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27 September 2023

A Zoo Wizard in Australia

With a Master’s and PhD in ethics, Dr Jenny Gray (BSc Eng 1986; Graduate Diploma in Engineering 1988; MA 2008), the CEO of Zoos Victoria in Australia, draws on this to guide her life and work.

As if on cue, as we start talking a kangaroo hops through Dr Jenny Gray’s garden at her home in Mount Macedon in the hills outside Melbourne.

“We’ve been here for a year as we felt like a country change. Before this, home was a ninth-floor apartment in the inner-city area of Port Melbourne. Now we’re on one acre and surrounded by animals and trees.”

Mount Macedon is a 45-minute drive for Jenny to her office in Melbourne at Zoos Victoria where she has been the CEO since 2009.  Zoos took Jenny to Australia in 2008 when she made a career move from the Johannesburg Zoo where she was CEO for four years.

“My husband Richard is Australian and we lived in South Africa for twelve years before moving to Melbourne, so it was an easy transition and I’ve been able to do a lot of wildlife conservation work here which I really love.”

She had a diverse career before joining the world of zoos. She worked in municipal governance, banking and transport, and has a string of associated degrees. In addition to her Wits degrees she has an MSc in Transportation from the University of California Berkeley, USA (1989), an MBA from the University of KZN (then Durban-Westville) (1996) and a PhD from the University of Melbourne (2015).

“I focused on ethics for my Master’s and PhD because I like that it poses the question ‘How should I live a good life’ while morality asks ‘how should I treat others?’. Working with people and animals one spends time thinking about both.”

Jenny has studied her entire life. “I always wanted to start off studying civil engineering because it teaches you to think and problem-solve across sectors. This has afforded me the privilege of career choice, for which I have Wits to thank,” she explains.

“I loved being at Wits, I loved the camaraderie and the spirit of learning and growing, and I played a lot of hockey at a social level right through university.”

She was one of three women in her first-year undergraduate class of 60. By fourth year there were still three women but only 20 men. “Not a lot of women chose civil engineering then, so I suppose you had to be really good at maths and science to be admitted to the programme whereas the men might not have been held to as high a standard,” she laughs.

After graduating with her BSc she joined the Johannesburg City Council, which gave her the opportunity to study at Berkeley: “The City of Johannesburg ran a bursary programme and would send young staff to study abroad. I applied to do my Master’s in transportation engineering at Berkeley, which was the leading school in this field at the time. I was on a fully-paid, full-time Master’s bursary for a year, which was an incredible time. I got to see a bit of America during the breaks and the programme set me up for computer modelling of transportation systems which I did within the Johannesburg and Durban City Councils.”

In 2003 she joined the Johannesburg Zoo where she developed a 10-yearstrategic plan to drive its upgrade and growth, and achieved an increase in visitors from 285,000 to 440,000 in 3 years.

Today, Jenny is a key player in the international zoo community, and past president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has been instrumental in transforming Zoos Victoria into a world leading zoo-based conservation organisation. Victoria Zoos’ four diverse zoos include Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary, Kyabram Fauna Park and Werribee Open Range Zoo – the latter is a conservation area where the animals roam free in large habitats, and where they are currently relocating the elephants from the Melbourne Zoo.

“Through zoo-based conservation we use our skills to look after critically endangered animal species in Victoria,” she explains. “We are like an intensive care unit for species. With some of the species there are literally only a handful left in the wild. We care for them on our properties, breed up the numbers and work with the state-run parks and private landowners to make sure there is suitable habitat for them when we return them to the wild. It’s the most incredible experience to release them and to revisit areas where they were almost extinct and see them thriving again.

“We are currently working with 27 indigenous species, one of which is a small reptile called the Victorian grassland earless dragon which hadn’t been seen for 54 years and was thought to be extinct. We found it in February 2023 and now we have 22 individuals at the Melbourne Zoo that have started to breed, so we could have 100 or 200 in the next few years.” She naturally doesn’t say where they found it, other than that it was in Victoria, because there is a huge illegal global trade in reptiles and this is the most endangered on the planet.

In addition to the conservation work, they focus on achieving excellence in animal welfare, making sure the animals receive the best possible care and environment, and that the visitors have the best possible visitor experience. During her time with Zoos Victoria, the annual visitors have grown from 1.5 million to over 2.6 million visitors. And annual memberships have increased from 72,000 to 365,000.

To achieve public support and keep improving the zoos she says: “I work very closely with my staff, I listen to what they think needs to be done and I walk around the zoos with them to address issues together and make sure we’re all doing our best to have everything running as it should. I’ve done this throughout my career. When I worked in municipal bus transport in Durban. I would go to the townships to see how the buses are running; you have to be out there to see how the business you are in is operating, to be part of it, to see what level of service your customers are experiencing.”

When she was at the Johannesburg Zoo she would constantly tell the grounds staff that the lawns needed to be improved. “So I took them to the Houghton Golf Club and showed them the fairway, and saw the team instantly understand. They then shared my vision of how our lawns could look. My approach is that every part of the zoo needs to be well managed and it gave me great pleasure during a visit to South Africa to see small school children relaxing on those same lawns.”

An important part of her work is engaging with the community to share what people can do to reduce the threats to species and the natural environment. “We do a lot of education with kids who become such wonderful little champions of conservation,” she says. Her team also works with zoos worldwide to help address the state of captive animals in countries without resources and sufficient knowledge of animal care.

“We work with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and organisation such as Wild Welfare, which has a strong presence in Africa, Brazil and the Far East to develop skills and work on what good animal care and a good zoo should look like. At Zoos Victoria we have a sister relationship with zoos in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Uganda Wildlife Centre. Our respective staff visit each other and we do skills exchanges.

For her contribution Jenny has received a Public Sector Medal for ‘outstanding public service in the field of improved animal conservation and modern zoo management in Victoria’, and the San Diego Zoo Global award for conservation.

Having lived in Melbourne for fifteen years now, she’s almost a local and has gained a bit of an Australian accent but you can still hear her home roots coming through. “I’ve really enjoyed living here. It’s a very cosmopolitan city with lots of art, culture and sport. We attend the Australian Open tennis each year and it’s special to see the big names up close in your home town. Roger Federer has come to the zoo with his children and no one harasses them. It’s an easy place to live. It’s a safe environment and everything works well. But I also adore South Africa so this isn’t a comparison.”

She adds that they are geographically well positioned for scuba-diving: “It’s a joy here as we are so close to Indonesia and the coral triangle, and some of the most incredible diving in the world is a couple of hours away.” They have dived all over the world, including during the sardine run on South Africa’s south coast which she describes as “mind-blowingly spectacular”.

They visit South Africa fairly regularly as they still have friends and family here and they always make a point of visiting one of the game reserves. “A bit of wildlife and a bit of friends. Sometimes they coincide,” is how she puts it.

She misses South Africans: “There are so many incredible people and I miss the singing and the laughter despite the hardships, and that people tell you straight out when they are angry. I’m also so proud of how far South Africa has come in so many ways. I know the problems but when Zeblon says the university is all about creating the citizens of the future and I see all the talent and potential of young South Africans, it strengthens my enduring hope for the country and for humankind.”