How does a zoo reconcile its serious conservation role with the need to create entertaining attractions that pull in the crowds and the cash? The newest exhibit at Zoo Miami, featuring an interactive eagle’s nest, crocodile crawl, bear den tunnel and an amusement park-style adventure ‘air boat’ ride, promises to do just that.
The zoo’s Director, Carol Kruse, spoke to Blooloop about Florida: Mission Everglades which opens later this year and aims to reconnect visitors with the ‘beauty and fragility’ of the national park that’s right on their doorstep.
Zoo Miami, Committed to Conservation
Kruse has always been passionate about the Everglades.
“When I got out of college, I worked for the Miccosukee tribe of Indians out in the Everglades as an environmental planner, ” she says.
Educated at Florida Atlantic University and Nova Southeastern University, she worked as Assistant Director of Zoo Miami for 7 years before leaving in 2011 to join Miami-Dade County Park & Recreation Dept.
2015 saw her return as the new Director of Zoo Miami. She succeeded Eric Stephens who had been in post for 17 years. She is also a Board Member of the Florida Attractions Association.
“Having the opportunity to come back was really a culmination of a dream come true, getting to work in the field of wildlife conservation.
“I have a dream job at this point in my career, ” she says.
On becoming director, the first thing she did was to concentrate on personnel, working to recruit and train the best talent.
“I had been following and studying the best practices of other zoos. I looked at how they were organised to create those synergies and a really good, strong, collaborative team approach.”
With a new animal science and animal healthcare team in place at Zoo Miami, Kruse was able to build on the fledgling conservation and research department. She worked to develop fundraising programmes. This allowed her to focus more on conservation projects both internally and in the field.
A Fresh Pair of Eyes
“So it’s really just coming in with a fresh set of eyes, a fresh team, and asking those questions: asking the ‘Why?’ about everything, ” she says.
“Importantly, we are taking a look at our exhibits and our institutional animal collection, and are asking the question, ‘Why are we exhibiting these animals? Is this a purpose-driven collection?’ – and making sure that it is as aligned as possible with The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and their new SAFE initiatives.”
Deciding whether a particular animal or species should be exhibited in a zoo is always a tough question.
“I don’t have the perfect answer, ” admits Kruse. “That’s something that’s continuing to evolve as science evolves. But the first thing to do is ask that question: ‘Why are we exhibiting African elephants? Why are we exhibiting Asian elephants?’
“And we can answer those questions very well. We know that they’re highly endangered. We know the conservation messaging that we’re able to put forward to connect our guests. Support fieldwork and research with elephant populations is vital to the long-term future for both of those species. So we need to be asking those questions about everything, from an amphibian to an iconic mammal.”
No Money, No Mission
She is also clear about the need for iconic visitor experiences that pull in the punters and create both awareness and much-needed funding.
“There’s a statement, No Money, No Mission, ” says Kruse.
“The better we are, the more people we reach. The more opportunities we have to connect them with nature and the wildlife, and to create that next generation of conservation stewards.
“Zoo Miami operates as an attraction in the leisure industry. We need to compete with everything from movie theatres to theme parks for visitors’ discretionary dollars. So it’s critical that we deliver the best visitor experience, in order to have the resources to drive that mission.”
Florida: Mission Everglades
Hence the creation of Florida: Mission Everglades, an interactive exhibit that embeds the conservation message within a dynamic attraction.
“We use the term ‘mission’ because Everglades restoration is a huge issue here that has been ongoing for a number of years. Zoo Miami has a great opportunity to take a Florida exhibit and really focus it on the Everglades, telling the story of the Everglades ecosystem, its water, how it impacts so much of Florida. We just decided that would be probably the greatest role we could play.
“Once we began planning for it back in 2008, we went to other zoos and visited a lot of other Florida exhibits, ” Kruse says, adding that many of them were, if not generic, then rather general in execution.
“But we knew we had an opportunity to do something different. The opportunity to shine a light on the beauty and fragility of the Everglades. To highlight the vastness of it and its vital importance to South Florida as an ecosystem. We were in a great position in that it was in our home county here.”
PJA Architects and WhiteWater Attractions
Florida: Mission Everglades has been designed by experts in zoo and landscape architecture, PJA Architects. Visitors will be able to view animals underwater, in the tree-tops, underground, and from directly above their watery habitats. The 4.5 acre exhibit will feature the major types of habitat found in the Everglades. It will also highlight the rich aquatic habitats in the shallow waters of Florida Bay.
One of the highlights will almost certainly be the adventure ‘air boat’ ride being designed and built by Whitewater Attractions. The 8-passenger ride vehicles are being themed to resemble an air boat and the ride itself will incorporate special effects and a few surprises as it winds through the natural-looking environments.
Zoo Miami, a Birders’ Paradise
“We’re using all native plants; where possible we’re doing mixed species exhibits, ” says Kruse. “One of the signature areas will be a wading bird exhibit. There visitors will get a chance to interpret the vast number of birds that call Everglades National Park home. Even if it’s just seasonally.
“Because this is a large, open-air exhibit, we get a lot of fly-in birds. Part of the interpretive messaging will help people understand what it takes to become a birder. Birding is one of the largest and fastest-growing hobbies not just nationally but worldwide. So, we are going to have an interpretive area called Birders’ Paradise. This will teach visitors the fundamentals of Birding 101.”
[Birding 101 is about getting new people into birding, and assisting those who have just started, to get the most out of the hobby.]
“We are going to have both an alligator and a crocodile exhibit, so that we are able to interpret and show people the differences between those amazing reptiles.”
Otter Slide and Underwater Crocodile Tube
Children will actually be able to go through a tube underwater through the crocodile exhibit. There they can see a crocodile from underneath. There will also be a slide through the North American River Otter exhibit.
“We have a shared Florida panther and black bear exhibit that will be enriching to both animals. There will also be a tunnel culminating in a ‘tree’ with viewing windows that pops out to the centre of that exhibit. This means visitors can actually smell and see the animal up close while remaining unseen.”
Other native animals in the exhibit will include bobcats, grey fox and American bald eagles.
“We are going to have roseate spoonbills, and a songbird exhibit. Because these are all Florida natives, most, if not all of these animals will have been animals that were injured and are not releasable.
“Our Florida panther is about a year and four months old. She was orphaned, over in Naples: she’s terrific. And I know that we’re getting two non-releasable bald eagles.”
Miami-Dade County boasts not one but two national parks. These are the Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. The Everglades is a source of water for more than seven million residents on a daily basis.
By connecting Zoo Miami visitors to the wealth of wildlife that exists right in their own backyard, the Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit hopes to make the conservation message more relevant and meaningful to local people.
“Interestingly, zoo visitors are primarily local residents. In comparison, visitors to the Everglades National Park are primarily tourists. They are out of state, non-local residents. The vast majority of our residents here in South Florida have never been out to the Everglades. This is going to be a great opportunity to make that connection locally, ” says Kruse.
“An added bonus would be that tourists who have gone out to the Everglades, and may not have had the opportunity to see some of the reclusive native wildlife – the Everglades is over 1.5 million acres so they may never see a panther, or an American crocodile – would then visit our zoo, giving them an opportunity to learn more about these animals and make a connection in a more up close, personal way. So it is a wonderful partnership that we’re looking forward to.”
Zoo Miami is partnering with Everglades National Park Rangers to develop programming that uses the zoo’s new exhibit to engage visitors’ interest in the Everglades.
“Rangers are going to embed some of the programming here at the zoo. We’re going to get the opportunity to take visitors out on field trips and do programming out there also.”
The exhibit will open later this year, coinciding with the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service.
“We’re very excited about that. We’re opening in two stages and are opening the new entry plaza at the front. That will be followed later this fall by Florida Mission Everglades.
“We hope to do some special programming and grand opening festivities in collaboration with Everglades National Park.”
Speaking about the challenges facing the industry and whole conservation sector, Kruse said:
“One that is pretty well understood, certainly by everyone in the conservation movement, is that species are going extinct at the greatest rate than ever before. We’re coming to the realisation that the world is changing so quickly, wild places are shrinking at alarming rates, and no matter how much passion and will there is we cannot save everything, that we really have to work collectively to make those hard decisions about what animals, what species, are we going to focus on to make the greatest difference. To me that is a huge challenge, both intellectually and emotionally – that’s really hard.”
Connecting People with Nature for Life
Kruse is also concerned that the younger generation have become disconnected from nature.
“I’m a baby boomer. I grew up playing in the woods and taking for granted that connection we make from early on. The millennials, and the Gen Zs following, don’t have that connection to nature. So many of them have grown up in this high-tech, completely built environment. They’ve not gone to a National Park, they’ve not taken the time to walk in the woods. The woods are not a scary place – that’s where we learned about things and developed our love and curiosity for nature. We have to get that connection back. That is the next challenge.
“If we lose these next generations, who’s going to be the flag bearer?”
However, there is hope for the future. Children are so easily fired by the conservation message when they are exposed to it.
“This generation comes already savvy about environmental matters. They’re asking the right questions and they’re filled with curiosity. They have access to so much more information about issues than I ever had, growing up. So that should make it that much easier for them to become passionate and make that connection. We just have to do our job, delivering what we do in a meaningful way so that we are relevant.”
Leaders for Wildlife Conservation
“Collectively, AVA accredited zoos have 180 million visitors a year. Just think of the impact, if all of our interpretive conservation messaging was focused on connecting people with nature for life. Their life and the life of the planet. I am hopeful.”
So, what are the priorities for a modern zoo?
“We need to achieve those deeply engaging experiences that are interactive and immersive. At our core we have to continue to be a fun, family-friendly destination that offers unique, extraordinary, enriching experiences that are both engaging and inspiring, that ultimately connect people with nature for life.
“People go to zoos and aquariums, to other attractions, to have a fun, enriching, terrific experience. But, I know that we’re very uniquely positioned to play a dual role in the conservation of wildlife. Both at the front line, through conservation and education, and behind the scenes, through working with breeding programmes of highly endangered species, other conservation and research work both in the field supporting organisations through fundraising efforts that are out there in the field working with endangered and threatened species.
“So I think here at Zoo Miami we have both an opportunity and an obligation to be leaders for wildlife conservation.
“Even though we operate in the attractions industry, we’ve got to make sure audiences know we exist for a higher purpose, and that’s really to save animals in the wild. To me, that’s the function of a modern zoo.”