Conservation and Government Partnerships: A Conversation with Rich Block, CEO of the Santa Barbara Z

The Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the finest small zoos in the nation located on the Pacific Ocean. In the last decade, it has become renowned as a leader in the conservation of several California species including the Channel Island fox and the California condor. Rich Block has served as the zoo’s CEO since 1998. Prior to coming to the Santa Barbara Zoo, Block worked at a number of other zoos, worked at the World Wildlife Fund for several years and served as Executive Director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Here is his story.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Rich Block’s involvement with zoos started with a class he co-taught at the University of Michigan. “I was teaching at the University of Michigan in a non-tenure track position,” he recalled. “At the end of my five-year appointment, the School of Natural Resources eliminated all temporary positions so I was basically out of a job. I had just finished working on a design studio class on zoo master planning and exhibit design in the Landscape Architecture program with the department chair, Ken Polakowski. The origin of the class was inspired by a former grad school classmate and colleague, Thane Maynard. Thane, now the Director of the Cincinnati Zoo, was in the zoo’s Education Department and hosted my many visits to the Cincinnati Zoo.

This ‘insider’s view’ provided a glimpse of the integrative nature of zoos- blending animal welfare, conservation, and education."

@ Kansas City Zoo

“For the studio, we created integrated teams of grad students representing the education, architecture, landscape architecture, biology, and environmental education departments," Block stated. We ran the students through an intensive semester of work on a conceptual project using the actual site plans for the new Indianapolis Zoo, which opened in White River State Park in 1988. Over the course of the semester, 20 zoo professionals came and talked to students including Grant Jones (legendary architect at Jones and Jones), Dr. Peter Tolson (a Michigan doctoral graduate working with reptiles and amphibians at the Toledo Zoo) and Roy Shea (then director of the Indianapolis Zoo). With all the exposure to these zoo professionals, I could actually speak fluent ‘zoo’.” With Block’s appointment at Michigan coming to a close, he leveraged this studio experience to land the Director of Public Relations position at the Kansas City Zoo.

@ Kansas City Zoo

“I was excited about this new opportunity and eager to learn more, basically working 24/7 at the zoo,” Block remembered. At the time, the Kansas City Zoo was a much different zoo than it is today. It was only about half the size it is now and many of the exhibits were antiquated. “There was open warfare between the zoological society and zoo management,” he said. “I couldn’t put them on a radio show together. Now it’s all changed since the zoo is society operated and the zoo has been enlarged.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

In 1986, Block was recruited by the legendary Dr. Terry Maple to “build Zoo Atlanta’s education program.” He was part of the team that orchestrated the comeback of the zoo after being named one of the worst zoos in the country by Parade Magazine. “At the time the primate exhibits looked like Turkish baths and we were doing the initial planning for the Ford African Rainforest (state-of-the-art gorilla exhibit) and all the renovations of the zoo,” Block stated. “I was in charge of education. We made some pretty quick strides with that and sorted out the relationship with the public schools.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

Block’s career soon took a new turn as he was recruited to work for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “As fate would have it, WWF was building a connection with accredited zoos and aquariums through the traveling exhibit program Future in the Wild. This innovative education program was conceptualized with input from Thane Maynard and originally launched at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1985,” he stated. “As part of the package, WWF would send speakers out to zoos and aquariums to talk about the role of zoos in conservation. In 1987, Dr. Mark Plotkin and Dr. Russell Mittermeier came to Zoo Atlanta and I got to hang out with them for a few days. They were looking for someone to build on the Future in the Wild model to expand WWF’s zoo and aquarium connection. They asked me if I was interested and I said yes."

@ Zoo Atlanta

“In many ways this new opportunity felt like destiny. When I was a college student, I interned at the President’s Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Russell Train (founder of World Wildlife Fund-US) was the Council’s first Chairman,” Block explained. “When the Cincinnati Zoo launched Future in the Wild, Thane invited me to come and I made another connection to Russ Train. Train was there to give the program the official send-off. When I went to DC to work with WWF in 1987, my office ended up being literally three doors down from Russ’s office. It was an absolute dream come true working close with him.” In this new capacity, Block was the Director of Public Programs and served as the primary liaison with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA; AAZPA at that time). “My responsibility was to build this relationship between WWF and accredited zoos and aquariums,” Block said. “I was the champion for that relationship with AZA.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 1993, Block left WWF to become Executive Director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which proved quite a difficult task. “Terry [Maple] was the sales guy who convinced me to take the job,” he noted. “Terry said ‘if you can turn this around and make it work, you can make things work anywhere.’” At the time, the board was quite wide ranging in experience, but it included the likes of Dr. Terry Maple and the late Dr. Devra Kleiman of golden lion tamarin fame. The greatest challenge for Block was the narrow focus of the organization. “The aim of everything was to keep the legacy of Dian Fossey alive, continue to operate Karisoke, the research station Dian established in Rwanda, and maintain the patrols,” Block elaborated. “The key to this was a board member, Ruth Keesling, who had befriended Dian and became her benefactor. Following Dian’s death, Ruth managed to get the Digit Fund out of Ithaca, where it had been created by Dian and named for her favorite gorilla, and moved it to Denver where Ruth was based at the Morris Animal Fund. The nonprofit Digit Fund was reorganized and named the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund."

@ Zoo Atlanta

“Ruth controlled all the information about the Fund’s relationship with the government of Rwanda and most of the organization’s activities centered around Karisoki,” Block continued. “I wanted to expand the fieldwork beyond mountain gorillas and Karisoki and to do much more in the area of community development. We began expanding that scope with assistance from USAID, but then came the first incursion insurgents that marked the beginning of the Rwandan civil war. The location of mountain gorilla habitat is squarely in the path between Rwanda and Uganda so we had armed combatants going right through prime gorilla habitat. With the assistance of the French Foreign Legion, all of the foreign nationals made it out of Karisoke and Rwanda.

@ Zoo Atlanta

“At that time, we regrouped with a meeting of our scientific advisory committee in Denver. The US Department of State asked if we’d invite a representative of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to join us and I agreed. Though Ruth got extremely upset about his presence at the meeting, it was exactly what was needed. The RPF had no concept of what the Gorilla Fund was trying to do and thought we were part of the Rwandan government. The Fund’s science advisors shared countless stories about the local people and the Fund’s work on behalf of the gorillas. As a result of this new awareness, the RPF actually allowed the gorilla patrols to carry weapons. After a terrible period of genocide and the installation of a new government formed by the RPF, we began to see the benefits of this relationship. We were recognized for helping local people and protecting gorillas and had a foundation on which to build.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

Frustrated by a lack of progress in restructuring the Gorilla Fund’s board of directors and little support for expanding the breadth of the organization’s programs, Block returned to WWF in 1993 as a Senior Fellow. In this capacity he worked on numerous special projects with HBO, Great Brands of Europe (Evian), Microsoft, M&M Mars, Welch’s, WGBH, and Beacham Publishing. The nature of the projects ranged from productions for cable and broadcast to cause-marketing campaigns. Block loved his work, but wanted to contribute more to the organization. Despite several discussions with members of WWF’s leadership, the opportunity never materialized.

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 1995 Block received a phone call from a colleague at the Indianapolis Zoo, Paul Grayson, that would change his career’s direction once again. The opportunity to join the Indianapolis Zoo team as Vice President for Scientific & Program Development was being waved in front of him. “It was potentially a stepping stone to becoming a zoo director,” Block stated. “My experience at WWF taught me that you can have subcultures and pockets of greatness in an organization, but to actually create a culture of greatness at an institutional level it has to be top-down. I figured, if I could be an assistant director/VP somewhere, I might be competitive enough to land a director job somewhere.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

At the time, Dr. Jeffrey Bonner (longtime CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo) was the CEO and President of the Indianapolis Zoo. “Jeff Bonner asked if I wanted to go to Indianapolis to be interviewed or have him come to DC,” Block remembered. “I chose for him to come to DC so he could see where I worked and get a better sense of who I was.” That plan worked!

@ Indianapolis Zoo

When Block went to the Indianapolis Zoo in 1995, it had only been at its present site for seven years and was essentially a “new” zoo. He was part of the team that helped it operate more deliberately, especially in education. “A lot of things had been taking place without a business plan,” Block noted. “We had a phenomenal program with distance learning that featured such innovative opportunities like employing interactive dive masks in a shark tank, allowing divers to talk to a classroom of students in real time. However, it’s not a sustainable model unless you have some form of revenue. We built a business model for distance learning so it would pay for itself. The other thing I inherited was a TV show called At the Zoo. When they were opening the new zoo, the local ABC affiliate, WRTV, did a 30-minute special on it. It proved to be incredibly popular so they kept making more and more half-hour installments."

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

"By the time I got there, the show had been running with no game plan and no contract for seven years," Block continued. "My inexperience in television became clear when I ended up becoming the show’s co-host. A couple of other TV stations in Indiana were purchasing the series so I suggested we start recording shows at institutions in those markets. We started taping segments at the Potawatomi, Mesker Park and Fort Wayne Zoos to incorporate local stories. We then did a trip to the Southwest and shot 40 segments for the show, visiting Saguaro National Monument, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, the San Diego Zoo, Joan Embery’s ranch, and SeaWorld San Diego. We aired an evening special about that trip, winning a local Emmy. We then combined endangered species segments from past shows, producing another special that earned a local Emmy award.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Even though the zoo was modern and new, Block contributed to some ideas to make the visitor experience even better. “One thing I suggested was to convert an under-utilized area in the Desert Biome into Desert Discovery, an interactive zone with reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates,” he said. “We also had the opportunity to renovate an exhibit on pets and domestic animals and create an entirely new gallery of invertebrates that was incredibly special. Spineless Wonders, the exhibit fabricators, made a huge model of a Hercules beetle for kids to sit on. To promote the opening of this new exhibit, we got a local pest control company to put this giant bug on the back of one of their trucks while driving around the I270 bypass loop. The morning news people were picking up on this giant beetle circling Indianapolis during the early rush hour.”

The zoo was also supporting some pioneering work in artificial insemination (AI) of African elephants. “We hosted one of the very early elephant conservation meetings held in zoos,” Block elaborated. “We were doing some AI research on elephants in collaboration with outside researchers, making us one of the early players in that arena.” The Indianapolis Zoo ended up being the first zoo to successfully welcome the birth of an African elephant through AI and has succeeded several times since.

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

In January 1998, after much prodding from his wife Tracy, Block threw his hat in the ring for the CEO/Director position at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Tracy’s grandparents and great grandparents were native Santa Barbarans, so the community was like home to her. In July, following a lengthy application and interview process, Block became the second CEO/Director of the Santa Barbara Zoo. He followed Ted McToldridge, who retired in December 1997 after serving as the zoo’s first director since it opened in 1963. “The thing to keep in mind is this zoo is somewhat unique as one of only a handful in the country to be fully owned and operated by a nonprofit foundation,” Block explained. “We get no tax support. This zoo started as and continues to be a product of community effort. It all began with the donation of the Child Estate to the Santa Barbara Foundation. The gift dictated the estate was not to be sold, but turned into a park. There was no money with this gift, only the land and the estate house. The city’s Parks Department had no money to build a park so they put a call out into the community to get volunteers to help and the Jaycees responded. The project eventually led to the creation of what we now know as the Santa Barbara Zoo."

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

McToldridge had poured everything he had into this new project, ultimately creating a solid foundation for the future. “The community has a lot of sweat equity in the zoo and as a result, the zoo has always been well-loved,” Block noted. “Ted McToldridge’s challenge was creating something with minimal resources. Fortunately, he had vision, a sense of design, and was a miracle worker, building a lot of zoo with little money. Ted found ways to get the resources to build new exhibits and create a zoo experience that people loved. My advantage was to come at a time when the zoo had turned the corner on fundraising and was recognized as a good investment for donors. I have an easier time raising money than Ted did,” Block acknowledged.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Another significant advantage Block appreciates is having a great management team. “Part of the success in everything we’ve been doing is the fact that we have a lot of great people,” he commented. “I get to ride on the shoulders of some amazing zoo professionals. The average tenure on the management team is 12 years for senior managers,” Block stated with pride. While he is the CEO, Nancy McToldridge, wife of Ted McToldridge, is the Zoo Director. Block borrowed this successful model, having a CEO and a Zoo Director, from his experience at the Indianapolis Zoo. “I have always been able to count on Nancy’s experience and leadership. This year she is celebrating 35 years at the zoo,” he said. “Nancy and Ted spent a lot of time together over the years and eventually tied the knot.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

The team has always looked at ways to improve management. “Back in 2003, we came across the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, based on research on thousands of companies to examine what allowed some to make the jump from being a good company to a great company,” Block explained. “We were very inspired by Collins’ work so we adopted the principles from Good to Great. We have followed those models with great discipline and it has paid off. Our budget has grown every year as has our staff.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

While the location of the zoo is beautiful, between the Pacific Ocean on the south and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the north, the site is not ample. “It’s a phenomenal piece of real estate,” Rich Block commented. “The problem is we’re totally hemmed in on all sides so everything we do is redeveloping previously developed space. The first improvement that taught me a lot about capital projects was the new holding facility for the gibbons, which turned out great. It still works perfectly. The next really big project was Cats of Africa, which was all new.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

“Opened in 2003, the $2.3 million Cats of Africa was the most expensive project the zoo had undertaken," Block remarked. "We moved the lion exhibit to the south side of the zoo, adjacent to the giraffes. We earth-sheltered the holding building so it’s pushed back into the landscape and we used the roof as the observation area for guests. We used mesh for containment as opposed to a moat to save space and make the exhibit as large as possible to fit the available space. Visually, it’s incredibly dynamic with great rockwork, flowing water, and places for the lions to hide. Cemrock built subtle steps into the rock formations so an elderly lion could still get to all of its favorite perches.” In addition to lions, the area now houses fennec foxes.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

The next major project was the renovation of the Asian elephant habitat to accommodate the zoo’s two females as they get older. Eventually, elephants will be phased out as the zoo does not have the room to house the AZA-mandated numbers. “In 2004, we opened the revamped elephant exhibit, getting rid of the moat and moving from free- to protected-contact,” Block remarked. “We don’t have space for three or more elephants, but the two we’ve got receive wonderful care. They’ve been together at the zoo since 1972 so they’re seriously bonded. We have four full-time positions to take care of the elephants and that’s all they do. They get such individual care, I have absolutely no qualms about keeping these girls here.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Block and his team decided to convert an antiquated sea lion pool into a modern habitat for Humboldt penguins. “We had the Humboldt Penguin SSP coordinator Patty McGill come out to evaluate the space and she said it would be ideal,” he said. “We basically converted the exhibit. Cemrock did their rockwork magic, creating a whole series of nest cavities. We installed a new filtration system with ozone treatment. All that was left was to add the penguins! It’s been a great exhibit and I believe people can get closer to the penguins there than any other exhibit without glass. You are right there with the penguins and it’s a complete experience.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Beginning in 2000, the Santa Barbara Zoo became much more invested in the protection of native California wildlife. “The intent had always been to have the conservation programs focus on local species,” Block explained. “I felt that was our best option. We are located in one of the six biodiversity hotspots in the U.S. so why should we try to do stuff in Africa and Asia when diversity is threatened in our own backyard. We can be so cost-effective with our conservation projects- anyone at the zoo can participate in a field project. In addition to the work with our conservation partners, everyone on the zoo team has a paid “Conservation Day” so they can take part in local projects of their choice like a beach cleanup or habitat restoration.” The Santa Barbara Zoo is closely partnered with many of the region’s conservation groups. “Most recently our herp team has been instrumental in field surveys of western pond turtles and in the relocation of red-legged frogs,” he cited as examples.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

“We’ve got three full time staff under our director of conservation and research,” Block continued. “Their work is essentially outside the zoo and that team is supplemented by zoo staff who can volunteer to work on these projects. Our federal and state partners all view us as players in field conservation. They come up with more opportunities than we have staff and resources to participate. At the request of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, we’re investigating the potential to create an insurance population of highly endangered unarmored three-spine sticklebacks at the zoo. We’ve got so much going on in conservation. It’s a very exciting time to be here.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Two species the Santa Barbara Zoo has been particularly involved with are the California condor and Channel Island fox. “Our team deserves some credit for the 2016 delisting of the formerly endangered subspecies of island fox,” Block remarked. “There was a time when we had people on the islands every single week working with the Channel Islands National Park biologists. We helped the park manage the breeding pens on the islands and participated in monitoring the wild populations. Our vet still assists with any medical cases requiring care on the islands. In addition, we have been hosting the annual island fox recovery meetings at the zoo.” The zoo was the first in the nation to build an exhibit exclusively for island foxes. “Though our original foxes from 1999 are long gone, the Navy will often come up with foxes from San Clemente Island who are abandoned or orphaned from road kills,” Block said.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

The zoo became only the second in the nation to exhibit California condors when it opened California Trails in 2009. “California Trails basically became a showcase for recovery program condors and our field work,” Block elaborated. “We designed their habitat on a hillside with a large aviary. The backdrop of the aviary is the Santa Ynez Mountains, which is part of their native range. It’s all condor habitat. That’s the reason it made sense to become part of the California condor recovery effort. In 2002, we started by talking about what we could do for condors by exhibiting them and contributing to field work. Today, we operate the nest watch program where we monitor nest activity from hatching up to fledging. The program has led to a dramatic increase in fledgling success and we’ve been able to rescue some chicks on the verge of perishing.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

A major focus for the Santa Barbara Zoo is animal welfare. “We will be filling a full-time position for a researcher to help study animal welfare at the zoo,” Block stated. “The zoo has a great team of people who try to resolve behavioral problems. We have two gorillas, brothers, who exhibited some behavioral challenges. Our team has been working with other zoos to find what solutions might exist. They’ve been following the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s diet for gorillas and are measuring results. To date, they’ve made great progress. Our elephant team is another great example- they’re always looking for new ways to enrich the experience of our two female Asian elephants. People here are really open to new ideas and that’s critical to making progress.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

In his nearly 20 years at the helm, Block has helped the Santa Barbara Zoo become one of the finest small zoos in the nation and one that’s very proactive in conservation. “A great zoo leader is someone who is good at building a team, is a great listener, has an ample dose of humility and has a vision of how to integrate the guest experience with conservation. I’m still working at it!” he reflected. “I really believe accredited zoos and aquariums play a major role in conservation and we’re just beginning to realize that. Based on my experience of what we’ve been able to do here and what I’ve seen at larger institutions, we’re a piece of the conservation puzzle. We help complete that.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

“It’s really important for us to make sure we build strong partnerships with those people, organizations, and government agencies recognized for doing conservation,” Block concluded. “If you’re known by the company you keep, we need to participate with those associated with doing real conservation. The only way to do that is for us to do real conservation. We are doing it, got to keep doing it, and need to do a better job of telling our story. We can do more together than we ever could individually.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

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