Psychology Is Alive and Well at the Zoo

By Terry L. Maple, PhD
Zoos and aquariums are institutions that celebrate the diversity of life. The latest statistics from the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimate that 569,029 living creatures reside within the collections of the Association's 170 institutional members. San Diego's esteemed zoo and wild animal park has more than 3,200 birds among the nearly 7,000 animals in its collection. The National Aquarium in Baltimore has 3,553 fish catalogued into 335 separate species. Zoo Atlanta, a modest collection by these standards, has 107 mammals, 201 birds, and about 564 reptiles, amphibians, insects, and arthropods. This formidable resource of zoos and aquariums is dispersed from California to Maine, from Minnesota to Arizona, available to students and professors throughout the nation. Its value to scholars and educators would be difficult to calculate, but it should be noted that America's zoos and aquariums spend almost $1 billion annually to maintain and exhibit these collections.

In 1984, during a severe management crisis, I was named Interim Zoo Director for the Atlanta Zoo, which at that time was regarded as one of America's "10 worst." On leave from the Georgia Institute of Technology, I expected to be Director only as long as it took to recruit an experienced administrator. After nearly 11 years at the helm, I am comfortable with the idea that I have finally become the Director that we had been seeking. It has been a fascinating decade of mind-bending highs and stomach-wrenching lows. As a full-time college professor, I had been a theoretician who dispensed advice about zoo management. Now I am fully accountable for my own ideas each and every day. Among my academic peers, I am uniquely qualified to exclaim, "This place is a zoo!"

In a crisis, it is possible to plot a course for dramatic and sweeping changes. Fortunately for me, the Atlanta community clearly articulated a powerful mandate for excellence. I was able to hire first-rate curators, educators, and animal keepers. We established departments for marketing and development, and we reaffirmed our commitment to conservation and education by allocating strong budgets and recruiting specialized talents. In all of these endeavors, collaborating with nearby universities has strengthened, energized, and diversified our programs. The zoo has been particularly enriched by the participation of graduate students and their supervising professors. For example, Zoo Atlata's conservation biologist, Lorraine Perkins, will soon receive her PhD in experimental psychology from Georgia Tech. During her early years in the graduate program, she developed a sophisticated computerized animal records system for the zoo. She currently manages the orangutan studbook for the entire world population of this taxon. Thanks to the participation of our academic collaborators, we have become one of the world's most productive and respected scientific zoos.

My broad training in scientific psychology turned out to be optimal preparation for a career in zoo administration. As a specialist in comparative psychology, I was qualified to solve difficult animal management problems. However, the animal problems turned out to be the easy ones. The most difficult impediments to changing the zoo were, alas, human. To succeed, I had to develop a management style and strategy that was a blend of psychology, management, and common sense.

Early in my tenure as Director, I sought support and advice from my colleagues in the industrial-organizational program at Georgia Tech. One of my first discoveries was the importance of work climate, which was carefully explained to me by Professor Larry James, now at the University of Tennessee. In my dealings with disgruntled and demoralized personnel, I began to understand just how totally dysfunctional the zoo had become. Today, we periodically issue an objective work-climate survey conducted and interpreted by Georgia Tech Professor Jack Feldman. This information has been extremely valuable to our managers and our board. Our human resources division has become the focal point for applied psychology at the zoo.

As a graduate student at the University of California at Davis, I was greatly influenced by the ideas of environmental psychologist, Robert Sommer. In his book, Tight Spaces, and a benchmark paper in the magazine, Natural History, Professor Sommer defined some fundamental flaws in the zoo environment. Zoos, he noted, were examples of "hard architecture"--sterile, inflexible, and dehumanizing. Zoos of this kind were hard on animals and the people who visited them. In 1970, Sommer advised me to read the work of Swiss Zoo Director Heini Hediger, who was also a professor of ethology at the University of Zurich. This proved to be the best advice I ever received in graduate school. During the last years of his retirement, Hediger became my mentor, introducing me to the emerging field of zoo biology. In 1982, I participated in the founding of a journal by that name, now the leading scientific journal for zoo and aquarium professionals. It was Hediger who first demonstrated that universities and zoos could be compatible and complementary. He found it odd that botanical gardens, but not zoos, were routinely associated with universities in Europe.

The environmental psychology literature, from Hediger to Sommer, has had a powerful effect on the zoo. Zoo architecture is now soft and naturalistic, and both the quality and the quantity of space is regarded as germane to the well-being of zoo animals and zoo visitors. Modern zoos recognize their obligation to educate their visitors, and they promote the idea that wild animals and wild places must be protected for future generations to enjoy and understand. Zoo professionals have recently extended their reach into the ecosystems where zoo animals originated. We provide advice to national park professionals worldwide who must manage their resources in much the same way that zoos are managed. In Kenya, for example, black rhinos can only be protected from poachers by managing them in compounds surrounded by electric fences and armed patrols. These are zoos of a new and challenging kind.

Occasionally, we rescue wildlife. Sumatran tigers have nearly disappeared from their island habitat. Only 600 animals remain in the entire world. In a race to breed them in captivity, we will be hard pressed to save them from extinction. Zoos no longer want to be the last refuge for endangered species, but for some hardship cases, we have no choice. The California Condor is one high-profile example, being successfully managed and bred by both the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo. In Atlanta, we recently rescued the lowland gorilla, Ivan, who had lived most of his solitary life in a shopping mall. Partnering with Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, we successfully moved Ivan to Zoo Atlanta where he resides in the spacious Ford African Rain Forest exhibit. He will soon be introduced to a subset of our 19 gorillas, most of which are on loan from the Yerkes Primate Research Center of Emory University. Atlanta's innovative gorilla exhibit, five contiguous habitats on 4.5 acres of hillside woodlands, was based on the ideas of comparative and environmental psychologists. Modern zoo design is as much a science as it is an art.

We have resocialized isolated gorillas before. Indeed, we have become known for our expertise in this practice. The male gorilla, Willie B., isolated in Atlanta for 27 years, was successfully resocialized in 1988. We described this empirical process in the 1990 issue of International Zoo Yearbook, published annually by the Zoological Society of London. Living among other gorillas for the past 7 years, Willie B. recently sired his first offspring and has proved to be an exemplary gorilla parent. This story and the story of Ivan are wonderful metaphors for our zoo's recovery, and a source of inspiration and joy to our community. It is also a story about the underpinnings and potential of science and technology.

We continue to study the process of resocialization in gorillas and other nonhuman primates. My graduate student, Kyle Burks, will devote his master's thesis to the study of Ivan and his interactions with other zoo gorillas. Kristin Lukas is observing the response of gorilla groups when they were repeatedly introduced into novel enclosures. Not surprisingly, they benefit from it. Renee Hodgden's work compares the social behavior of the closely related black and white rhino species. Rebecca Snyder records the behavior of big cats, and Tina Chang studies the highly endangered drill baboon. These Georgia Tech graduate students form the backbone of our ambitious research program. Professor Duane Jackson, a collaborating scientist from Atlanta Morehouse College, deploys undergraduate students who observe zoo animals and zoo visitors in a summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Zoo Atlanta's graduate student workforce participate as leaders and research mentors.

Scientific zoos are no longer the exception; they are becoming the norm. At all levels, and around the world, science is alive and well at the zoo.

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