The Opportunity to Do Something Global: A Conversation with Pat Simmons, Director of the North Carol

Pat Simmons has often been regarded as one of the leading zoo directors in the country for the past three decades. She spent thirty years transforming Akron Zoo from a run down, financially struggling institution to a thriving boutique zoo with a variety of animals around the world, up close encounters for visitors, strong community support and strong education programs. In 2014, Simmons moved to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, the largest walkthrough zoo in the world. As director, she has helped the phenomenal zoo continue to foster global change and be well positioned to grow in the future. Here is her story.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“I always loved nature, the outdoors and animals,” Simmons reflected. “I grew up on a trout hatchery and created my own 'mini tadpole farm' in my mother’s living room with her good mixing dishes. Needless to say my entrepreneurial effort was short lived that time. I didn’t grow up wealthy and there weren’t any zoos around me so I didn’t visit a zoo until college. I went to the Cincinnati Zoo on a date and had the time of my life.” Early in her career, she worked a lot of jobs in fundraising and the nonprofit world. “I thought that was where my heart lied,” Simmons remarked. When she was in her mid 20s, she started at the Akron Zoo as Director of Development and Administration. “Back then it only had seven employees,” Simmons remembered. “The zoo back then was very, very small and pretty much a mess. It needed a lot of attention.”

@ Akron Zoo

in 1985, Pat Simmons became Director of the Akron Zoo and immediately worked to trigger change. “I was in the right place at the right time and had the right skills for what the zoo needed,” she explained. “It needed someone to look at accreditation standards, stabilize its business operations, raise money, provide resources for better animal staff and take it to being a truly professional zoo. My skillset is around strategic planning and business models [to create] a better planet.” Simmons turned to other zoo leaders for inspiration and guidance. “The first thing I did was look for leaders in the zoo profession,” she said. “I found zoo people were willing to talk to me, come to the zoo and assess us, guide us and help us. This community of animal experts is a very giving community and they were very willing to help us create a wonderful zoo.” Some of the people Simmons credited as helping her out were the late Earl Wells, Bob Wagner, Steve Taylor, Steve McCusker, Satch Krantz, Jack Hanna, Tom LaRock, Ed Maruska, Clayton Freiheit and Bill Dennler.

@ Akron Zoo

One piece of advice Simmons received from many of these zoo leaders was to initiate a tax levy to raise funds. However, she needed to get community support to do so. “I was able to accomplish it in 2000 but it took a long time to get there as the zoo was not a beloved place,” Simmons elaborated. “A lot of bad things had happened there [before I came] and people were afraid of coming into the area where the zoo was located. They didn’t have a lot of reasons to love it with its small collection, limited amenities and gravel walkways. I would like to think by the time I left it was beloved.” Before she arrived, the zoo had attempted to find identity by focusing exclusively on North American animals. “The zoo was trying to figure out how to distinguish itself from bigger zoos,” Simmons commented. “It was an easy enough drive to Cleveland where they had everything. [Akron Zoo] started with just North American animals as they could tolerate our climate and didn’t need extensive capital to take care of them. When I walked into the zoo I realized people weren’t scrambling to come see us so I tried North and South America but we still weren’t cracking it.”

@ Akron Zoo

When the Akron Zoo reached out to the public, they got a much better sense of where to go. “I started to ask people in the community what they wanted,” Pat Simmons stated. “Thy were very clear they wanted a zoo in Akron and they wanted to see more animals and great education programs. They loved its small size and that they could get around very easily. I realized people who came to the Akron Zoo were able to come for a couple of hours, let their kids ride the pony or see the jaguar and go home without being tired. We determined it would be a boutique zoo where you felt ‘you have never been so close’ to an animal.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

The zoo began to look at getting more exotic species. “We would go for animals people wanted to see and felt represented a real zoo,” Simmons remarked. "Many people felt we weren’t a real zoo since we didn’t have lions, tigers and bears. We started out by opening a lion exhibit and creating Tiger Valley, an Asian themed complex with tigers, sun bears and langurs. Everything we built had to have a conservation and education message or impact behind it. By the time we completed Tiger Valley the community was very happy."

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

“After we opened Tiger Valley, we asked guests if they’re happy with what we’re doing and wanted to see more,” Simmons continued. “We asked them the big question: if we could provide them the things they’d like to see would they be willing to pay more. They actually said ‘Yes, we’re willing to pay more.’”

@ Akron Zoo

In 2000, the zoo went up for a tax initiative. “We went on the ballot saying we’d provide more guest experiences (with animals such as penguins, snow leopards and condors), increase our education programs and have a conservation component that would make a difference to the natural world,” Pat Simmons elaborated. “They voted for it in 2000 and we scrambled off to build things very quickly. By the end of the seven years funded by the tax initiative, we had programs in every school system of the county and new animals all based in impactful conservation programs. Although we didn’t have people on the ground in countries, our staff was supporting conservation on the ground through fundraising efforts and educational programming. It followed from there and the community passed renewal tax initiatives for the zoo again and again. By the time I changed jobs the Akron team has successfully secured 21 years of guaranteed tax support for the zoo.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

The Akron Zoo also worked on a master plan and began to figure out what the zoo could do best. “The public wanted to see bears, otters, big cats and more primates so we worked among ourselves and our architects to look at this and see what animals we could responsibly care for,” Simmons recollected. We made a check sheet of animals with conservation importance and also looked at ones we could care for well. After we’d done that, we brought in zoo experts. For the first major expansion with tax funding we brought in three people- Tony Vecchio, Craig Piper and Keith Winsten- who were experts in conservation and education to look at our theming. They said ‘Pat, you have an opportunity to look at these things differently. Take a completely different tact.’ That’s how we came up with Legends of the Wild.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

Opened in 2005, Legends of the Wild featured Humboldt penguins, Andean condors, jaguars, snow leopards, lemurs, flamingos, capybaras, poison dart frogs, bats and other animals all connected by their representations in folklore. “It’s not a zoogeographic theme but rather a theme of stories people make up about what they observe in the wild,” Pat Simmons elaborated. “As humans, when we don’t have answers, we often create answers in our head. You often find these answers aren’t true but they are what you created at that time. Condors were huge birds flying over the Andes Mountain and the sun was always coming up when they were flying so [people thought] they were sun gods and used them as gods for their social structure. I wanted people to see we’re observing all the time and, as scientists, are willing to test the knowledge we already have. That is what scientific exploration is all about." The theme fit well with Simmons' interests. "Just imagine…what if what we know about condors right now is all wrong? What if we find out condors are actually aliens?” Simmons joked. “It’s that kind of thing that fascinates me.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

The zoo’s next project ended up becoming its signature exhibit. “We tested our guest’s opinions again and asked what they wanted to see,” Simmons said. “We said we have the opportunity to build an African savanna where you can feed giraffes or an Asian area with orangutans or we could create North American woods with bears. Fascinatingly the people of our community wanted to know more about the animals who once lived in Ohio. That’s when we decided we would build Grizzly Ridge and create a space all about animals that once roamed Ohio.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

Opened in 2013, Grizzly Ridge featured state-of-the-art habitats for grizzly bears, red wolves, coyotes, river otters and bald eagles. “We chose grizzly bears as they’re so incredibly huge, smart and charismatic,” Simmons explained. “And, they have a great message of human/animal interaction. The pair we received needed to be rescued. We continued the theme of human/animal interaction and chose coyotes and red wolves because of how interrelated they are. We chose river otters to show how Ohio’s people have worked together to purify our local waterways to tell the story of animals that had left Ohio could now return (with our help) to repopulate in this state.”

@ WDM Architects

@ Akron Zoo

A major focus was on making Grizzly Ridge interactive and letting guests get up close to its animals. “We tried very hard to have that personal connection with the animals,” Simmons remarked. “We made it intimate and up close. There’s the walkthrough aviary where the birds come up close to you. We created a children’s slide that actually went through the water where the river otters swim. The otters would be swimming around you as you progressed through the tube. Very neat, and yes, I slid down that very slide! We also created training walls where the keepers could work with the grizzlies and help people understand their story, how we manage and care for them.”

@ Akron Zoo

@ Akron Zoo

In 2014, Pat Simmons made the difficult decision to leave Akron Zoo and move to the North Carolina Zoo and become the successor of director Dr. David Jones. Located on 500 acres, the North Carolina Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world and afforded Simmons opportunities to do things on a much larger scale than at the Akron Zoo. “It was a very hard decision because I love and continue to love Akron,” she reflected. “I had been there over thirty years and felt very fortunate to be working with an incredibly strong team. When the opportunity to move to North Carolina came up, I thought two things: how could I leave my wonderful people in Akron and how could I not accept this opportunity to take it up a notch and do something global.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“Akron Zoo does amazing work with their resources,” Simmons continued. "But naturally it does not do in situ conservation at the level North Carolina Zoo is committed to. I had an opportunity to do something globally. I’m also a strong believer people need a chance to have the opportunities I have been provided. Many great people mentored me, gave me a leg up when I was young and let me learn and use my skills successfully. I wanted my staff in Akron to use their skills and take it to their next level. They could easily continue to make the zoo work and accomplish things I never could have. And, now, under the leadership of Doug Piekarz, they have! One of my greatest successes was when I left Akron I didn’t leave behind a hole but people who knew how to take care of a community and push the zoo (and themselves) to new heights.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

For her first year in North Carolina, Pat Simmons served as Deputy Director in preparation for becoming director when David Jones retired. “It was a hard hitting year,” she reflected. “I had to learn a lot about a new state and operating a state zoo, which is very different than a private nonprofit [like Akron.] It’s never easy for someone who’s been a number one for thirty years to be a number two." "However,” Simmons laughed, “anyone who thinks they’re number one never really is. Life is a team sport, like it or not.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

She greatly enjoyed working with Jones and found it to be very rewarding. “Dr. Jones made it possible for me to come in and put together a vision,” Simmons said. “He was incredibly supportive and positioned me well to take the vision and implement it. I learned a great deal about many of the things he focused his life on, which was complementary to my experience. I could help balance some of the things the zoo needed.” When Jones retired in 2015, Simmons became the Director of the North Carolina Zoo.

@ North Carolina Zoo

Going from a 50 acre zoo to a 500-acre zoo was quite an adjustment. “The learning curve was steep,” Pat Simmons claimed. “My first learning curve was not to get lost in the zoo. You literally have to drive everywhere in the park.” Additionally, the zoo had a much larger collection than Akron Zoo and many megafauna (African elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, gorillas, chimpanzees, polar bears, etc) Simmons had never worked with before. However, she found the adjustment to a large collection not that difficult because of two reasons. “I have an excellent animal care staff in North Carolina,” she remarked. “They’re good communicators, know what they’re doing and take care of their end of the business very well. I was smart enough to stay out of their way.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

The second reason was even more interesting. “When I was AZA Chair, we were implementing the new elephant safety standards around the country,” Simmons recounted. “I had taken it upon myself to travel to many different zoos with elephant programs to learn why they managed elephants the way they did. I learned firsthand the perspectives of our leading elephant experts. This has served me incredibly well. I do hope it helped them as well, I truly wanted to support all the members [of the AZA] and let them know I cared enough to listen. I never expected to work at a zoo with elephants. It was very fortuitous I had done all that communication and research. It helped me understand that North Carolina has an incredibly fine and progressive elephant program.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo’s African elephant program is considered one of the best in the world and has successfully implemented a management system that perpetuates positive behavior. “Wiser people than me decided early on that animals were smart enough to work with us, partner with us and we didn’t have to “control' them,” Pat Simmons explained. “These leaders looked at how to keep folks safe while working with our animals by creating a request and reward system that allowed animals to choose their own behaviors. That gives each animal incredible freedom of choice. I’m a strong believer the more we can work to provide animals with as many choices as possible, the better welfare and life they (and we) will enjoy.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“I have to say Guy Lichty (Curator of Mammals at the North Carolina Zoo) was one of the founders of this approach: the whole idea there are ways [to care for animals] that are safe but aren’t a human dominant situation,” Simmons continued. “Rather it’s a partnering with animals for everyone’s success. They figured it out. They created one of the finest elephant barns around and the ankus was thrown away. They found ways to invite elephants to do the things they needed to do. That has shown to be very successful, at least for us.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

When she became Director of the North Carolina Zoo, Pat Simmons immediately made a point to get to know the staff and understand the institution’s strengths and areas of growth. “One of the first things I did was go out, meet the staff and see what they were working on and what their frustrations were,” she remarked. “It was nice to get an assessment of that and understand what things have and have not been working. [What was working was] the staff was very qualified, hard working and knew what they were doing. What wasn’t working was they didn’t have the money to take care of deferred maintenance or have working equipment and that was making it difficult for the staff to do their jobs. One of the first things I went to work on was setting up the business plan so the zoo could have something new to offer our guests and thereby create increased revenue to assist with staff needs. Our Zoo Society, our local leadership, the state legislature and our governor’s office focused on helping us find funding to fix deferred maintenance. It’s a 500 acre zoo and many things need attention. With everyone’s support we have been steadily chipping away at replacement needs and finding a fresh zoo underneath.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

“I tried to look at what where the greatest strengths of the park,” Simmons elaborated. “Dr. Jones had done a phenomenal job supporting global conservation programs. I sat down with Rich Bergl, our Director of Conservation, and worked with him to reorganize the structure so Rich managed not only conservation but education and research components as well. That simple change has grown into a much larger department with research work on animal welfare and visitor opinions as well as increased the focus of our communication about our education and in situ conservation programs.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo already had excellent animal welfare programs but Pat Simmons has expanded on them even more. “With the guidance of Guy Lichty, the next thing the animal department focused upon was the creation of a new curatorial position about behavior and welfare,” she commented. This curator’s goal is to take the positive behavior concept being developed throughout the zoo and make it consistent across all animal areas.

@ North Carolina Zoo

“The philosophy that went into our elephant program can now be applied across the board,” Simmons said. “This is happening at many zoos across the country but few have a curatorial position dedicated to the behavior and welfare effort. Currently, our bears can get an ultrasound without anesthesia and most of our animals have very successful relationships with their care providers. Most animals are volunteering for procedures that in the past would have required physical dominance or anesthesia. We can leave most of our animals out all night long and let them do things animals do outside at night. That gives them a whole new level of choice. Every one of our animals is given as much attention as possible. With this new position, we will be working toward formalized and customized programs for each animal throughout the zoo by creating programs and training staff toward a comprehensive program based upon a universal zoo focus, not just on individual staff initiative.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The zoo has also focused extensively on its messaging and branding. “Another thing we accomplished in North Carolina was the reorganization of graphic design, marketing and guest experience departments into one unit with one voice for the zoo,” Simmons elaborated. “{Their job is to] talk to our community. The whole idea is to communicate to our audience that everyone who visits us, has an experience here, and receives our materials knows that their support is an action for conservation. Our Chief Communications Officer Diane Villa and Rich Bergl are working very closely with their teams to make sure, as we develop new programs and guest experiences, the message that is communicated is that we are a fun, exciting, immersive, experiential place that supports our natural world. We want folks to know that by just visiting our zoo they are positively impacting conservation of animals and protection of the natural world.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

While currently only the continents of Africa and North America are represented by the North Carolina Zoo, which will change soon. In 2020, the zoo expects to open Australia featuring a walkthrough kangaroo habitat and a wide variety of animals from the world down under. In 2022, Asia is expected to open featuring tigers, red pandas, Komodo dragons, babirusas, flying foxes, Asian primates and Asian birds. “Asia’s going to be very special because of its location- a beautiful wooded ridged area,” Pat Simmons explained. “Walking through that space will make you feel awesome. The landscape of the North Carolina Zoo feels immersive anyway so seeing tigers in those woods will be really cool. We will be providing lots of incredible activities, educational programs, event space and new experiences for people.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

Additionally, Simmons has looked for other ways to make the zoo experience more engaging and kinesthetic. “One of the wonderful things about the North Carolina Zoo is it’s so big and people are outdoors,” she elaborated. “It is like a state park. To capitalize on the wildness of our park we’ve created an air hike rope course up in the trees where you can do things like the animals that live up in the trees. We also have educationally themed paddle boats where you can explore one of our three lakes. Also, now you can go on a bus into our grasslands where rhinos, antelope and ostriches reside. This ‘Zoofari' allows you to see those animals up close and learn about them from a personal guide. Next year we’re bringing in a bird show with a behavior specialist to not only entertains but to educate our guests about our positive choice program. And for the little ones, we are also adding a treehouse adventure for kids who are too small for the air hike. We’re creating activities for people to feel like they’re participating in nature, having an adventure in ‘the wild’ all the while getting knowledge about animals.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“I’m very excited about the fact our governor, secretary, legislature and local community are so excited about our vision plan,” Pat Simmons remarked. “That’s really pretty awesome. We are part of the mission of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources which includes the parks, museums, aquariums, historic sites and arts to name a few. I have the opportunity to talk to the folks who are professionals in those areas throughout the state and share the zoo and gain their thoughts and perspectives. What a joy it is to have so many diverse experts meeting together monthly. It makes our work so rich when we communicate about shared plans for enriching the lives of North Carolinians. I love the fact the zoo is getting tremendous support and great attendance. People are coming out here and enjoying what they see. I love the challenge to make things better and successful for all beings. The people I’m working with are such smart people and they are finding answers and solutions to the many difficult questions we face daily. It is wonderful to watch their creativity and brilliance.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

Pat Simmons has in the past served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and currently serves as an internationally elected member of Council for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). “Those are honors I’m very humbled my colleagues allowed me to enjoy,” she reflected. “I love it because I learn so much. I was fascinated with the AZA Board and everything they worked on. [When I was Chairman,] [As for WAZA, I love the] input of a global perspective as everyone has such different experiences. It is fascinating to learn about all the viewpoints of other countries and how the world of zoos goes so far beyond my limited experience with American zoos.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“It’s very, very critical zoos continue to emphasize the impact we have right now for conservation and the impact we have in helping people understand our world and how fragile it is,” Simmons reflected. “The North Carolina Zoo is very fortunate for its size and that helps, in many ways for people to relate to wildlife and wild places. In North Carolina we have many large spaces and can also work with our animals in large groups so they exhibit many natural behaviors. It is wonderful to see gazelles racing about and being gazelles on 40 acres of land."

@ North Carolina Zoo

“North Carolina Zoo will continue to use the resources it has to best support global conservation, education about sciences and opportunities to help our natural world,” Pat Simmons continued. “However, my personal legacy is and always has been the same. I’m looking to make it possible for the next generation of people to do an incredibly good job for our planet. With two degrees in the fine arts, I have spent my life living the creative process. It is an unusual background for the work I do, but it has afforded me the ability to think about things uniquely, finding ways to come up with elegant solutions to troublesome puzzles. Having the ability to work together, seek elegant solutions, treat each others with dignity and respect, and to make things better for our natural world is needed now more than ever. We must be able to look through, beyond and inside of our issues to find creative solutions.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

“When I left Akron, I felt I had left very skilled young people who knew how to work with each other with respect and would make a difference for that zoo and our natural world,” Simmons said. “And upon watching from afar, they are doing just that. They are accomplishing things I never could have. What a joy!”

@ Akron Zoo

“The wonderful team I work with in North Carolina tackles daily the challenges that we have and as a team process and manage them together,” Pat Simmons concluded. “They are amazing. In the creative process, there are always more horizons to push for, more unique ways to study a problem, more questions of “why” or why not” and more to learn. If, by the time I exit, I have helped my team stand on its own, truly internalize how to work toward positive change together, ask themselves without fear or judgment ‘why are we doing it this way?’, celebrate their wonderful diversity and daily find creative ways to push forward to “save our natural world” I would consider myself truly blessed. To me that represents they have added the creative process to their life skills. And, in my opinion, life skills are the best skills.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

#NorthCarolinaZoo #AkronZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti