Director of Bronx Zoo Champions Wildlife Conservation Around Globe

Remaining true to his biology roots, Jim Breheny ’81 brings integrity and credibility to his job as director of the Bronx Zoo.

Jim Breheny class of 1981 feeding a giraffe at the Bronx Zoo.Jim Breheny ’81 took his first job as a 14-year-old working the camel rides at the Bronx Zoo.

Today, he oversees about 14,000 animals and more than 1,500 species — including camels. Breheny is the director of the Bronx Zoo and executive vice president of zoos and aquarium for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He manages WCS’s five zoological parks in New York City, including the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium in Coney Island — an operation which welcomes more than 4 million guests annually.   

A former biology major, Breheny’s passion has always been for animals. Over the years, he has worked a number of hands-on roles, including general curator — the top animal position at the zoo. Now as director, he doesn’t see as much direct interaction with the zoo’s residents as he used to, but says that his job as an advocate for conservation and animal welfare is crucial.

“As a scientist, I feel that I can speak credibly about animals,” says Breheny, who also taught as an adjunct professor in the Biology department from 1988-2005. “There are a lot of misconceptions about zoos and what zoos are. People think zoos are kind of just menageries — places to go to look at animals. But zoos do a lot of good.”

One big way that Breheny is helping to tell the zoo’s story is through a new television series filmed by Animal Planet over an eight-month period at the Bronx Zoo, giving viewers an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at daily operations.

The premiere episode of The Zoo follows two tiger cubs raised by a team of wild animal keepers at the zoo, a silverback gorilla who is diagnosed with glaucoma, and the hatching of a rare maleo bird, which is threatened in the wild and only found on one Indonesian island. 

“It’s impossible to explain what we do in a Tweet or a headline or a 500-word op-ed in the newspaper,” Breheny says. “We deal with a lot of complicated, complex issues and situations that have nuances, so the good thing about this series is that we can show what we do.”

Helping Animals in the Wild

WCS is no stranger to complex and nuanced situations — it has conservation field programs in nearly 60 nations and all of the world’s oceans — and the Bronx Zoo has been at the forefront of many of these conservation efforts.

More than a century ago, the zoo helped repopulate the western plains with North American bison by breeding them at the Bronx Zoo before sending them back into the wild. Today, the zoo and the WCS North American Program continue to work with several partners on bison conservation efforts.

More recently, under Breheny’s leadership, the Bronx Zoo is working with the Toledo Zoo and the Tanzanian government to rescue a dying species of spray toad from a destroyed habitat. Both zoos have set up assurance colonies and are repopulating the Kihansi spray toad back into its habitat in Africa.

“This is the first example of an amphibian species that was declared extinct in the wild, bred in zoos, and then sent back and reestablished in the wild. It’s a pretty great achievement, and probably one of the things I am most proud of,” says Breheny.

In addition to research and repopulation efforts, WCS continues to incorporate forward-thinking, interactive ways to engage the community in its conservation goals.

Visitors to the Bronx Zoo’s six-acre Congo Gorilla Forest not only have the chance to see gorillas in a natural habitat, but they also get to read about projects that WCS field scientists are doing in Africa. The exhibit ends in a voting pavilion, where visitors choose which WCS project they want their admission fee to support. Since the exhibit opened in 1999, the zoo has sent more than $14 million to conservation projects in Africa.

“That’s one zoo, one exhibit,” Breheny says. “Just think about the magnitude of help that you could provide for species that are struggling in the wild if more zoos and aquariums committed to doing that.”

Beaming with Bronx Pride

The Bronx Zoo is the largest employer of youth in the borough, hiring about 1,200 to 1,500 part-time employees each season. It’s how Breheny got his start, and how hundreds more will. Many Manhattan College alumni work in the park, and current students have a long history of volunteering and interning at the zoo, gaining valuable hands-on experience in the field.

"There’s a real pride with our employees, a real Bronx pride that shows through in the TV series,” Breheny says. “For a borough that has historically had image problems, here’s something that’s going out nationally and is going to promote a positive image for the Bronx.”

Breheny is proud to offer New Yorkers the chance to experience and learn about wildlife they would otherwise never get to know in an urban setting. At the end of the day, there may be critics, he says, but you have to let the science speak for itself.

"If you’re going to keep animals, you keep them well. If you can’t keep them well, you don’t keep that species,” he says, sharing a mantra he learned from his mentor in the field. “Somebody has to be able to speak and advocate for animals. And the science behind it all is what gives us the credibility.”

Series trailer and homepage footage courtesy of Animal Planet.

By Julie Benns