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Wildlife & Biodiversity

Fifty Years of Joy, Learning, and Conservation at the Toronto Zoo

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Dolf DeJong

CEO, Toronto Zoo 

A conversation with Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf DeJong on the zoo’s fiftieth birthday.

The Toronto Zoo, home to over three thousand animals on a sprawling haven of natural outdoor environments and world-class pavilions, has been a top destination for families and animal lovers since it first opened in 1974. And, behind the scenes, the zoo is today also a research and conservation science powerhouse, a leader on the world stage in international efforts to understand, foster, and preserve the biodiversity that keeps planet Earth healthy and beautiful. 

This year, the Toronto Zoo is honouring a half century of continual operation, evolution, and improvement with a full calendar of events celebrating the zoo’s special place in the hearts and memories of Torontonians, Canadians, and visitors from further afield. It is also a moment to recognize the impressive conservation work the Toronto Zoo is doing right now, in 2024.

To mark the fiftieth birthday of this extraordinary institution, we sat down with Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf DeJong to talk about the zoo’s past, present, and future. 

What are some of the biggest changes the Toronto Zoo has seen since it first opened, and how has the societal role of zoos changed over the last fifty years?

Well, the zoo has certainly made some dramatic changes over the past half-century, but those iconic pavilions which were constructed in 1974 are still there. The 1.6 acre African pavilion, the Indo Malaya pavilion, the Americas, Australasia, these remain the cornerstone of the physical infrastructure. 

We were ahead of our time in 1974, and we’ve continued to double down on learning, knowing better, evolving. We’re seeing a maturation of our relationship with animals and their connection to the natural world. That’s why we use a zoogeographic layout, where our animals are supported by plants and other animals they share wild communities with. We don’t have a collection plan, we have an Animal Lives With Purpose plan, in which we map the role each species in our care plays in terms of conservation, research, and education. It’s just incredible to see how the site has evolved physically as our approach to care and guest experience has grown and matured.

It’s just incredible to see how the site has evolved physically as our approach to care and guest experience has grown and matured.

We’ve also developed a world-class biobank, as well as a lot of technology to measure animal happiness and well-being. We’ve shifted our philosophy pretty dramatically. 

How has this ongoing evolution of the zoo’s vision changed the visitor experience, and what do you hope today’s guests take away from their visit to the Toronto Zoo?

We absolutely love that the Toronto Zoo is a place where families come together and make memories that last a lifetime. We’re proud of being a destination for a fun day out. But we also know our visitors are eager to learn. Having multigenerational learning opportunities, connecting people to things they don’t know are happening, grounding this learning in original research and science, and doing that all together in our backyard is more important than ever as people become more and more disconnected from nature.

We’re inviting people behind the scenes much more now. Our goal is to make the “hidden zoo” extinct. We have some phenomenal examples of that starting with our Wildlife Health Centre, which opened around 2017, where you can come in and see a rattlesnake getting an ultrasound, a tiger getting a root canal, a hyena getting a hysterectomy, all on public display.

Can you tell me about some of the Toronto Zoo’s specific conservation efforts?

There are only about 300 Vancouver Island Marmots left in the wild. They are Canada’s most endangered mammal. The Toronto Zoo raises, rears, and releases animals back into this population to help ensure they have a viable future. We do the same with loggerhead shrikes, with Blanding’s turtles, with wood turtles, with black footed ferrets. The zoo’s role in using our amazing expertise to protect and restore populations of wild Canadian species is phenomenally important.

And, internationally, we collaborate with other accredited sites to manage and maintain wild populations of animals like the Sumatran orangutan, the Western lowland gorilla, and the red panda. We’ve recognized that it’s time to get away from the colonial conservation model where we just send a little bit of money to these places or send our staff to do the work. Instead, we are now making ten-year commitments to these conservation programs, building local capacity and creating sustainable jobs within the community to help these wild populations.

Looking ahead, how do you think the Toronto Zoo might change between now and its 100th birthday?

We’re going to continue moving towards programming and research to help wild species, all while connecting the people of Toronto, Durham, and beyond to those efforts. We will continue to be a safe space for having those uncomfortable discussions as we work to navigate change, a place to build ecological and environmental literacy. It’s a transition from place to purpose.

Along the way, we will move from being a guest-funded zoo with some conservation science programs, to being a community-funded conservation science organization that is also home to an amazing accredited zoo.

Whatever the future may hold, the Toronto Zoo will be here. Nature needs our help more than ever.  

Celebrate 50 years of joy, conservation, and community in person at the Toronto Zoo or online at

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