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INSIGHT: Key resignation and campaigner concerns pile pressure on Jersey Zoo

INSIGHT: Key resignation and campaigner concerns pile pressure on Jersey Zoo

Wednesday 20 March 2024

INSIGHT: Key resignation and campaigner concerns pile pressure on Jersey Zoo

Wednesday 20 March 2024


Jersey Zoo's Director of Operations has resigned, as the beloved institution faces pressure from staff – past and present – to shake up management amid fears it has lost its way from the legacy left by Gerald Durrell.

Graeme Dick, who has been second-in-command at the Zoo since October 2021, told staff this week that he would leave on Thursday 28 March.

It comes as members have geared up to request an Extraordinary General Meeting to declare that they have "lost confidence" in the trustees, and that there should be an independent investigation into the past and present running of Jersey Zoo.

Sharing news of his departure in a message to Zoo staff this week seen by ExpressMr Dick said that his decision to step away had not been easy and confirmed that his final date of departure at the end of the month. Express has asked if his notice period had been waived.

A challenging period

It comes as Jersey Zoo is facing significant local and national scrutiny around its animal collections and working culture, while also undergoing a period of transition with the departure of several senior team members, including its CEO, Head of Mammals, and the Chair of its trustees.

In this week's announcement confirming he was moving onto "pastures new", Mr Dick mentioned criticism of the Zoo, which he said had made "the last few months" a "challenging" period. 

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Pictured: Graeme Dick started volunteering at a local safari park at the age of 12.

He went on to cite improvements at Durrell, ranging from growing the team of zookeepers, carrying out world-leading procedures, and developing better signage.

He added: "This wasn’t an easy decision, and I am not leaving the zoo because I do not care for the animals, the work of Durrell or the team.

"In fact, quite the opposite. I am leaving because I care deeply, and I feel this is the right decision for me and also the Trust at this time."

Supporters looking to oust trustees

The departure comes as supporters of Jersey Zoo have been coming together to demand a shake-up at the top level of the organisation.

Throughout February, a group asking members to sign a letter asking the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to call for an Extraordinary General Meeting to allow them to oust the charity's trustee board.

Signatories say they have lost confidence in the trustees' ability to maintain Gerald Durrell's legacy.

To be able to call an EGM 60 members need to sign a resolution, and the letter has received around 100 signatures, Express understands.

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Pictured: The letter signed by Durrell members.

The resolution due to be put forward by signatories reads: "The members have lost confidence in the ability of the Trustees to protect and maintain the legacy of Gerald Durrell. We call for the resignation of the board and an independent investigation into all aspects of the current and recent management’s running of the zoo."

Express understands that Durrell is aware of the impending request for an EGM and has asked for a comment on this.

A change in direction at the Zoo?

Mr Dick joined the Zoo in 2021 in a wide-ranging role in which he oversaw the running of Jersey Zoo.

In recent years, he played a key role in the Zoo's collection - but not without criticism.

He wrote on the Zoo's website that his ambition was to "maintain Jersey Zoo's high standards and reputation but perhaps with a twist" and also to "expand the range of species that we work with", as well as developing the team to help with global conservation efforts.

"Looking at the collection and how the zoo interacts with the field programmes is key to showcasing our important fieldwork to our guests. We are living in a challenging world where technology is everything and most people experience wildlife by watching TV or TikTok," he said. 

Some of the newer acquisitions, however, have drawn criticism – though Jersey Zoo maintained that it needed a mix of animals to support its commercial operation, which underpins its conservation efforts.

Three species which became a focal point of the criticism were sloths, Guernsey goats and aardvarks. Particular concerns were raised regarding the Guernsey goats, aardvarks and new "immersive" sloth exhibit set in the stairwell area of the Andean bears' enclosure, which is made up of ropes, poles, an artificial tree and baskets. 

Capybaras, a species which had been the subject of a TikTok craze, with viewers regaling in clips and a song about the animal, were also introduced. While the largest rodent in the world was one of the animals originally brought to Jersey Zoo by Gerald Durrell and their South American natural habitats are under threat, the animal is not currently endangered.

The Times article spoke of ‘Disney-fication', which the Zoo denied and said it was about carefully balancing the inclusion of crowd-pleasers and what Gerald Durrell called "little brown jobs".

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Pictured: Capybaras Maple and Olive

When Head of Mammals Dominic Wormell left the organisation, the respected figure in the conservation world wrote at the time that the Zoo had made "changes [he] can't support".

He said: "Those who know me, know I love change, being radical and challenging people's perceptions, and trying to inspire them to love the less charismatic species, and to be stewards for the future, this is what I think we have to do in the zoo community."

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Pictured: Mr Wormell in 2018 with a black lion tamarin - Jersey is the only place outside of Brazil to house the primate

A September statement from the charity's trustees said: "In 2022, Jersey Zoo brought in a total of 73 new animals, of which 59% are rated as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"A balanced and exciting collection brings visitors and members to the zoo, which in turn funds work at our rewilding sites.

"A key part of our conservation strategy is to connect people with nature.

"Animals that inspire feelings of excitement, empathy, and curiosity are fundamental to this strategy.

"Species brought in for conservation breeding purposes, which may seem less appealing to visitors, can only be supported because of the presence of more charismatic animals."

Soon after The Times' article, Chief Executive Officer Lesley Dickie resigned from her post. The job is currently being held by an interim CEO, Rebecca Brewer.

In a statement announcing Dr Dickie's departure, the Zoo's trustees and senior management team thanked her for her leadership, praising her contribution to both the zoo's stability and global conservation efforts.

"Prior to 2016 there were concerns that Jersey Zoo would have to close due to falling visitor numbers and their impact on the financial stability of the Trust. Under Dr Dickie’s tenure, visitor numbers in 2019 reached their highest in nearly 20 years and the team is now rebuilding visitor numbers again post-covid. More recently, Jersey Zoo has been recognised by TripAdvisor as one of their top 10% of attractions worldwide," the statement said.

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Pictured: Former Zoo CEO Lesley Dickie.

At Durrell's AGM around a month later, the chair of Durrell's trustees, Robert Kirkby, stood down along with one other trustee.

Mr Kirkby cited "other commitments" and said that the decision to leave after four years was "difficult".

He added: "I am delighted that I am able to hand over the reins to Matthew Hatchwell. Matthew’s extensive background in conservation, will make him an excellent chair at Durrell, while the Trust continues its exemplary and much-needed work as a pioneer of conservation.

"I have many highlights from my time at Durrell but I am especially proud of how we worked safely through covid and subseqently bounced back . Our core income has increased by 77% from 2016 to 2022, our zoo visitor numbers continue to rise and we now spend more money on conservation and employ more people than at any other time in our history."

Staff changes

Some staff have told Express that part of their frustration has lay in not feeling able to speak up about any concerns about the direction of the Zoo, as well as turnover of staff, in particular, those with specific expertise who have been with the organisation for many years, like Mr Wormell.

Some have gone so far as to describe a "toxic" culture – allegations which have strongly been refuted by Jersey Zoo.

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Pictured: Sloth Terry was welcomed to the Zoo in October 2022

Express has asked the Zoo for confirmation of the conditions that Mr Dick resigned under - whether he was asked to resign, when he informed the senior management team of his decision, and whether his notice period had been waived.

Express is also waiting to find out what the next steps for the role are.

IN FULL: Graeme Dick's resignation letter

Dear All,

It is with sadness that I write to you to inform you that I have made the decision to leave the zoo and the Trust.

As many of you are aware, the last few months have been challenging, particularly in light of external criticism of changes that have taken place at the zoo (during and before my tenure) and as such I feel now is the right time to move on.

I am proud of all we have achieved together in my time here. By working with teams across the Trust, we have seen visitors' numbers increase post covid, invested in new enclosures and brought in new species. I have seen our teams reach new heights, expanding their knowledge of transports, training and nutrition and ensuring that they have access to the most up-to-date learning for the benefit of our animals.

I have also seen the keeper teams grow in number to meet the requirements of our busy collection, our vet team carrying out world-leading procedures, although our site services team have yet to buy me breakfast (there is still time!).

We are fortunate to have exceptionally skilled people here at Durrell and, together, we push the boundaries of sustainability in the zoo, have developed appealing signage and, together with the comms and fundraising team, held engaging seasonal events - and we have all done it without claiming site services cheated at the Olympics.

Our teams have excelled and I’m incredibly proud of the dedication I have seen across all areas.

This wasn’t an easy decision, and I am not leaving the zoo because I do not care for the animals, the work of Durrell or the team.

In fact, quite the opposite. I am leaving because I care deeply, and I feel this is the right decision for me and also the Trust at this time.

My last day with the zoo will be 28th March 2024 and then I will be moving on to pastures new.

I will be on site until then ensuring a smooth handover with my team and so I will hope to see many of you before I leave.

I wish everyone the very best and keep up the fantastic work!

Best Wishes

Graeme

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