Roaming the African Grasslands: A Conversation with Dennis Pate, Director of Omaha's Henry Doorl

Where can you go to trek through the rainforest, go on safari in Africa, walk through the desert, explore the underwater world of oceans and observe animals of the night up close? Omaha of course! Perhaps no zoo in the world is opening state-of-the-art habitats at the rate of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which opened the spectacular African Grasslands last year, will be opening the Adventure Trail for children this summer and is currently building Asian Highlands. Even though Omaha has long been considered one of the best zoos in the world, it is constantly exceeding its own excellence. The leader behind this surge to the top is Dennis Pate, who has been the zoo’s director since 2009. I was very privileged to get to meet and interview him while I visited the zoo on May 25, 2017.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Pate immediately acknowledged that Omaha’s situation is unique. He talked about how the zoo’s habitats, facilities and animals “are more diverse and unique than most” and took pride in having “the largest aquarium in a zoo.” A lot of the credit to this goes to Omaha’s locals. “We have tremendous community support here in Omaha,” Pate said. “We have raised over $185 million in three years.” Another advantage Pate had when taking helm of the zoo in 2009 was the work done by the zoo’s longtime director Dr. Lee G. Simmons. During his four decades as director, Dr. Simmons’s leadership and vision elevated the zoo to world-class status. He opened several breathtaking habitat complexes such as the Lied Jungle (the largest indoor rainforest in North America), the Desert Dome (the world’s largest indoor desert), the Scott Aquarium (the largest aquarium in a zoo) and Kingdoms of the Night (the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit). “Simmons gave me a head start,” he reflected. “He gave me license to build. We already had significant exhibits so I could build on guest services and other areas of the zoo.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Dennis Pate took me around the zoo by golf cart for an hour and we talked both about his career and the zoo. He got his first job in the zoo industry as a seasonal keeper at the Children’s Zoo in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. “I was thrilled to get the seasonal job,” Pate recalled. “I never thought I’d dare aspire to be a director. Even though I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, it’s still a pinch me kind of thing that I’m a zoo director today.” His career at Lincoln Park continued as he became supervisor of the zoo’s birds and then assistant curator of small mammals and cats. Pate recalled how the promotion was “exciting and challenging” since he had to learn all about the husbandry and nature of a variety of different animals.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In 1986, Pate was hired by the Oregon Zoo in Portland as general curator. Here, he saw a massive shift in zoo animal care with a much stronger focus on enriching the animal’s lives and encouraging them to do natural behaviors. They also were beginning to have much more interaction with the public and started giving more talks educating the public about animals. “David Shepherdson really helped us understand how enrichment is important,” Pate reflected. Shepherdson is currently the Oregon Zoo’s conservation scientist and has helped the zoo become a leader in protecting wildlife and promoting animal welfare. In 1996, Pate returned to the Lincoln Park Zoo as general curator and served there until he was hired as director of the Jacksonville Zoo in 2002.

@ Oregon Zoo

The Jacksonville Zoo was a zoo at the crossroads. The zoo had begun a major redevelopment in the mid 1990s that included the opening of the Plains of East Africa (elephants, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, warthogs, etc.), Great Apes (gorillas, bonobos), Wild Florida (black bears, Florida panthers) and Australia. However, the real game-changing habitat for Jacksonville was just beginning development when Pate came on as director. “Range of the Jaguar changed the course of the zoo,” he said. “It raised expectations.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The largest project in zoo’s history, Range of the Jaguar immerses visitors into the Mayan jungles of Latin America. Centered around an elaborate plaza, it features two state-of-the-art jaguar habitats perfect for them to climb and swim, a temple full of South American reptiles, a giant aviary, a restaurant looking into the jaguar habitats and an array of Latin American wildlife including some of the only giant otters in North America. It won the 2005 AZA Exhibit of the Year award and established Jacksonville as a major zoo.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Not only were the animal habitats raising the zoo’s reputation but so were the plants. “There wasn’t a single botanical garden between Atlanta and Central Florida,” Pate realized. “I saw a need for a botanical garden. So we decided to put gardens on each side of the path in front of each loop.” The zoo changed its name to the Jacksonville Zoo and Botanical Gardens to reflect this newfound focus. The donors and public turned out to be very interested in having more gardens at the zoo. “During my time there we actually raised more money on the plants side than the animal side,” Pate explained.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Two stellar examples of Jacksonville’s use of gardens during Pate’s tenure are the Savanna Blooms Garden, which is located in front of a stellar giraffe habitat and features African plants, and the Asian Bamboo Garden, which is located in front of the Komodo dragon habitat. Another garden is located next to the river and creates a peaceful experience. During this time, the zoo also opened its Play Park, a great interactive learning area for children that lets kids move like the animals they are observing.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

In 2009, Pate left the zoo to take the job at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo but felt the Jacksonville Zoo was in good hands. “The natural development has continued since I left,” he told me. “My last exhibit was the Asian Bamboo Gardens with the Komodo dragon and the next thing planned was the tiger habitat in Asia, which Tony (Vecchio) built.” .

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Deanna Murphy @ Jacksonville Zoo

When Pate took over as Director of Omaha's Henry Doolry Zoo, Dr. Simmons moved to the zoo’s foundation to focus on fundraising. However, Pate did not feel intimidated to follow in the footsteps of such a renowned director. “I knew what I wanted to do when I came,” he said. “So one of the first things I did was create a new master plan in 2010. Expedition Madagascar was already in the works so I changed a few things with that but didn’t have much to do with it.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

One of the primary focuses on Pate’s leadership in the zoo was building on guest services and accessibility. When we were touring around the zoo, he explained this to me firsthand. “See that woman- she’s got a stroller, a backpack and a toddler to take around,” Pate pointed out to me. “It would have been quite hard for her to get around with the old pathways. It’s much easier for her to get around now that we have the new pathways, which are much more accessible.” Focusing on guests and their experience is especially important since the zoo is very popular and can often be very crowded. “You can’t overestimate how proud locals are of the zoo,” Pate said. “Last year, we passed two million visitors for the first time ever.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Under Pate’s leadership, Omaha has reached the unprecedented goal of “planning, building and opening an exhibit each year.” The trend started last year with the opening of African Grasslands, the largest project in the zoo’s history both in size (28 acres) and budget ($73 million.) We started out golf cart tour of the complex by passing the kopje, an African rock formation which is home to meerkats, klipspringers and hyraxes, and one of the main savannas, which features reticulated giraffes, impalas, ostriches and a white rhinoceros (who was occupying an isolated part of the habitat on the day I was visiting.) The massive, highly naturalistic habitat is perfect for these animals to frolic around with plenty of trees for the giraffes to browse and grass for the rhinos and impalas to graze. On my visit, the giraffes were especially active galloping through their habitat, foraging from the trees and socializing with each other.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Grayson Ponti

When looking for inspiration for the habitat, Pate and exhibit designers did not look just at African sections at other zoos but also at the real thing. “We put together our collective experience of travels to Africa to find the right look of Grasslands,” Pate explained. “When designing habitats, we focus on animal welfare, guest experience and landscape.” All of these priorities are perfectly met in the giraffe savanna- it is great for the animals as it provides a spacious, enriching space for them to act naturally, it is great for the visitors as it lets them see these animals up close and learn about them (the graphics and signs in African Grasslands are as educational and conservation-focused as any I’ve ever seen) and is a beautiful landscape. Pate pointed out “the giraffes and impalas walk across the sidewalk” to their family quarters. We passed the zoo’s baby giraffe who was only born a few weeks ago.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Next we passed the zoo’s herd of African elephants enjoying their South Habitat. “For inspiration, we looked at some elephant habitats at European zoos we really liked such as Cologne,” Pate explained. “We wanted to make one of the very best in the world. We used trees as a backdrop to make it even more natural.” The elephant herd at the zoo has a special story as they were rescued from drought-stricken Swaziland. If the had not been imported to America, they would have been culled to prevent them from destroying the ecosystem. “It all started when the Dallas Zoo wanted to rescue elephants from Swaziland,” Pate explained. “They had an aging herd that came for their new habitat so they were planning on bringing these younger elephants in by themselves. We had an African area on our master plan and wanted to have elephants for it so I gave them a call and said we’d be interested in housing some of them. Not long after Mark Reed (longtime director of the Sedgwick County Zoo) called knowing we had created a partnership.” The three zoos got a permit to import 17 young elephants to be split between three zoos in order to save their lives and support black rhinoceros conservation.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Pate was honest and said figuring out “the logistics of the elephant import” was the most challenging part of his career. It was his responsibility to make sure the giant animals all got over to America safely, adjusted well to their new habitat and got along well with each other. “I had to do all of this on top of being chair of the AZA and building one of the largest projects in zoo history,” he recalled. Pate took pride in how the habitat provides ample space and enrichment for the elephants but also lets “visitors get close” to them. Taking inspiration from the Dallas Zoo’s groundbreaking Giants of the Savanna, the habitat was built to let elephants coexist with Grant’s zebras and impalas. “While giraffes have worked well as a mixed species for a long time, elephants are a very recent mixed species,” Pate explained. “Dallas really paved the way for putting them in with other animals.” On my visit, they were not in with the impala and zebras since they are still getting adjusted to each other. When asked if elephants could ever successfully coexist with white rhinos in a zoo, Pate responded that it would “be very difficult,” especially with a group of “younger, more aggressive elephants.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

When touring African Grasslands by golf cart, Dennis Pate talked about how pacing was a key factor in the design of the area. “With African Grasslands we focused on pacing,” he explained. “You’re always seeing and learning something. We tried to make it so there aren’t long stretches where you aren’t seeing animals. We also tried really hard to engage kids.” As we crossed a bridge Pate gave me a concrete example of this theme. “Instead of making the bridge straight, we built it at an angle so visitors can see the length of the elephant habitat as they are walking through,” he pointed out. This decision pays off brilliantly as the view from the bridge is absolutely beautiful and lets guests see the pachyderms roaming through their enormous home full of pools, mud wallows, trees and opportunities to forage.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Pate next showed me the second half of African Grasslands, which was originally supposed to be opened in a separate phase. “We fundraised at such a rate we were able to combine the phases,” he said. As we passed the cheetah habitat, Pate pointed out that at the zoo’s sister facility, the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, there is “an offsite breeding facility of sixteen cheetahs.” The facility is a leader in conservation and breeding for this species. Pate pointed out that, while the first part of African Grasslands is supposed to be a replication of a national park, the second part is meant to be a ranger station where guests learn about the people who protect these animals in the wild. One interesting feature we stumbled upon was one of the actual crates used to take one of the elephants over from Africa in 747. “The crate in the picture (of one of the graphics documenting the trip) is the one here,” he said. Several interactive features make this part of the complex especially educational and engaging for kids.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

We passed the bongos and sables, who Pate said are “ cold hardy and do very well here,” before we got to the lion habitat, one which he was particularly proud of. “This could very well be the best lion habitat in the country,” he said. “Nowhere else has such a tall kopje. The lions can look up and out at those vistas and see the cheetahs, sables and bongos around them. This provides great visual enrichment.” Pate’s praise is very much deserved. The felines were thriving in their impressive home with ample opportunities to climb, lounge and explore. Pate pointed out to me the area where the lion training demonstrations are held, sessions which encourage the cats to do behaviors which are mentally and physically stimulating.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

When asked about the challenges of African Grasslands, Pate said the main ones were the “size of the project,” the “mixed species” habitats and getting all the acquisitions. “We haver over thirty buildings and structures in African Grasslands an over 12,000 trees and shrubs,” he pointed out. “This was one massive project.” Also not everything planned for the project was able to come to reality. "A hippo habitat, a Nile crocodile habitat and a guenon habitat were all planned but cut because of costs," Pate remarked. "You wouldn't think there would be anything you couldn't afford with a $73 million budget but turns out there is."

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

We passed the construction site for Asian Highlands, which will recreate the ecosystems surrounding the Himalayas. “We want to build habitats that are authentic to the animals,” Pate explained. “We used a lot of photo references of treelines in the Himalayas. I traveled out to Nepal.” A big priority in picking species for this region was selecting animals that can thrive in Omaha’s cold climate. “We wanted year-round animals,” Pate said. “Most of the animals [in Asian Highlands] will be from cold climates. Indian rhinos are the most cold hardy of all rhinos. While sloth bears live in Southern India, they historically ranged up to the Himalayas so they will be featured here. We will have supplemental heating for them.” When passing by the sea lion pool, he talked about how planning for a Coastal region featuring polar bears and sea lions will begin this fall.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

On our way out we passed two areas which will be opening to visitors this summer. One is an amphitheater for a new bird show. “The bird show will facilitate conservation,” Pate elaborated. “Lots of training is going on right now.” We then passed the Adventure Trail, the zoo’s new children’s zoo that will open in July. The trail was built on an area that “used to be a parking lot.” Enthusiastic about the new area, Pate discussed how “we focused on showing how play is important and using play to facilitate learning about conservation. We brought in a PhD child behavior specialist as a consultant. We designed it so the kids will be getting physical activity, playing and learning.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Pate then took me around the zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research (CCR), where the zoo conducts several cutting edge programs and studies. Some of the primary areas of scientific study the center participates in are molecular genetics, reproductive physiology, nutrition and conservation medicine (www.omahazoo.com/conservation/.) Pate introduced me to one of the zoo’s conservationists and showed me how over 20 lemur species have been identified and named by Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, including one named after Dr. Simmons. He also talked to me how the zoo is working on saving endangered ferns in Madagascar among a variety of other projects. It was clear the zoo does so much more than what you see at the site and it was very inspiring walking around a place where so many important things happen. When talking about his conservation role models, Pate pointed to the work of Dr. William Conway and Christian Samper at the Bronx Zoo and wildlife Conservation Society. “Conway and Wildlife Conservation Society introduced zoos as places that are stewards of animals,” he remarked.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Pate concluded the interview by talking about the most challenging parts of being a zoo director. “The hardest part is balancing the needs of visitors, animals and staff,” he remarked. “On top of that, there is finances and missions beyond what is going on at the zoo. Balancing it all is the hard part.” However, Pate was very clear he greatly enjoys his job. “I’m living the dream,” he said. With Dennis Pate as director, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo continues to exponentially grow and provide the best possible habitats and care for its animals. It is also a global leader in conservation outside of the facility and connects visitors with this progress through education. It is a model of the modern conservation zoological park.

#OmahasHenryDoorlyZoo #ZooInterview

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