Fundraising for a Better Zoo: A Conversation with Dr. Donna Fernandes, Retired Director of the Buffa

The Buffalo Zoo is one of the oldest in the nation and by 2000 was beginning to show it. The institution desperately needed new life and a more modernistic approach. Fortunately, Dr. Donna Fernandes led the Buffalo Zoo to a renaissance during her seventeen-year tenure as President/CEO. She efficiently redeveloped the zoo through $50 million worth of capital projects. Although she retired this summer, Fernandes will forever be remembered for changing the course of the zoo. Here is her story.

@ Donna Fernandes

Donna Fernandes never had any intention of working in zoos. “My Ph.D. was in sequential hermaphroditism in slugs where they change from one sex to the other,” she recalled. “I was more of a theoretical biologist and had very little experience working with vertebrates. All I had done was some operant conditioning with rats as an undergraduate. I was going to just get an academic job but my mom really wanted me to stay in the Boston area and she had seen an advertisement for a job fair for careers in ecology and the environment. I went to the fair and one of the speakers was the number two person at the Franklin Park Zoo. She said there was a job opening for a Research Coordinator at the zoo and encouraged me to apply. I interviewed, didn’t hear back for several months and then got the job. With the zoo job, I could also work as an adjunct professor at UMass Boston, but I didn’t think zoos would be my career for the rest of my life.”

@ Franklin Park Zoo

However, matters didn’t go according to plan and grant funding for the research position was later eliminated in a state cutback. “They said they wanted to keep me and have me move into an education position,” Fernandes stated. “I’d still do research but would have to run education programs as well.” Her responsibilities included everything from doing training sessions for high school teachers to hosting a “TV show out of Cambridge on insects and other arthropods.” While not what she planned, Fernandes found she really enjoyed the job, which she held from April 1990 to February 1996. “I loved teaching kids,” she stated. “I find it engaging and young kids get really excited about things. It trained me to not always speak like a scientist since I tended to use a vocabulary for graduate students. I learned how to communicate science to a lay audience.”

@ Franklin Park Zoo

Fernandes appreciated how the Franklin Park Zoo let her do great research. “One of the things I really liked there was a really engaged keeper staff,” she remembered. “In order for me to fund the zoo’s research program, I wrote a grant for training keepers to conduct behavioral research on our collection. You learned techniques on how to train animals whether through classical or operant conditioning and behavioral ecology. Then you created an ethogram for an animal and came up with a data sheet and study question. The keepers had to collect data and do a statistical analysis of that data. It was a pretty intense course these keepers went through. The grant I received allowed me to purchase a bunch of great equipment not only to teach the course but for the keepers to use on their own research projects. I am very proud that many of the keepers went on to get PhDs and masters although I did get criticized for steering a lot of them away from zookeeping into higher education. I thought it was very important to motivate these very talented staff members and it was good for our reputation to encourage it. I won an AAZK (American Association of Zookeepers) award for that program.”

@ Franklin Park Zoo

In 1996, Donna Fernandes moved to the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn as Curator of Animals. The zoo had been completely remodeled and reopened only three years prior. “Richard Lattis used to be Vice President over all the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) city zoos- Central Park, Prospect Park and Queens,” she elaborated. “He asked me if I would take the position of Animal Curator at the Prospect Park Zoo. Soon after I started, the head of the education department left and they came to me saying ‘Can you do this as well on an interim basis since we know your background?’ I said I would love to do that and after doing it for a while they said they’d like it to be permanent. This was great because often you’re trying to get the keepers to cooperate with the education department while here I was the boss of the keepers as well. I tried to help everyone find their own niche. If you liked fixing up exhibits, you could be involved in the redesign of exhibits. If you wanted to be a research keeper, you could do research. It was a really fun job for me.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

People began to tell Donna Fernandes she’d be “a great zoo director.” However, around this time she distanced herself from zoos. “At the time, I was dating my now husband and he was from western Massachusetts so I felt like well it might be nice to get a job near him again,” Fernandes recalled. “I got accepted into an accelerated MBA program in Boston but half-way through the program I told him ‘Honey, I really miss working with animals and would love to go back to the zoo field and apply for zoo director jobs’. In business school, I was taking this course called career strategies where you had to find a listing for a dream job, update your resume, and write a mock cover letter for the instructor. I did that, but also submitted it to the head of the search committee for the Buffalo Zoo. I knew the zoo was in an Olmstead Park and knew I liked working in a parklike setting. I didn’t know much else about the zoo besides its geography and that it was an older zoo. The headhunter called me and said they were interested but needed someone who could start by April. I told them I wouldn’t finish until September. Later they called me back and said the client wants to meet you. I went and walked around the zoo and loved its setting. I could tell it needed a lot of work. It was an older zoo that was still largely from the WPA.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

In 2000, Fernandes became President/CEO Buffalo Zoo. From day one, her main focus was getting capital projects done and changing the face of the zoo. “The Buffalo Zoo hadn’t had that much investment in capital improvements,” she remarked. “They had built a relatively new hyena exhibit but that was about the only thing worth keeping as an existing exhibit. Everything was crumbling but many of the buildings couldn’t be taken down since they were historically significant. When they had their 1996 AZA accreditation inspection, it did not go well and my predecessor’s solution was to build a new zoo at the waterfront. However, the proposal didn’t receive the support of local politicians or the community and it would have cost around $160 million. They had made the decision to stay in their current location before they hired me.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

It was up to Fernandes to come up with a new master plan. “One of the biggest things I communicated to the board was it was up to them to tell me how much the community could raise,” she elaborated. “I told them for a smaller amount of money we could meet accreditation standards but not be appreciably different. Or we could spend four times that much and be transformational. They were like we can do that. Sometimes it’s easier to raise more money for a big dream than for a mediocre dream.”

@ Scott Richardson

During her first year, Donna Fernandes planned the zoo’s course of action for this redevelopment. It was decided a compelling theme would be the way to go. “I worked with a zoo and aquarium design firm for a year and one of the things we learned is it’s really all about the story,” Fernandes stated. “What’s the underlying theme? It shouldn’t be a random collection of animals. I was flying back from Boston and flew over Niagara Falls. That got me thinking water is such an important part of the history of Buffalo and that should be our theme. I decided all the exhibits at the Buffalo Zoo would somehow tie into water and how habitats are impacted by water. It’s really the pattern and amount of water that defines habitats. I thought everything we build should help tell that story.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

“Coming up with this idea of water really resonated with our community leaders and politicians,” Fernandes continued. “We were able to raise a lot of money. We’ve built over fifty million dollars’ worth of new exhibits. Phase I was Vanishing Animals, Ecostation, Otter Creek, Sea Lion Cove, Rainforest Falls and Heritage Farm. Phase II was Arctic Edge and the new entrance. Attendance has gone up to 538,000 visitors annually. As attendance has grown, we’ve earned more money and become more financially independent.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

The first project done at the Buffalo Zoo during her tenure was the transformation of grossly outdated cat and primate cages into Vanishing Animals, a set of habitats concentrating on endangered animals. “We knew we had to redo the primate and feline exhibits as they were specifically told in the inspection these better not be here when they come back,” Fernandes explained. “Basically, the main building at the Buffalo Zoo was originally the reptile house, the cat house, the small mammal/nocturnal house, the primate house and the bird house (the gorilla exhibit today.) There were these five sections in a curve, big half circle. The middle section with the small mammals, felines and primates was all tiny concrete cages with lead painted iron bars. It was not at all naturalistic or healthy for the animals. They had an idea of wanting to do something with the outdoor habitats. We had $2 million in county support and needed to do something quickly. We came up with the idea of demolishing the 30 exterior cages and doing six large naturalistic habitats. We would transition the indoor spaces to just be holding.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

With the inspection drawing near, the Buffalo Zoo had to get to work fast and send their renderings to the AZA. Many species had to be sent out and several were rotated in the early years of Vanishing animals. “There’s still a few we alternate- we have serval out in the morning and red pandas in the afternoon,” Donna Fernandes noted. “We’ve retained snow monkeys, snow leopards, ring-tailed lemurs, maned wolves and servals.” The middle of the old building became Ecostation, an indoor display featuring three habitats – an Australian scrub forest, a North American desert, and a Central America Rainforest.

@ Buffalo Zoo

During Fernandes’s time at the zoo not only did the equality of exhibitry increase but also the interpretive level of the zoo. “My training is as an educator,” she remarked. “We added a lot of interactive elements whether lifting up a panel or sliding something across to reveal an answer. I brought a much stronger focus on conservation in messaging and doing it in a more engaging way. People get a lot more out of the exhibits than just the animals. The Heritage Farm is about the Erie Canal in the 1850s. We even relocated an original barn from back then. We tell the story of how the Erie Canal opened up new markets in New York and was a mass immigration opportunity to move up into New York state. We talk about water as transportation and how much water we use today in comparison to the 1850s, such as how much we use in the toilet, to take a bath or wash dishes. We really look at water use patterns and ways to conserve that."

@ Buffalo Zoo

“On the other hand, Arctic Edge is the story of frozen water and how it’s melting earlier in the spring and later in the fall,” Fernandes continued. “We talk about how you can use less ‘energy and reduce CO2 omissions to impact climate change. Our model kitchen tells you to keep the refrigerator door closed, wash your clothes in cold water and only wash run your dishwasher when it’s full. We have an almost science museum level of interpretation and activity. We’ve also added a number of new revenue generators such as a hurricane simulator, a bungie trampoline and Dig for the Bone Zone where you did for dinosaur bones. Another thing I did was tell keepers that if they could come up with a program or activity for visitors, they could keep 50% of the proceeds. If they did an elephant, giraffe or rhino encounter, they could determine how that money was spent whether for in-situ conservation or travel to conferences. The zoo’s operating budget would keep the other fifty percent.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

However, Donna Fernandes’s top priority was always animal welfare and she has pushed the hardest on making new habitats. In 2004, the Buffalo Zoo opened Otter Creek, an immersive habitat for river otters. This was the first habitat included in the zoo’s new master plan. “I really wanted river otters and to show the community what a quality exhibit looked like,” Fernandes elaborated.” If you don’t know, how can I show it? I wanted a model home to show potential donors. So I went to two major foundations in town and asked them to fund a new state-of-the-art exhibit to show what the best rockwork, interactive graphics and glass viewing look like. Otter Creek was a much more intimate habitat than anything we had and had a fabulous holding facility. The first time staff went through, some of them were sobbing. This was such a transformation from anything we previously built and I could now get the next set of donations.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

“Otter Creek recreates Letchworth State Park,” she continued. “That’s one of the places where river otters were reintroduced to Upstate New York so we talk about how they became locally extinct because of water pollution and hunting for their pelts. Our rockwork guys spent days photographing the park and we recreated the waterfall.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

Otter Creek was followed by Sea Lion Cove, which opened in 2005. This time the zoo was able to get country and state money for the project. “We hadn’t had sea lions since 1973 and they were one of the most frequently requested species to bring back,” Fernandes explained. “We created an intimate space with a theater for demonstrations. Sea Lion Cove was a saltwater story. We wanted to have state-of-the-art life support and wanted to be green so we used bead filters rather than sand filters. They use much less water to backwash. However, bead filters don’t remove the finest particles so we’ve gotten a few complaints because it’s not the water quality of a swimming pool. The holding area is quite spacious with a day room and a quarantine room. We went with high end materials good for durability and hygiene.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

Donna Fernandes put the Buffalo Zoo on the map with the opening of Rainforest Falls, which focused on the biodiversity of Venezuela. This would become the zoo’s signature exhibit and it is considered one of the best of its kind in the nation. “When sketching out the master plan, I knew we had to pick one continent for each biome and we decided to do South America for the rainforest,” Fernandes stated. “Pat Janikowski was our exhibit designer and one day said it’s too bad there aren’t mountains in the rainforest because then we could use them to hide the holding areas. Then I remembered I had been to Canaima National Park in Venezuela, which is home to Angel Falls and had these unique flat top mountains rising up from the rainforest. I said let’s do that so we can tie Angel Falls in with Niagara Falls.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

“We did a lot of formative evaluations of what people knew about rainforest and found everyone knew rainforests were being chopped down but not why they’re important,” Fernandes explained. “I wanted to communicate that rainforests are important because they have so much biodiversity with different niches. We did all these fun interactives and talk about layers of the rainforests. We have an interactive about how the rainforest changes between the rainy and dry seasons and who’s out at night versus day. We have these giant medicine bottles which talk about medicines derived from the rainforest. We talk about the value of the rainforest from a biodiversity perspective.”

@ PJA

In preparation for Rainforest Falls, Donna Fernandes returned to Canaima National Park. “I took the pictures from a small plane that are used in one of the interactives,” she commented. The exhibit added 35 new animal species to the zoo although finding animals from Venezuela was quite the challenge. “Animals just from Venezuela was a battle the curator and I had,” Fernandes said. “I didn’t want to do just any animal from any place in South America. We wanted to be true to the story and what made this particular story unique. The howler monkeys in Venezuela are red howler monkeys and they’ve not found much in zoos so we did black howler monkeys as a representative species."

@ PJA

"I brought in bats because I wanted to make sure they were represented in the zoo. The programmer in me made a natural history inventory ensuring we represented all the major groups. If I wanted to teach a lesson on diurnal/nocturnal, monogamous/polygamous or unique adaptations for defense I wanted to have animals that would be good to use.”

@ PJA

Careful planning was put into making Rainforest Falls replicate the experience of Canaima National Park as much as possible. “You walk in there and really feel like you’re walking through a rainforest,” Fernandes remarked. “There’s this huge canopy and you don’t see any architecture above you. It’s a really narrow pathway. I wanted it to be like a walking path, not a nine-foot-wide public pathway. There’s no strollers allowed and we want kids in their parents’ arms since so much of what you see is over your head. There are monkey and birds overhead. We wanted to create that intimacy while walking through it.”

@ PJA

@ Buffalo Zoo

Rainforest Falls ended up being her favorite project at the Buffalo Zoo. “It’s a beautiful place and that exhibit was transformational,” Fernandes remarked. “I remember speaking at the AZA conference the year it opened and overhearing people at the cocktail reception be like ‘That was Buffalo?’ It was a shock to them that we were able to build this facility. It also gave people a reason to visit the zoo in the winter. That was the first time we ever had significant winter attendance. Before it opened, we would sometimes get as few as four people a day during the winter- I used to thank every visitor who came in the winter. Now we have a core group of people who come all the time there. The Rainforest is also great for rentals and event spaces- people have had weddings in there. So many of the donors to Rainforest Falls came up to me and said they loved it and asked me what’s the next project. It was beyond what they expected as it was so immersive.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ PJA

In addition to capital projects, Fernandes also increased the zoo’s animal care staff. “I think a lot of animal welfare is devoting more keeper staff to training and enrichment,” she elaborated. “We’ve certainly added staff so there’s more of us per animal. You can increase the level of animal care if you have more people and more time for enrichment and training. We now have a great veterinarian and a really good preventative maintenance program so we can do a lot of stuff in house.” Additionally, the zoo focused on improving its marketing. “We have an incredibly good marketing director,” Fernandes said. “He’s very in touch and came from other nonprofits. He really looks at the segmentation of who’s coming and he’s very data driven. He’s created things like Spanish billboards and a cellphone tour app.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

After the success of Rainforest Falls, Donna Fernandes and her staff next wanted to build a better space for the zoo’s polar bears and began to prepare. “We were waiting for the polar bear husbandry standards to be finishing before building it to make sure our new habitat exceeded the new standards,” she explained. “We also knew eventually we were going to encroach upon the current entrance when we built the polar bear exhibit so we needed to do the new entrance and children’s zoo first. The old children’s zoo became our new entrance. It’s like a bunch of chess pieces being moved. A lot of the timing had to do with the logistics of keeping things open and waiting for a certain area to be developed. How do you keep a zoo open when building a project? With the Rainforest, we were building it in the middle of the zoo. That’s tricky sometimes.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

When the Buffalo Zoo started on Arctic Edge, it was determined not to settle for mediocrity. “I’d been to a couple places where their polar bear exhibits looked really hokey and you could see all this fake snow,” Fernandes remarked. “I knew, given Buffalo’s natural climate, we could design a habitat to look like the Arctic in the summer with the treeline and wild flowers and have it covered with snowfall for four months. We wanted to communicate the seasonality of the Arctic and the problem of warmer weather lasting longer than it should.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

While the Buffalo Zoo was raising money for Arctic Edge, they welcomed the birth of Luna the polar bear. “Luna was a big secret for the first three months of her life,” Donna Fernandes recalled. “When we announced we had a polar bear cub, everyone fell in love with her. At the same time, we also hand-raised Kali from Alaska. The two of them were housed together in our tiger habitat for two years before Kali got sent to Saint Louis. We were grateful we actually had a polar bear born here and now we have a new male for Luna named Sakari.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

Opened in 2015, Arctic Edge is one of the most complex polar bear exhibits ever built. “The two habitats are linked so the bears can get from one to another in three ways - through the outdoor dens, through the holding building or through a gate,” Fernandes said. “There’s lots of areas where they can be out of view when they want to in the hillside and berms. When Luna gets tired of Sakari pursuing her, she can get away from him. They’ve definitely shown interest in each other so next year we might get some polar bear breeding. The whole exhibit was designed to be easy to manage the polar bears and give them a lot of choices as to where they want to be.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

In upcoming years, the Buffalo Zoo will continue to be improved with the additions of a reimagined reptile house, an outdoor gorilla habitat and a new Himalayas area. However, Donna Fernandes decided last year it was time for her to retire. “My husband is 12 years older than me so my retirement was more me wanting to spend time with him,” she commented. “I also felt like I had gotten the zoo to a good place where the next person could still have fun things to do. Originally, I was going to retire right after we completed Arctic Edge but then we had accreditation so I wanted to make sure we were past that to give someone new plenty of time to settle in. I tried to do it with the best timing for the zoo.” Fernandes still lives in Buffalo for half of the year and plans to stay involved with the zoo.

@ Buffalo Zoo

Donna Fernandes made the Buffalo Zoo a much better zoo and set it on a path to succeed. The success of the institution is largely due to her persistence, vision and hard work. “What I’m most proud of is convincing the board and community they really had a great asset in the zoo where it was,” Fernandes concluded. “There was such a sense of disappointment when the plan to move it to the waterfront fell through but now they’re really happy with what we’ve been able to create here. I knew we couldn’t do everything but I wanted everything we did to be done well. We were able to rally the community to build a great little zoo.”

@ Donna Fernandes

#BuffaloZoo #FranklinParkZoo #ProspectParkZoo

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