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Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf DeJong planting trees for a program that aims to restore native biodiversity.Provided

A while back, Nia Gibson was walking on a wooded path in the Toronto Zoo, where she works, and spotted a skunk wrestling with a large coffee cup and its domed lid with a wide hole, which had stuck on its head. She managed to get the lid off – and avoid being sprayed – and reported the incident to zoo leadership and food services.

“After that, they stopped using those lids,” she says. “They cared about this skunk, and it was great to see that if you notice something wrong, they will do something about it and make a change.”

Dealing with the ecological hazards of modern life is a big part of how the zoo approaches sustainability, in addition to its core mission of fighting extinction. Gibson’s role is learning & engagement co-ordinator, arranging public and school programs to teach visitors about what the zoo does, including a lot about biodiversity. But she is also part of the zoo’s Green Team, a voluntary staff group from every department that looks at various issues and works on solutions.

“My area is palm oil,” she says, “as the zoo has had a goal to be 100-per-cent certified sustainable in palm oil by 2023.” Ecologists say that rainforest destruction and species extinction is being caused by ever-expanding palm plantations, which supply a ready market in the global food industry and in many personal care products. Gibson did an audit of ingredients in zoo gift-shop items such as cookies and body care products, sometimes tracking sources right back to the manufacturers, and found, “we were good – 100-per-cent sustainable.”

Similarly, the Green Team has worked on a used cellphone collection program called PhoneApes, to help recycle the key mineral elements in phones that have sparked a surge in mining in major animal habitats in Africa, says the team’s chair, Kyla Greenham, manager of conservation programs and environment. “We have them 100-per-cent recycled here in Ontario, and the funds we receive from the recycling go to Africa for in-field conservation programs,” she says. “We have Western lowland gorillas at the zoo, so that’s where we make the connection to the public – the impact of electronics on animal habitat.”

There is also a program to recycle items from staff and the public that municipal collections generally won’t take – from coffee capsules to bathroom products – and a staff-led initiative to plant more trees in open spaces at the zoo, an acre at a time. Recently, the zoo began installing a new ‘Plastics Pathway,’ running through the displays and highlighting ways of dealing with plastics pollution. It is working with its vendors and suppliers to try to become plastic-free by 2027.

Overall, the zoo has some big net-zero goals. In 2022, it refreshed its sustainability platform, first established in 2007, and set targets to reach net-zero waste output by 2027 and net-zero water usage and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

“We believe that we have to be a leader in conservation and sustainability in order to protect wildlife and wild spaces,” says Greenham. “And we think that because of our unique showcase opportunity, with the guests coming and visiting the different facilities, we have a great way to show how that can be done.”

Needless to say, too, the zoo is a world leader in the conservation of animals – including local skunks.

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