Animal Business

10 June 2009: Melbourne Weekly Bayside: Alison Dean
Victorian Zoos take a lead role in worldwide conservation


Jenny Gray has watched people turn their backs on her halfway through a conversation. She has seen their eyes glaze over as she tells them about her work.

"I was in banking; I was working for the devil," Gray says laughing.

"Over dinner people would ask, 'What do you do?' and I would explain that I headed up the electronic processing unit. That was always the end of the conversation."

But now that Gray is chief executive of Zoos Victoria, she tells people where she works and the conversations can last for hours. "I just mention the zoos, and the night is full of stories, people are just so engaged," she says.

"Everyone is interested in the animals and what we are doing. There is a real passion, a real connection."

It is this connection between animals at the zoo and their visitors that Zoos Victoria is determined to foster. In a bold new move, the organisation is turning to high-profile campaigns, using the zoos' animals to highlight the destruction of wildlife habitat worldwide and issuing a call to action.

Next month, Zoos Victoria, which manages Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary, will release its postcard campaign, Don't Palm Us Off. The campaign is designed to raise awareness about the destruction of forests in South-East Asia, home of the orang-utan.

The ambassadors for the campaign are the spunky and highly interactive Maimunah and her baby boy Menyaru, two of Melbourne Zoo's resident orang-utans.

"You just look into their eyes, and instantly there is a connection," Gray says of the orang-utans. "They talk to you and ask for help."

For fear of sounding strange, she adds:"Through the connection people make with the zoos' animals we are able to communicate how we can help save these animals from extinction."

The statistics from South-East Asia are grim. Every hour the equivalent of about 300 soccer fields are deforested for palm oil plantations. An estimated 50 endangered orang-utans die as a result each week. At this rate of deforestation, orang-utans could be extinct in the wild within 10 years.

Australians are aiding this destruction by unknowingly consuming an average of 10 kilograms of palm oil each a year.

"It is critical we get this information out," Zoos Victoria director of conservation Graeme Gillespie says. "We must be the custodians of biodiversity."

Zoos Victoria wants enough signatures on the campaign postcards to result in legislation compelling the listing of palm oil on the labels of the many food products that contain it.

Through this and the awareness campaign, Gillespie and his colleagues hope they can stop the demand for palm oil and the destruction of the orang-utans' habitats.

The zoos tested this style of behaviour- change campaigning earlier this year when they released They're Calling On You — the campaign that asks Melburnians to send their old phones to Melbourne Zoo for recycling. The aim is to stop the mining of the metal coltan from gorillas' habitats to produce new phones.

Melbourne Zoo has collected 7200 mobile phones and raised more than $9000 through the resale of refurbished phones. The zoo has donated the money to the Jane Goodall Institute and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to pay for the wages of Congolese rangers to help protect gorillas and other primates from poachers.

Victoria Zoos says the behaviour-change campaign is not to the detriment of its work in animal species preservation.

"We will continue to work with highly endangered animals and continue the important role zoos have in the futures recovery program to stop extinction," Gray says. "We will continue to connect people with the animals, so they can learn and understand the animals, their behaviour and their needs, but now we will use that to call people to action."

The campaigns are modelled on those used in education, health and marketing.

"Information alone does not change behaviours," the zoos' community conservation manager, Rachel Lowry, says.

"Here we provide information about the animals, their native environment and then make sure that people can take away a call to action. They need to feel they can do something once they have the information.

"The keepers are so passionate; they really help influence the way people respond to the animals. Once they have connected we then empower them to act. It is a powerful model. It can make us all feel like we are part of the solution."

The process has been slow, but Gray says the role of zoos is evolving.

"In the past decade zoos have been constantly examining where they should be. Zoos Victoria is ramping up its conservation with more sophisticated campaigns that are highly visible and based on the behaviour-change models.

"Many of us work in the zoo because we feel we can have an impact on the wildlife and their habitats."

Gray is quick to deny claim that the campaigns are a "greenwash".

"Where zoos had just been entertainment industries in the past, and I would have battled with that, now joining a zoo you can do some really good work," she says.

Zoos Victoria's attempts to shift its focus were almost foiled early last year when Village Roadshow proposed a $220 million theme park, African Safari World, for part of the Werribee Open Range Zoo. Zoos Victoria refused to endorse the pro-posal, despite pressure from the State Government, which contributes about a quarter of all zoo funding.

This was not the only media circus that threatened the organisation last year. Senior zoo experts, staff and the RSPCA accused Australia's oldest zoo, the Melbourne Zoo, of abuse and neglect of its animals. Internal investigations found no mistreatment, but it refuelled the debate about wild animals in captivity.

"There is still a level of scepticism and a need to convince people," Gray, who took the top job in December 2008, admits.

"The more hardened activists will say there are better ways of doing things, and this is a constant challenge for us. The idea of a conservation-first approach for us is a far cry from where institutions were positioned a decade ago."

Gray, Graeme Gillespie and Rachel Lowry can list numerous conservation programs here and overseas.

Locally they include threatened species such as the eastern barred bandicoot, helmeted honeyeater and the brush-tailed rock wallaby. Overseas, there is the Tenkile Conservation program, the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Program and the Philippine Crocodile Recovery Program.
Gray is happy with where the zoo is placed. She says she can sleep at night.

"When you have worked in banking and you have made a lot of money out of things, it is hard to go home every night and not be able to talk about the good work you are doing.

"I have been to zoos all around the world and there are some that are brilliant and others that just break your heart.

"Melbourne Zoo is at the good end; Werribee and Healesville are off the scale. All of them are brilliant first-world zoos.

"While there are some old enclosures at Melbourne Zoo we would like to change and upgrade, we will get there. Even in an older enclosure the welfare of the animals gets our absolute attention."

Photo: Peter Weaving