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Evolving for and with our community

Posted by Alejandro Grajal, President and CEO, Woodland Park Zoo

Our nation is facing vigorous and necessary social discussions about racism, inclusion and equity. No person or organization can be part of the movement for equity without some tough, genuine self-reflection. So here I am to tell you as the President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo: I know that we still have a lot of work ahead to transform our zoo into a dynamic space that truly represents our whole community, and we are committed.

Inclusion is one of the zoo’s central values, and I’m proud of our ongoing work to remove economic, physical or ability-based barriers. For all the good work we want to do now and in the years ahead, we have to reconcile with the foundation we’re building on. And for zoos, that’s a quite literal foundation. We build exhibits that last decades, architectural monuments meant to sustain the lives of our resident animals and withstand weather and visitation by millions of people. So as the world changes around us, we must figure out how to contend with the physical and cultural monoliths of the past and present. A case in point for Woodland Park Zoo is the former African Village area of our African Savanna exhibit.

The zoo’s African Savanna biome was opened in 1980 and won a prestigious zoo industry award for its open space and mixed-species design. Its inspired design was among the pioneering zoo exhibits that displayed immersive landscapes. The savanna made it possible for giraffe, zebra, ostriches and other wildlife to mingle together on a seemingly boundless and verdant landscape. In 2001, we sought to augment that natural history story by developing an African Village area, a viewpoint along the Savanna that was themed with Maasai- and Kikuyu-inspired architecture and cultural interpretations about everyday village life and experiences at the intersection of humans and wildlife.

The intention at that time was to center a specific rural community of East African people in the conservation cause, create a social discourse about coexisting with wildlife, and help our guests reflect on their own life, school and community experiences. Despite our original intentions, what we ended up with in the African Village exhibit area was ultimately appropriative. The space lacked the cultural engagement of the African diaspora in our own community, and has not appropriately represented key perspectives on East African modern culture and conservation challenges over the past 20 years. We very much believe that in order to best do our jobs, our conservation work must center on local people and represent their original, dynamic voices and perspectives. In other words, our conservation work and our representation of that work must be decolonized.

When I use the term decolonized, I mean removing cultural elements and interpretations that were created with an appropriative lens, and instead listening to and representing the cultural perspectives, aspirations and needs of the communities portrayed in the exhibit. Specific to the African Village, we’ve heard community and internal feedback that the overly generalized depictions of “African” village life was imbued with a racist, colonial viewpoint. It’s just one example of outdated and harmful modes of interpretation that museums, zoos and cultural attractions need to confront. 

 To this end, we are making a few immediate changes to this exhibit. This area will no longer be called “African Village,” and some of the elements will be permanently altered. The spaces known as the Teacher’s House and the Traditional Kikuyu House are temporarily closed because of COVID-19, but when they reopen, they will cease to be cultural interpretive spaces. Their external architecture remains, but the interiors will no longer host outdated cultural props and interpretive signage. The building that was themed as a village schoolhouse will remain as a prime, sheltered viewing area, but we are removing the appropriated village schoolteacher voice from the signage and the thematic school furniture.

We believe that zoo exhibits exist to connect, inspire and move our visitors to action. Zoos provide an opportunity for visitors to meet animals up close, connecting them with biomes and communities both near and far. We intend for these moments to foster empathy for animals in the wild, as well as empathy and understanding for the people who coexist with these spaces around the world. Because Seattle has such a vibrant and diverse community, and because the world is made smaller by travel and technology, the zoo can and must seek the expertise of people who have direct connections to these places and biomes. By engaging community partners, we can work together to create connection and inspiration points that spark empathy and empowerment for conservation.

Our work extends beyond exhibits and we must also recognize that much of modern conservation itself is built on a top-down, colonial legacy that has alienated and often directly harmed Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Please listen to the panelists who joined our recent event, Slipping Through the Cracks: Racism and the Struggle for Equity in the Field of Conservation, who were generous of their time to help us all explore these issues and hear and acknowledge their lived experiences.

The zoo’s conservation projects and partners around the world have long focused on supporting community-based solutions that center community perspectives and needs while addressing threats to habitat and wildlife. For example, through our Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program we have developed a 20+-year partnership with the landowner communities of the Huon Peninsula in Papua New Guinea who have come together to form their nation’s first ever Conservation Area. This is a solution for and by the people that has the most potential for resilience and relevance for generations to come. It’s what conservation could and should look like and is an inspiring example of how transformative and lasting conservation can be when it is powered by the people who call these areas home. We support and join with more than 30 amazing partners all over the world, and we cannot overlook the critical importance of that kind of community engagement right here in our own region as we all work to build our resilient future together. That’s why we’re investing in a new community engagement program with Antioch University to develop anti-racist, science-based, empathy-powered principles of engagement that can help local communities take the lead in shaping the future of local conservation and coexistence. Those very principles will shape future exhibits and programs to come at the zoo. 

There is no denying that this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and social upheaval will have indelible effects on our identity at Woodland Park Zoo. All these pivotal events will shape who we will be. The community’s outpouring of support has been a clear and hopeful signal that the zoo is widely seen as an important part of our community’s present and future. Our long-term planning needs to become a true community process that includes the voices, perspectives and experiences of the local and global communities that power our conservation mission. I know other cultural attractions are also developing better ways to co-create with communities, and we can all challenge and learn from each other right now. We have more exhibits to evaluate. We have more feedback to hear. We have more change to make.

It starts here, and we’re open to where we go together. 


Ben Podgursky said…
I've maintained my membership despite the zoo being almost impossible to visit over the past year (through capacity limitations, buildings being closed, etc)... because I care about the Zoo's mission, and think it's valuable for kids & the community.

But if in the middle of a budget crisis, the zoo has decided to spend money on cosmetic rearrangements, removing exhibits, and community programs instead of actual conservation or improving animal habitats (like, the project to renovate the Northern Trail to give animals more space), I'm wondering whether maintaining my membership sends the right message.
Ben, thank you for the feedback and for your kind words about the value of the zoo to the community and kids. We are grateful for your support and membership.

We do want to assure you that the changes made to the interpretive signage in this exhibit were fiscally responsible and done by existing staff. We continue with plans to update the Living Northwest Trail and other priority areas. No programming or changes to conservation support was made, indeed we hope that by making these small, but meaningful changes now we'll welcome even more visitors and guests to take conservation actions. Thank you for taking the time to comment and if you have further questions or concerns please reach out to us at