge each other to be better. I realise that, when we work together, we can achieve so much.

“There are zoos and aquariums in every major city around the world. We’re trusted and loved by the people of the major cities of the world, and so we punch above our weight. We are finding our voice, and it’s exciting.

“There is so much power in good people. In this case, the people who run the best zoos and aquariums in the world, getting together.

“Zoos and aquariums are coming together. And we’re starting to say, we have to hold companies, people, nations to account for what they are doing.”

Zoo reform

Kevin Buley of Auckland Zoo contended recently that of the approximately 10,000 zoos in the world, only 10% are any good. He went on to state that 90% should be either radically reformed or shut down.

Dr Jenny Gray agrees, but qualifies that agreement:

“There are 10,000 institutions that go under the name of ‘zoo’. By far the majority of them are tiny. I’m much more interested in what the 300 juggernauts in the room. We need to keep holding up a standard.”

Siamang Gibbon Auckland Zoo

Siamang Gibbon – image courtesy of Auckland Zoo

“We have been quite slow to criticize each other. I think we should be quicker to do that. The idea of closing zoos down is difficult. When you say a zoo must close, what do you do with the animals?

“For me, it perpetuates the terribleness of the situation that many bad zoos put animals into. Living there is not great, perhaps, but killing them all is not an easy solution. That’s where I take my hat off to the Central Zoo Authority in India.”

Finding solutions

The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) is an Indian government body formed to bring Indian zoos up to international standards. It is an affiliate member of WAZA.

WAZA World Association of Zoos and Aquariums Logo“They said, quite seriously, that they were going to put an end to bad zoos, closing them down. They then created facilities to hold the animals that were the consequence of that.

“I think that the way to do this is to start one or two at a time. We, as WAZA, have identified one zoo (I’m not going to talk about which one it is) that we believe should be closed. And we’re working behind the scenes on a political and animal-based solution.

“We’ll do what we can, one step at a time.

“I agree with Kevin [Buley]. There are a ton of zoos I would like to see closed. At the same time, I also think there are some really good zoos that need to step up and do more. As well as this, there are also  some that we just have to put pressure on, or work with and help.”

Dr Jenny Gray on zoos big and small

Dr Jenny Gray disagrees with the idea that only large zoos can achieve excellence.

“People ask: what is a good zoo? I just got back from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, and that is a great zoo.

“They have just been through their accreditation with the Zoo and Aquariums Association Australasia. This is probably one of the most difficult accreditation systems and they’ve just passed it. It is an amazing little park run by amazing people.”

Dr Jenny Gray WAZA Port Moresby accreditation

Image courtesy of Port Moresby Nature Park, Papua New Guinea

“There really is no excuse for not being able to get up to an international or global standard. Which is what this little park in Port Moresby has done. We’re very proud of them.”

It is also a demonstration of what a network of support and cooperation can achieve.

“We’ve worked with them for seven years as a sister zoo. Their staff have come to us, our staff have gone to them; we’ve shared our resources and they’ve shared theirs. We have learned as much from them as they have learned from us.

“Now we see them standing tall and proud as a well-run zoo that puts a priority on animal welfare and on education programs, and that brings its community with it.

“It is a joy. And if we can do it with one, we can do it with a thousand.  It just takes time.”

Climate challenges

Dr Jenny Gray says that even the very best zoos and aquariums need to keep changing. For instance, all zoos have a climate challenge

“I love the Minnesota Zoo, which is up in the higher territory. It’s a place where it’s below zero for six months of the year. But the majority of their animals come from that same latitude, the whole way around the world.”

Minnesota Zoo

“They have Siberian tigers, and big grizzly bears, and animals that thrive the whole year in that climate. I think it’s something more zoos would do well to consider.”

Keeping animals that are not climate-appropriate costs a great deal. In addition to this, those animals will need to be kept indoors for months every year.

“Keep animals that thrive in your weather conditions, whatever they are,” says Gray.

“We just worked with a great designer. We were talking about all the things we’d have to do to change a particular ridgeline to keep rhinos up there because the wind is biting. She just said, ‘Why don’t you put the bison on the ridge instead of the rhinos?’ Why didn’t we think of that?”

Minnesota Zoo

Vera the tiger at Minnesota Zoo.

“I’ve been to zoos in Indonesia where you’ll see Komodo dragons living out in big pens. Because they come from Indonesia. You don’t have to build a special house for them to live in when you keep them where they belong.”

Dr Jenny Gray on zoo ethics

Dr Jenny Gray’s doctorate in Applied Ethics underpins her work. Since she last spoke to Blooloop, she has written a book, Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation.

For me, zoo ethics really asks the question, how do we treat animals?

“The book is a culmination of my PHD in Ethics, which I finished 2015,” she says. “Ethics asks, how do I live a good life? Morality asks, how should I treat others? Those questions obviously intertwine. For many of us, how we treat others is a huge part of how we live a good life.

“For me, zoo ethics really asks the question, how do we treat animals? How do we think about them, how do we look out for them, and how do we respond to them?

“That is a huge part of what it is to work in zoos.”

Animal welfare

One of the chapters covers animal welfare. This is the notion that it is wrong to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to animals.

“That may seem to be an easy sentence, but in fact, it is incredibly complex; every word is loaded. What is an ‘animal’? Do oysters in the bay count as much as an elephant? Which animals are in, and which are out?”

Jenny Gray WAZA

“And then you start to talk about what’s ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’, and what is ‘suffering’. Does boredom count as suffering?

“My book takes each of the ethical theories that have credibility when it comes to dealing with and thinking about animals. It doesn’t go all the way of answering the questions. Instead, it says: this is a way that people who work in zoos can think about that theory and its application to zoos.

“At the end, there’s a section: the ‘wicked’ questions. People always say, ‘You didn’t give us the answers!’. And I say, ‘Well, I did, but they’re in the book.’ “ A long life in captivity or a short life in the wild?”

Wicked problems

The ‘wicked problems’ section is challenging and thought-provoking. It doesn’t necessarily have simple answers: Should zoos anthropomorphise animals? Does the motivation for killing impact on the rightness of killing? Should a single animal matter? Should pest species have rights? If an animal is dead is acceptable to sell the parts?

[We’re witnessing] wave after wave of thought about what doesn’t seem right, or look right, in the way animals are variously exploited.

But then, Gray points out, we have only been thinking about ethics in terms of animals for a matter of 150 years.

“We’ve been trying to work out how to deal with other human beings for 2000 – 3000 years. Aristotle was writing 2000 years ago. We’re still grappling with the same issues on who counts, and who doesn’t, and what obligations we have to other humans. Let alone other animals, let alone the environment.

“But, we are having these discussions, and it gives me hope that we are even thinking about it.

“We just had an outcry here about how racehorses are treated at the end of their racing careers. [We’re witnessing] wave after wave of thought about what doesn’t seem right, or look right, in the way animals are variously exploited.”

“There is also an explosion of plant-based meat products. An increasing number of people in Sydney and Melbourne are becoming vegan. They are deciding they can’t justify having animals killed simply for their own pleasure.”

Humans and animals

The human relationship with other animals is complex and contradictory. It is sometimes cruel, sometimes sentimental.

“A colleague of mine wrote about how, if you’re a rabbit in Australia, you really want to be a rabbit in a zoo. If you’re a wild rabbit, there are about 27 legal ways we can kill you. From leghold traps, ferrets, dogs, and shooting through to poison, or to spraying gas down your burrow and igniting it.”

Jenny Gray WAZA

“If you are a lab rabbit, we’re going to put chemicals in your eyes to see if it hurts, and then how much we have to put in before you go blind. Or you could be a pet rabbit. And some six-year-old who’s being taught the lessons of life is charged with your wellbeing.

“But if you’re a zoo rabbit, well, you can’t be touched. You are played with, you’re fed, cared for, and given enrichment activities.

“Isn’t it interesting? For one species where there’s clearly no difference at all between this one and that one, they get different protections under the law. That’s how inconsistent we are.”

Virtue ethics and zoos

How can this be addressed? “You choose,” Gray says. “That’s the thing about ethics: you think about it, and then you make sensible choices. And if you find the choices you have been making are wrong, change them. But keep using logic and arguments and grounding to do that.”

WAZA Hawk Owls on tree branch

Virtue ethics says there are great virtues, and you should choose some to live by.

“The nice thing about virtues is that they are bounded on either side. For example, bravery is bounded by cowardice on one side and foolhardiness on the other.

“When you’re asked to be brave, it doesn’t mean you have to risk your own life and be foolish. It means you don’t walk away because it’s too easy.”

Dr Jenny Gray on zoos and conservation

In that light, what can zoos do?

Gray says: “Zoos can do a couple of things really, really well. One, we can look after animals that other people aren’t able to look after.

“For species that are in trouble or on the brink of extinction, we can hold them through the dangerous times in their lives, and head-start them back to the wild.  I could use a hundred examples from my zoos, but at Port Moresby park in PNG they have 47 pig-nosed turtles. In the wild, out of a clutch of turtle eggs, one or two make it to adulthood.

Zoos can do a couple of things really, really well. One, we can look after animals that other people aren’t able to look after

“In a zoo, we can get 100% through to being adults. When you put them back into the wild, suddenly there’s a whole clutch of adults there.

“We work with frogs, birds and all kinds of little animals. I’m seeing more zoos stepping up around frogs and reptiles.”

Partnership projects

“Just last month, we released the Eastern barred bandicoots onto French Island, which is now the third island population,” says Gray. “We’ve reached the goal that we talked about five years ago.

“We couldn’t have done it on our own. It’s a partnership of about 20 different organizations. My staff have gone back and worked with the community on the Island, who opposed it at the beginning, and showed them how it’s going to work.”

Dr Jenny Gray WAZA

Koala at Zoos Victoria

“We’ve got exemptions to the endangered species act. So that if they’re on your land, and something happens, you’re not going to be prosecuted for it. Step-by-step, we just worked with the community, and now we have done our third release.

“Give it another year or two, and it’ll be a full recovery of a species that was extinct in the wild.”

WAZA and zoo improvement

It is, Gray says, the same principle she applies to the process of improving zoos:

“If we do one, we can do another, and another, and another. We are working on breeding the most critically endangered species and raising awareness about them. Everyone knows what a tiger is, but who knows what an Eastern barred bandicoot is?

Zoos and aquariums have the most incredible database of animals and our knowledge on them

“After eight years of music concerts in a zoo all being dedicated to Eastern barred bandicoots, everyone knows what they are.  We have to keep sharing with people because if we don’t know what they are, we won’t care when they’re gone.

“That’s one part of what zoos do well. Breeding, holding, looking after, thinking about animals, applying our science and our rigour and our knowledge. Zoos and aquariums have the most incredible database of animals and our knowledge on them.

Dalia Conde [Dr. Dalia A. Conde, Director of Science at Species360; Associate Professor at the Department of Biology at the University of Southern Denmark] has been looking at the gaps in knowledge, and how zoos and aquariums can fill knowledge gaps.”

jenny gray waza

“Because for most species, all science knows is from a dead sample: this is how big it is; this is what it looks like.

“But if you have only ever had one, what do you really know? You don’t know how it breeds, how often, what its mate choice looks like. There are a thousand things you don’t know that we as zoos and aquariums do.”

Engaging with communities

The second thing zoos do well is engaging with communities. This has the potential to change behaviours, and the world.

“Over the last 10 years, WAZA has published what we have learned about engaging with people and changing behaviours,” says Dr Jenny Gray. “We have 14 published papers that talk about behaviour change, how it works in zoos, how well it works, what works, what doesn’t work, what we have learned.

“We have been able to show that if you connect people with an animal, then ask them in clear, simple ways to change a behaviour, letting them understand what the problem is and asking for an action, they will do it. And they will do it in very large numbers, and make a difference.”

“At any given time at Zoos Victoria, we would have eight different behaviour change campaigns on the go. An increasing number of our colleagues are doing it as well. Either individually or in consortiums.

“We have got palm oil out of our food sources. And there is a huge move around eradicating plastics, so we have no plastic in any of our customer outlets. Our retail and food and beverage outlets have no plastic. No plastic bottles, no straws, nothing.”

Campaigning on a global scale

Increasingly, zoos are beginning to campaign on a global scale. Dr Jenny Gray gives some examples of WAZA affiliated zoos who are doing just that.

“We’re getting braver,” says Gray. “It is a different strength. Aukland Zoo, for instance: those guys are fierce when it comes to palm oil. Kevin [Buley] and his guys do a fabulous job around that. And what the Monterey Bay Aquarium does with sustainable fishing is incredible.

“The guys at New York Aquarium have done a whole lot of work around sharks. It is an example of where an aquarium has got it: of how you can create an experience that actually changes people.”

Dr Jenny Gray WAZA

Image credit: Julie Larson Maher, kind courtesy of New York Aquarium

“You start out walking through a beautiful reef, and you learn all the facts about how amazing these creatures are. Then you go into a terrible space where it is dark and red and claustrophobic. And there are sharks being finned on videos. It’s really confronting.

“You come out the other side, and there is this most magnificent canyon exhibit with sharks swimming towards you. It is just glorious.

“The next room is an interactive artificial reality fish shop, and if you order the wrong choice, they tell you: No, no. You can’t eat that. In the end, you come out thinking: ‘Sign me up, I’m going to save the sharks.’”

Dr Jenny Gray on zoos, aquariums and education

There is a danger, with the scale of the problems facing the environment, that people will feel nothing they can do will make a difference. So they disengage.

Gray says: “So you focus on love, not loss. Talk more about what we want to defend. We are all looking at how we engage with education and children. We have turned our education programme on its head.  It used to be, ‘This is a frog. It has slimy skin. This is a snake. It has scales.’

“Now we say, ‘You are powerful. You have a voice; how are you going to use it? Through your journey with us, we can show you how you can use your voice. Which species are you going to save? What could you do?’”

“And then the kids go back to their school and they activate these campaigns. We’ve got a showcase coming up where kids from 30 schools are coming out to show the zoo audience what they have been working, on and what people can do to change their behaviours.”

Empowering young people

Dr Jenny Gray says that the Zoos Victoria initiative Fighting Extinction Schools empowers children to make a difference:

“We have signed up 35% of the schools in the state of Victoria to our Fighting Extinction Schools. They are generally working on saving the species that live in their area.”

“When you spend time with 15-year-olds, listening to them, you see how smart and capable and switched on they are. And it fills you with hope. They inspire me. I think they carry a huge burden, and that maybe our role is to share that more. The kids of today are going to be incredible leaders of the future.”

And then there are the younger children:

“Zoo designer Jon Coe says you can tell a lot about how well you are displaying your animals from how kids draw them. Do you see the bars? Are the animals smiling, or not?

“Part of how I stay happy is every month they give me about 10 letters from kids. I write back: ‘Dear George, thank you for your beautiful picture…’”

“We get a lot of letters in the post. When I first started, most kids would send a picture: ‘This is the animal I like.’ But what has been phenomenal to watch over the years is that children send me posters now.

“They don’t send pictures of animals, but posters saying: ‘Save our forest’; ‘Don’t blow balloons’. They are campaigning.”

Top image credit: Julie Larson Maher, kind courtesy of New York Aquarium