Authored by Christina Ross, media coordinator for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
The DZS prides itself on being an organization that is committed to celebrating the diversity — not only of wildlife and wild places — but also of our human community. This Black History Month, the DZS honored this commitment by highlighting individuals who have greatly contributed to our organization throughout the years. There is no doubt the DZS is a better place for the animals, our guests and our staff due to their dedication and fortitude. We are proud to shine a light on their accomplishments and offer our deepest gratitude.
Meet some of the people who have helped make the DZS the organization it is today!
Ms. Khadejah E. Shelby was appointed as the deputy director of the Detroit Zoo in 1982 and held this position, along with Belle Isle Zoo director, for 12 years. She also served as acting director for the Detroit Zoo, making her the first Black woman to hold the position of zoo director in the United States. During her time at the Zoo, she developed an appreciation of all animals and worked to share her knowledge with Black children by answering all their animal-related questions. Khadejah took on the personal responsibility of educating Black people about zoo careers by helping to develop a zoo management degree at Wayne State University.
She managed with common sense and openness, knowing the animal care team was — and still is — the foundation of the Zoo. Though she passed away in 2018, Khadejah’s impact can still be felt in our organization today.
“Ms. Shelby was a champion for change,” says Curator of Education Mike Reed, who worked closely with Khadejah. “She was a strong personality and not afraid to challenge traditional barriers. In a time when there were few Black individuals in animal care departments in zoos and aquariums throughout the United States, she worked to give everyone a fair opportunity at the Detroit Zoo.”
C. Monique Roberson
In November 1976, Monique Roberson became the first full-time female zookeeper at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and was later recognized as such by the City of Detroit.
Monique began her DZS career in the guest services department before transferring to the animal care department. At the time, this was uncommon for a woman, and she faced harsh scrutiny from her male coworkers. Even though she was tasked with the hardest jobs and faced continuous discrimination, Monique was determined to make it in this “man’s” profession.
Over the years, Monique took it upon herself to read extensively about the animals she cared for. When a testing system was put in place, she passed with flying colors and was promoted to senior zookeeper. During her time at the DZS, Monique cared for her favorite animals, the primates, and served as the union’s chief steward.
“The DZS went from a male-dominated workplace to a welcoming environment for all,” Monique says when reflecting on her time at the DZS. “Animal care and training and enrichment have evolved practically 360 degrees from my earlier years.”
After 48 years and 4 months of employment, Monique retired on Dec. 31, 2020. During her career, she broke down barriers and paved the way for other women and Black individuals to join the animal care field. We want to take this opportunity to thank her for her years of commitment and honor her as the first full-time female zookeeper in DZS history!
Meet the woman who was considered the heart of the Zoo’s guest relations department for years.
Gwen Lanier worked at the Detroit Zoo for more than 48 years. During her tenure, she witnessed the DZS take great strides toward being an inclusive workplace and performed many different roles on the guest relations team. She likens working on this team to eating a box of chocolates — “you never know what you are going to get.”
“The employees are colorful with their antics, and the guests are unbelievable,” she says. “Working in guest relations will keep your brain charged, body energized and give you a passion for people and their stories.”
One of her proudest work moments is when the DZS adopted a school on the lower east side of Detroit. There, Gwen mentored a student with whom she still stays in touch today! Gwen is also proud that she trained fellow team members how to treat people equally. She had a great rapport with staff and was a confidant for many.
Though she is now retired, Gwen continues to serve as an ambassador for the Zoo. She has seen so many changes in her 48 years and appreciates that the DZS has gone from being a white male-dominated organization to a diverse place where jobs are filled by qualified people regardless of their race, orientation or religion.
Meet Mike Reed, who says his most cherished part of working for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is that he could be a part of “living Black history.”
A zoologist and coordinator of education at the Detroit Zoo, Mike is the longest-tenured member of the DZS team management group. He has spent the last 35 years caring for animals large and small at the Detroit Zoo and on Belle Isle. Throughout his career, he maintained a goal of sparking a love of nature in all youth and showing Black children that there is a place for them in animal-related fields.
Mike made history by being the first educator specifically assigned to the Belle Isle Zoo and Aquarium. There, he helped to create what was, at the time, the world’s largest spider habitat. It was the first major zoo habitat designed, built and maintained by an entirely African American staff.
Mike continued to break barriers by being elected the first Black president of the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education, a statewide environmental literacy group. He was also the first African American to serve as education chair for Youth Day, Michigan’s largest one-day children’s event.
Mike has made a difference in many children’s lives by visiting schools and talking with them one-on-one at events. In 2021, he was profiled in an article by Wayne State University that shared his accomplishments. Mike hopes his story will inspire more young Black Americans to join their classmates in seeking jobs in the sciences, so they can continue to create history.
Read his Wayne State feature here.
Finally, let’s meet someone who making history today and moving us toward a more equitable future.
Maurice Anderson is the director of guest relations for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). He is responsible for everything that goes into giving guests a great Detroit Zoo experience —from hiring and training staff to managing the rides and attractions, resolving customer service feedback and much more. You are in good hands with Maurice. He embodies the DZS spirit and has risen through the ranks since his start as a public relations intern six years ago.
“The two most important things that I’ve learned along the way on my journey from intern to my current role are the importance of building healthy relationships within the workplace and the importance of making every aspect of the business a priority,” Maurice says. “The Zoo is a hands-on organization, and we are successful because we encourage open communication, innovation, integrity, caring and equity. Each department and each employee make this organization a world-class Zoo.”
He says his favorite part of his job is how dynamic each day is.
“Within a given day, I am moving from project to project, meeting to meeting, and assisting the DZS team. Each day at the Zoo presents a new challenge, and it allows me to sharpen my skills.”
Maurice is a great example of what can be accomplished at the Detroit Zoo.
Thank you, Khadejah, Monique, Gwen, Mike and Maurice!
While we couldn’t fit everyone into this blog post, the DZS has been and continues to be shaped by countless Black and diverse individuals — we can’t thank them enough for their work and dedication.
As we turn the calendar to March, remember that Black history’s importance does not end just because February does. The DZS prioritizes diversity and inclusion 365 days a year.