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How Technology And Human Behavior Play Into The Animal-Welfare Crisis

Six questions for Azzedine Downes, CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

How Technology And Human Behavior Play Into The Animal-Welfare Crisis
[Photo: Karel Prinsloo, courtesy of IFAW]

Although he’s charged with addressing animal-welfare crises all over the globe, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) president and CEO Azzedine Downes spends much of his time studying people. “So much of what wildlife faces is not a wildlife management problem, it’s a human behavioral problem,” he tells Fast Company. And much of that happens via technology. Downes has used drones and satellites to pinpoint poachers, and reaches young people through social media and messaging apps, immersing himself in the Zeitgeist of human conversation to hone his intervention strategies on behalf of animals in need.

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We asked Downes how he stays focused and inspired, even in the face of widespread animal welfare issues. Here’s what he said:

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I like to read historical fiction in addition to nonfiction. At the end of the day, the work I do is largely about changing human behavior than it is about wildlife management. In almost every case, human behavior is at the root of so many animal problems, and the better insight I have into people, the better I will be able to help animals.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I look out my bedroom window. I’m always looking for the slightest change in my environment, which these days means has any snow melted! I want to see if there are any changes in the trees, flowers, or the street. Being from New England, I guess I am also just checking the weather.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

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My favorite Twitter feed is Weird Things To Know. I am always looking for some new angle that I can bring to my work. Sometimes the most obscure insights get me thinking about what we could do differently. If I only have exposure to conservation and animal-welfare-related feeds, it can get pretty self-reinforcing. It can also get rather depressing because the news is often so dire.

Azzedine Downes, IFAW president and CEO, greets Amboseli National Park community rangers during the Kitenden Year Two Check Presentation ceremony.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do? Can you send us a snapshot of your to-do list?

The greatest tool I have is my phone. For me, if it’s not on my phone, it doesn’t exist. That includes schedules, daily reminders, email, texts, and apps. I rarely use to-do lists but will often send myself an email with just a reminder in the subject line. I did once famously (at least at home it was famous) remark one Saturday afternoon that “I forgot to go to Russia.” My kids thought that was the funniest thing they had ever heard. Plans change.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I love to garden. I can spend days in the garden if I had the time. The combination of seeing something grow and creating a palette of colorful beauty at the same time is extraordinary to me. No detail related to the growth of a plant is too small to fascinate me.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

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People who practice random acts of kindness. But if I had to name someone, I would say that it is Stephen Hawking. I love to read about quantum physics, space, and black holes. To think what the mind is capable of grasping, even when the body has failed, cannot help but inspire.

Click here for more insight from Fast Company’s 2015 Most Creative People in Business.

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About the author

Jessica Hullinger is a London-based journalist who covers science, health, and innovation. She currently serves as a Senior Editor at TheWeek.com

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