Becoming a Zoo CEO: A Conversation with Norah Fletchall, President and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo

While the Buffalo Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the nation, it has transformed into a modern zoo and aspires to play a larger hand in conservation. During the summer of 2017, Norah Fletchall was named President and CEO of the institution. She aims to make the zoo the best it can be and expand on the foundation laid by her predecessor Donna Fernandes. Fletchall has also served as co-chair of the Felid Taxon Advisory Group (TAG.) Here is her story.

@ Buffalo Zoo

Fletchall entered the zoo profession as a keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo in 1984. “I literally answered an ad in the newspaper for a zookeeper position and got hired as a hoofstock keeper in the Antelope House,” she recalled. “I also worked in the Children’s Zoo and the Primate House.” After a few years, Fletchall went to the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She would stay there for the next 22 years and become instrumental in its growth. “We grew the zoo from a very small city-owned institution [to a modern one],” Fletchall stated. “By the time I left in 2009, [we had] done $25 million in capital improvements, grown the staff by four times and grown the budget by five-six times.” She wore many hats at the zoo. "I left having significant experience in everything from animal management to finance to capital programs,” Fletchall added.

@ John Ball Zoo

Fletchall helped the John Ball Zoo build several new exhibits and make several changes necessary to become a modern zoo. “We built a large aquarium that at the time was the largest aquarium in the state of Michigan,” she noted. “We grew to the point I was able to hire a full-time veterinarian.”

@ John Ball Zoo

One of her proudest achievements at the zoo was helping develop Monkomboso Valley, a naturalistic habitat for chimpanzees. “We utilized a very interesting building technique that allowed us to preserve a lot of the trees around the exhibit,” Fletchall elaborated. “At the time we built it, I had no one on staff besides me who had experience with chimpanzees. We had to do that project from the ground up and train our staff how to care for chimpanzees. It turned out to be a very nice exhibit.”

@ John Ball Zoo

@ John Ball Zoo

Another project Fletchall was involved in was Lions of Lake Manyara, which brought the king of beasts back to the zoo. “Before we had lions in an exhibit that no longer met zoological standards that we closed,” she remarked. “We decided to bring lions back and took into account the natural topography of the zoo [when building their habitat.] The zoo is very hilly so we incorporated that into how we did the design.”

@ John Ball Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

Lions of Lake Manyara told the story of the tree-dwelling lions in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park. “The theming was really cool as it talked about the lions that live in Lake Manyara and how they get up in trees to get away from insects and the heat,” Fletchall said. “Typically, you don’t think about lions being up in trees but that is a population [of lions] that does go up in trees.” Fletchall retained great pride in her achievements at the John Ball Zoo and claimed her experience there made her want to lead a facility of a similar size.

@ John Ball Zoo

@ John Ball Zoo

In 2009, Fletchall became Vice President of Conservation and Education of the Indianapolis Zoo. Later on she was promoted to Chief Operating Officer. During her time at the zoo, she learned the importance of finding ways to raise revenue for animal and conservation programs. “[Indianapolis Zoo is] one of the few zoos that receives no government funding,” Fletchall noted. “What I learned there that’s so critically important is how to impact guests in a really powerful way and do conservation programs through private dollars. [For instance, they used] a roller coaster, a skyride, a carousel and a 4D theater to raise revenue.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“While the emphasis was on conservation, we had to pay our own way on everything,” Fletchall continued. “That meant we had to be really entrepreneurial. [The Indianapolis Zoo] has one of the best fundraising and development programs I have ever seen and they have absolutely phenomenal donor and community relationships. If you’re going to pay your own way, that’s something you have to have in place.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Although the lack of government support made the Indianapolis Zoo’s revenue strategies particularly critical, Fletchall felt this mindset is important anywhere. “If you’re going to impact conservation, you have to find the money to do it,” she stated. “They have absolutely wonderful programs [at the Indianapolis Zoo] but, when you’re trying to keep the lights on and do conservation funding, you have to find ways to [pay for it.] They do a great job at asset management.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Despite its unique financial model, the Indianapolis Zoo has done quite well and receives 1.2 million visitors a year. In 2014, it opened the Simon Sdjokt International Orangutan Center, a groundbreaking facility tailored to the cognitive and husbandry needs of the red apes. It also led the zoo to become a leader in orangutan conservation. “They have probably the best orangutan exhibit in the world right now and are doing a great job on it,” Fletchall remarked. “Absolutely fantastic for the animals. The project was started as a result of the zoo wanting to really emphasize conservation of apes. If you look across the board, orangutans are the most threatened ape in the world.” The Indianapolis Zoo conducts cutting edge research on orangutan cognition at the center and guests can watch research sessions at certain times.

Mike Crowther @ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

While Fletchall only joined the Buffalo Zoo last year, the zoo had long been her radar. “Throughout my career there have been about four or five places I’ve said I wanted to go as director and Buffalo was one of them,” she elaborated. “I always wanted to lead a medium-sized zoo that could impact the community and provide the opportunity for guests to have a nice day. The Buffalo Zoo sits in this beautiful Olmstead Park and Donna [Fernandes] had done such a phenomenal job at modernizing it. I first came here in 1991 to bring an alligator from the John Ball Zoo and fell in love with the place. When Donna announced her retirement, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh here’s my chance.’” In April 2017, Norah Fletchall was named President and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo. Coincidentally, the zoo's alligator was shipped out in preparation for the Reptile House renovation her first day at the Buffalo Zoo, making things come full circle.

@ Buffalo Zoo

One of Fletchall’s favorite things about the Buffalo Zoo is that, at only 23 acres, it is not too big. “I am [able to be] much more involved in the day-to-day operations while larger zoo directors need to be more externally facing,” she explained. “I talk to keepers and guests everyday. I’ll walk across the grounds and people will walk up to me, say ‘Welcome to Buffalo’ and tell me how they grew up going to the zoo. My leadership style lends itself much more readily to a smaller facility. I lead by consensus and want to consider everyone’s ideas, establish trust and get things done. I love working with people and seeing keepers develop and grow. I got into this business because I really like working with animals. I stay in this business because of zoo people.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

Another asset Fletchall saw in the zoo was the renaissance emerging in the City of Buffalo. “Buffalo has completely turned itself around,” she remarked. “You’re starting to see new businesses coming to the area, younger generations moving in and people who moved away coming back. There’s this buzz about the renaissance of Buffalo.” The zoo strives to use this positive energy to help drive the zoo forward.

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

The Buffalo Zoo is in the process of starting a new strategic plan that will help shape the direction of the zoo in years to come. “We’ve got some infrastructure here that is quite old and we need to keep that in mind as we renovate these exhibits,” Fletchall stated. “Everything from what we want to do with our elephant program to renovating building on the National Registrar of Historic Places. The plan will also look at developing our staff and getting them more involved in some of the programs than they already are. I also want to grow our conservation programs. We exist to connect people with wildlife. How do we connect people to wildlife more effectively than we already are?”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

The strategic plan will examine the Buffalo Zoo’s operations and business practices. “We aren’t a business but we have to operate like a business,” Fletchall remarked. “That’s looking at cost savings and more efficient and effective ways to do things. What’s our guest experience look like? What do they see, do and feel?”

@ Buffalo Zoo

Fletchall said she has really enjoyed her time in Buffalo so far as she has transitioned into being President and CEO. “It’s been an exercise but it’s been great,” she reflected. “You spend your whole career trying to figure out what you’d do when you’re in charge. There’s always going to be things you thought you knew but don’t know. There’s going to be challenges. I used to wake up in the morning and say I’ll let my director worry about that while now I have to worry about all of it. It’s also given me a good perspective on how it’s not just about the animals. Animals are why we exist but we also have to keep in mind education, facilities and horticulture too. There’s a lot of people who make a zoo function and it’s not just the animal team. It takes a lot of people to run a zoo effectively."

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

“Everyone here has been extremely welcoming,” Fletchall contained. “My first step in becoming director has been getting to know the community, the external stakeholders and the donors. Fundraising is all about relationship building. Making those relationships is critical and that is show it should be. We’re asking people to give their hard-earned money to support our mission, which means they trust us. Trust isn’t something you get the first time you meet someone. It takes time.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

The zoo’s former leader Donna Fernandes has been extremely helpful during the transition. “Donna’s been tremendous,” Fletchall elaborated. “I talk to her a couple of times a week.” In some ways, the two women have significantly different leadership styles. “I’m a very different person than Donna,” Fletchall explained. “She’s very focused on exhibit design and fundraising while I’m more focused on operations. I have a very broad base of animal experience and have designed for everything from jellyfish to chimpanzees so my focus is what does the animal need. I’m a very practical person and will say ‘Do we really need to spend $50,000 on what we can do effectively on $20,000?’” However, Fletchall retains great respect for her predecessor. “I have big shoes to fill,” he added. “Donna raised money better than anybody.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

The zoo’s next project is remodeling its Reptile House, which was built by Marlin Perkins in 1942. “The exhibits had not substantially changed for over 70 years,” Fletchall claimed. “We’re taking out the existing exhibits and putting in pre-made exhibits, which essentially are designed and constructed so you can just put them in place. We’re preserving the public space the way it is as it’s on the National Historic Registrar. The major focus is on updating and improving the mechanical facilities in the building as well as having better spaces and exhibitry for animals.” The revamp will also add Komodo dragons to the zoo. Other projects planned for the zoo include an outdoor habitat for the zoo’s family of gorillas and an Asian exhibit featuring snow leopards, red pandas, Amur leopards, takin and Pallas cats.

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

Fletchall has a strong interest in expanding the zoo’s conservation programs. “Part of our parking revenue goes to conservation support,” she noted. “We’ve been actively involved in the hellbender program, Panamanian golden frogs, Puerto Rican crested toads and Bowling for Rhinos. I have a strong interest in native species conservation. Also, we exhibit bison, our nation’s mammal, and we are in Buffalo, New York so I’m very interested in some of the emerging programs in bison conservation.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

However, her priority is animal welfare. “For me, it boils down to what is best for the animals, not what we think is best for the animals,” Fletchall commented. “Zoos used to feed bread to primates, which is not good for those animals. We continue to get better all the time and have to continue to get better. That takes money, attitude and a willingness to change. We manage many, many animals very differently than we did 25 years ago. We look at the scientific evidence of what animals need and make those adjustments.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

“Managing animals in a zoo-based environment is a true union of science and creativity,” Fletchall continued. “How do we present food effectively? In an exhibit, how can we give the animals what they need to do natural behaviors? Modern zoological park exhibitry is based on what the animal’s needs are and providing the best they can have in a zoo based environment.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

The Buffalo Zoo has a strong place in the community and a very bright future. “The Buffalo Zoo is special because of the way the community has embraced the zoo,” Fletchall reflected. “It’s such an important part of the culture here. People will say ‘I used to come here with my grandparents and now I come here with my grandchildren.’ There is a lot of culture based in the park we’re in. It’s full of people walking, biking and playing golf in an urbanized environment.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

“We need to continue to emphasize telling the story of the animals we care for,” Fletchall stated. “The thing people really want to know is how we care for the animals at our zoo. We need to continue to be leaders in connecting people to conservation and impact people’s understanding of wildlife. They see us as a refuge from day-to-day life so we need to be these sanctuaries for excitement. 90% of people who come to the Buffalo Zoo will never go to Africa so for them to see a lion is critically important.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

@ Buffalo Zoo

“I’m probably most proud of the work I did at the John Ball Zoo as well as the work we did with the Felid Tag and moving some of those programs forward,” Norah Fletchall concluded. “Also seeing some of the great people I’ve been able to work with and staff I’ve hired grow has been wonderful. The people her at the Buffalo Zoo have done some great things so I feel very privileged to be here.”

@ Buffalo Zoo

#BuffaloZoo #IndianapolisZoo #JohnBallZoo

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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