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Asian elephants graze at the Denver Zoo on Aug. 15, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Denver Zoo leaders have worked earnestly over the last few years to diversify their staff and visitors, continuing on a journey toward equity that was renewed last summer, when the zoo took responsibility for the death of a Black man who was tackled and tasered by police in 2011 while he suffered from heat stroke.

Zoo leaders stayed relatively quiet for years after Alonzo Ashley died, but were thrust into a local debate about diversity, equity and inclusion after his death, before the topic came up again following George Floyd’s death, and then once more during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed in 2020.

“All of those things led to the creation of the steering committee, and to where we are today with our new strategic plan, and the personnel we have in place,” said Jake Kubie, director of communications at the Denver Zoo. “It’s all connected,”

Last summer, Denver Zoo CEO Bert Vescolani apologized to Ashley’s family, and unveiled a water fountain and cooling station at the zoo in the 29-year-old’s honor.

Alonzo Ashley was shocked by Taser and killed by Denver police during an encounter at the Denver Zoo in 2011, likely while experiencing heat exhaustion. A water fountain and cooling station were built in memory of Ashley in fall 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

It was an important gesture that is part of Vescolani’s strategic vision for the zoo, which includes diversifying the organization’s staff and visitorship to reflect the makeup of the metro Denver area. The equity work, zoo leaders said, also fits in line with the zoo’s core mission of inspiring communities to conserve wildlife for future generations.

“The Alonzo incident was definitely a moment for us to really reflect on who we are and who the community thinks we are,” Kubie said. “With the Black Lives Matter movement growing over the last decade, and George Floyd, there have definitely been key moments along the journey that have really been a moment in time for us to pause and reflect on how we’re doing things.”

When Vescolani was hired in 2018, he launched a strategic planning process focused on community engagement and other DEI initiatives. 

Two years later, during nationwide Black Lives Matter protests calling for racial equality, the foundation of the strategic plan was finalized, Kubie said.

This year is pivotal for the Denver Zoo, he added, because many DEI initiatives outlined in the strategic plan are finally coming to fruition. 

During the last few years, the Denver Zoo has hired two staff members primarily focused on diversifying the zoo’s staff, and two team managers focused on getting the zoo involved in community events that should reach more people of color living and working in the neighborhoods surrounding the zoo.

Zoo leaders have partnered with Inclusive Journeys, an organization creating data-driven economic incentives that push businesses toward becoming more inclusive of patrons who typically experience discrimination.

A $200,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services is being used to develop a more accessible recruitment and hiring process for early career professionals. Some of the money was used to create a paid internship program to help recruit young people of color who are hoping to break into careers in the zoological and wildlife conservation industry.

Denver Zoo leaders attribute the lack of racial diversity in the industry to too few opportunities for paid internships at a time when a racial wealth gap makes it hard for interns of color to take low paying jobs. In 2019, the most-recent data available, 74% of zookeepers were white, 16% were Latino, 4% were Black, 2% were Asian and less than 1% were Native American, according to Zippia, an online site providing tools and information to help people achieve their career goals.  

Young visitors watch wildlife at the Denver Zoo’s marine and rainforest exhibits on Aug. 15. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Some of the zoo’s equity work is focused on training staff who provide services to guests. These frontline workers will soon be trained in mental health first aid, a course that gives people with little or no experience in behavioral health the tools they need to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis and then lead the distressed person to adequate services. Security staff will continue to be trained to use de-escalation techniques in a course that will include a segment about how biases can impact how a person views a threat to help mitigate incidents similar the one that led to Ashley’s death.

Ashley died after a zoo volunteer felt he was acting strangely and then called police. It was later determined that Ashley was suffering from heat stroke. He died from cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by heat, dehydration and exertion during a struggle with police who had restrained and tasered him.

Zoo leaders are revamping their interviewing process to mitigate bias and create a culture where leaders can engage and manage a diverse team. There’s a focus throughout the organization on preparing leaders for diversity and ensuring guests, volunteers and employees feel that they are a part of the team, including by ensuring that workplace meetings are more accessible for people with disabilities.

Teens, older adults, people of color and people with disabilities are among the main groups the zoo is trying to engage to increase diversity. Each year, the zoo is now hosting a sensory night, where all flashing lights and music are disabled, specifically designed to welcome people with sensory processing disorders.

When an organization is diverse, it’s more innovative and creative, and improves business outcomes, said Elkin Alfred, director of equity and culture at the Denver Zoo, whose role was recommended a few years ago by the zoo’s DEI steering committee. “But it’s also the right thing to do.”

“That is the central theme of our work,” she added. “It is internally focused, so we can be more representative of the community, but also externally focused, so that when people engage with the zoo, they feel seen, and they feel like their identities are taken into consideration when we create exhibits, when we make updates, when we put information out on social media. We want everyone to feel like they have a role in saving wildlife for future generations.”

Denver Zoo president Bert Vescolani, communications director Jake Kubié, and Director of Equity & Culture Elkin Alfred pose for a portrait at the Denver Zoo. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Denver Zoo is a high profile, visible organization where staff are the catalysts for making connections between guests, animals and the rest of nature, Kubie said.

The demographics of the zoo’s staff and visitors are not reflective of the area, a concern for organization leaders. Of the 406 employees working at the Denver Zoo, 19% are people of color.

The zoo’s visitor demographics would reflect the racial makeup of the metro Denver area if 5% of its visitors were Black, if 23% were Hispanic, if 4% were Asian and if 64% were white. Currently, 16% of visitors are Hispanic, 5% Black, 5% Asian, and 79% of zoo visitors are white. Kubie said the organization has inched toward its goals over the last few years but recognizes there’s still room for improvement.

The zoo is using an ongoing guest experience survey to track whether guests feel welcome at the organization. 

One question asks visitors to indicate whether they feel the zoo is a welcoming place for them and other visitors in their group. To date, in 2022, 88% of people have ranked the zoo as “very” or “extremely welcoming.” Zoo leaders hope that figure will increase to 95% or greater by next year.

Since Vescolani started in his role, he said he has worked hard to diversify the zoo’s staff and its board of governors, which hires and fires the CEO and maintains oversight of zoo operations. In 2018, when Vescolani was hired, 8% of the board of governors were Black and 8% were Latino. This year, the percentage of Black members rose to 13% and 20% for Latino board members.

By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization conducting research. “If you think about millennials, what they come to the workforce with is a far greater and more focused wanting of diversity in its broadest sense, and they come with expectations that that’s the way it’s going to be, so it is not an option for any employer,” Vescolani said. “Nature survives because of its diversity and that same diversity should translate here.”

African lions doze at the Denver Zoo. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The zoo recently opened a new animal hospital where guests are able to watch procedures in real time. The new hospital showcases the medical work done at the zoo but also helps kids see themselves in the shoes of a veterinarian or a wildlife biologist, Kubie said.

“I think there’s a case to be made for the likelihood of that increasing if a Black elementary school kid sees a Black vet tech or veterinarian or zookeeper,” he said.

The Denver Zoo has nearly 2 million guests per year who visit about 3,000 animals representing about 450 species. Zoos build empathy and curiosity for children who visit and create educational opportunities for adult patrons, Alfred said.

But zoos haven’t always bathed in glory. In the 19th and 20th centuries, human zoos were prominent across the U.S., and other parts of the world, where people of color were displayed in zoos, fairs and museums as living exhibits. White visitors would pet and photograph the people on display for having features they deemed unusual.

These historical events coupled with a sense that people of color are not welcomed in the outdoors because of lacking representation has created distrust in the zoo and wildlife conservation industry, especially among patrons of color, Kubie said. Now, Denver Zoo leaders are working to engage with those communities. 

Many skeptics are also concerned about the level of care provided by zoos. There are about 2,500 zoos in America and only 238 are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meaning the accredited zoos, like Denver Zoo, adhere to the strictest animal care standards and contribute to wildlife conservation. Kubie said the only animals that come to the Denver Zoo from the wild are those that were rescued. The vast majority of animals there are born and bred within a zoo setting in species survival programs to help conserve threatened, vulnerable and endangered species with an intent to eventually release them into the wild, he added.

“We are always looking at the barriers that prevent our community from visiting, and there are many barriers: there’s cost barriers, or psychological barriers, there’s emotional barriers, there’s people who don’t like zoos and are not going to agree with us, which is really where my department comes in to really tell people why zoos are important and what we do for wildlife conservation,” he said.

Elliot, a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth, climbs a branch at the Denver Zoo. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

More than a decade after Ashley died at the zoo, organization leaders say they’re still on the journey toward creating a more diverse and equitable Denver Zoo. 

“You don’t change systems that have existed for hundreds of years in two, three years, so the zoo is focused on this long term,” Alfred said. “We’re doing the work, and we’re looking at systemic change, and not just meeting quotas.”

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel...