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A Conversation with Hayley Murphy, DVM ‘92, CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society

Hayley Murphy with a gorilla

Q: What is your current job title and what are the responsibilities of your position?

I am the CEO and Executive Director of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). We are a nonprofit organization that operates the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center, and our mission is to create meaningful connections between people, animals, and nature so all can thrive. We are a renowned leader in wildlife conservation, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and human education.

Q: What was your career path like after graduation from veterinary school?

I graduated from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1992 and started my career working full-time as a small animal and equine veterinarian for three years after graduation. During that time, I was also volunteering and doing some paid work at two local zoos. In 1995, I was accepted into a veterinary internship at Zoo New England in Boston, Massachusetts. I stayed on after that year and eventually became the Director of Veterinary Services. In 2009, I left Zoo New England to move to Atlanta, Georgia where I was hired as the Director of Veterinary Services at Zoo Atlanta. There, I held progressively more management-focused roles until becoming the Deputy Director in charge of life sciences, facilities and operations, education and human resources. In 2018, I graduated from the Executive Leadership Development program of the AZA, a program designed to grow the future leaders for accredited zoos and aquariums.

Hayley Murphy conducting a procedure with a gorilla

I am also founder and director emeritus of the Great Ape Heart Project, which transitioned with me to the DZS. I also serve as a veterinary advisor to the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) and the Great Ape Taxonomic Advisory Group and am past chair of the Veterinary Advisors for the AZA Scientific Advisory Group. I am currently the chair of the AZA Ethics Board and serve as a board member for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. In 2019, I was thrilled to lecture at a special symposium at the Karolinska Institute and Nobel Forum in Stockholm, Sweden on heart disease in great apes, and in 2020, to be recognized by the AZA when the Great Ape Heart Project received the first ever AZA Research Award. When not at work, I am the mother of two adult children and wife to Dr. David Murphy, a small animal veterinarian.

Q: What aspects of your career journey have you enjoyed the most?

Working with endangered species is fascinating and impactful for the future of the planet. I think what I have enjoyed the most in my career journey is being a part of something bigger than I ever imagined. In leading a world class zoo, I have been able to ignite positive change not just related to the health and well-being of the animals, but also in such impactful areas as conservation of species in the wild, educating the next generations to be guardians of this world, and providing support for the many other impactful programs that will help to ensure a more equitable, inclusive, and healthy future for all.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Detroit Zoo and the Belle Isle Nature Center?

The Detroit Zoo is situated on 125 acres with many naturalistic habitats. It is home to more than 2,000 animals or more than 200 species, and it is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). The major exhibits include the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the Arctic Ring of Life, the Australian Outback Adventure, the Great Apes of Harambee, the National Amphibian Conservation Center, the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, and the Butterfly Garden. We are the largest paid family attraction in Michigan, with more than 1.3 million visitors annually.

The Belle Isle Nature Center is situated on approximately 6 acres of Michigan’s forested wetland on Belle Isle, which is an island in the Detroit River between the USA and Canada. The Nature Center had a complete transformation last year and its focus is on supporting Michigan wildlife, flora and fauna, especially within urban areas. We offer family nature programs and education programs for schools and community groups, and all admission to the Nature Center is free. However, a State of Michigan Recreation Passport is required for all vehicles to enter Belle Isle.

Herd of zebras

Q: Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

Originally it was to work to protect endangered species and to make sure that animal well-being was always the priority for animals under human care in zoos. That is still critically important to me, but as I have matured in my professional roles and responsibilities, I have seen the broader impact that zoos and aquariums can have on the future of our planet. By educating the millions of people that collectively visit zoos and aquariums each year, we can truly help to make connections to the natural world that may change the future. Add to that the amount of funding and support that we give annually to field conservation, both here in the United States and abroad, and I am inspired every day to come to work and do more!

I think by leading an organization that cares for and protects wildlife and wild places, my career as a zoo leader has had a much bigger impact than just the running of a business. We truly dedicate resources, talent, and support towards igniting positive change for animals and nature, and I am proud of that every single day.

Q: How did your experiences at Cornell shape your path towards your career?

I think that my time at Cornell had a huge impact. I joined the student AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) zoo and wildlife club early in my veterinary educational journey, really for something fun and different to do and because one of my best friends was in the club (Dr. James Morrisey, who is still there!). I had no intention of practicing zoo medicine when I entered vet school. I was a veterinary technician at Cornell, both in the small animal ICU and in the large animal hospital, and I thought I would be a mixed animal practitioner.

I did join an equine and small animal practice right after graduation, but during vet school, through both the AAZV club and through an opportunity to volunteer at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, I became a huge fan of zoos and started tailoring my experience towards that career direction. I spent a summer between sophomore and junior year at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska and completed a senior rotation at the Pittsburgh Zoo and I was hooked!

Q: How have your career plans evolved since graduation?

Once I started my career in zoos, I became progressively more interested in strategic planning and mobilizing people behind mission-driven initiatives. After a few years of working as a zoo veterinarian, I wanted to be more involved in upper management decisions and started gaining the tools that I needed for that. This included steps like taking courses in leadership and management, grant-writing, and getting involved beyond the zoo veterinary world and exploring the broader Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Hayley Murphy with a baby panda

Q: What challenges did you encounter while searching for a job following graduation?

I was fortunate. I had three requirements: I wanted to live near the ocean, I wanted a small animal/equine practice, and I wanted to be near a zoo. I got all that when I joined a practice in Seekonk, Massachusetts that was equine/small animal, near the ocean, and near several zoos, including Zoo New England where I got my first internship. So I was very fortunate to get this job offer before I graduated.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to a current veterinary student interested in pursuing a career in wildlife health/conservation?

Don’t give up! You will hear about how hard it is to get a job, how hard it is to work in the non-profit world and be successful, and all of that can be challenging. But at the end of the day, if you really want it, go for it. I think networking is incredibly important; this is a very small and very interconnected world and always putting your best foot forward is critical. Stay professional (especially on social media!), network, and be willing to take some risks. 

Q: Do you have any other comments to share with current or prospective students?

I love what I do and would never in a million years have predicted this when I was at Cornell. I say that to remind everyone that life is ever-changing, and it is about making your own opportunities happen. No one does that for you, but the effort is worth it. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun along the way!

All images provided by Dr. Hayley Murphy.

Related programs: Zoological Medicine