June 28, 2017 - 4:26pm
From left to right: Koda, resident grizzly bear at the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo; Tim Sinclair-Smith, Manager, Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo
In July 2016, Tim Sinclair-Smith was hired as the new Manager of the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo (SFFP&Z). Sinclair-Smith took over for John Moran, when Moran retired after more than 40 years in the industry, 12 of those years being with the City of Saskatoon (City). When asked how he got into this line of work Sinclair-Smith muses, “I sort of grew up in it [the zoo and aquarium industry]. My dad was a curator of reptiles and my mom was a marine mammal trainer in Australia and I must have inherited that genetically. I actually started doing snake shows with my dad when I was seven.”
Over his more-than-30-year career, Sinclair-Smith has worked all over the world including overseeing operations across Asia, the Middle East and Australia, and in sites in Cameroon and Kenya. Closer to home he is known for his work at Marine Life in West Edmonton Mall, Greater Vancouver Zoo, Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, Calgary Zoo, and Assiniboine Park and Zoo in Winnipeg. Sinclair-Smith is recognized globally for his ability to rejuvenate older facilities and operations, rapidly incorporating new training techniques to improve animal welfare and new tools to empower staff to create efficiency in their work. “When I come to a new place I focus on three things— the animals, the staff, and the guests, in this order. Because you don’t have staff or guests without the animals so they are the number one priority always,” says Sinclair-Smith. The SFFP&Z opened in 1972 and is 45 years old this year, therefore a fresh perspective on what is possible is welcomed by the animals and staff which supports the City’s Strategic Goal of Continuous Improvement.
To begin focusing on animal welfare, Sinclair-Smith teaches staff the importance of training that encourages animals to voluntarily work with animal care staff. The type of training is called Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) and it builds a trust based relationship between the animals and animal care staff. PRT is a widely accepted method used in the zoo and aquarium industry as it rapidly improves the quality of life of animals and animal care staff by doing away with training using unpleasant techniques, like food deprivation and pain based methods. Instead, PRT shapes new behaviors through the use of targets and motivators like treats. Through practice, PRT can train animals to voluntarily accept treatments and regular health check-ups because they want to and because they trust the person giving commands.
As an added bonus, PRT can also create significant monetary savings, most often by reducing the frequency of veterinary visits. Without training, animals often have to be sedated in order to have their teeth cleaned, nails trimmed or transferred to a new enclosure. This practice creates risk for the animals as anesthetic can cause negative, even fatal reactions, and is also expensive for operations as a single visit can costs thousands of dollars. With PRT, Sinclair-Smith has trained animals like snow leopards, elephants, and tigers to calmly accept a transfer to a new enclosure in a kennel or trailer, and present feet and teeth for inspection. This approach ensures animals are only sedated and treated by veterinarians when truly necessary for their health and the safety of those caring for them.
Sinclair-Smith’s focus on animal welfare doesn’t stop at training. He talks about showcasing a new way of thinking in the zoo industry. “The animals can’t just be kept for show anymore,” he says. Research, education, and conservation must lead the rationale for housing any species in an enclosure or zoo facility in today’s society. To begin this shift in Saskatoon the SFFP&Z recently partnered with the Foothills Research Institute in Alberta to provide much needed baseline data on grizzly bears using Koda and Mistaya, the SFFP&Z’s resident grizzlies, to support the conservation of their counterparts in the wild. The first milestone in this budding partnership was realized in March 2017 when Koda and Mistaya woke up from their first hibernation and the SFFP&Z was able to share consistent data on the bears’ sleeping patterns and overall health throughout their four month hibernation. In the future, Sinclair-Smith hopes this is only the beginning and that the SFFP&Z can grow to become a “hub for grizzly bear research and education” in Canada.
With animal welfare improvements moving forward quickly, Sinclair-Smith has begun to focus on working with the staff to continuously improve their operations. He challenges all that work at the SFFP&Z to think beyond “the way we have always done it” and embrace creativity and innovation in pitching improvement ideas to the team. Lynne Lacroix, Director of the Recreation and Community Development Division, highlights a few improvements that Sinclair-Smith and team have completed in the last year. “They have reviewed and improved staff scheduling to ensure the most efficient coverage possible, switched from staff picking up single supply orders to using a bulk ordering service, tracked time-in-motion to reduce the time it takes to deliver food to all enclosures, and removed bird feeders from the Zoo to reduce cleanup time related to these and improve overall guest experience.”
What is next for the SFFP&Z, Sinclair-Smith outlines big plans to continue to improve guest experience and create a world class facility focused on animal welfare, sustainability, research, education, and conservation. Check out the short clip on YouTube from the interview with Sinclair-Smith below.