A Growing Zoo That Does Great Things: A Conversation with Lisa New, Director of Zoo Knoxville

Zoo Knoxville is a medium sized zoo that is determined to become a great zoo. This year, it opened the first phase of its largest expansion ever: Tiger Forest of Asia Trek. The leader in charge of this period of growth is the Lisa New, who has spent her entire career at Zoo Knoxville. She is a hard-working, ambitious and strategic director and promises this is only the beginning of the rise of her zoo. This is her story.

@ Lisa New

New started her relationship with Zoo Knoxville when she was doing a senior level course at the University of Tennessee. “That course was essentially a senior thesis and I did it at the zoo,” she remembered. “I volunteered and helped them in the research lab and was hired in 1990 to do a workshop on chimpanzee exhibit design.” After being hired, New became a keeper at the animal hospital as well as a research assistant. “Working at a small nonprofit zoo you wear many hats,” she said. Working in the hospital’s nursery fostered her work with great apes. “We acquired two infant chimpanzees who were being peer-reared because they had been rejected by their mothers,” New stated. “They came from other zoos to be integrated into the group. I was privileged to take care of them. We also had two infant orangutans we were rearing for the Columbus Zoo. That was my first direct exposure to apes.”

@ Lisa New

“Things were a lot different back then in terms of how we hand-rear apes,” New explained. “Back then, in the event a mother didn’t raise her babies, they were raised by humans and essentially humanized. We’d raise them for up to three or four years before trying to get them in a social group. These are critical, formative years for ape development and all that time away from apes caused issues with group integration, social relationships and ultimately breeding and being good parents. Now we know so much more and are integrating apes back into their social groups as early as five months of age. This helps them integrate successful, have a normal behavioral repertoire and breed. It’s something we’ve definitely learned over the years- how to do it better.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

Eventually, Lisa New worked her way fulltime into working at the research department. She went back to her love of chimpanzees. “I wrote a grant and funded by own graduate work with chimpanzees,” she noted. “I was completely in love and infatuated with the two infants I was raising and wanted them to have their own ape family so I decided to focus on how to get them integrated into their social group.” Chimp Ridge, a spacious naturalistic habitat for the chimpanzees, opened in 1999 and it was partially New’s responsibility to help the chimpanzees adjust to this new space. “I worked with the faculty at the University of Tennessee and colleagues across the country to integrate those chimps,” she said. “Our group was very stable and over the years we added to the group and made a multi-male group, which is the norm in chimpanzee society. We now have four males who get along well for the most part. Chimpanzees are very challenging and it’s a continual effort to manage them. There’s always something going on within a chimpanzee group. There is so much drama goes in the daily lives of chimpanzees and it takes continual active management that provides lots of choices and challenges to keep a group thriving.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

She acknowledged that not everyone shares her enthusiasm for chimpanzees. “Chimpanzees are not often a zoo director’s favorite animals,” New remarked. “I think it’s because they’re difficult to manage and fight more than orangutans and gorillas. Chimps are just so volatile and are kind of the scrappy ape. They maybe aren’t as noble in people’s minds. I think their reputation makes people shy away from them. For us, the whole notion of having Species Survival Plans and being part of something bigger than ourselves gives us a commitment to certain animals. Having being involved with the Chimpanzee SSP, I knew how hard it was to have zoos leave the program or go to resist population management changes, like holding multi-male groups. These types of progressive changes are difficult to implement but so important for the long-term health of the group.” She also noted the chimpanzees, despite these challenges, are quite popular. “Before we had a more active group of gorillas, it was the chimpanzees who really had the holding power for our guests,” New said. “The chimpanzees really captivate them. They’re one of the animals who for sure will entertain the crowd. The chimpanzees are so clever and to me, when things are going the way you need them to, they’re so rewarding to work with.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

Lisa New noted the openings of Gorilla Valley and Chimp Ridge helped begin an era of naturalistic habitats at the zoo. “When I got there, the zoo’s leadership was under Ted Beattie and he organized a fundraising capital campaign for some of the natural habitats at the zoo,” she recalled. “Gorilla Valley and Chimp Ridge are still some of the nicest habitats in the zoo. Since that time, I have to say the forest that surrounds those habitats has matured and made it one of the prettiest areas in the zoo.” Almost the entire zoo has been redone over the course of New’s tenure. “The reptile house, the bird show and the giraffe barn might be the only things still there from when I got there,” she noted. “Everything else has either been redone or touched in some way.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

The growth and expansion of Zoo Knoxville escalated even more when director Patrick Roddy started a capital campaign in the late 1990s. Lisa New got to be involved with the design of some of the habitats done in this campaign, particularly Lucille S. Thompson Black Bear Falls, Boyd Family Red Panda Village and Clayton Kid’s Cove. “That’s one of the main things that kept me in Knoxville for so long,” she reflected. “Each director I worked for gave me different opportunities. Even after Patrick left we were still benefiting from the money he raised and the new director, Jim Vlna, promoted me to Director of Animal Care and Conservation while also designing habitats or in charge of interpretive development. That was really unique for me to get to participate in the design. A lot of people at my level might not be involved at all in those kinds of design. That kept me at the zoo longer than I intended.”

@ Lisa New

Opened in 2002, Lucille S. Thompson Black Bears Falls serves as the first habitat visitors see after entering Zoo Knoxville. Recreating the Smoky Mountains, it provides plenty of opportunities for the bears to behave naturally. It could even be mistaken for a primate habitat as it is filled with climbing opportunities. “Black bears are arboreal and I will say over the years those bears have utilized ever inch of that space,” New explained. “We really thought a lot about three dimensional space. That’s something I think a lot about today- how to use the cubic footage of the habitat you have and fill it with as much complexity as you can.”

@ Scott Richardson

“The bear habitat has really tall artificial trees and they’re all interconnected with limbs,” New continued. The bears can be high up in treetops with multiple levels and there are pathway s all through it. There’s a lot of earth, soft substrate and ground and they love digging in it. The bears love swimming in the pools. There’s a misting system which enacts a cooling feature for the bears and a series of catwalks in the back of the habitat allow keepers to access feeding tubes to feed the bears throughout the day. All of those things are kind of standard zoo design today but when we built this it was more on the cutting edge.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

By 2011, Lisa New was Director of Animal Care and Conservation but her entire career was about to make a major directional change. “Jim Vlna was contemplating his retirement but hadn’t publicly stated when he’d be retiring,” she recalled. “He was really pressing me to take over the education department and that was a direction I didn’t really want to because I felt it would dilute my focus. He had asked me to think about it but I never had to make the decision as the very same day we had that conversation our elephant keeper Stephanie James was killed. That was a horrific time for us. Simultaneously we were struggling with infrastructure problems and were having some financial challenges. Stephanie’s loss was a devastating blow to all of us that still hurts today."

@ Zoo Knoxville

All thoughts at the zoo turned to how they would rebound. “From the moment Stephanie was killed, we immediately quit sharing space with elephants,” New said. “This was an abrupt, difficult shift. My focus became on how we were going to transition from free contact (sharing space) to protected contact (not sharing space) with our elephants, cope with the loss of Stephanie and regain our standing with AZA,” New stated. “Our community was very supportive of us through this time. There were certain a lot of investigations from all these regulating agencies but we were found to be following our protocols and it was deemed a horrific accident. Certainly it changed our course of action and we switched to being a protected contact facility. That’s something we strongly believe in now and its part of our culture and philosophy. It’s safer and the elephants are given wonderful care, even better care than before.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

Some other problems that needed to be solved were updating the zoo’s infrastructure and improving its revenue. “There was the economic downturn of 2008 and at the same time the interstate right outside the zoo shut down for the couple of miles before and past the zoo,” New explained. “That caused our attendance to plummet and we were really having a difficult time. There were a lot of challenges keeping the zoo facilities up to par. Several of us contemplated whether we should move to other zoos.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

However, Lisa New saw the potential to make the zoo go up. “About that time I became an inspector with AZA and helped lead the zoo to its reaccreditation,” she stated. “People in AZA seemed to see some value in me as an inspector so I became an accreditation inspector. I was part of a team that looked at one zoo in particular and I was struck that this zoo had a huge cultural transformation and turned their zoo around. I came back from one inspection and thought maybe I could be that instrument of change at Knoxville.” New made it be known that she was interested in becoming the director when the position became available. “After Jim retired, the board did a nation wide search and I was chosen as the director in May 2013,” she added.

@ Lisa New

When Lisa New became director, Zoo Knoxville immediately embarked upon a strategic plan. “That strategic plan was important because we took a cold hard look at what wasn’t right with Zoo Knoxville and what we needed to focus on,” she noted. “After the strategic plan was complete, we immediately launched a master plan, which the strategic plan called for. It was the most comprehensive one the zoo had ever done. The board recognized our need to raise money so we launched a capital campaign.” The first phase of the master plan includes the Asia Trek complex for tigers, gibbons and langurs, a new café, restrooms, a sorely needed reptile house and a new facility for otters.

@ Zoo Knoxville

The first part of the master plan, Tiger Forest, opened this spring. This exhibit signals a change in the zoo’s philosophy to habitat design and scale of projects. “Tiger Forest is the first time we’ve ever used an outside zoo architect (CLR Design),” New explained. “In the past, we designed our habitats ourselves. While the quality of our work was fine, having a zoo architect design the habitats allowed for some key features and innovations we couldn’t have done ourselves.” Since opening, Tiger Forest has been a great success. “Our guests love tigers,” New remarked. “We had never invested in an indoor viewing space the way we have with the tigers. Our guests particularly love that- being able to get in air condition and see tigers so close. There are a lot of interactives and interpretives for kids.”

@ Lisa New

Tiger Forest was also a game changer for Zoo Knoxville in terms of animal welfare. The needs of the felines were carefully addressed in the design of the space. “The tigers have a really deep pool where they can submerge entirely but also a shallow pool where they can bathe,” New stated. “They have access to high spots and low spots. There’s an area for the cats to get way up high and a feeding pole. We move the cats through that space all day long so they’re very active and interested in their habitat, which is thrilling for guests.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

@ Zoo Knoxville

The zoo’s tigers are part of a very active behavioral training program. Guests can watch these sessions in action through the daily training demonstration. “Our staff are training the tigers multiple times a day,” New said. “We’re training them not just for medical and husbandry behaviors but also to showcase their natural behaviors and abilities. They’re being trained to climb the feeding poles, showcase their hiding abilities and run from point A to B in the habitat to show their speed and agility. This makes them more active and it’s a great opportunity for the guests.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

Zoo Knoxville currently has three Malayan tigers, one of which is new to the zoo. “Aria is our female tiger who came from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo,” New elaborated. “She was a little nervous when she came. She had not had exposure to glass and it took awhile for her to adjust. You cannot ask for three better animal ambassadors than our tigers. They use every inch of that space and take advantage of everything designed for them. The community is just thrilled with Tiger Forest. They had not been able to see tigers before the way they can now. I’ve had guests say they had the best experience with those tigers they’ve had with any big cats at any other zoo.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

Next year, Tiger Forest will become part of the larger Boyd Family Asia Trek, which will include gibbons, langurs, a treehouse and a restaurant. “We have designed habitats for the gibbons and langurs that really take advantage of that cubic space to benefit their arboreal nature,” New elaborated. “We are going to have a flexible space where either gibbons or langurs can move through. We are also going to have aerial pathways and tunnels where the gibbons and langurs can go overhead. There will be a brachiation tube for the gibbons to showcase their arm-over-arm swinging through the trees that they do se beautifully. That’s going to be a really nice feature. We’re trying to design habitats that showcase how these animals thrive in their natural world.”

@ Lisa New

“The treehouse is going to separate the gibbons and langurs from the tigers,” New continued. “They will be able to see the tigers on one side and the primates on the other. Guests will be able to see the primates trained as well. We’re really excited about that. This is going to be an immersive exhibit where you are eye to eye with the gibbons and langurs and see them in the trees swinging above you.” Up next after the Boyd Family Asian Trek’s completion will be a new reptile house. “We have an incredible collection of reptiles- one of the top ones in the country in terms of conservation work we do but housed in one of the most outdated facilities,” New said. “We want to showcase all the important work we do with reptiles, particularly native turtles and Malagasy tortoises.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

@ Zoo Knoxville

Zoo Knoxville is also becoming more involved with conservation. “We have a Quarters for Conservation program, where a quarter from every ticket goes directly to the field to help fund conservation programs that are important to our staff,” New elaborated. “This is a program that involves our guests, but we also have some legacy conservation work. We’ve been active in bog turtle conservation for twenty years. The bog turtles, radiated tortoises and spider tortoises are the ones we’re most heavily involved with in terms of field work and conservation work. We also have a very active red panda program and have the management of the red panda SSP (Species Survival Program.)”

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“In terms of conservation, the most important thing we’ve done since I’ve become director is become more transparent and making a concerted effort to simply tell our story,” New reflected. “From an animal welfare and animal conservation standpoint, being transparent and telling our story has really gone a long way. It resonates with our guests who want to know we are part of something bigger and that we take quality care of our animals. Guests want to feel good about attending the zoo and want to know the animals are well cared for. They’re fascinated and proud we’re doing the conservation work we’re doing and part of something bigger with the AZA. The more you tell the story, the better and more excited people feel about your cause and organization.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

The top priority for Lisa New is the welfare of the animals at Zoo Knoxville. “I’m trying to think more in terms of ‘animal wellness’ rather than ‘animal welfare’ as we want animals not just to get by and have decent livse but to thrive,” she said. “It’s very important to me that they have complex lives full of choices. That’s been something I want to have in mind when designing habitats for our animals. Animal wellness has always been important to me and now that I’m zoo director that’s something I always want to come back to.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

“Our team members said that our quality of work is their quality of life,” New continued. “That is certainly a big part of what we are about. We show guests just how much we love individual animals and that we’re contributing to animal wellness through taking care of each one. It’s a very important piece of what we do in AZA zoos.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

New has also concentrated on making the guest experience better. “We’ve had a lot of customer service classes and training,” she said. “We’ve made it a part of our mission and vision to give the best guest experience we can and that connects with animal wellness. When you’re managing animals to live the most active complex lives they can and the animals are thriving, that makes for happy guests. If animals aren’t happy and thriving, guests aren’t going to have a great experience. But there is more to a great guest experience than just that. It’s about making each and every guest feel special and trying to ensure they have a special day. This year we began a birthday program where if it’s your birthday we give them a big birthday button and everyone who sees them in the zoo tells them happy birthday. We’ve asked staff members to also offer them something special and memorable if they can. Maybe it’s a peacock feather or an elephant guard hair so see how that feels or you invite them to watch a training demonstration with our rhinos, whatever might make their birthday special. We’ve already gotten comments back from people who said they weren’t expecting anything and how neat that surprise was. Customer service helps change the attitudes of people at the zoo and makes them more receptive to hearing what you want them to learn.”

@ Zoo Knoxville

These changes are only the surface of what New has done for the zoo. “We’ve invested more in keeper training and travel than at any time in the past,” she remarked. “We provide them opportunities to learn from others in the field so they can continue to grow as professionals. We have more interpretive staff than ever before who work with our guests and tell the stories of our animals. We hired a photo journalist, who has provided us more visual story telling opportunities. We have a team member incentive program where we reward each other for exemplary internal or external customer service. These are just a few of the things we’ve emphasized to improve. “

@ Zoo Knoxville

“During my tenure as director, I’ve been proud of the momentum we have achieved in making real progress for the zoo in a short period of time,” Lisa New concluded. “Since 2013, we have completed a strategic plan and master plan, started a fundraising campaign, opened our first habitat and have a new large-scale gateway entry sculpture that’s gorgeous. It’s not something I did by myself but the result of a team and board who believe in our shared vision and are committed to making significant change. I’m very proud of that and we’ve had such a culture change in the five years. We’re saying we’re not a little zoo who can do great things but a growing zoo who can do great things. I certainly believe that.”

@ Lisa New

@ Lisa New

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