Keeping the Columbus Zoo Great: A Conversation with Tom Stalf, President and CEO of the Columbus Zoo

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is one of the largest, best and most popular zoos in the country. The institution was put on the map by its longtime director, the iconic “Jungle” Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo hosts over 3 million visitors a year, has prolifically opened great habitats, reaches millions of people and donates millions of dollars to conservation each year. In 2013, Tom Stalf was hired as the President and CEO and he has continued to help the zoo excel. Here is his story.

@ Columbus Zoo

Stalf began his career at the Niabi Zoo in Illinois during the 1990s. “Right after I graduated from Western Illinois University, there was an ad in the local newspaper for a zookeeper position at the Niabi Zoo,” he remembered. After being hired as a keeper, Stalf was impressed by seeing guests being happy at the zoo and enjoyed working with several highly endangered animals. Four years later, Tom Stalf became the youngest zoo director in the nation when he was given the top seat at the Niabi Zoo. “I was only 25 at the time,” he recalled. “I went from being an entry level keeper to running the place in four years.”

@ Niabi Zoo

While he may have been a zoo director, Stalf had a lot of work ahead of him. The Niabi Zoo was a small zoo that lacked accreditation and needed to be revitalized. “The Niabi Zoo is a beautiful zoo located in a forest reserve,” Stalf elaborated. “Back in the early 1990s there were a lot of things we struggled to have. We didn’t even have two-way radios so if you needed something you had to walk and find someone to give you a hand.” Additionally, many of the animal spaces were outdated and attendance was low. Stalf took it upon himself to change that.

@ Niabi Zoo

“Getting our community to support the Niabi Zoo was vital,” he stated. “We were the only zoo in the Quad City area so I knew the potential was there. We worked very hard to make sure the Zoo was clean, the animals were well taken care of and the way we exhibited and talked about the animals was not only great for animals but fun for guests. I also put together a first class professional team.” Soon fortunes began to change and attendance went from 55,000 to 200,000 annual visitors. “It was really rewarding to see the zoo attendance increase under my leadership,” Stalf remarked. “We were very proud of our community support, representing the species we had, telling their stories and inspiring people to care about that species.”

@ Niabi Zoo

Tom Stalf’s leadership led the Niabi Zoo to becoming accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for the first time. He also got rid of many substandard exhibits and built modern ones. “We opened Passport to Africa, which includes open views of giraffes, colobus monkeys and lions,” Stalf recalled. “It was fun to be able to fundraise and get people excited about what the possibilities could be. Zoos have changed so much over the years. They used to be more of a menagerie, which didn’t focus on telling the story of conservation. Animals like great apes would be housed individually. We went away from that at Niabi and got open views and large spaces in Passport to Africa. It was a smaller zoo so the habitat investment wasn’t what you’d have at the Columbus Zoo. We also closed a number of old exhibits like the monkey house and brought things in like the endangered species carousel and the train. That helped offset the expense to keep the zoo thriving.”

@ Niabi Zoo

After fifteen years heading Niabi, Stalf moved over to the Columbus Zoo in 2010. “In 1995, I had a friend in Columbus who I worked with to help fund improvements at the Niabi Zoo,” he stated. “Through him, I talked to professionals in Columbus who introduced me to Jack Hanna. He was probably the most popular zoo guy on the planet so it was very inspiring to meet him. Shortly after meeting Jack, I was asked to travel with him to New York for an appearance on the David Letterman Show. From the mid-90s on I assisted Jack on theater and television appearances. Then, in 2010, he asked me to consider moving to Columbus. It was a hard decision as I had been at Niabi for 15 years, my wife was the curator there and we lived on the zoo property.”

@ Columbus Zoo

However, in other ways it was an easy decision. “I knew many people at the Columbus Zoo,” Stalf continued. “Also, one of the main reasons I decided to go is I realized zoos are so essential because we have the opportunity to get people to care about wildlife and donate to conservation. Niabi did a great job supporting conservation but on a smaller scale. On the other hand, the Columbus Zoo team was very proud of raising millions of dollars for conservation every single year. If I have to define who I am I would define myself as a conservationist. So ultimately it was an easy decision to join one of the largest zoos in the world to make a positive impact on this planet. I came to the Columbus Zoo as head of operations and soon after I was appointed to run The Wilds. In 2013, I was appointed President and CEO of the Columbus Zoo.”

@ Columbus Zoo

One major asset he found at his new zoo was its popularity and following. “The best thing about the Columbus Zoo is the central Ohio community,” Stalf elaborated. “They adore and appreciate this zoo. We attracted 3.1 million guests last year. I wanted to make sure we kept Columbus great. As the leader of this organization, I clearly know what makes this zoo great. It’s our team which includes our staff, community and volunteers. As we looked into the future, what we’ve done is invested in new regions.” The first major project carried out during his time as President and CEO was the award winning Heart of Africa, which opened in 2014.

@ Columbus Zoo

Not only did Heart of Africa bring back giraffes and zebras to the Columbus Zoo for the first time in almost a decade, it transports zoo visitors to the plains of Africa. A former soy field was transformed into a savanna through careful design and landscaping. “Heart of Africa is the best in the nation, winning the AZA Top Honors Award for Exhibit Design,” Stalf remarked. “It took three years of planning. The top priority for us was unobstructed views, large spaces and mixed species herds in an extensive space. We tried to make sure our guests could understand what it’s like to be on safari in Africa. Since most of our visitors will never go to Africa, we brought the African experience to them and highlight our conservation efforts there.” Animal welfare was also key to the design considerations of Heart of Africa.

@ Columbus Zoo

“Zoos need to tell stories and the most important story we can tell is coexistence,” Stalf added. The story of coexistence is told throughout Heart of Africa in interpretive graphics about human-predator conflict, habitat destruction and the need for communities to live harmoniously with Africa’s wildlife. “We need to eliminate human-wildlife conflict all over the world,” he said. “We want to inspire our guests to find ways to support the animals we’re supporting.”

@ Columbus Zoo

The region not only represents the animals of Africa but also the people. “At the front of Heart of Africa we represent an African village,” Stalf explained. “It’s the people in Africa who make a difference in conservation so we wanted to tell their story.” Visitors get a panoramic first look at the savanna that often looks as if a pride of lions are occupying the same grasslands as their prey. “You go into the wide open space and see a pride of lions,” Stalf stated. “It represents what you’d see in an African savanna. You don’t see there’s a barrier that makes it so the lions can’t get in with the giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and antelope.” While they do not have access to the massive savanna, the lions get enrichment out of seeing their natural neighbors roaming next door and have plenty of opportunities to look out at them.

@ Columbus Zoo

Stalf and his team wanted to make the lion habitat special and not a carbon copy of those at other zoos. “As we saw many African savannas at other zoos, we saw there’d often be a truck with the glass separating the lions and visitors,” he explained. “We wanted to do something that had never been done before so we did an airplane. One wing is occupied by the guests while the other is free for the lions to lounge.” The pride can often be found resting on the wing, as they naturally sleep eighteen hours a day. “During the summer, there’s air conditioning that keeps the lions cool,” Stalf added. “Kids can go into the cockpit and be face to face with the lions.” Several interpretive graphics educate visitors about the plight of lions and the work the Columbus Zoo is doing to protect them in their native range countries.

@ Columbus Zoo

“We wanted to give the lions a large space and the opportunities to get up onto different things,” Stalf continued. “We have an area where the keepers can do behavioral training sessions with the lions in front of our guests. They can show the interaction between the staff and the lions as they look at their teeth. If they need to give them a vaccination they can safely hand-inject them without sedation. We also wanted to make sure our restaurant had a beautiful up close view which we did by having the lions right there.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ PGAV Destinations

Another unique feature of Heart of Africa is the water hole. This habitat realistically recreates a water hole where animals congregate in Africa and rotates through different species throughout the day. It also is the site of the Zoo’s cheetah runs, which occur three times a day. “We found out 56% of our visitors are members,” Stalf commented. “They know our zoo and come often. That made us want to do something that always changed so we came up with the water hole. Every hour a new experience happens. It could be hyenas, jackals, a cheetah run, ostriches, aardvarks, warthogs or hornbills flying.”

@ Columbus Zoo

The rotation of the water hole recreates the experience of never knowing what you might encounter when on safari in Africa. This rotation is also highly enriching for the animals who timeshare it. “They share the same area so the enrichment for the animals is fantastic,” Stalf added. “The prey animals are always looking while the predators are always smelling. They’re always active and it’s a fantastic experience for visitors.” Particularly popular are the cheetah runs. “The cheetahs have been trained to chase a lure,” Stalf said. “I love seeing a cheetah run with a herd of giraffes in the background. You feel like you’re in Africa.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

An animal in Heart of Africa rarely found at other zoos is vervet monkeys. “Vervet monkeys are the raccoons of Africa,” Stalf remarked. “We did a habitat for vervets because, as you travel to Africa and go into your base camp, they’re the animal that’s always where the humans are. They’re always around looking for food scraps. As a person who has traveled to Africa, I can attest they’re the animal you see the most and interact with the most. It was a story we wanted to tell.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“We wanted to talk about how you might have what might be considered to be a pest here and how they have the same conflict in Africa,” he continued. The vervet monkey habitat is a camp site which has been overtaken by monkeys to illustrate their proximity to humans. “We wanted to highlight Jack Hanna so we personalized the tent with his artifacts and images,” Stalf said. “Our keepers do enrichment every day and give the vervets different things which look like camp items. It’s entertaining for both the guests and the monkeys.”

@ Columbus Zoo

The centerpiece of Heart of Africa is the massive savanna home to reticulated and Masai giraffes, Grant’s zebras, wildebeests, Thomson’s gazelles, Addra gazelles, greater kudus and ostriches. “We talked with our experts about wanting to represent the savanna the best that we could,” Stalf elaborated. “We wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to desensitize our large herds of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, antelope and ostriches to each other. We started years ago and were able to acquire young animals. We put them into the wide open pastures and slowly trained them to come in and out and get along with everybody. It all worked out and we’re very happy that the herds of animals we have from Thomson’s gazelles to greater kudus represent the savanna well. We really focused on the turf of the savanna as we didn’t want it to get overgrazed. We have our golf course staff check on it every day and we constantly irrigate it.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

One of the biggest decisions that had to be made about Heart of Africa was what to do with it during the winter. “You have to have the right weather to give guests the opportunity to enjoy the animals we represent and the beauty of the savanna,” Stalf explained. “Giraffes in particular are very cold sensitive. We wanted every dollar to go to the animals and, if we built indoor viewing areas for the guests, we would have to sacrifice space of the animals. We decided we’d give all the investment to the animal care and not in the indoor visitor experience. We want to make sure when you take a picture of a giraffe you take it in a savanna.” During the winter, most of Heart of Africa is closed as the animals live in their winter habitats, however, Stalf added, “Our lions don’t mind the cold so we have their habitat accessible year-round and visitors can see them.”

@ PGAV Destinations

The thing Tom Stalf and his team are most proud about Heart of Africa is its connection to conservation. “We have fourteen different conservation projects we support in the African savanna,” he stated. “We’re very proud of the 70 projects to which we contribute in 40 different countries worldwide. We highlight the savanna projects we support in Heart of Africa and give people an opportunity to donate to them. That’s the most important thing we do. Our top priority is animal welfare but the reason we exist is to make a difference in range countries. Highlighting the great work we’ve done in conservation is the key to our future.”

@ Columbus Zoo

While not from Africa, the Columbus Zoo is a global leader in polar bear conservation. “We were one of the first zoos to support Polar Bears International (PBI),” Stalf remarked. “Polar Frontier (the Zoo’s state-of-the-art polar bear habitat) opened the week before I arrived. I’ve traveled to Churchill and talked to the experts there. We’ve helped educate people about why we need to save polar bears. It’s a big challenge but we’re very proud of the way we represent the species and for being one of PBI’s Arctic Ambassador Centers participating in research, education and action programs that address the key issues affecting polar bears.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“Our intent when building Polar Frontier was to always focus on helping this threatened species,” he continued. “There are several ways zoos can help -- representing the species, breeding programs, contributing to conservation.” In recent years the Columbus Zoo has been one of very few zoos to have breeding success with polar bears. “We’ve had success three times over giving birth to polar bears this year,” Stalf commented. “We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to breed both of our females. There’s no book to read about breeding polar bears. When we had Nora in 2015, her mother decided not to care for her but our staff did a wonderful job hand rearing her.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“The thing that makes the Columbus Zoo unique is the opportunities we give our guests to get up close to animals,” Stalf remarked. Not only can they do this through giraffe feeding but also through the Zoo’s one of a kind animal ambassador program. These animals - including cheetahs, clouded leopards, kangaroos, African penguins, binturongs, macaws, servals, tortoises, hedgehogs, otters, lemurs, capybara and many more - not only go throughout the park but also on school visits, public appearances and television appearances.

@ Columbus Zoo

“Our outreach programs make us different than any other zoo,” Stalf stated. “We travel with Jack Hanna around the country and have our animals highlighted on national television. We focus on inspiring people and educating them about these wonderful animals. It gives us the opportunity for us to come to those who cannot come to the zoo. Often our programs are at no cost as we want to serve the underserved.” The animals serve as ambassadors to their species in the wild, educate people around the nation and inspire them to care about wildlife. “At the Animal Encounters Village you can see a sloth walking above your head, a bird fly or our trainers working with our animals in action,” Stalf added. “We touch the heart to teach the mind. We have to give people an opportunity to be inspired by our animals and hope when they leave they’ll make a difference for wildlife. I hope they recycle, contribute to conservation and vote environmentally.”

@ Columbus Zoo

In addition to the animals, Tom Stalf also has to manage the people side of the zoo, too. “It’s a huge challenge running a zoo,” he elaborated. “We want to make sure the guests who return always have something different to do. We have all four seasons so we want to make sure we have special events in each one. For instance, during the summer we have jazz concerts, in the fall we have a Fall Fest and Boo at the Zoo, in winter we have Wildlights and in spring we have Eggs, Paws and Claws. We always want to give our guests more reasons to come to the zoo. “

@ Columbus Zoo

“We also want to make sure our habitats are changing and evolving so that the animals and visitors are all benefiting,” Stalf continued. “That’s why we’re always doing new things.” The Columbus Zoo’s next major project is a state-of-the-art sea lion habitat and a new Animal Encounters Village. “Right now it takes quite a while until you see your first animal after coming into the zoo,” Stalf said. “We decided we wanted to do is give people an opportunity to see animals right at the front of the zoo. We’re doing sea lions and animal ambassadors right at the entrance. It’ll be the first experience you have. People can start and end their day there.

@ Columbus Zoo

“We’re going to have features in our sea lion habitat that have never been done anywhere in the world,” he elaborated. “There’s going to be unbelievable views and we’re going to put a ship right in the middle where you can go in and see sea lions underwater all around, above and below you. We’ll have a presentation area and give our visitors the opportunity to see what makes a sea lion special.” It is the Zoo’s goal that visitors then take away a feeling of wanting to make a positive difference for the future of this species and their marine environment.

@ Columbus Zoo

Tom Stalf credits much of the Columbus Zoo’s success to Jack Hanna. “Having Jack as director emeritus is a fantastic way to tell our story,” he explained. “Jack will be celebrating 40 years with the Columbus Zoo next year.” Hanna’s personality and passion continues to let the world know the Columbus Zoo is a great place relevant in today’s conservation efforts.

@ Columbus Zoo

“I think what makes the Columbus Zoo so special is the community,” Tom Stalf reflected. “We have a huge economic impact on the region. People come to see the Zoo on vacation, spend money and stay in our hotels. They invest in us and we pay back. They love the Zoo because we give people opportunities they don’t get at other zoos from our education programs to our animal experiences and trainers. We give them the opportunity to smile.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“Our main focus is to promote conservation but also top notch guest experience is the reason they love their zoo,” Stalf continued. “AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums combined raise $186 million a year for conservation. This year they will raise over $200 million for conservation. However, I know that some guests are visiting mainly to enjoy the day with their family and friends. Still, while they are having fun together they are also contributing to conservation and a positive impact on wildlife. We can guarantee the Columbus Zoo will continue to be great and at the forefront of conservation, education and animal welfare. As a leader in the zoo world I can guarantee we will continue to be one of the top zoos in the nation.”

@ Columbus Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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