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San Diego Zoo Global Academy, January 2020. A keeper trainsa jaguar to cooperate with medical care.

Gary Priest: Making a Career of Being There and Being Ready

Servant Leadership Institute logoBy Donald Janssen, DVM

I enjoy watching leaders who combine a big vision with broad organizational influence. These leaders often find themselves in the right place at the right time. When a problem arises, they are the ones there and ready to help. And sometimes, they find solutions that forever change the way people think and the way things are done.  

Doug Meyers

Gary Priest

I encountered a situation needing that kind of solution when I was a veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo in the late 1980s. We had just diagnosed diabetes in an adult male drill monkey known as "Loon." His species was among the most endangered primates in Africa. To survive, Loon would need insulin injections and reliable monitoring of blood and urine glucose for the rest of his life. One of the senior trainers for the animal shows heard about it and offered to help. That trainer was Gary Priest. 

Gary will retire soon, after almost 36 years with San Diego Zoo Global, leaving a memorable legacy. In the early days of his career, though, zoos gave little attention to training animals for their medical and husbandry needs. But Gary viewed things differently. He was among the pioneers in behavioral husbandry with marine mammals. Applying those skills, Gary went to work, making it possible for us to manage Loon's diabetes. 

Gary gained Loon's trust through consistent, positive reinforcement. Before long, this formidable animal willingly accepted insulin injections and provided urine samples on request. Later, Gary taught him to place his whole arm into a metal sleeve, allowing safe blood collection for glucose monitoring. With the assurance we could manage his disease, he was free to live and interact with other animals in an enriched environment. Loon thrived under this care for years, contributing his genetic material to San Diego Zoo Global's Frozen Zoo.  

Loon's case proved to me that behavioral husbandry was vital to animal health and welfare. But it was Gary's influence and character that changed the industry mindset of how and why we train animals. Training became a way for animals to take part in their own care and benefit. Gary's staff says with pride that he brought legitimacy to the field of zoo behavior management. Gary became the head of San Diego Zoo Global's Animal Behavior Management department. Dozens of innovative ideas emerged from Gary and his team. They used operant conditioning to solve other animal medical and husbandry concerns. They connected zoo guests to the conservation message. And they made that connection through unique animal encounters that left lasting memories.  

Building trust was always at the foundation of Gary's animal work. Building trust also set him apart in his relationships with people. And those trusting professional relationships helped Gary be there and ready when doors opened to explore new frontiers. As each opportunity arose, Gary found himself in the right place and time, ready with the right skills.  

Gary was there and ready in the early 1990s to develop a new way, based on operant conditioning, to manage zoo elephants. For thousands of years, elephants had been managed with free contact. To make changes, he faced stiff opposition, despite the clear dangers of that system. But Gary and his team persisted. They produced a protected contact program for zoo elephant management that has now become the global standard.  

Gary was there and ready as the field of zoo animal behavior grew. He was the founding director and the third president of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance (ABMA). Gary influenced the ABMA to expand its vision for operant conditioning of zoo animals. At about the same time, Gary was appointed to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' new and important Animal Welfare Committee. He was also a leader in developing standards for animal enrichment. All in all, Gary's leadership was a big part of making behavior management a zoological industry best practice.  

Gary became known as someone who had broad professional contacts and could work with a big vision. So, it isn't surprising he was tapped to create a new online program for keeper training and development at San Diego Zoo Global. Again, he was there and ready. He and his boss, Jon Prange, worked in a powerful partnership to create an entirely new product. Launched in 2012, the San Diego Zoo Global Academy has become a world-class, online training platform for zoo professionals. It has come to serve the entire industry, and continues to find new ways to share quality content.

Gary is one of those exceptional leaders whose career has mattered. His legacy and influence are visible throughout the zoo and aquarium world. At his heart, he is a gifted teacher and a successful trainer of people and animals. With a clear purpose, he prepared himself with key skills and was willing to step up and serve where needed. He is a leadership model for us all. He has shown us how to succeed by being there and being ready. 

You have touched us and made us better, Gary. May you enjoy many retired years with your family and friends. 

For more information about this article, please contact Dr. Don Janssen at don.janssen@gmail.com.

Leadership insights are contributed by San Diego Zoo Global's retired corporate director of animal health, Dr. Don Janssen, the first of which appeared in the March 2019 issue of the Academy newsletter. Click here for the Academy newsletter archive. 

To learn more about how to put behavior-based standards in place, read Upside Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian's Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. You'll find the book at ShopZoo, Amazon (including a Kindle version), and Barnes & Noble.

Academy News

San Diego Zoo Global Academy's Safe Capture Training
The San Diego Zoo Global Academy's new Safe Capture training program has numerous upcoming training events being set up around the country. The next training event is in Irvine, California, January 27–28. Safe Capture instruction includes the safe chemical immobilization of animals, including: strategies of approach, medication delivery techniques, capture pharmacology, drug dosages and volume calculations, post-capture care and anesthetic monitoring, and medical emergencies associated with chemical immobilization.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss a training event at your college, university, or other institution. Contact Us for Safe Capture.

For more information about this exciting new Academy offering, click on the following link: https://sdzglobalacademy.org/safecapture.


Animal Ark. Visit Once. Stay a Lifetime.The San Diego Zoo Global Academy Puts Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary in the Spotlight
The Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary in Reno, Nevada is part of the Academy's collaborative learning environment.


LinkedInFind Us on LinkedIn!
San Diego Zoo Global Academy is now on LinkedIn. We feature new posts frequently, highlighting Academy courses including the new Safe Capture training. For regular updates, check it out and follow us on LinkedIn. Tell your friends in the animal care profession, and help us build an ever-expanding community of connections in the wildlife world.

For more information about our LinkedIn presence, please contact Sarah Haggerty at shaggerty@sandiegozoo.org.


Academy Contributors


The Aquarium Vet logoSomething Fishy Is Going On
By Dr. Rob Jones, "The Aquarium Vet"

I am very blessed to be able to attend many conferences each year, and meet members of the aquarium and zoo industry. In 2019, I attended ANZAAP 2019, the aquatic symposium hosted by the Australia New Zealand Association of Aquarium Professionals, in Australia; ZAA Workshops, hosted by the Zoo and Aquarium Association, in Australia; EUAC Conference 2019, hosted by the European Union of Aquarium Curators, in France; the RAW Regional Aquatics Workshop, in the US; and the AZA Annual Conference, in the US.

I find it fascinating that in all these various parts of the world, the topics discussed are always the same serious issues. They include environmental degradation, pollution, plastics and micro-beads, overfishing, decline of coral reefs, climate change and global warming, decline of amphibians, and shark finning. These are universal issues that we must, as a community, work together to address.

Take shark finning, for example. It is estimated that every year, 100 million sharks are killed on this planet. That represents two million a week! One of my favorite videos covers the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park (for information, simply Google "wolves in Yellowstone"). The changes that happened here occurred because the apex predator was re-introduced. When I saw this amazing video, it made me think that we are removing the apex predators from our oceans at a huge rate, and how this is having a massive impact on the entire ecosystem. As Enric Sala said in his excellent presentation at the AZA Annual Conference in New Orleans a few months ago, "Man needs to change from being the apex predator to become the apex protector."

Another idea I heard this year is that we talk about "the environment" as though it is far removed from where we are. We need to change the way we think, talk, and act—and start speaking about "my environment," as this makes it far more personal.

Finally, it is that time of the year when I urge you to look at goal setting. I recently converted GOALS to an acronym:
Organized (and)
Ahead (in your)

I wish you all the best for 2020. It seems unbelievable that we are two decades into this new millennium! I wish you peace, harmony, and prosperity in your lives.

E-quarist™ Courses—Academy Subscriber Special!
The San Diego Zoo Global Academy is excited to share an additional Academy subscriber benefit regarding our collaboration with The Aquarium Vet: as an Academy subscriber, you are now entitled to a discount on the e-quarist™ courses. We are also happy to offer one of our free monthly webinars.

For more information about the SDZGA discount, or anything about the e-quarist™ course, including next month's free webinar, please contact katrina@theaquariumvet.com.

Zoo & Conservation News

As an added Academy benefit, you can view the latest San Diego Zoo Global Zoo and Conservation News here.

Photo of a trainer with a cheetah.

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