Conservation Champion Michelle Hays went to Gabon, bringing home lessons for Como Zoo’s gorilla fans and followers

Como Zoo keeper Michelle Hays was a college intern at Como Zoo when she discovered her life’s passion. 

“I basically fell in love with the gorillas the second I saw them,” says Hays, who first came to Como Zoo for an internship while she was studying biology at the University of Minnesota. “Within a few weeks, I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life.” 

A keeper at Como Zoo since 2016, Hays recently had a chance to dive even deeper into her passion for primates through Conservation Champions, the Como Friends’ funded program that allows Como’s professional staff to take part in conservation field projects around the world. 

Through the program, Hays traveled to Gabon in west central Africa, where rainforests provide shelter to nearly 30 percent of the world’s western lowland gorillas. It’s a population that faces an increasingly uncertain future due to deforestation and climate change, poaching and even the Ebola crisis. In fact, with a population decrease of nearly 3 percent every year, researchers predict that half of the present population of gorillas will be gone by 2040. 

To learn more about what this means on the ground, Hays spent nearly three weeks as a volunteer with The Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz (PGFV), a rehabilitation center and sanctuary that fosters many young gorillas orphaned by the illegal bush meat trade. At first, working with the French-speaking staff posed a challenge, but Hays’ understanding of primate behavior helped break down the language barrier. “They figured out pretty quickly that I knew how to act around the gorillas, so after the first few awkward days, we were able to move forward with working on different enrichments together and learning more about each other,” Hays says. “They were so much fun to work with and they were great about teaching me about the routines and the gorillas they cared for.”

PGFV also protects a special island where wild gorillas live on their own—residents that Hays got to see occasionally during her stay. 

“The biggest thing I learned from Africa was seeing how hard conservation is on the front lines,” says Hays. “It’s not just about protecting gorillas—it’s also about saving their habitat, working with the local people on how they can survive and have a good life without impacting the gorillas. It’s very complex.”

CONSERVATION CHAMPIONS: From following the footprints of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, to taking care of orphaned seal pups in California, several members of Como’s talented team of keepers and horticulturists have been on the go this year sharing their expertise with partner conservation groups and bringing home new insights as “Conservation Champions,” a new initiative created by Como Friends. This popular new program empowers Como professionals to become active partners in conservation efforts across the U.S. and around the globe.

Read about other great Conservation Champions projects like Saving Penguins in South Africa and River Turtles in Texas.

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