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At the Toronto Zoo the elephants, tigers and bears are ready for the boardroom

If people's childhood enthusiasms stayed with them into adulthood, the world would have a whole lot more veterinarians, marine biologists and zoo keepers -- and a lot fewer executive vice presidents. Idealistic kids who dream of spending their lives swimming with dolphins pursue career paths that take them away from their love of animals and nature. Dr. William Rapley, executive director of conservation and wildlife at the Toronto Zoo, calls the result "nature deficit disorder," a condition whose symptoms are indifference to environmental problems and the sustainability of the planet.

ECOexecutives, a new program at the Toronto Zoo, aims at getting said executives out of the boardroom and into the company of polar bears, arctic wolves, caribou and other creatures that will reignite their passion for all creatures great and small -- and the world they live in. Over the next year, the zoo plans to host at least 10 small groups who get their own behind-the-scenes zoo tour meant to touch the naturist inside them.

"When people get a chance to pet the rhino, their faces just light up," says Nia Gibson, coordinator of education for the zoo's sustainable development programs. After that tactile and thrilling contact, participants should be more receptive to hearing about, for example, how farming practices in the production of palm oil can disrupt rhino habitats. That can lead into a discussion of how corporate supply-chain management affects animals on the other side of the world. "It really shows how, as a company, you want to look at where your products come from," says Gibson.

The experience also puts an engaging upbeat spin on an issue that's often clouded with gloom and doom. "You listen to [broadcaster and environmentalist] David Suzuki and, after a half hour you feel like crying because the situation is so horrible," says Rapley.

The program also gives the zoo an opportunity to show off its own eco-initiatives, like its carbon neutral lion-tailed macaque exhibit, the 1,200-square-foot Australasia green roof and solar-powered buildings. Last year, the zoo announced it was forming a consortium to build a modular 500 kilowatt biogas facility, using animal waste to generate electricity.

Admittedly, many of the executives who will be signing up for the program already have green tendencies. Owen Ward is national program manager for social change at Air Miles. Before taking the position, Ward was co-founder of Green Rewards, the world's first green consumer loyalty program, which in 2008 was bought by Air Miles owner LoyaltyOne. When he was a kid, Ward wanted to own a zoo and, as Ward moved higher and higher in the corporate world, he became increasingly interested in sustainable development and climate change.

"I think of the animals as a proxy," says Ward. "It's about creating an emotional connection to the environment. Climate change is a human issue, but look at how it's affecting the polar bears. By going face to face with an animal that's endangered and facing trouble, it makes it feel more real."

Since Ward does a lot of public speaking and comes into a lot of contact with fellow Air Miles employees and partners, he expects his ECOexecutives experience will be an opportunity to work green issues into his work conversations. "When I'm inspired, that inspiration is contagious." But the architects of ECOexecutives do not want to leave such proselytizing to chance. For the project, the zoo has partnered with the Summerhill Group to help participants take what they've learned from their close-up encounters with animals back to the corporate world. Growing from an environmental consulting firm founded in 1993, Summerhill aims to move the market toward sustainability. In the boardroom component of the program, they work with participants to create corporate action plans as a result of their zoo experience. Peer pressure plays a part.

"We really want to use this as a backdrop for conservation, where senior leaders can build consensus around these issues," says Fatima Crerar, managing director of Summerhill Impact. "It's a collaborative atmosphere."

One animal actually makes the trip back into the boardroom with the participants -- well, the zoo's boardroom, at least. The Vancouver Island marmot, Canada's most endangered species, is small and chill enough to sit right on the meeting table. The zoo's breeding program has helped pull the cute critters back from the brink of extinction.

"It really drives home the point that you can make a difference if you make the effort," says Rapley.

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

Photos -

Iris Nicolaison of the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade feeds Vishnu the rhino

Doug Hietkamp of Teknion with Alice the camel

Toronto Zoo curator Dave Ireland

Fatima Crerar and others meet one of the Zoo's owls

Herman the Vancouver Island Marmot

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