The Wonderfully Unexpected: A Conversation with Vik Dewan, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo may be the first zoo in the United States but it has established itself as one of the most progressive zoos in the world. In 2011, it began the implementation of Zoo360, a system of trails that enable animals to explore above and alongside of guests visiting the Zoo. This year, Philadelphia Zoo received The Innovation Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The Zoo’s fearless leader is Vik Dewan, a banker turned exceptional zoo director and conservation advocate. Here is his story.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Until 2006, Vik Dewan was a banker who had never worked in a zoo. Still, he was aware of Philadelphia Zoo’s value as a cultural institution. “As a parent I brought my kids here,” he recalled. “Later in my career, I was the regional president of this area at Wachovia Bank and Philadelphia Zoo was a valued client.” When Pete Hoskins, the Zoo’s former, President, retired in 2006, a search committee began looking for the new Chief Executive Officer and President. With a passion and background in animals and conservation being the obvious characteristics in looking for a zoo director, there was another component they were searching for someone that could develop a long-term sustainable financial plan. Vik Dewan was hired as CEO of Philadelphia Zoo in 2006.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

When Dewan started as Director, he had the task of applying his proven skills in economics while also learning about the intricacies of running a zoo. “It was not as big of a leap as one might expect,” he reflected. “A zoo has a business model. What was not so familiar was you’re always learning. I’m learning things every single day- coming to understand complex things like accreditation, legal issues, how to work with other zoos and meeting the people who have tremendous responsibility for our zoo.” Dewan commented on how communicating with stakeholders in the zoo is very different now than it was when he started. “Ten years ago we were talking website,” he added. “Today we are working on multiple platforms via social media.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Since taking over in 2006, Vik Dewan has implemented a new financial strategy. “We receive little support from the city and no operating money,” Dewan commented. “We compete for capital funding and have done well with that but it’s our responsibility to cover the operating budget with earned income.” The Zoo has implemented a financial model started with the opening of McNeil Avian Center “With each financial investment we make, we put aside money to maintain it,” Dewan explained. This model has helped the zoo maintain facilities for years to come.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Vik Dewan was determined to enhance the strengths of the Philadelphia Zoo while also addressing its weaknesses. “Despite the passion and enthusiasm, some pieces weren’t working as they should,” he elaborated. “We needed to think about how to deliver what our visitors wanted and needed. We needed to help the staff see the road map. Parking was our biggest issue as we didn’t have enough of it. We ultimately built a new parking garage and added 683 spots, which helped ease the parking situation. We also have eased traffic around the zoo with added enhancements including lighting, streetscape and sustainable landscaping and upgrades to traffic signals and signage that improved traffic flow. We also improved pedestrian safety, and added signal crosswalks and bus pull-offs at existing SEPTA spots.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

At the time Dewan started as CEO, the zoo’s signature exhibit was the award-winning Big Cat Falls. Opened just before Dewan became director, the exhibit complex enables six species of big cats to rotate through five different habitats through overhead trails. “Big Cat Falls had it in the nugget of inspiration for Zoo360,” Dewan noted. “It gave the organization a lot of pride.” In addition to being state-of-the-art for the felines that live there, Big Cat Falls educates guests about the threats they face in the wild and the importance of the zoo’s conservation work for big cats.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

One of the challenges of Philadelphia Zoo is that it is landlocked on 42 acres. “One of our most scarce resources is the land,” Vik Dewan said. “You look at how we’ve taken existing footprints, reimagined them and made a new experience.” He pointed to Big Cat Falls, the McNeil Avian Center and KidZooU (the former elephant house turned award-winning Children’s Zoo) as excellent examples of how the zoo has used historic buildings as the backbone for cutting-edge, modern exhibits.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Dewan sees the Philadelphia Zoo as a great asset and resource for the community. “The zoo is a social place,” he explained. “Largely people come in social groups with a range of interests. Our role is giving them the experience they’re seeking but also giving them ones they didn’t know they could have- things that take their breath away. A tiger looking at a gorilla won’t happen anywhere besides Philadelphia Zoo. People have to decide where to spend their time and the wonderfully unexpected makes them want to come back.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Over time, the zoo’s desire to create the wonderfully unexpected and offer a wider variety of engagement for its animals resulted creating a first in the world experience for animals. “Zoo360 evolved,” Vik Dewan elaborated. In Big Cat Falls they had six species but only five habitats so they came up with trails to use as a timeshare. "We found the cats were enthusiastic about this experience and the guests were enjoying it," Dewan stated. "The cats were highly engaged and inspiring visitors. We thought ‘What if we try to do that with every animal?’” Zoo360 benefited the animals by offering more opportunities for long-distance travel, greater variety in environments for animals and an increased ability to determine their own experience. It also benefited the visitors as they could see animals move 360 degrees- along, above and across visitor pathways.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

It took a while for Zoo360 to come together and it redefined the concept of a zoo exhibit itself. “ [Zoo30] changed the way our staff thought of animal care,” Dewan remarked.” At first, not everyone knew what to make of Zoo360. “The first reaction was the design was ugly,” Dewan stated. “Our concept of a zoo exhibit had been naturalistic, not steel and wire. However, this was an interesting idea so we thought how can it scale into something even bigger. We learned from everyone and there was no road map to follow. By the time we opened Big Cat Crossing, people realized this was the manifestation of how to reach the highest level of animal experience.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Grayson Ponti

“Zoo360 provides our animals’ choice and a variety of experiences,” Vik Dewan elaborated. “It has also created engagement with our animals and guests.” Zoo360 broke new ground in the way zoos around the world have thought about how to exhibit animals. Since opening, more than 20 around the world have used Zoo360 as a paradigm to build from and incorporated overhead trails. The zoo is committed to continuing the process and plans to use it with large hooved animals such as giraffes, rhinos, hippos and zebras.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Zoo360 also aligned closely with the values of the Philadelphia Zoo’s mission of connecting people with wildlife. “Our mission is to by connecting people and wildlife, Philadelphia Zoo creates joyful discovery and inspires action for animals and habitats,” Dewan reflected. “This is why we are here.” One of Dewan’s strongest philosophies is that zoos should give visitors a message that sparks in them hope for wildlife and inspiration them to help save it. “The visitors are the heroes of our story,” he explained. “Our animals can’t save each other- they can only inspire. Our visitors through their actions will make a difference to animals thousands of miles away.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Zoo360 is a testament of the zoo’s commitment to animal care. “Animal care can be addressed by providing choice, enrichment and experience,” Vik Dewan remarked. “We measure signs of the positive sense of wellbeing. We combine learned knowledge with new experience.” He noted the importance of sharing best practices with other institutions openly. “Our concept of Zoo360 is in 20 global zoos,” Dewan said. “We shared that with everyone. We think of animal welfare in terms of our animals and then animals in all zoos.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Lessons learned at Philadelphia Zoo have even been used to help save animals in the wild. In South America, golden lion tamarins (small orange monkeys) are dying off because habitat destruction is fragmenting their range into smaller areas. Field biologists used Zoo360 as an example to help solve the problem. They created bridges that linked together fragments of the golden lion tamarin’s range. This has allowed golden lion tamarins to roam wider ranges and find mates easier. Additionally, the zoo partners with scientists in Haiti and Ecuador to save amphibians on the brink of extinction. These are example of how the Zoo’s work is global.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Vik Dewan described two unique things zoos provide in addition to saving wildlife. “Zoos provide people experience with nature,” he elaborated. “The second thing we enable people from a wide range of backgrounds come together in spontaneous experiences. We give them that contact for meaningful conversations: Why are polar bears threatened? How can we save gorillas? This is a new way of seeing zoos: providing an amazing experience with scale in this progressively urbanized world where people are becoming divorced from nature.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

“We have a responsibility to protect this world,” Dewan remarked. “Philadelphia Zoo has the courage to be part of the future. The big question is how zoos are relevant this century and beyond. Our staff knows we’re serving a real purpose.” Dewan noted it is essential for zoos to not only help save animals directly but also change people’s attitudes towards environmental issues to inspire behavior change. “We’re thinking about our long-term relationships with visitors and think about our future in that way,” Dewan stated.

@ Philadelphia Zoo

@ Philadelphia Zoo

“We make a difference every day,” Vik Dewan concluded. “I have the most fulfilling job ever. Somewhere out there [in the zoo] is a future wildlife biologist who will make a difference. It’s all happening out there.”

@ Grayson Ponti

#PhiladelphiaZoo

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