Deborah Jensen has been President and CEO of the 92-acre Woodland Park Zoo since 2002. She’s responsible for its animal inhabitants, as well as education, research and conservation programs. Jensen is a conservation biologist by training, and it’s clear from her reading list, past and present, that animals and the natural world are her lifelong vocation.
Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?
Deborah Jensen: My nightstand typically has a collection of books, some started, some finished and some aspirational. Right now that includes “Biomimicry” by Janine Benyus and “Animals in Translation,” a book about using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson.
Sounds like homework….do you read novels?
There’s so much content I’m interested in, I don’t have time to read much fiction. When I was younger I read all of Wallace Stegner and William Faulkner. I might pick up a biography and I’ll probably have to read Maria Semple’s book, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” because it’s in the news.
As a conservation biologist, what books do you recommend people read to deepen their understanding of the natural world?
I like folks to read something that really touches their heart about a place that is meaningful to them – it might be an older book like Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “A River of Grass” about the Everglades. Or “Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez or a local book like “The Street Smart Naturalist: Field Notes From Seattle” by David B. Williams.
Then read something powerful to remind you of what we are losing — like “Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold and Greed” by Alan Rabinowitz. We’re losing species at a rate we never could have foreseen.
Read something to remind you how much we think we are “in charge,” like “The Control of Nature” by John McPhee. Definitely read Richard Louv, either "Last Child in the Woods" or his more recent "Nature Principle" about how to save children from nature-deficit disorder. It will remind you what is at stake for this generation of children who are growing up in cities.
“Where the Wild Things Were” by Will Stolzenburg is a great look at the world we are creating by taking out all the predators. And “The Last Flight of the Scarlet MacCaw” by Bruce Barcott is a story about a woman’s single-handed attempt to make a difference in Belize.
Any books to educate us on current zoo issues?
Zoo books are different than they used to be, now that zoos are living classrooms and so deeply involved with wildlife conservation. “Sailing With Noah: Stories from the World of Zoos,” by Jeffrey Bonner, CEO of the St. Louis Zoo, is a good choice.
What books or authors inspired your career path?
Probably the Golden Guides and the Peterson field guides were the initial inspirations when I was a child. I was also inspired by scientists and zookeepers and by the animals and plants themselves. Using the Peterson field guides, I could learn the names of the animals and begin to understand how to distinguish one creature and plant from another.
They were little picture books about butterflies, trees, rocks and minerals, introductions to nature targeted for younger kids.
Any other favorite childhood books?
I loved Winnie the Pooh and “The Big Green Book” by Robert Graves, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Do you have a favorite genre? Mystery, sci-fi?
When my daughter was younger I read all the series she was reading — the Harry Potter books, the Warrior Cats, the Twilight series. I kind of miss these, though I did read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.
We also have a ridiculous number of cookbooks — you can’t have only technical books in the house. My husband is a better chef than I am, but we both love cooking. We use the Cooks Illustrated collection and a beat-up copy of the old-fashioned “Joy of Cooking”.
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