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Highways to Mars and Woodland Park Zoo's future, or What Keeps Me Up at Night

Posted by: Alejandro Grajal, PhD, President and CEO

Last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk detailed his goal to make humans a multi-planetary species. He believes, as do I and many scientists, that humans are at a crossroads. Life on Earth as we know it is headed to its sixth extinction event. He says we can stay here and face the consequences, or we can become a space-faring species. Hanging out on Mars would be a handy option when Earth gets too crowded and its resources too depleted. His vision is we should build a highway to Mars now and begin colonizing, and he wants the whole world involved.

Clearly, such out-of-the-box thinking gets attention and investment. It certainly gets my attention. Not necessarily because I agree or disagree with Musk. I must admit that whether we should colonize Mars is not a question that keeps me up at night.

The question that does keep me up at night is this: How can we do more to save the planet we’re already on?

Rather than make humans into a multi-planetary species, I’d like to make humans into permanent protectors of a multi-species planet. More simply: before we populate the Red Planet, let’s figure out how to live sustainably on the Blue one.

Before we populate the Red Planet, let’s figure out how to live sustainably on the Blue one. Image:

Like Musk’s zero-emissions cars and re-usable rocket boosters, I want our strategies, tactics and products to aid our species’ survivability—and that of the others with whom we share the planet. As the new leader of a conservation zoo, in Seattle’s forward-thinking, high-tech environment, I too want everyone involved in making this happen. 

But unlike Musk, I believe the biggest challenge humans face is not a technical one. The way I see it, the biggest challenge we face is ethical: Will we humans choose to live on this planet within its limits and with our fellow species? Will we recognize that our security is not aided by seeing ourselves at the top of the food chain? What will it take for us to see ourselves as one part of a whole, living system and act accordingly to sustain it? 

Modern zoos help humanity shift to an ecosystem-centered ethic. The individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts, all of which must be protected. Image:

If we opt to sleepwalk through these tough questions, our children and grandchildren will marvel—and not in a good way—at our immaturity, lack of will and self-delusion. 

Our moon shot, if you will, is nothing less than inventing a new relationship with nature here on Earth. As a boundary-pushing zoo, this challenge has our name all over it.

Today, conservation zoos like ours are designed to help us wrestle with and respond to such questions. Long gone are the Victorian days of merely observing animals. By the 70s, Woodland Park Zoo emerged as a top driver of innovative animal care along with a redesign that transformed how visitors experienced the world’s animals and landscapes. WPZ’s advances touched off a paradigm shift, and the reasons to visit and support modern zoos changed forever.

In its most recent transformation, Woodland Park Zoo opened a forested home for tigers with Banyan Wilds in 2015. Photos: Woodland Park Zoo.

In the face of dramatic rises in habitat destruction and declines in species diversity, authentic and up-close animal experiences now give people gripping ways to see what is at stake, what can be lost, and what to do. Technology doesn’t replace the unique, deeply moving inspiration of in-person experiences, but it does facilitate saving the biodiversity we depend on. It reduces the distance between desire and the will to act. It deepens the story we tell, and amplifies it through our social networks. With a few clicks, millions of WPZ visitors can participate directly in wildlife protection or influence environmental policy makers around the world. Fifteen years ago, this possibility was barely a glimmer. 

Technology also helps make conservation strategies themselves more effective—such as our ground-breaking, non-invasive wildlife monitoring devices in partnership with Microsoft Research, or our first-ever Zoohackathon this weekend. This partnership with the U.S. State Department links our zoo specialists with designers, technologists and coders to create novel ways to combat wildlife trafficking. We’re standing on the cutting edge of conservation technology with huge, passionate audiences ready to be tapped and cheering us on.

“Let the coding begin!” Coding to end wildlife trafficking. Image:

And yet, there are some who question whether today’s world even needs zoos. Frankly, I wish we didn’t—because that would mean that we humans finally succeeded in sharing the planet with wildlife. In my 30+ years of experience, doubters tend to hang onto outdated, simplistic views of zoos and are misinformed about the complex relationship between humans and animals. Some even demonstrate a fundamentalism that places their ideals above all others. Occasionally it’s easy to mistake the hearsay from a few for the clarion of the crowd. 

Whether you are in Seattle, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, or Melbourne—it’s clear that communities as a whole love their conservation zoos and aquariums. I believe it’s because we don’t shy away from difficult, even uncomfortable questions about the responsibility to wildlife that comes with being human. We bring a scientifically informed and socially inspiring story of hope and possibility for species survival. We invite millions of people, of all backgrounds and abilities, to craft the success story with us. We provide them the learning and tools to do so. We show them the reasons to care. You simply cannot look into a giraffe’s eyelashes, or at a gorilla’s expressiveness, from just a few inches away and not feel permanently moved by compassion and connection. I know of no other institution that can do this.

What transformations are we capable of when we see the changing planet from an animal's point of view? Image: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

That said, it might surprise you to hear me caution that the future of zoos is not assured. We must not only stay current. We must lead the way by getting out in front of vexing issues: social unrest; unequal access to nature; lack of scientifically literate workers; wars between humans that decimate entire populations of wild animals; the trafficking of tiger and elephant body parts; and unrelenting destruction of habitats. Serving as solution builders to these problems has huge implications for how we design and manage zoos, for why we exist.

Today’s world calls on zoos to be catalysts for social change. It’s great to be an amazing place for families to bond and make memories, for civic groups to gather, for students and teachers to get hands-on learning experiences, for people to save animals and habitats in the wild. But to help humanity build a new relationship with nature, we must delve even further into the business of changing minds. It’s a tall order. While achieving our goals for today, we must also lay the groundwork for life-altering ideas for tomorrow. 

Most importantly, we must ask: Who is participating with us? Who is missing? Securing a healthy future in which all species can share this planet indefinitely requires everyone’s diverse ideas and energies. 

Securing a healthy future for all species requires welcoming everyone’s diverse ideas and energies. Images: Woodland Park Zoo

Although I’ve not quite completed five months here, already I see that WPZ—from staff and volunteers to members and donors—is driven to achieve this calling. To do so, there are certain priorities we must pursue, and they will separate the zoos that will thrive in the 21st Century from those that will not. I’m eager to explore them with you in next month’s post.

How we decide to write history today shapes the choices future generations will have, regardless of whether they’re living on Earth or on Mars. You’re going to hear me describe how WPZ can lead on urgent issues of social, economic and environmental justice. How we will be a greater force for realizing YOUR—our stakeholders—values for innovation, inclusiveness and quality of life. And, how we are poised to be even more potent trendsetters in each area of our mission. 

You’re also going to hear me say that Seattle is a much better place because of Woodland Park Zoo. We should never tire of proudly saying and demonstrating that. 

I know I won’t.


Mellow said…
Wonderful message! Thank you for your work in education and conservation. I know our family loves and appreciates the Zoo.
Unknown said…
The same passion which with you wrote this, I want to see by your employees at the zoo! I love going and am an annual member. I am always disturbed by the people who go and don't see the issues they face- I feel the staff need to really educate people while they visit. They are not just cute animals sitting behind glass- what issues do they face? How can everyone help? I get sad every time I go to the zoo not because the animals are in enclosures (I know for most of them it's safer than being in the wild) but because I see people disrespecting the wildlife right in front of them. I hope your passion spreads to others- encourage the zoo staff to really share the issues at hand. Not just look at how cute Yola is- how can you help other baby gorillas to live a normal life in the wild? A Call to Action area in the zoo would be amazing- somewhere you could go and read posts about things going on that you could help with. Maybe it's signing a petition, maybe it's funding, maybe it is voting on some upcoming legislature that affects animals- There's my two cents, thank you for all that you do and continue sharing your passion!!!
It's that very passion in Woodland Park Zoo's staff and community members like you that attracted Alejandro here. We agree with you that visitors on zoo grounds are our best audience to empower as conservation advocates. Many of our programs are already committed to that vision, and we are piloting innovative ways to incorporate these ideas into exhibit messaging and interactive elements. For example, you can join the Tiger Team when you visit Banyan Wilds and stay in touch with calls to action to help save tigers long after your visit. Tiger Team members just helped us conclude a successful fundraising campaign that added 400+ days of ranger patrols in tiger forests. Under Alejandro's leadership, and the continued support of our community, we see expanding these kinds of activities and deeply embedding them into every experience on zoo grounds and beyond. You are absolutely right on track that inspiring people to join us in taking action is the ultimate work of the zoo, and we're fired up to figure out the most effective methods and get to work! Thanks for joining us on this journey.