Animal Ambassadors

What is the purpose of a zoo if it is not for displaying animals? Aren’t animals supposed to be locked up in cages? Isn’t a zoo’s priority about entertaining visitors and making profit? What can we learn from a zoo about creating Teal organizations and Teal culture? Plenty.  

Today, we will introduce a zoo whose philosophy and approach may challenge our worldviews and turn them upside down as we rethink relationships between human, animal and nature.  

In 2008, Shen Zhijun became the head of Hong-Shan Zoo in Nanjing, China.  It occupied 68 acres of land, had hundreds of employees and 3000 animals from around the world, many were rare spices, and average 5 million visitors per year.  This was his first time managing a zoo, so he decided to observe first.  As he walked around, he saw a well-organized zoo with animals well-fed, living in clean cages, but something was missing.  Many animals looked sad, bored, passive and hopeless.  Shen realized that wild animals were not happy in such domesticated habitation.  He decided to make a change.

All started with establishing a new purpose.  Shen believed that animals have their own spirits and emotions, should be loved, respected and treated with dignity.  As residents of this zoo, animals have put their lives in their caretakers’ hands, who have responsibilities to protect them, to offer comfortable environment, and to ensure that they grow healthy and live happily.  A zoo is not a place to entertain human, but an embassy where animals are the ambassadors for people to learn, to appreciate and to connect with nature – their natural living environment.  A zoo’s higher purpose should be educating people to respect lives, to be grateful and to learn how to live harmoniously with nature and all creatures in it.   

Shen and his team started a zoo revolution.  In the following 15 years, they gradually renovated the zoo’s infrastructure, developed new relationships with animals and created educational programs that brought natures and animals to people’s lives.  

To begin, they broke down many old cages and redesigned living space, emulating the animals’ natural environment in the wilderness.  For instance, elephants now have their own shading areas and cooling showers in the summer.  Instead of concrete floor, they now have grass, mud and water pond to play in.  Their food is placed in random boxes where they have to search and make effort to retrieve – adding more fun and more exercise.  Cassowary, a nearly extinctive bird, native to the New Guinea forests, are now free to roam in much bigger space in the zoo forest.  After having been local residents for a dozen years, for the first time, they start to mate and make new babies.  The zoo has so far welcomed 32 new cassowary babies into this world.  Orangutan (a type of monkey) cage used to be really small.  Once it is extended to include a new forest next to the original zoo, orangutan started to set up nest on trees, the way they used to in the wilderness.

In the past, caretakers saw their animals as a group of animals without distinctions.  Now each is treated as a unique individual with its own name and personality.  Their personal stories are written by hands and posted for visitors to see.  Once, a musk deer passed away, the caretaker wrote an obituary with photo outside of its home.  Holidays and birthdays are celebrated with fanfare.  A special area was prepared for those who need privacy or rest such as during pregnancy or sickness, not just a sleeping quarter, but plenty of outdoor space to play and exercise.  Other special services are offered.  For instance, installing 3 new metal teeth for an aging ape, a new peak for a crane who broken its peak after a fight, and nail polishing service for the elephants.  As more services are added to benefit the animals, animal performances, although a major source of income, were cancelled to prevent animal cruelty.  They didn’t want to cater to people’s needs at animals’ expense.   

Shen’s goal is both to create a sanctuary, a home and a paradise where the animals feel a sense of belonging and freedom, and to prepare some of them or their offspring to return to nature in the future.  To achieve this, the caretakers developed trusting relationships with each of their hairy children based on mutual respect, while providing them adequate nutrition, healthcare and training based on scientific research and long-time observations.  For instance, when blood tests or vaccinations were administrated, most of the animals require no anesthesia and don’t resist, but naturally collaborate with their caretakers.  Their philosophy is to avoid pet and owner like co-dependent relationships, or boss and subordinate like controlling relationships, but to cultivate friendships based on equality.  This requires tremendous love, care and patience.  They taught their hairy “children” independent survival skills and encouraged them to unleash their natural talents and to show up as their authentic and wild selves.   

Nowadays, after the renovation, when visitors come to the zoo, they need to search for the animals in nature as if going on a safari.  At the same time, they can learn the animals’ history, lifestyles, preferences and relationships with human.  To increase opportunity for learning and connection, Shen and his team created many educational programs, including story telling of touching moments between animals and their caretakers, live viewing of the zoo through the internet, and opportunities for audience to cloud adapt and sponsor their favorite animals.  As a result, many people become more conscious about animal lives.  They often bring rescued animals to the zoo for caretaking before returning them to the nature.  

Shen and his team have traveled to zoos around the world to exchange ideas and to learn from each other.  Locally, they developed many research programs.  For example, the animals produce tons of waste every day, which used to be a major headache to process them.  Now, through collaborations with local university and corporation, they have created a proprietary process to turn animal waste into odorless and clean fertilizer.  In the back of the zoo, there is a large piece of land where they use such fertilizer to grow fruits, vegetables and others food required to feed the animals.  Gradually, they are creating an ecosystem with circular economy that is environmentally friendly and self-sustainable.

Over the years, Shen and his team have created the most humane zoo and taught us that humans are not rulers but equal members of this shared planet. They demonstrated how animals, employees and visitors can co-create a connected world that is full of love, gratitude, compassion and respect.  If animals deserve to be treated with kindness, what about human? What can we learn from Hong-Shan Zoo about creating Teal culture at home, in organizations and in society?

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