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Thriving with change and continuity

Posted by: Bruce W. Bohmke, Acting President and CEO

November marks a yearly turning point as fall unleashes its contribution to the cycle of life, and along with it the certainty of change.

As we prepare to close out the year and begin anew, I can tell you that we are thriving in the midst of change. Since becoming acting president and CEO in June, I have been impressed by the resolve of our staff and board to continue dreaming big. My focus is to ensure continuity in the delivery of our mission while also evolving the zoo of the future, as guided by six goals in our strategic plan and our Long-Range Physical Development plan.

A Board Search Committee, aided by the executive search firm Spencer Stuart, is scouring the nation for the best, next zoo leader. I’m confident that excellent candidates will find irresistible our large and loyal membership, educational and conservation impact, and reputation as a standard setter in naturalistic exhibit design and animal care. We anticipate selecting and embracing our next leader between April and July 2016.

Until then, our goal is to sustain, innovate and deliver more value to our cherished members, supporters and partners. With Thanksgiving around the corner, YOU top our gratitude list. Let’s honor the renewal and change you make happen by reflecting on some of the year’s highlights and looking ahead to what’s coming.

Making every visit count

We’ve worked hard to make every zoo visit a conservation action. We care about reaching as many people as possible, as often as possible. Thanks to an ever-improving guest experience, this year member visits and repeat visits are up—21 percent higher than three years ago as of September.

And although a few weeks of sizzling summer weather kept some of you at home, by September 30 we had reached 98% of our overall attendance goal. Our grizzly bears simply took to splashing in their river to beat the heat.

For our fourth season of WildLights presented by Sound Credit Union, the zoo’s winter festival beginning November 27, we expect a strong turnout to thrust us past 100% of our overall attendance goal. With improved, all-season programming, the zoo really is Seattle’s best, year-round resource for fun and educational family experiences.

Photo: @momsasaurus via Instagram.

Keeping you satisfied

Even more than visitation, the numbers my staff and I care about relate to guest satisfaction. I’m pleased to report that 96 percent of guests surveyed this summer described their visit as having “met or exceeded their expectations,” and 93 percent agreed that their visit “was worth the time and money.” Consistently high over the last several years, such ratings let us know our investments in customer service, more interactive experiences, and more up-close animal encounters are paying off. We’ve also seen an especially big jump in visitors’ satisfaction with wayfinding, from 78% to 88% since 2008, owing to a new cross-over path, new directional graphics, and simpler, more customer-friendly entry and exit.

Numbers are one thing, but it’s always a pleasure to see this satisfaction on members’ faces. Families frequently send us photos of their “wild time” and their delight reminds me of why I have loved working here since 1999. Every staff member and volunteer works hard to ensure that up-close zoo experiences are dynamic and different every single day. However, sometimes we just can’t prevent them from “going to the birds.”

Visitor photos via Instagram, clockwise from top left: @vedasana, @rain_caster, @ericaxosalhus, @refreshww.

Touching hearts and minds

We completed and opened the much-anticipated Malayan tiger and sloth bear exhibits in the new Banyan Wilds, the largest exhibit transformation here since the Trail of Vines 20 years ago. We brought majestic tigers back to the zoo.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

These awe-inspiring wildlife ambassadors warmed your hearts and opened your eyes to a compelling story of how our partnership with Panthera is working on the front lines in Taman Negara National Park and the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor to save the last Malayan tigers. With Malaysian colleagues on the ground, we are scientifically mapping tigers' remaining breeding sites, known as hot spots, and protecting them from criminal poachers. 

I hope you were among the 90% of all zoo visitors who explored the new exhibit; for 40% of you, it was the primary motivation for visiting.

Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

You got closer than ever to these majestic animals, and you witnessed our staff demonstrating exciting interactions with tigers and bears. It is part of how we’re bringing more of our excellent care procedures out in front of the exhibit, and sharing what it takes to protect these cats in the wild. Already staff members are working hard to bring you more engaging, hands-on exhibit interactives in 2016 and new ways to take conservation action with our Tiger Team. Together we need to Show Our Stripes in Seattle if we are to save these felines in the wild.

A tiger art ambassador from the Show Your Stripes Tour. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.
To save tigers, we need to get people talking about them. At the base of the Space Needle, we launched our Show Your Stripes Tour—the unveiling of 10 tiger statues designed by local artists to raise awareness throughout the Puget Sound area of the plight of tigers. Several of the art tigers sold for $20,000 at Jungle Party on July 10, an event which raised more than $2 million this summer for the zoo’s mission.

Keeping your zoo in top (and green) shape

Not all zoo improvements can be as visually stunning and sexy as tigers. To increase the zoo’s value to a growing community, and to steward the 116-year-old park infrastructure that makes great animal experiences possible, requires revitalizing facilities, innovating in naturalistic exhibitry, improving our beautiful grounds, and continuing to model sustainability for our entire community. 

Having lacked a dedicated source for major maintenance funds since 2008, the $1.8 million a year for six years that voters approved through the new parks district levy catapulted many critical projects from the “someday” list to the “right away” list. With those funds and with existing King County Levy monies, in 2015 we targeted upgrades to our electrical, water and other utility systems, replacing aging and energy-draining structures. 

Some projects less obvious to visitors will nonetheless make a big difference. We replaced the roof on the Animal Hospital building, and many other roof structures are in line for replacing. We also installed water-conservation devices to maintain our grounds full of significant horticulture wonders. 

Woodland Park Rose Garden in bloom. Photo: Kirsten Pisto.

Even through a hot summer, facilities and horticultural staff achieved a drop of 12.7 percent in our water use and still kept the place looking beautiful. 

We also completed installation of new solar panels on the Commissary and on the Rain Forest Food Pavilion, as part of our new Community Solar on Phinney Ridge project—the largest community solar project in Washington. The zoo, Phinney Neighborhood Association and Seattle City Light are partners.

Solar panels installed on the roof of the zoo's Rain Forest Food Pavilion. Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The panels turn the pavilion into a sun-loving energy producer. Across the zoo, electrical system upgrades to decrease our energy draw, combined with other new and existing solar projects, move us closer to reaching our sustainability goals. 

Achieving big wins for animals and people

Just last Tuesday, you, the zoo and Washington made history with Initiative 1401, which passed with an overwhelming approval rate. With this groundbreaking, grassroots effort, we’ve established a model for other states and nations to stand up against the illegal trafficking of wildlife parts and products that fuels the extinction economy. 

For the past 18 months, our volunteers and staff have talked with thousands of people at the zoo and in the community about the urgent need to strengthen our state’s laws and government actions to protect animals like elephants and rhinos from poaching and illegal killing. Nearly everyone they spoke with agrees that wildlife trafficking must be stopped. 

Washington voters decided that elephants need their ivory more than we need trinkets, and that the real figure, not the figurine, is what matters to our future. Thank you to our members, donors, volunteers and partners for your advocacy to fight for animals and for joining the coalition of Woodland Park Zoo, the Humane Society of the United States, Seattle Aquarium, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Sierra Club, WildAid, and Paul Allen, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society and the 96 Elephants campaign.

Looking forward

Having brought tigers back to the zoo, we now look forward to bringing back a long-time member and visitor favorite in spring 2016: the Butterfly Garden. Zoo staff are busy designing a seasonal, multisensory marvel to immerse you in these insects’ amazing flight techniques, survival strategies, and in their beauty. It’s a great way to experience the relationship between animals and flowering plants.

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
Butterflies may even perch on your shoulder as you stroll about and learn ways to foster a pollinator-friendly habitat that invites these fascinating insects to your own backyard.

Near the new exhibit, we’ll celebrate Zoomazium’s 10th anniversary as well as inaugurate a new interpretive stage purpose-built for the unique nature-play space. It’s part of how we’re enhancing programs for early learners and expanding our popular presentation animal program, in which staff engage guests in up-close encounters with smaller animals not typically displayed in landscape exhibits.

Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Another way we’re enhancing zoo experiences is by studying their role in fostering empathy for other species. The art and science of caring speaks to the heart of our mission: to learn, care and act. So, we’re working with other top zoos and aquariums on a national model for fostering empathy, and measuring our collective impact. Of course we all know that kids naturally love animals, but we want to learn how children’s experiences with live animals encourage positive emotions toward them, and expand our sense of justice to include natural systems as well as altruism in social relationships.

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

We often think of the zoo’s business as that of animal well-being, or environmental education, or conservation, and it’s all of those. But at the heart of it is the business of caring—for animals and people.

During the holiday season, we tend to think a lot about what and whom we truly care about. Did you know the words caring and charitable share roots? You have many deserving choices for year-end charitable giving. If you haven’t already, please consider making a gift to your zoo.

Together we’ll renew our commitment to helping everyone care about our world’s natural wonders. Thank you!