An interview with Zoos Victoria CEO Dr Jenny Gray

Amelia Caddy
Published 04 Feb 2019 
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In the decade since Jenny Gray took over as CEO of Zoos Victoria, she has fundamentally changed the way the organisation defines itself. Today, Zoos Victoria is, above all else, a not-for-profit conservation organisation dedicated to ‘fighting species extinction’ through breeding and recovery programs, behaviour change campaigns, and collaborations with land managers. She spoke to Bush Heritage ahead of her keynote speech at the Women in Conservation Breakfast in February 2019.

Could you explain your new model for conservation and what made you feel that a shift was necessary?

At Zoos Victoria, we've spent the last 10 years or so really focusing on the question of how we can enhance our role as a zoo-based conservation organisation. That has meant shifting away from looking at zoos as purely entertainment, and thinking more about how zoos can make a real difference for wildlife.

The reason for that shift was that if you're really passionate about animals and conservation – as both our visitors and our staff are – you realise there are many species that need our help. One of the pivotal moments for us at Zoos Victoria was working to try and save the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, and pretty much arriving too late. For us, that was an ‘aha’ moment. It really made us look at our model and say, ‘what is it that we can contribute to conservation?’

What role do you see zoos as playing in the broader conservation picture? What pathways are there for zoos and field-based conservation organisations to work together?

We spent a lot of time thinking about this and we feel there are two big roles we can play in conservation. The first is holding and breeding critically endangered animals for release back into the wild. We have a skill set that not many conservation organisations have because we are zoos – we hold animals, we encourage them to breed, we work to ensure they have the conditions they need in order to breed – and we’ve been doing all this for a very long time.

The second role is engaging with visitors, because unlike many other conservation organisations, we have this huge base of people who come through our gates. So that's where we have the opportunity to really focus on behaviour change.

In terms of pathways for us to work together with field-based conservation organisations, well, the ultimate goal for all of us is to have a world rich in biodiversity. But that biodiversity has to be out in the wild, not just in captivity. So we see the potential for a great synergy between zoos and land managers, and we want to definitely work with as many land managers as possible, otherwise we're just going to end up with more and more animals in captivity, not out in the wild.

Zoos Victoria’s Plains-wanderer Recovery Program seems like a good example of how your work with animals in captivity could ultimately contribute to a more secure population in the wild. Can you take me through that program?

That's a very new recovery program for us – it's in its infancy. So, with any good, science-based program you have to start with saying, ‘what is your data showing you?’ We keep an eye on many native species: we have the critically endangered species that we're already working with – the ones that are right on the brink of extinction – but we also have a watch list, and the Plains-wanderer was on that watch list. We saw a significant deterioration in the security of the Plains-wanderer and its habitat, and at that point we went, ‘whoa, this is getting really bad now, and we think it's time to trigger some captive breeding’.

Some Plains-wanderers have been brought to a facility that we built at Werribee Open Range Zoo, and that little group of Plains-wanderers bred this year, which is super, super exciting. They produced two boys and two girls.

Now we’re working on a lot of data collection and trying to learn what it’s going to take to recover the Plains-wanderer. We're still in the early stages and I don't think we're anywhere near releasing them back into the wild, but at the very least what we are creating is a captive population that will give these birds some long-term security.

Do you think Australian zoos have a moral responsibility to educate their visitors about native species as well as exotic species?

Every zoo has to have a healthy mix of both native and exotic species. But what we should really be interested in asking ourselves is: ‘which animals can thrive in zoos and which animals can we give a good life to in captivity?’

Do we have a responsibility to educate visitors about both exotics and natives? Absolutely, because they both need our help. But it really comes down to saying, ‘where are we going to have the greatest impact?’

You have an incredibly diverse background, spanning across transport, finance, ethics and engineering. Do you think that experience helped to prepare you for work in the conservation sector?

I often joke that I have a very short attention span. And so, if you look at my career, it's just a mess; it has this sense of opportunism about it. But different parts of my career have all turned out to be relevant in some way. Finance is, of course, important in any career, and we do an enormous amount of engineering work in our zoos on a daily basis. And it's desperately important to understand your ethical foundation and to act ethically if you're working with animals. So, as you said, all these different elements don't look like they belong, but when you put them all together, it's like I’ve deliberately been preparing for this job.

Is there any advice you would give to women trying to make a career in conservation?

I would love to see more women in conservation. In order to do well, I think you have to have visions in your head of where you're going and then work strategically to achieve those visions. Don't be driven by emotion; be driven instead by what the data says. When we start doing that, we start making better decisions, and that’s applicable whether you're a man or a woman.

Instead of saying, ‘My gut tells me this is worth doing’, stop and say, ‘well, what does the data say?’ Approach it with the rigour of science. Stop, think about it, and ask yourself, ‘is there something else I could do, something I could do better?’

Okay, last question, possibly the hardest. Do you have a favourite native animal?

Yeah, I love wombats. They're just adorable. They're like living teddy bears and I love that they're just so solid and don't care. Wombats aren’t worrying about what they're going to be when they grow up. They just are. They defy being anything other than wombats: you can't make them into pets because they’ll just turn mean on you; you can't define them as delicate because they're not; and when you put them in small spaces, they destroy them. They're real wild animals.

And then the other thing I've learned about wombats that I just love is that wombats like sunsets. Zoo keepers say that if you put wombats in a space where they can see the sunset, they will spend every afternoon sitting there watching it. Now, I can't back that up with scientific rigour, but it's a fact I love. So, good wombat enclosures have a good view of the sunset.

The 2019 Celebrating Women in Conservation Breakfast will take place on Thursday 28 February at ZINC in Federation Square, Melbourne. It is hosted jointly by Bush Heritage Australia and Trust for Nature.

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