Renew the Zoo: A Conversation with Chris Pfefferkorn, President/CEO of the Birmingham Zoo

After spending 18 years in leadership roles at the Oregon Zoo, Chris Pfefferkorn became Senior Vice President of the Birmingham Zoo in 2015. He was impressed by the zoo's willingness to take on a number of unique projects- such as establishing the first bachelor herd of African elephants in the nation, breeding a number of rare birds and being one of a handful of zoos to take part in the eastern indigo snake recovery program. Pfefferkorn is currently helping lead the zoo through the Renew the Zoo capital campaign, which will give the zoo a new entry plaza and Asian Passage, a modern Asian exhibit featuring species like tigers and orangutans. He has recently become the zoo's President and CEO. Here is his story.

@ Birmingham Zoo

Chris Pfefferkorn’s zoo career began as a summer job at the Glen Oak Zoo (now the Peoria Zoo.) “They hired me as a part time zookeeper and a part time horticulturalist,” he recalled. “The first day I left work, I knew this was what I would do for the rest of my life. I learned what it takes to provide care for animals and the great passion people have for them.” Next, Pfefferkorn became a keeper at the San Antonio Zoo and would end up staying there for five years. “I loved San Antonio and it gave me a great opportunity to work with a variety of animals,” he remarked. “I worked with giraffes, bears, primates and small mammals and eventually elephants and the off exhibit hoofstock area.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

His time at the San Antonio Zoo started Pfefferkorn’s interest and expertise in elephant management. “When I started working with elephants, we were in a free contact system,” he said. “After a year, we transitioned to protected contact so I understood what it took to work both systems. I learned a lot [at San Antonio] about elephant management, including foot care, bathing the elephants and the importance of training the elephants.” Pfefferkorn also got a lot of experience with hoofstock. “They had a large off exhibit hoofstock area where they were able to breed Nile lechwe, dama gazelles, scimitar-horned oryx and other hoofstock,” he added. “Back then, they worked to build up hoofstock herds for other places. The off-exhibit area let us split animals off, create herds and have space for sustainable populations. It was a great place to learn about managing hoofstock.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

Next, Pfefferkorn became General Curator in 1995 at the Ellen Trout Zoo, a zoo in east Texas. “I started my career in a small zoo, then went to a large zoo and then went back to a small zoo,” he noted. “It afforded me a lot of opportunities to manage and lead. [At Ellen Trout Zoo,] not only did I do collection management and acquisition but I also got to work with the animals and staff as well. It increased my knowledge of zoological management.”

@ Ellen Trout Zoo

Pfefferkron saw the potential for the Ellen Trout Zoo. “It was on small acreage but they had really great exhibits for big cats, an extensive venomous snake collection and a nice connection with the community,” he remarked. “They created a comprehensive master plan and they had to work with the city to acquire land around the zoo. It would add giraffes and rhinos and build a new hippo exhibit. My role was to be part of the team to develop the master plan and do research on the species.” Pfefferkorn learned a lot from the zoo’s director, Gordon Henley. “Gordon Henley had been around zoos for a long time so I learned a lot from him about zoo management and how zoos were run,” he stated. “He helped me understand working with city officials. I had been weak on the reptile side so I learned a lot about reptiles at Ellen Trout Zoo. “

@ Ellen Trout Zoo

@ Ellen Trout Zoo

In 1997, Pfefferkorn moved to the Oregon Zoo as Assistant Curator. “I had always looked at the Oregon Zoo and thought they did a lot of great things, especially in conservation and environmental enrichment,” he elaborated. “I became Assistant Curator but that was the only curator position they had.” Eventually, Pfefferkorn would become General Curator. A year later, the directorship of Oregon Zoo changed. “I was hired by Sherry Sheng,” Pfefferkorn noted. “She was very business-like. She would give us direction, let us work things out and make sure it was what she wanted. When we got Tony Vecchio as the Director, he had a much different style. He would be very involved with the staff and would have monthly lunches with the them. Tony was a visionary and was able to provide a great vision for the zoo. He started instilling animal welfare into the culture of the zoo and made it more prevalent. Tony got us involved in species recovery.”

@ Oregon Zoo

One of Pfefferkorn’s first assignments was Cascade Crest, the first phase of the Oregon Zoo’s massive Great Northwest expansion. It would feature mountain goats in an immersive mountain setting. “They were halfway through the design of the mountain goat habitat so I helped finish the design of it,” Pfefferkorn remarked. He would be heavily involved in the rest of the expansion, which would include black bears, mountain lions, Steller’s sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles and salmon. “That was a very pristine area when I got there so we just improved upon that natural trail,” Pfefferkorn commented. “The Oregon Zoo has a beautiful background so every exhibit had a gorgeous backdrop."

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“The exhibition with bald eagles and salmon in the same space was a great step,” Pfefferkorn continued. “It was really cool to see those species living together as you had a good vision of a cross section of the Oregon forest with salmon in the stream and eagles in the trees You could go into the opening of the exhibit with only a handrail between you and the eagle. The black bear habitat was unique as it had multiple viewing points on a hillside. We brought the bears to the public eye level but they could also be seen on the bottom of the hill. That provided guests different vantage points to see bear behavior. The habitat let the bears climb, get into the riverine and go in caves. We provided the bears what they needed for a diverse habitat.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“I helped acquire the animals for Stellar Cove,” Pfefferkorn mentioned. “We got the Stellar’s sea lions from Mystic Aquarium and the zoo had never acquired sea lions that big. It’s amazing when you look at a 290,000-gallon sea lion exhibit and see how graceful these 2,000 pound animals are. We had a live kelp forest and worked with Monterey Bay Aquarium to get non-releasable southern sea otters. We were the first place to breed Pacific sea otters. Stellar Cover helped people understand the ocean. We had the tide pool where educators could point out anemones and educate guests about how you should just look and not grab them in the coast.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Environmental enrichment at the Oregon Zoo grew under the watch of Dr. David Shepherdson. “David Shepherdson worked with the staff on enrichment,” Pfefferkorn articulated. “We tried to formalize the program even more and make sure it was implemented across the zoo. Having Shepherdson as a resource let us start talking about what enrichment we do and why. We wanted to provide the appropriate enrichment so we asked questions. What behavior are we trying to illicit? What type of enrichment and frequency should we use? We got people to break down what and why we were doing enrichment and record what was going on with it. We put more science behind enrichment and made sure it was in every department.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

As time went on the enrichment became more and more sophisticated to promote natural behaviors. “If you look at Elephant Lands, we wanted to elicit 16-18 hours of activity for the elephants and automatic feeders helped us achieve that goal,” Pfefferkorn explained. “They didn’t know where and when the food was coming. With our predators, we put out carcass feeding for the first time at the Oregon Zoo and let volunteers and educators explain it to our guests. We took a whole salmon, put it on a spring and hung it up for the cougars to leap and grab. We brought in a whole water buffalo carcass for the lion pride and let guests see them eat it.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

As General Curator, Pfefferkorn led the development of the award-winning Predators of the Serengeti, home to African carnivores such as lions, cheetahs and African wild dogs, and Red Ape Reserve, a new home for the zoo’s orangutans. “Predators of the Serengeti used to be an Alaska Tundra exhibit with grizzly bears, wolves and musk ox but we came up with the idea of renovating those spaces for African predators,” he remarked. “We had to move lions out of the zoo when we built Stellar Cove because the new exhibit was being built where the big cat building originally was. Predators of the Serengeti was a way for us to bring lions back to the zoo.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“Red Ape Reserve gave us the opportunity to increase space for orangutans, make it more complex, let them outside and add gibbons,” Pfefferkorn continued. “We wanted to make an investment into orangutans so we built an adjacent outdoor habitat. Some of the land we used was an old sea lion exhibit that was then filled in for lemurs. The orangutans could go outside for the first time. It was enriching to mix gibbons and orangutans and the viewing areas allowed gusts to get closer to the apes. We designed unique features like having zoo guests enter the exhibit through a giant log. We put in sway poles and ropes to allow the orangutans to show how they move.”

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2008, the Oregon Zoo passed a $125 Million bond that would take the zoo to the next level. It featured new modern facilities for Asian elephants, polar bears and chimpanzees as well as a state-of-the-art education center, vet hospital and a number of green initiatives. “All the projects were designed to improve the welfare of the animals,” Pfefferkorn explained. “We had a 30-year old penguin exhibit with a dump and fill pool so we put in a new filtration system. That helped their water sustainability. For Elephant Lands, we built it wholly for the elephants. If you look at the varied terrain, it’s a premier elephant exhibit. We built a new vet hospital that provides for the care and welfare of any animal that comes in.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2009, Vecchio left the Oregon Zoo to direct the Jacksonville Zoo and Kim Smith took over. She would expand on the zoo’s foundation in animal wellness over her four -year tenure. At this time, Pfefferkorn became Deputy Director of the zoo. “Kim Smith helped us instill welfare into everything we did,” he elaborated. “She took what Tony started to the next level. As Deputy Director, I worked very closely with Kim and we always talked about how our projects benefited the animals. Her vision for conservation and welfare helped push the zoo forward. She got everyone to think outside the limits.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

The Oregon Zoo became an active participant in the California Condor recovery program with the long-term goal of bringing condors back to Oregon. “We were able to acquire property east of the zoo to participate in the program,” Pfefferkorn said. “We have had over 40 condors born and have sent birds to California and Arizona for release. We were able to put that vision into play and it became very successful.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Pfefferkorn, Smith and elephant manager Bob Lee worked closely on Elephant Lands, the largest project in the zoo’s history that would create a world-class facility for the zoo’s famous Asian elephant herd. CLR Design was hired to make the complex a reality. “We traveled around, looked at different elephant exhibits and took the good pieces from all of them,” Pfefferkorn explained. “We made a list of non-negotiable criteria that needed to be met in the design- activity, varied terrain, pools the elephants could submerge in- and challenged CLR to make that happen.” It would be a very difficult, complicated and expensive project. “It was challenging for everyone as we had to think outside the box, especially as we had a service road we could not move,” Pfefferkorn noted. “We had to give the elephants choices like having them able to go outside or come inside whenever they wanted to."

@ Oregon Zoo

Elephant Lands opened in 2015 and received the Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “I think it’s an outstanding exhibit and should set the standard for other zoos,” Pfefferkorn reflected. “It let elephants be elephants. They could separate themselves from each other when they wanted to and come together when they wanted to. We had sand substrate, which is going to have a very positive effect on elephant welfare. We could put our males in with the females and let them live as a herd.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Particular attention was paid to the amount of time the elephants spent moving. “We started measuring elephant activity in the old exhibit and then measured it in the new exhibit,” Pfefferkorn remarked. “A lot of people build exhibits that look great but sometimes forget to ask if they built the right exhibit for the animal. We wanted to show results.” The facility also connected to the zoo’s rich history with elephants, starting with the birth of Packy, the first elephant born in the western hemisphere. “Elephant Lands contributes to the legacy of elephants at the Oregon Zoo as we can learn a lot more about elephant behavior when we put them in the proper social structure,” Pfefferkorn claimed. “Being able to evaluate how sand and space effects physical wellbeing is great and we can continue to function as a breeding facility and not separate the family.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2015, Chris Pfefferkorn came to the Birmingham Zoo as Senior Vice President under Dr. Bill Foster. “Dr. Foster called me to look at things at the zoo and started talking to me about a COO position,” he remembered. “I had never thought about leaving the Oregon Zoo and had been there 18 years but I thought why not. I decided I wanted to be a zoo director and moving to Birmingham would help give me that opportunity.” In early 2018, Bill Foster announced his retirement from the Birmingham Zoo.

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

“The reason I came to Birmingham is I saw all the opportunities and potential at the zoo” Pfefferkorn stated. “It’s a great zoo that didn’t tell its story well. We breed a lot of different bird species and have an all-male elephant herd. [Coming here] was a great change and a great opportunity."

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

The signature exhibit of the Birmingham Zoo is the state-of-the-art Trails of Africa, home to the nation’s only bachelor herd of male African elephants. “Trails of Africa is special because of the all-male elephant management,” Pfefferkorn articulated. “It was a big risk the zoo took but is very special.” The herd can even be integrated with other animals. “We’ve mixed elephants in with rhinos and elephants in with our lone hippo,” Pfefferkorn explained. “When they built Trails of Africa they put in a chute for the rhinos and hippos to accesss the elephant habitat. The hippo picks a large pool while the elephants continue to move around the habitat. It’s done very well. At one point, I observed of the bulls being surprised by the hippo being in the pool but now it’s pretty benign. At night, the hippo comes out and grazes around the exhibit. We have the ability to connect the elephant habitat to our giraffe habitat and are considering letting giraffe and hoofstock move through and share the same space as the elephants.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

Recently, the Birmingham Zoo became the first AZA zoo in the nation to become sensory inclusive. “One program I’m really proud of is we worked with Kulture City to make the zoo inclusive to more members of the community,” Pfefferkorn commented. “We made the zoo sensory inclusive so adults and children with Autism can come to the zoo and enjoy it. [For instance,] we have signs that identify loud and quiet spaces [to accommodate people with sensory needs.] Even at Boo at the Zoo and Zoo Lights, we have a sensory friendly night so folks that need a sensory inclusive environment can enjoy those events. We’ve heard people say they struggle to find places to take their children that are inclusive. The zoo has become a place they can take their children and enjoy their visit.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

Educating children has been a priority for the zoo. “We have a great education animal program that allows guests to get up close to wildlife,” Pfefferkorn stated. “We partner with a wildlife orphanage in Zimbabwe and they do a video conference with our Zoo School students and orphanage staff ever week to tie in the lessons learned throughout the week.” The Birmingham Zoo’s conservation programs have grown as well. “We support conservation work with leopards and brown hyenas in Zimbabwe, which I’ve been working with for 17 years,” Pfefferkorn remarked. “We’re trying to estimate their populations and learn more about their ecology. We’re also working with local farmers on livestock techniques to reduce loss.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

Currently, the Birmingham Zoo is undergoing a three-phase project. “[For the first phase,] we built a large green space with an outdoor classroom and a nature play area,” Pfefferkorn explained. “[For the second phase,] we’re currently constructing the new front entrance, which includes a new classroom, gift shop and membership services. Then, we will build Asian Passage, which will take our existing predator building and convert it into Asian Passage that will include a new orangutan and tiger habitats. Asian Passage is expected to open in 2020. It will let our orangutans go outside and we’ll renovate it for Asian species like Pallas cats, red pandas, Komodo dragons, fishing cats and Prevost’s squirrels. We’ll all working to have fewer but bigger and better habitats all for Asians species.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

Additionally, the Birmingham Zoo is going to add more habitats to its Alabama Wilds loop. “We’re working on a golden eagle habitat in Alabama Wilds so we can move them out of our predator building,” Pfefferkorn remarked. “There’s a resident population of golden eagles in northern Alabama and we want to connect [that story] to the public. We also have cougar and bobcat habitats designed to help finish out the trail. We really strive to educate the folks in Alabama about the wildlife around them. We’re working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Department of Natural Resources to become a member of the indigo snake recovery program.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

Pfefferkorn currently serves as Chair of the Ethics Committee for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “That was humbling to me because to be on the Ethics Board you get voted on by your peers,” he stated. “I’m really flattered [as] it is a very important job. We all have to work with each other to maintain the highest standards and the Ethics Board is one way of doing that.” The Ethics Board is responsible for ensuring all member zoos and aquariums follow AZA’s protocols and standards and operate with the highest ethics possible.

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

In 2016, the Birmingham Zoo received record attendance and the future of the institution is very bright. “For the Birmingham Zoo, I see us creating a master plan for expansion, improving existing facilities, doing species recovery and becoming a trusted resource for conservation and education in our community,” Pfefferkorn reflected. “Zoos have to work hard to maintain our relevance by making ourselves open to all and telling our story. We do a lot of work that helps the environment, local community and even inspiring people to get a college degree in conservation sciences. We need to keep working at letting everyone know what we do and that AZA zoos are safe, fun places for people to go. Once people are here, they learn something. That’s how we build our legacy and make sure people become a part of it.” In 2018, Foster retired and Pfefferkorn was named President/CEO of the Birmingham Zoo.

@ Birmingham Zoo

@ Birmingham Zoo

“I’m most proud of working to improve the welfare of animals,” Chris Pfefferkorn concluded. “I got into the zoo business as someone who wanted to make a different. I think being a zoo keeper and manager and working with talented individuals has made a difference. Everything from the dedicated and passionate people I’ve worked with to watching the passion of our guests as they enjoy the zoo.”

@ Birmingham Zoo

#BirminghamZoo #OregonZoo #EllenTroutZoo #SanAntonioZoo #PeoriaZoo

You Might Also Like: