Richard P. Reading ’84

Richard ReadingDEGREES: B.S. in biology; master’s in environmental studies, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; M.S., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in wildlife ecology, Yale Graduate School

JOB TITLE: Vice president of science and conservation at Butterfly Pavilion

FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: I have numerous fond memories from my time at Trinity. Those include free concerts on campus (U2!) to playing football for a perennial NESCAC powerhouse to all the biology courses I took or audited (I loved them all!) to the many strong friendships I developed.

What was your professional path to Butterfly Pavilion? While at Trinity, I benefited from a semester at the Duke University Marine Lab in North Carolina, and following graduation, I got a scholarship for graduate work at Duke, which I did that summer. From there I went to Yale University, where I spent most of the next decade pursuing several degrees, with a couple years in between working as a zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo and researcher in Montana for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. During my Ph.D. research, I worked with the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on black-footed ferret and prairie dog conservation and took a job with the BLM upon completion of my Ph.D. running its ferret conservation program. 

I then had a great opportunity to work as a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme on a biodiversity project helping Mongolia with conservation initiatives during its transition from communism to democracy. I worked on and off for the U.N. and for the German government as a consultant on park conservation in Mongolia until August 1996, when I took a job to start and run a conservation biology program for the Denver Zoological Foundation (Denver Zoo). I ran that program for 19 years, eventually rising to a vice president level.

While at Denver Zoo, we started several conservation and research projects throughout the world. During that time, I reached out to Butterfly Pavilion to get its assistance on invertebrate conservation. That began a dialogue that eventually led to Butterfly Pavilion “stealing” me from Denver Zoo to set up a Research and Conservation Department for our invertebrate zoo at Butterfly Pavilion.

What do you do in your role? As a member of Butterfly Pavilion’s Executive Leadership Team, I help oversee the overall direction and operation of the organization. My more direct responsibilities lie in overseeing our Curatorial, Horticultural, and Research and Conservation Departments. I spend a significant portion of my time with the latter, as that department currently lacks a director and that is where my passion lies. Plus, we have great directors overseeing the Curatorial and Horticultural Departments. My work involves managerial oversight, developing and working on our research and conservation projects, a bit of consulting, fundraising, fostering partnerships both internally and externally, and much more. No day is the same, and that makes the job incredibly interesting.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? I enjoy seeing animals. I have studied everything from butterflies to elephants and from Lake Titicaca frogs to tarantulas. I love them all. I particularly love making a difference in the conservation of threatened and endangered species. That usually entails working with local people and building local capacity, including empowering women, which are crucial, in my opinion, to successful conservation over the long term.

What are the biggest challenges you face? I hate to get too philosophical, but I used to think that human population growth (and associated resources use) was the biggest challenge facing the conservation of biodiversity, but my thinking evolved during graduate school. Now I believe that the greatest challenge finds its roots in the values people hold. We simply must begin to shift our values so that nature conservation becomes more of a core value to most people. Right now, that value falls well below other values that take precedence when push comes to shove. Thus, we continue to destroy the natural world and consume resources as if they are infinite, which they clearly are not. Major value shifts often take generations, but we do not have that luxury in this case. If we hope to keep most of the species with whom we share this planet and, selfishly, to maintain a high quality of life for humans, we need to move toward more ecocentric (i.e., putting nature more at the center) values, attitudes, and behaviors. The solutions lie within each of us, and I am hopeful that people will recognize the importance of the natural world before it is too late.

How did your time at Trinity prepare you for the work you do? Trinity provided a great, multidisciplinary foundation. I built on that initial training in graduate school and through the mentorship of others in the real world, particularly Drs. Susan Clark and Stephen Kellert. A liberal arts education was a crucial part of my growth as a person, and for that I am grateful.