Phoenix Rising: View From A Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo is home to over 1, 400 animals including many endangered species. A non-profit organisation, it attracts around 1.4 million visitors a year and is a frontrunner in a number of key conservation initiatives.

Jennifer Flowers, Director of Guest Services and Membership at Phoenix Zoo, spoke to Blooloop about her own background, the zoo’s impressive conservation initiatives, the importance of connecting with nature in this technological age and the part that technology plays in spreading the zoo’s ecological message to its public.

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooFlowers, whose great-grandfather, Harold H Bailey, was an ornithologist and explorer, started at the zoo “almost by accident” over sixteen years ago. Her background is in business and marketing – she has a BSc from Arizona State University.

“I had done various things. I worked in retail for a ski shop for many years; and then I went into hotel sales. I had a lot of fun doing all those things and made a good income, but I was feeling like something was missing. When I happened to be in between jobs I looked to my Alma Mater, ASU, for some temporary employment while I tried to decide on a direction for a career.”

Streamlining the Business

The Phoenix Zoo was advertising for someone to handle ticket sales for their annual ZooLights event.

“We didn’t have a ticketing system back then: it was all printed hard tickets. It was a very simple job and I enjoyed talking to the people that called – they cared about the zoo; they were excited about  ZooLights. I had always loved animals, but it had never occurred to me that I could apply my business background to a zoo, and while I was there selling those tickets it just clicked.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooIt was a temporary job but Flowers was efficient and enthusiastic, instigating improvements that impressed the Marketing Department. When, a month or so later, a position opened in the Membership Department in the data entry area where a new computer system was being implemented, she was offered the job.

“… it was Microsoft Windows and actual PCs – they’d been operating off this old Unix mainframe dummy terminal kind of computer system until that point. Now they were actually planning to launch a website and I had a computer background.”

She adds,  “I felt fulfilled: without even knowing it, this was the answer I was looking for. I could apply my skills to a place that made a difference – to animals, to conservation and to the people that came to visit the zoo.”

The zoo’s non-profit status notwithstanding, the Membership Department needed to be business oriented; to have plans and strategies. Flowers thrived in that environment and was promoted to Assistant Manager and then Manager. She continued to learn, streamlining functions and optimising efficiency, and as opportunities arose was put in charge of additional departments.

“… and so Admissions came under me; also a call centre that we created came under me, and eventually over time with some reorganisation at the zoo I started to manage all the rides, attractions and experiences in our park. 16 years later, I’m now the director of Guest Services and Membership. It made sense to have all of this under my charge.”

All in the Family

In the early 1920s, Flowers’s great-grandfather, Harold H Bailey, was an explorer and ornithologist in Florida and Virginia, collecting and documenting species. He also worked with Carl Fisher to found a zoo in Miami Beach in the 1920s, as well as working alongside David Fairchild, the founder of Fairchild Tropical Gardens.

Phoenix Rising: View From A Zoo

“My great-grandfather was the founder of the Florida Natural History Society on Miami Beach. My grandmother and her sisters and brothers helped showcase his collection and he established a wildlife conservation park in the Everglades in 1920, which is now the Everglades National Park.  A lot of people think that’s why I got into zoos, but it isn’t. I just happened to have that in my background. It was pretty magical when I did start working at the zoo: my grandmother was proud of me because I was taking my business and my education and combining it with the family’s history of animals and zoos and conservation.”

The Phoenix Zoo is known for its conservation initiatives.

Flowers says,  “We showcase animals in as effectively open and naturalistic habitat as you would find them in the wild, and our team invests a lot of time and commitment in the enrichment of these animals’ lives.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooThe zoo is best known for being instrumental in saving the Arabian Oryx from extinction. The herds were threatened by overhunting and a compromised habitat. In the 1960s, the Phoenix Zoo, where the climate and terrain of the Sonoran Desert mimics that of the Arabian peninsula, homed nine animals and, over the next 45 years, there have been 239 births. The offspring born went to other zoos, wildlife preserves and some went back to the Middle East. There are now more than 6000 Arabian Oryx in existence.

“The Arabian Oryx has been huge for us and is one of our most successful conservation efforts. We also do quite a bit of work here with local species – we’re breeding and reintroducing black-footed ferrets into the wild, for example. We have one of the most successful breeding facilities and our conservation department has really grown the programme and has had much success.

Other local species initiatives include the Mount Graham red squirrel; the narrow-headed garter snake; the Chiricahua leopard frog; the Gila topminnow; the California floater; the Desert pupfish and the Page and Three Forks Springsnails.

“We also participate in a lot of the survival species programmes with various animals – our Sumatran tigers, for example, and the white rhinos.”

The zoo also encourages global activism by offering conservation grants through its Conservation & Science Grant programme.

“Our President, Bert Castro, who has been with us for seven years now, has a vision to expand the reach of what we do and to include other facilities in Phoenix to further extend our reach for educating children in conservation and nature.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooShe adds,  “When he first got here, we needed a lot of help with our infrastructure and with fundraising and launching a capital campaign…Bert Castro felt it was important that our name really reflected that we are a serious conservation organisation and a contributor locally and throughout the world. So, we went through a whole rebranding process where we’re actually now known as the Arizona Centre for Nature Conservation. The Phoenix Zoo comes under that umbrella.”

Castro joined Phoenix Zoo as President and CEO in February 2008 with a focus on education and conservation. In the same year, Phoenix Zoo’s Capital Campaign was launched, raising $23 million to build a ‘World Class Zoo for a World Class City’. Subsequently, an additional $9million has been spent on renovations within the zoo.

Phoenix Rising: View from a zoo

Conservation initiatives cost a lot of money, and the zoo’s work depends on a number of revenue streams.

“We have our admission, our memberships, the experiences, rides and attractions. Then, we have a development department that does a lot of fund-raising; they’re always looking for donors to contribute either to specific projects or to our general fund that supports the zoo.  We do special events – our biggest fund-raising event is ZooLights, which brings 300, 000 people through; we also have a black-tie gala – Rendez-Zoo, An Evening of Conservation and Cuisine,   focused on our conservation effort … Those types of event share the message that the zoo is more than just a place to come and see animals. Visitors have fun, but their dollars are supporting these conservation efforts, whether local or worldwide.”

In order to fund vital conservation initiatives, a zoo also has to be a successful visitor attraction. Flowers talked about the twin functions, and the need to spread the conservation message in a fun way.

“It is a balance. When we went through this rebranding process it was interesting to hear what people thought about us, because zoos are seen as places you go see animals, then you ride a carousel and have fun. That’s why it was so important for us to change our name and our branding to reflect our conservation effort, but to keep the look and the feel so the place is still a fun and exciting place to go. All of our communications with our guests and members have that balance of something fun to do, but by you coming in and paying your ticket, here’s what your money is doing for our animals and animals around the world. So, it’s through a lot of marketing and communication constantly to remind our community that we are a non-profit zoo that supports conservation.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A Zoo

Education by stealth is often an effective method of conscription to the multiple conservationist causes that are a zoo’s core function.

“We have a giraffe encounter, for instance, and we spend a lot of money and time with our volunteers to create an experience where we really educate our guests, weaving in some messaging while they get to feed the giraffes.”

In this technological age, zoos perform a restorative function, re-connecting people with nature and conservation.

‘Zoos and aquariums are the top most visited cultural attractions in the country. They help us reinforce how important it is to connect families and kids with nature. These days, with all the technology, and everyone on their phones and playing games, going to the zoo – which is outdoors and in touch with nature, to get up close to an animal – it’s something so special and important.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooParadoxically, technology facilitates that connection.

When she joined the zoo, admission was a matter of issuing hard tickets, one at a time. Now, Gateway Ticketing Systems, which has handled admissions since 1996, has reworked the front gate guest experience, updating both hardware and software and installing barcode readers across the zoo to optimise the purchase and admission process. Barcodes printed on wristbands replace the multiple tickets needed for the variety of attractions, allowing for quicker scanning and less opportunity for lost tickets.

Another high-tech innovation is the new 50 seat 4-D theatre by SimEx-Iwerks, a showcase for both branded and nature-based content, which has been designed to fit in with the zoo’s brand, contriving to combine education and entertainment in a fun way. Shows such as “Ice Age Dawn of the Dinosaurs: The 4-D Experience” and “Grizzly Bears” from the BBC TV series – each between 10 and 15 minutes long – run throughout the day.

“What’s neat about the 4-D theatre and SimEx-Iwerks as a partner is they very much understand our challenge, that of bringing in revenue but also supporting our mission and conservation efforts. We wanted it to be fun, but what’s nice is that SimEx-Iwerks have a film selection that not only offers fun things for kids that are entertaining, but also mission-based films that support our animals and conservation efforts.

These guys take those films then add fun elements– like snow, and air and water – it really immerses viewers into that film and that experience in a way that is new and unexpected. 3-D movies are super popular, but adding that fourth element of sensation and smell – it makes it fun, and we know that when guests are having a good time at the zoo, no matter what they’re doing, they’re learning more and are more open to supporting our conservation initiatives. So it’s been a great combination.”

On a Great Path

Flowers says,  “We’ve got a great balance and we’re also working on plans for the next phases of adding more animal experiences and exhibits to the zoo.

We actually have quite a bit of undeveloped land, and because we’ve had to raise money for infrastructure and all these other much-needed facilities, the next phase now is to enhance our animal collection, and to focus on more conservation efforts.”

Phoenix Rising: View From A ZooShe adds,  “I think we have a great future in continuing to connect people with nature and conservation. I think our president has us going in the right direction, stressing the importance of conservation in our messaging but also understanding the balance with the revenue streams.

He is a visionary, but still keeps that balance between the conservation and the attraction, I think he’s got us on a great path.”

Images kind courtesy The Phoenix Zoo. Froglets kind courtesy Tara Sprankle.