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Making it easy—and fun—to be green

Posted by: Dr. Deborah B. Jensen, WPZ President and CEO

Dr. Deborah B. Jensen. Photo by Matt Hagen.
Kermit the Frog said it well:  “It's not that easy being green.” Still, the actions we take every day impact the wildlife and habitats that surround us. As a society, how we deal with resource depletion, environmental pollution and climate change will decide the fate of the many animals and landscapes we love.

Northwesterners care deeply about this region’s natural heritage.  As a conservation leader, so does Woodland Park Zoo. And so do our city’s leaders. Mayor Mike McGinn has asked the entire community to comment on a new Climate Action Plan for Seattle, which proposes ways our city can become carbon neutral by 2050. The ambitious plan follows the first period of agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions outlined in the global Kyoto Protocol, which concluded in 2012. I encourage you to explore the city’s plan and join the dialogue.

Such a big goal requires building community support for climate action generation after generation. It takes all of us joining together in the effort, and Woodland Park Zoo’s broad reach to people of all ages will make a big difference. For decades, we’ve been coming up with ways to integrate conservation into zoo experiences, making it FUN for our one million annual guests to learn how to be green.

We do this by designing exhibits with nature as our inspiration, and we make every zoo visit a conservation action. Let me show you how.

Designing with nature in mind
Although green practices have been our zoo’s gold standard for decades, in 2010 we formally codified sustainability into everything we do through our award-winning Sustainability Plan. Some examples of how we’re raising the bar for environmentally intelligent action include:

Piles of Zoo Doo compost being prepared at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

One million guests a year and 1,000 animals produce a lot of waste, and we’ve become experts at recycling it into valuable resources. Our popular Zoo Doo compost program, nearly 30 years old and sold out every year, has kept millions of pounds of waste out of landfills. Our Sustainability Plan calls for us to reduce solid waste by 50 percent by 2020. With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we conducted a comprehensive waste audit in 2011. We will accelerate our already high diversion rates with new purchasing practices, expand onsite recycling, and help even more guests and staff get in on the act.

Water is filtered and recycled in the penguin exhibit, saving 3 million gallons of water a year. Image by Woodland Park Zoo.

Water is a critical resource for every living thing. That’s why over the last 12 years we reduced our water consumption by 46 percent. Our plan calls for a further 30 percent reduction by 2020. The award-winning Humboldt penguin exhibit is a great example of how green exhibit design is replacing old, costly processes with naturally efficient ones – no more filling and dumping. A closed-loop, constructed wetland filtration system saves 3 million gallons of water a year, while geothermal energy heats and cools the endangered birds’ marine home. In May, guests will also marvel at the new Asian small-clawed otter exhibit’s pool, which incorporates a similar filtration design to help keep our cherished Puget Sound waterways clean.  

Zoomazium’s green roof is alive with vegetation. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Because of our historic zoo’s older infrastructure, we have ambitious goals for heating and lighting our buildings in more ecofriendly ways. We aim to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. For years, LEED Gold-certified Zoomazium has been modeling green building for guests. Now, they can also enjoy rides under new solar panels on our Historic Carousel. In other off-exhibit areas, we are working to make climate control more efficient and better tailored to species’ specific needs. We recently removed the last four of the old underground oil storage tanks, are upgrading our boilers to high efficiency models, and plan further upgrades to the old feline house.

Artist rendering of new tiger exhibit complex. Rendering by Mir/Woodland Park Zoo.

I’m excited to say that when phase two of the new, 2-acre Asian tropical forest exhibit complex opens (for Malayan tigers and sloth bears), which is slated for 2015, the entire complex should achieve carbon neutrality with an annual reduction of 92,000 pounds of carbon – equal to planting 11 acres of forest each year. While source reductions remain our first priority, we joined Forterra’s Carbon Capturing Partnership to offset emissions from other areas of the zoo. For example, last year we offset emissions from our Tropical Rain Forest exhibit and our new winter WildLights event. 

Making every zoo visit a conservation action
By walking the talk in our exhibit design and operations, we provide one million annual guests hundreds of genuine ways to learn how to help wildlife. Here’s what a just a few look like on any given day.

A young visitor casts her vote at a Quarters for Conservation kiosk. Photo by Sarah Lovrien/Woodland Park Zoo. 

It starts with planning your zoo visit on our web site, where we encourage you to carpool, bus, ride or walk to the zoo – just like we do. Once here, we invite you to voice your choice through Quarters for Conservation, where you and other visitors “vote,” using tokens, to direct a percentage of your admission or membership fee to your favorite Partners for Wildlife projects. Since the program started in September 2011, thousands of these small but generous actions have added up to nearly $250,000 dollars annually to help save more animals in the wild. 

Young visitors line up to feed hungry Humboldt penguins. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

While feeding Humboldt penguins hand to beak, you learn from an expert zookeeper how you can grocery shop in ways that preserve the wild fish stocks this endangered species needs to survive. Ambling over to your next exhibit, your family gets engrossed in Tipping Point and On Thin Ice climate science activities, our newest visitor experiences. Where else is measuring your carbon footprint and learning how your actions affect climate such a blast? More than 50,000 people were reached in last year’s pilots. Fifty percent of participants reported learning something new about climate change. And, as a result of zoowide conservation messaging, 70 percent of visitors surveyed were able to identify at least one action they could take to help wildlife. What about you?

A zoo horticulture expert demonstrates best practices for co-existing with wildlife to backyard habitat class participants. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Hungry from all that green learning? You head to the Rain Forest Pavilion for a bite, where your food choices are sourced and served in wildlife friendly ways. Over lunch, your kids wonder how they can do more for wildlife at home and in your neighborhood. Before you know it, you’re signing up for our popular Backyard Habitat classes.

You see, step by step Woodland Park Zoo’s 92-acre living classroom teaches everyone how to save the planet’s resources for generations to come. Building long-term capacity for climate action will take all of us joining together. A more sustainable future for wildlife and people is in our own hands.