HomeMagnify The Good: The Philadelphia Zoo Story

As America’s first zoo, Philadelphia Zoo is a trailblazer in sustainability, leading by example with on-site operations and engaging visitors in taking conservation action to help animals around the globe. Their 2018 sustainability report, Trails, celebrates significant milestones in their sustainability journey, such as hiring their first Sustainability Manager in 2008, opening their first LEED Gold certified building (KidZooU) in 2013, and publishing their inaugural sustainability report in 2015. The Philadelphia Zoo was one of the first U.S. zoos to create a sustainability report. We sat down with Emily Katzin, Philadelphia Zoo’s Sustainability Manager, to learn more.

How is a visitor’s love of wildlife a great entry point to learn more about environmental sustainability?

One of the primary causes of species extinction is habitat loss, which is directly related to the unsustainable consumption of natural resources. As a conservation organization, Philadelphia Zoo works to empower guests to become wildlife advocates by sharing actions they can take to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. These small actions add up to help wildlife here and around the globe. Our Albert M. Greenfield UNLESS Contest is a stellar example of the positive impact individuals can have when they take action for wildlife. Each year through this contest, students create advocacy campaigns to generate awareness, inspire solutions, and encourage their schools and communities to take action for wildlife. In the 2017-2018 school year, approximately 18,000 students from the tri-state area took action to engage their communities in saving energy and water for wildlife—such as installing water bottle filling stations, handing our LED bulbs to community members, planting riparian habitat, and more—and reached nearly 240,000 people with their campaigns!

Consumers and business owners face the impact of their footprint more and more, but you include the idea of the “handprint.” How does this positive framework empower people?

The concept of handprint empowers individuals and organizations to think beyond minimizing resource use, or “doing less bad”, to measuring and magnifying “the good”, or the positive impact they have on the world around them. This can be through education, outreach, and designing products and services that help others reduce natural resource use. For example, we are committed to saving energy to save wildlife and take action to reduce energy use in our operations, but we also have more than one million visitors per year—our greatest asset—that we can inspire and empower to save energy. The positive impact of engaging our guests in reducing energy in addition to minimizing our own energy use greatly outsizes the positive impact we have if we focus solely on our own operations.

How do empathy and connectivity foster action for employees and visitors at the Zoo?

We strive to provoke empathy in our guests by creating diverse and compelling ways to connect with animals. From crawling alongside our mob of meerkats in their Zoo360 trail system to watching our training demo where rats sort recyclables in KidZooU, visitors can discover all the ways in which animals are just like them, which can prime them to take action. Research shows that higher levels of empathy strengthen pro-conservation attitudes and behaviors. One way we see this come to life in staff is through the Zoo’s participation in Demand Response (DR) with the City of Philadelphia. On days with peak energy demand (typically the hottest days of the year), DR partners are asked to voluntarily reduce their energy use. Our staff responds to the call across departments, turning off lights and electronics, adjusting temperatures on air conditioning units, and more. By working as a team, we reduced our energy use by 14% during our 2018 DR audit. We also have seen significant improvements in our waste diversion efforts thanks to our visitors and staff. Since 2014, we have more than doubled our recycling rate, up to 13% from 6%, normalizing for fluctuations in attendance.

As you know, GSI and stormwater management are close to our hearts at SBN (because of our industry-specific initiative GSI Partners). How did you accomplish your stormwater management goals and how can other large sites in Philadelphia learn more your example?

We have made it a priority to preserve and expand green spaces within the Zoo, and are committed to incorporating stormwater management practices into all new design and construction. The Zoo filters water from rain and snow on 68% of our 42 acres through rain gardens, green roofs, and porous pavement. We also monitor areas where rainwater gathers most during heavy precipitation events, and create rain and buffer gardens in these areas. We currently have nearly 9,000 square feet of rain and gardens throughout the Zoo.

You highlight many impressive milestones in this report, but can you pick one that you are most proud to share more about with us?

Our Albert M. Greenfield UNLESS Contest perfectly encapsulates the positive impact that Philadelphia Zoo, and other accredited zoos and aquariums, can have by connecting people with wildlife in meaningful ways. These connections can be powerful in the way they inspire individuals to make a change in the world. I am most proud of the UNLESS Contest because it embodies the importance of teamwork and highlights the success we can share in when we work together. We always emphasize to the students that each action they take—no matter how small some may seem—matters because taken together, these actions can add up to make a big impact. Each year, many people learn this through the UNLESS contest, which is one of the reasons it is so special.

What else should people know about this report and the Zoo’s commitment to sustainability?

Trails is a celebration of the work our Zoo Community—visitors, staff, volunteers, and our online followers—has accomplished together since we hired our first sustainability manager and created our first sustainability plan in 2008. We are excited to share it with you! We plan to increase our commitment to sustainability into the future and look forward to collaborating with new and existing partners to create a future in which people and wildlife thrive together.

Click here to learn more about SBN Member Philadelphia Zoo.