Lincoln Park Zoo is beginning 2022 with a new CEO. For the first time in the institution’s 154-year history, it will be led by a woman — and a scientist: Megan Ross. (Past leaders, including Marlin Perkins, who went on to create the long-running Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and departing CEO Kevin J. Bell, rose through the ranks as zookeepers and curators. Lester Fisher, who was the public face of the institution from 1962 to 1992, was a veterinarian by training.)

Ross, who has a doctorate in psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been with Lincoln Park Zoo in various capacities for more than 20 years. She shared with us some of her insights on how scientific tools (including ZooMonitor, a mobile app for collecting data on animal behavior that she developed in 2016) help the zoo create better experiences for animals and visitors.

What initially brought you to Lincoln Park Zoo in 2000?

I came to get my dream job. They had a position open to be the curator of birds here, and birds have always been a [taxon] that I feel passionately about. I’ve always felt a kindred spirit, I guess. I came to interview thinking that I was going to get some really good interview skills. I didn’t realize that I was actually going to get offered the job. So I came here because I was very excited about the scientists and leading a team of individuals on how we can better understand birds and what they need and how we can be the best advocates for them, be it care or conservation.

Would you say that a more scientific basis has been evolving even in the time that you’ve been working at Lincoln Park Zoo? Have you seen more of your peers moving into these sorts of positions?

Most zoo heads are not scientists at this point. But Lincoln Park Zoo is an institution that has been very forward on using scientists. We started by having a PhD over our conservation science program in the late ’80s, and now we have 40 scientists on staff. While I came here to be the curator of birds, I was also keenly aware of Lincoln Park Zoo’s reputation as wanting to utilize science to figure out how we can both best care for animals here and also how we can best care for their counterparts in the wild.

Can you tell me a little bit about the development of ZooMonitor and how it’s been adopted at other zoos?

I pioneered ZooMonitor. We use data to inform how we make decisions about how we care for the animals here. And I will say that one of the moments I was so proud of when I was the curator of birds was when the staff was asking me a question about aggression in penguins. And I said, “Well, we can actually answer the question of ‘Is adding rocks to the habitat making them more aggressive or not?’ And the way we do that is by collecting data.”

So fast-forward almost a decade and I said, “Why don’t we create a tool where we can collect data in a way that it can automatically tally that information?” As a result of that pooled information, we can ask questions of the robust database such as “Where are the animals preferring to spend their time? What are areas they are avoiding? During different temperatures, are they spending their time differently? Is there any difference in their behavior when we make different management decisions?”

For some of our species, they prefer shade. So we actually modify their habitats to add more shade. For hippos, we realized that they were not as adventuresome as they could be, and in the wild they would normally be foraging. So we added different feeding strategies so they would spend a lot of their time foraging. What we found is that our peers were asking questions like “How can I use that to help the animals at my institution?” And now we’ve made it free and publicly available to any accredited zoo or aquarium or sanctuary in the world that would like to use it. It’s been downloaded in 52 countries around the globe and by more than 700 institutions. Not only are we using science — we are promoting other institutions to use science.

Were there things during the 2020 shutdown that the zoo was able to accomplish that might not have been as easy to do if you’d been able to accommodate the normal flow of visitors?

Because we collect data on our animals every single day, we did get to see differences in the animals when the people were here and when they weren’t. Some species didn’t change their behavior at all. Our Japanese macaques were very busy with their own social lives and not really interested in what the public was doing. Our penguins, on the other hand, before the pandemic were seemingly never attending to watching the public. When we shut down for three months and came back, we started to see that the penguins were actually watching visitors more than they ever had.

We were very focused on “How do we care for animals in a pandemic?” Especially because we have species that are very susceptible to similar diseases that humans get, like the gorillas and chimpanzees.

We are renovating our 1912 historically landmarked lion house, making it the Pepper Family Wildlife Center. That was a $41 million project. It [recently] opened, and I will say that we made a lot of headway on our construction during the shutdown.

Zoos still face criticism about their mission from animal rights groups. How do you explain the evolution of an institution like Lincoln Park Zoo?

Zoos are really focused on being bastions of science, bastions of doing conservation work, and here at Lincoln Park Zoo our mission is really connecting people with nature. If you don’t connect with animals and see them and really fully appreciate them, I’m not quite sure that you fully understand how you can care for them in other parts of the world, or even here where you live.

Some species have been completely dependent on zoos. The California condor — without zoos, they didn’t exist in the wild. Some of these species that went extinct in the wild and have been recovered? Zoos played a major role in that happening.