The world’s zoos are poised to take a leading role in animal conservation, thanks to researchers like Madelon Willemson.
It seems that no matter how much money is spent on animal conservation, Australia’s native fauna continues to face dangers that could lead to extinction. Animal conservationist Madelon Willemson had already spent 15 years working in Australian zoos before deciding to take a break from her career – not because the challenges were too great, but because she needed to find another way to approach them.
“I’ve always tried to create the opportunity for visitors to learn about animals, and I’ve been part of breeding and recovery teams for endangered animals. And what I’ve learned is that we’re not very good at it,” says Willemson.
She was also inspired by a quarterly essay titled After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis by environmentalist and 2007 Australian of the Year Tim Flannery.
“What he wrote about are things I’ve experienced in my work,” explains Willemson. “We were working hard at saving species, but the process was continuously undermined by people or a lack of money, or actions not being implemented.
“Then it dawned on me: ‘I have a Masters in Project Management and a Masters of Science in Animal Behaviour and Physiology – why aren’t
I working in this area?’”
With that, the Dutch native left her post at Zoos Victoria to undertake a PhD in Biodiversity Conservation at UTS.
“This isn’t just going to be a PhD to sit on the shelf,” declares Willemson. “I’m trying to create concepts and theories that are useful for the real world; a theoretical framework that is going to help managers and policy makers with species recovery in Australia.”
Willemson’s passion for animal conservation began when she was a child, attending primary school next to Royal Burgers’ Zoo in her hometown of Arnhem, Netherlands. With countless afternoons spent hanging out at the zoo and observing animal behaviour, it is no surprise that animal welfare is something that comes naturally to her.
“You’ve got the keepers who provide the best care for the animals, then you’ve got the visitors who we can educate about conservation. And you also have to be able to run the zoo as a business, so these elements make it a very interesting place to work.”
But she recognises that attitudes have changed considerably since her childhood years, and continue to change.
“Some people don’t like zoos because they say animals should be in the wild. I would’ve agreed with that 20 years ago – they were really only there for our amusement. When I was 12, I was throwing peanuts at the baboons. That practice was stopped years later because they realised it wasn’t good for the animals.
“Zoos Victoria and Taronga Zoo are very good examples of how zoos are no longer just for entertainment – we’ve become very clever at educating visitors and calling them to action with community conservation programs. Our keepers and curators have so much expert knowledge. Animal care is now at an incredibly high standard.”
Willemson concedes that not all zoos are performing as well as they could in animal conservation because they’re working towards different goals and priorities. While some zoos focus on preventing the extinction of local animals, others may choose to focus on supporting overseas rehabilitation programs. In each instance, a balance must be struck with the zoo’s business operations.
However, Willemson’s area of research – exploring how project management can be applied to animal conservation – speaks to a much broader vision.
“Zoos are fast becoming conservation organisations,” she observes. “Globally, zoos have more than 700 million visitors per year. That’s 10 per cent of the world’s population. Together, we could become a powerhouse when it comes to reaching people with the issues of our natural world.”
Later this year, Willemson will be attending the 69th annual conference of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in New Delhi to present a climate change communications package that she is developing for zoo visitors. As part of an organisation that provides leadership to the world’s zoos in animal care, conservation of biodiversity, and global sustainability, she is well placed to turn that vision into a reality.
Story and photography by Kevin Cheung