Steve Burns, Director, Zoo Boise

Steve Burns is the director of Zoo Boise and also in line to be the Chair of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. After meeting with Greg Carr and visiting Gorongosa National Park, Burns began steering Zoo Boise in the direction of helping wildlife in places like Gorongosa. This has meant a radical shift in the mission of Zoo Boise. In interviews conducted in Africa and in Boise in 2014, Burns talks about how he views the role of zoos in the modern world and what he thinks of working closely with Gorongosa National Park.

Katherine JonesKatherine Jones

Gorongosa elephant

“I think right now it’s probably one of the bright spots in Africa, and you can’t say that about a lot of places in Africa. I get strange looks every once in a while, you know, ’Where’s Mozambique? Why gorgonzola? Is it a cheese park?’ No, it’s Gorongosa. It’s a tough word to pronounce and get it in your head, but it’s firmly planted in mine now.”

“I hope that people realize that Zoo Boise has fundamentally changed why we exist. We’re still a nice place to come with the family and have a good time, and it’s still a great place to come and learn about animals, but the most important reason why folks are coming here is because they are actually helping to protect animals in the wild. Every time they come here they’re doing that.”

Greg Carr and Steve Burns in Gorongosa National ParkKatherine Jones

Greg Carr and Steve Burns in Gorongosa National Park

“We had thought about asking for a donation, and we had done that in the past, and it would generate a little bit of money here and there. But then the thought was: Well, what if we didn’t ask? What if we just charged them for conservation? And so we became the first zoo in the country to charge a conservation fee. So, when you go to the front gate of the zoo, you’ll see that there’s an admission charge plus a conservation fee. It was a quarter when we first started. It’s now 50 cents.”

Lion on the Gorongosa savannahKatherine Jones

Lion on the Gorongosa savannah

“In that first year we went from generating about $1,500 a year for conservation to $57,000 a year for conservation, and now we’ve been averaging somewhere between $270,000 and $300,000 a year for conservation. And I think that this is very unique in the zoo world, and so I hope that people in Boise and the state of Idaho really feel good about the fact that their zoo has changed, and we’re sort of out there, you know, helping to lead this effort to reinvent why we have zoos.”

A young girl puts coins in a donation container at Zoo BoiseAaron Kunz

A young girl puts coins in a donation container at Zoo Boise

“We’re going to build the Gorongosa exhibit here at Zoo Boise. According to the Julia Davis master plan for the park, the zoo gets five more acres of the park, and we’re going to take our first acre and include it as part of Gorongosa, so it will be our grassy area. And then the area between the zoo fence and the tennis courts will be a fairly large building, about a 6,500-square-foot building, that will house a variety of Gorongosa animals, and so it will be about a two-and-a-half-acre exhibit in all.”

Steve-Burns-in-Gorongosa

Steve Burns in Gorongosa

“I personally believe that zoos can be perhaps the largest source of conservation funding in the world. And Zoo Boise is really helping to push that envelope. And this Gorongosa project is going to allow us to continue to do that. We’re changing the reason why we’re building exhibits, because Gorongosa, while it’s a cool place, while you’ll learn about Gorongosa, it also becomes a mechanism to help generate support for wildlife in a place like Africa.”

Zebras in GorongosaKatherine Jones

Zebras in Gorongosa

“I think about animals all the time. I wish I could get them out of my head. It causes me great pain to see what’s happening with so many of the animals that I think about all the time. And so to be able to spend my professional career helping to restore a place like this [Gorongosa], it means so much. There’s times I have to remind myself I can’t save the world, but I have to do something, and this helps keep me from going crazy.”

“This has got to be one of the greatest ecological experiments of all time. To have unfortunately emptied the park of its wildlife, you know, it was tragic the way that it happened; but to now be putting all of the animals back into the park, I don’t know if that scale has ever been attempted before in the world. And so that’s one of the most amazing parts of this park, is science working and unfolding before your eyes.”