Learning About Ourselves: A Conversation with Tim Morrow, CEO and Executive Director of the San Anto

The San Antonio Zoo is undergoing a renaissance as several improvements and capital projects have taken place over the past few years. Also, the zoo has dramatically improved its marketing to put a larger focus on saving species and inspiring visitors to be involved with conservation. The leader of this resurgence is Tim Morrow, the zoo’s CEO and Executive Director. He has led the San Antonio Zoo since late 2014 and has ambitious plans to make the zoo even better. Here is his story.

@ San Antonio Zoo

A San Antonio native, Morrow spent two decades working for SeaWorld Entertainment before getting an email that changed the course of his career. “I was in San Diego as we had just opened Aquatica and I was auditing,” he recalled. “I got an email from a search firm asking if I was interested in being director of the San Antonio Zoo. I loved working at SeaWorld but this was my hometown zoo and I love this city. i was picked for the job and came to the zoo thinking I could make a really positive influence.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

In many ways, Morrow found the transition from SeaWorld to the San Antonio Zoo smooth. “Everything was very similar except for development,” he explained. “SeaWorld is corporate while the San Antonio Zoo is a nonprofit. We have a tighter budget and depend on visitation. To do big projects, I have to go to people asking for their money. The fundraising side was the biggest difference while the passion from the employees was the same. You can imagine how much passion these people have for animals.” Tim Morrow started as director of the San Antonio Zoo on December 1, 2014.

@ San Antonio Zoo

Since that time, the zoo has transformed the way it talks about and presents itself. “We’ve really been focused on turning ourselves inside out,” Morrow elaborated. “We show the conservation work we do behind the scenes, show the care we give our animals and tell the story better. We do a lot more coming out into the community and telling our story. We had a record year for attendance last year without a capital project. We’ve improved the guest services and that’s helped people fall back in love with our zoo.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

“Everyone knows the San Antonio Zoo here,” Tim Morrow remarked. “It was just getting it on the top of mind again. We’re the most visited tourist city from the state and have a lot of competition with other tourist attractions for leisure time. We have to be vocal in telling our story. We focus on staying out there and being involved in the community. We have a volunteer team that does things like Habitat for Humanity. We created the guest experience department to focus on giving people a positive experience here. They don’t just come to look at animals, they come to learn things. We have to do that in a safe way that creates lasting memories.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

One asset to the San Antonio Zoo is it has been privately run for a long time. “The zoo went private way before a lot of zoos,” Morrow explained. “We started that path back in the 1930s and 40s. We sit on city property but have a long-term lease. It’s a pretty new phenomenon for zoos to go private so we were way ahead of the time.” Additionally, the zoo’s property has rich history. “We sit in a historic park where people have been living for tens of thousands of years,” he said. “The waterways come through this park and we’re sitting in an old quarry. This rock helped build a lot of buildings around San Antonio and we were built on Spanish land grants. During the 30s and 40s, the WPA built a lot of walls and facilities in the zoo. A local artist did all the rockwork and we try to preserve it the best we can. We have the challenge of opening up our spaces without destroying them. We work closely with the historical foundation to figure that out."

@ San Antonio Zoo

Tim Morrow has led the zoo to upgrading several of these WPA habitats at the zoo. “Often we’ll redo the inside but keep the outside of a historic building,” he elaborated. “We’ve opened up exhibits inside the quarry walls to each other so animals can move back and forth. We’re in the middle of a master plan to expand where we’ll use some of the walls. We want the zoo to feel the same all the way through.” Much thought is being put into which animals and features should be part of the zoo’s expansion. “We’re looking at what other people are doing to figure out how to use the expansion,” Morrow stated. “We have launched our mission and value statement, which will be to secure the future of wildlife. Whatever exhibits we bring in we want to make sure contribute significant process in getting those animals saved in the wild.”

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The very first project Tim Morrow did at the San Antonio Zoo was a giraffe exhibit which brought the animals back to the zoo after several years. “That turned out beautifully and it was really big to bring them back,” he said. Zebras and ostriches have become integrated in with the giraffes and guests can feed them from an elevated deck. Soon after the zoo’s lion habitat received a major makeover with new landscaping and glass viewing instead of a moat. Up next will be better facilities for white rhinos and jaguars. “We’re working on the white rhino exhibit right now to create a bigger, better space,” Morrow stated. “That’s an example of us making the most of the space within the historic footprint. We’re going to do a one of a kind jaguar habitat that will give them an overhead walk that goes into another exhibit. They can be up in the catwalk like they were up in a tree and go down to the river’s edge like they would in the wild. We’re maximizing the space we have.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

“We’re learning a lot about ourselves,” he continued. “For the past two years, we’ve been looking around at different zoos to see what we like with exhibitry. We’re going to build new big modern exhibits. We don’t have some of the big megafauna we’d like to see in San Antonio. We want to bring gorillas back and help save them. We’ve also talked about orangutans. Our zoo has done a good job with Africa so I like the idea of realms. We still have some menagerie displays from the times of yesterday which we are paring down. The zoos of the past were judged by what animals they had while now it’s about who has the best habitats and who has done the best conservation work. We’ve been working with our conservation, education and animal care departments to figure out what we should do.”

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One animal which the San Antonio Zoo will feature in its upcoming master plan is Asian elephants. “We are a historic elephant zoo- we’ve had them since the 50s,” Tim Morrow commented. “We’ve been inspired by Lucky, Karen and Nicole so we especially love Asian elephants. We’d like to do as much as possible with them both in the wild and here at the zoo. There are some other zoos with expertise in Asian elephant herds we want to work with. We have around 20 acres to develop. We can do construction on that and not affect the guest experience and then start redoing existing parts of the zoo. We’ll come back and make those spaces more enriching for animals.”

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Top among the San Antonio Zoo’s priorities is animal welfare. “We have a big focus on animal care,” Morrow stated. “We have three full-time veterinarians and one person just dedicated to enrichment. We’re one the cutting edge of a lot of treatment methods. Our Komodo dragon gets stem cell treatment while Lucky is now going on eleven years beyond her lifespan. We’ve had other animals like giraffe and okapi who have had record long lives.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

Of course, Tim Morrow well understands part of what zoos do best is let guests appreciate them by getting up close and personal. “We try to create experiences where people can get up close with animals, like giraffe feeding,” he explained. “That’s an experience you can’t explain without doing it. You can also go behind the scenes with the tortoises and rhinos. Our education program has a focus on putting volunteers and educators out on the pathway to have one on one conversations with guests. The knowledge and passion of the employees makes a big difference with our guests. When people come, we want them to have fun but also be educated and come away with a desire to protect animals.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

Since Morrow has been director, he has looked for ways to make the zoo run better financially. One solution he found was changing the way the zoo did concessions and merchandise. “We do everything in house,” Morrow said. “We don’t get big city funding like some other zoos so we do everything by the penny. We’ve expanded events like Halloween, Winter Lights and Summer Nights. These all drive revenue for conservation. We do food service and merchandise in house so we don’t need to share revenue. We found the better business model is to take on the expense and do more work but have sole revenue. We call those mission enabling departments. Animal care, conservation and education are mission delivering departments. It gives the people that work in the zoo a better view of what’s happening in the zoo.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

“People ask why we’re building a gift shop rather than an exhibit but that’s a mission enabling project,” Morrow continued. “We can do new exhibits since that will be recurring revenue for us.” This revenue has helped support a wide variety of conservation projects the San Antonio Zoo either runs or supports. “We have our own conservation and research program we want to continue growing,” Morrow stated. “We have led projects in China, Japan, Peru and here so we want to continue to grow that department. It’s about 3.5 years old but is getting international recognition. We have people out in the field doing great work.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

Another strong suit of the San Antonio Zoo is education. “We have a licensed based nature preschool here and are opening the new school in six months,” Tim Morrow said. “We’ll become the nation’s largest nature-based preschool where kids learn about nature and become the conservationists of the future. We continue to reach the undeserved children of the community and bring them to the zoo so they understand how important the role of the zoo is and the future of conservation.” The zoo also has worked on expanding the audience of the zoo. “We have a group of millennials who host events for us,” Morrow elaborated. “Tonight they are doing a pool party benefiting the San Antonio Zoo. They started our beerfest called Crocktoberfest. Their job is to throw events and party for a purpose. Millenials really want to understand what’s going on behind the scenes and what we’re doing for conservation. They buy more into causes and less into experiences. Our young adult group (Zoomers) is doing a great job connecting us to the community through events outside the daytime zoo visit.”

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Although he has not even been at the zoo for three years, Tim Morrow has fallen in love with the San Antonio Zoo. “The people who work here are amazing,” he reflected. “The passion and drive everyone has here to be better is amazing. We have a charm you don’t see in most zoos- we have the river, historic walls with hand carved rockwork by renowned artists, beautiful Cypress trees and being located in this park. The zoo isn’t on big wide open streets but on small pathways. We’ll put an animal on social media but people will say they haven’t seen it because there’s so much exploring to do. You don’t see that charm at a lot of big city zoos.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

“Telling our story through social media has been very powerful,” Tim Morrow concluded. “We produce conservation videos out in the field as well as a lot of photos. It’s hard to get all we do behind the scenes on social media so we’re strategic about putting in the conservation message. We don’t want our page to become an advertisement so we talk about community things we’re doing. By visiting the zoo you’re helping secure a future for wildlife. My role is of vision and support. I point to where we’re going and support the staff as they do their jobs. I’m the ultimate support person for everyone here.”

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