Moving Forward: A Conversation with Marcy Dean, Director of the Potawatomi Zoo

The Potawatomi Zoo is a 23-acre zoo in South Bend, Indiana and it has never had a more promising future than it does now. It was privatized in 2014 when the City of South Bend and the Zoological Society formed a public/private partnership. Since then Director Marcy Dean has not looked back. The Potawatomi Zoo has begun an ambitious master plan and fundraising campaign which has already resulted in bringing okapi to the zoo. Marcy Dean clearly believes in the zoo and is determined to make it the best it can be. Here is her story.

@ Marcy Dean

Unlike many directors, Dean comes from a non-profit background. She started at the Potawatomi Zoo as executive director of its zoo society, the then non-profit support group. “I was hired on the society side before we privatized and was brought in to run the society,” Dean explained. “My responsibilities were running the nonprofit support arm of the zoo- fundraising, PR, fundraising, capital campaigns, marketing, special events, political advocacy and membership programs. I had a nonprofit management background so I brought that knowledge to the table. The city was responsible for the animals, veterinary care, admissions, concessions and gift shop. We essentially had two directors.” This arrangement changed when the zoo privatized and became run by the nonprofit. Dean was promoted to Executive Director when the transition from public to private occurred.

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“The public/private partnership transition was definitely a challenge,” Dean continued. “It took a lot of work and years of planning, conversations and relationship building and networking. It was a challenge but one of the greatest challenges I have ever encountered. I think it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We pulled it off and the zoo has seen so much success since then. Not long after I started at the zoo I knew someday I wanted to see the zoo transition into a public/private partnership so it was a dream of mine. It was important to me and has been a game changer for me, the zoo, the community, the animals and the staff. It’s opened up doors that weren’t there before.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Marcy Dean pointed to the privatization of the zoo as a game changer for the institution. “One thing that was nice is we went to one director who oversees everything,” she stated. “It helps when you have one leader at top. The zoo has really evolved a lot in the past four years. We did some great things while I was society director but 2014, when we merged into one organization, was a rebirth.” The zoo began to improve animal habitats, attractions and the guest experience at a much larger scale. “That’s been my main focus as director here- the overall best animal care, husbandry and exhibitry we can provide for our animals and guests,” Dean elaborated. “I want people to come in the door and feel this is their zoo. This is a community zoo and we want to make people feel like this is their zoo. As a smaller institution, we really have to earn and keep the support of our community. We’re here to serve the community and region. People come in and say they love us because we’re a small zoo, great for children and they can really get up close and personal to the animals.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“What led to the zoo being privatized is we knew we needed to address some governance and financial sustainability issues,” Dean continued. “How are we here for the long term? How do we ensure the longevity and stability of the zoo? It’s been a remarkable transition for us. Everything is much more streamlined. Before, with two organizations, there wasn’t a lot of streamlining. There was a lot of duplication in services, staffing and resources. Bringing everything under one umbrella streamlined everything. It also increased the financial stability of the zoo overall.”

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Dean aspired to build off the momentum gained from the state-of-the-art river otter habitat opened in 2011. She had been vital to making that project happen as society director. “The funding for otters was raised through the society- 100% funded by private dollars,” Dean said. “There hadn’t been many upgrades in the past few years so we needed to do some kind of capital campaign to bring something really cool in. Otters are very cool and interactive but also native to our area. It was a focus on who you might see in your own backyard kind of thing. I also thought it would be cool since it was an aquatic exhibit. The otter exhibit really set the stage to improving the zoo and moving forward.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

@ Potawatomi Zoo

The otter habitat turned out very well. “It has a very northern Michigan feel to it,” Marcy Dean noted. “When you go into the underwater viewing area, it feels very cabin like. We have a very naturalistic environment for our otters and it really set the stage of how we want our exhibits to be like moving forward.” Since Dean has been director, several other habitats have either been added or renovated. “When we started designing our endangered species carousel it was where the red panda exhibit was so we put a new one into the capital campaign,” she said. “The new panda exhibit is a lot bigger and nicer. Bigger huts for the red pandas and so much better animal welfare and husbandry. Now it’s a mixed species exhibit with muntjac, which we couldn’t have done before. Something we’ve worked diligently on is having more mixed species habitats. It just adds to the overall guest experience and is very enriching for the animals as well. We have a whole African hoofstock yard with zebras, addaxes, kudus, and ostriches as well as giant anteaters with cavys and cotton-top tamarins, agoutis and sloths.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

A major focus of the zoo is connecting visitors with the zoo’s animal care practices. “We really try to connect our guests to what we’re doing for animals,” Dean explained. “We do that through keeper experiences where keepers share about animal husbandry, welfare and enrichment. We do that through our Facebook page, our pr/media, our signage and our education programs.” Animal welfare is also a priority of the zoo. “Although we know we need newer habitats for our animals, we do so many things to enrich the lives of our animals,” Dean said. “In each new exhibit or upgrade, we have a conversation on husbandry and how to improve it. Animal care and their quality of life are very important to me as director of the zoo. It’s good to have those conversation and tit all ties into the message of how we’re striving to improve every day.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

This summer, the Potawatomi Zoo became the smallest zoo in AZA to house the endangered okapi, the closest relative to the giraffe. “I fell in love with okapi several years through friends in the business and thought to myself one day we will have them at Potawatomi,” Dean elaborated. “In the summer of last year, I was having a conversation with a friend in the AZA community and learned the okapi SSP was looking for potential holding facilities. I knew we could make this happen. The AZA community is such a great community- there’s great connections and friendships to be made. To me it was about those strong friendships that really mean so much, especially with okapi. We did a lot of planning with the okapi SSP and the Brookfield Zoo since our two okapi boys are from there. We showed a very genuine interest in wanting to exhibit them and now we have okapi.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“It’s cool for our community to have such fantastic animals,” Marcy Dean continued. “Okapis are normally not seen at a small zoo like ours so it’s unique and special. A zoo like Potawatomi can have such great animals as okapi and it’s such an important story to tell: we’re 23 acres but really are striving to participate in SSP programs that are so unique and different. The public loves them and they’re a great animal for telling that story about how important SSPs are for conservation, where okapis come from and connecting that to our guests. We’ve made a commitment to raise money for the Okapi Conservation Fund as well. It’s very important to get behind the animals we exhibit and be part of their greater conservation story.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Marcy Dean has restructured the Potawatomi Zoo’s approach to conservation. “Our conservation programming used to be very blanketed- we weren’t doing much but a little bit of everything,” she remarked. “Now we have our On a Mission program where we focus on 3-4 species a year. We really try to convey to the public why the conservation of these species is so important. We have On a Mission events for each species. Narrowing the focus of our programs and doing more planning and programming around it is important. As a smaller institution messaging can be tough so we have to be creative. It has to be cross-departmental since we don’t have a conservation department. Every department embraces it and that’s really key for us.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

The Potawatomi Zoo has expanded its animal ambassador program as well. “We really wanted to focus on more animal ambassadors as part of our education department,” Dean stated. “We now have a serval, fennec fox, kinkajou and birds of prey. Bringing in a serval was landmark with us in terms of animal ambassadors. These animals are important as that’s where your human-animal interaction happens. Those animals are the ones who are out and front. They really tell our story. Not only do they do on ground experience but our animal ambassadors go to schools, nursing homes, events off site and can be seen at different things throughout our community.”

@ Marcy Dean

Marcy Dean has also prioritized making the Potawatomi Zoo have a great guest experience. “We’re doing more hands on interactive experiences, more animal experiences and improving our customer service,” she said. “The staff understands how important the guest experience is. The more you offer and the more you add, even if it’s just little things, the guest sees something new- a new animal, a new attraction, a new offering in the concession stand or a new offering at the gift shop. Those things all matter and come together to make a great guest experience. The guest experience keeps people coming back. When is I started we had just over 2000 members and now we have 8000 members.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

The Potawatomi Zoo is in the early stages of building out an ambitious master plan that will add several exhibits and animals as well as redo much of the zoo. “It’s a different time for the zoo and a different vision,” Dean said. “We’ve spent the past four years proving and improving ourselves and this master plan is really going to set the stage to move us forward. It encompasses everything- animal interactions, better animal welfare and husbandry, attractions, a more welcoming environment. It’s really a culmination of all these things we’ve done since privatization.” Of course, the zoo needs money to do these expansions. “It’s always about funding,” Dean noted. “I think it’s challenging in any market, small or large, to find funding to do these things. I believe we can get it done and we’ve been increasing our fundraising efforts and looking for ways to fund our master plan.” Some features of the master plan will include a larger North American section with black bears, cougars, eagles, bison and prairie dogs, better spaces for lions and tigers, a new entrance and gift shop and the zoo’s first giraffes.

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“Zoos are so important on so many levels,” Marcy Dean reflected. “They offer so many things. We’re quality of life, education and conservation venues and provide amenities to the community. We bring people in and bring them closer to nature. We tell conservation and species stories. Zoos are continuing to go in a direction where we are needed to continue to tell these stories.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“I love coming to work everyday because there’s something different each day,” she concluded. “I get to wear many hats and be a part of many different things. I absolutely love that. I can do political advocacy one day, do exhibit design another, bring in donors one day and be part of a veterinary procedure another day. I love the job I do and never take it for granted. I’m proud of the fact I’ve achieved all I’ve achieved at the zoo in the past 11 years. It’s all teamwork and I have a lot of people who support me. My team really believe in what we can do. That’s extremely important. You need to have a tribe when you’re in a leadership position like this. I love it when I go into the community and run into somebody who says the zoo has improved so much and we’ve done so many great things. Whatever we’re doing we’re doing something right and we need to keep moving forward.”

@ Marcy Dean

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