© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Big boots to fill in search for successor to Buffalo Zoo President

Buffalo Zoo President and CEO Dr. Donna Fernandes will play an active role in the search for her successor – someone likely to find that a zoo-leader’s boots are big shoes to fill.

Fernandes announced on Thursday morning that she would begin making the transition into retirement. On Thursday afternoon, the board of the Buffalo Zoo began the search for her successor, with help from Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn Ferry. Their intent is to find the next zoo president by February or March of 2017, and Board Chair Jonathan Dandes said Fernandes will be very involved in the process.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Buffalo Zoo Board Chair Jonathan Dandes

“We’re looking forward to going through that process and talking to some people,” said Dandes, “Because I think both the Buffalo Zoo and the Buffalo community are vastly different places then when Donna first got here 16 years ago.”

According to Dandes, the board will be looking for a candidate who meets or exceeds Fernandes’ qualifications and can focus on the zoo’s current priorities.

“The number one issue for the zoo is the maintenance of our collection and the completion of our master plan,” Dandes said. “That’s where Donna has been so instrumental in leading that charge.”

Fernandes – who will remain in her role until a successor is found – intends to stay active in the capital campaign and future fundraising following her retirement.

Fernandes wants to see a successor who is mission-driven in expanding the zoo’s role in local conservation projects. Though there’s no one specific in mind yet, Fernandes said her successor will likely be someone with experience in upper management for a zoo, aquarium, or major natural history museum. An advanced degree is not a requirement of the job, though Fernandes does have one. She said leadership management experience would be a plus.

“We want someone who is both technically, and academically, and from a zoological perspective sufficiently experienced and trained,” said Dandes.

As of now, there is no one within the zoo’s current staff who appears to be qualified for the job. The search is likely to go nationwide, and possibly international. Whomever is chosen, Dandes said it will be important for both the public and private sectors of the community to embrace them in order to ensure the zoo’s continued growth.

At 57, Fernandes said her primary reason for retiring is her husband, 69, who lives out of state along with the rest of her family. As they both grow older, she wants to spend more time with him. Fernandes will make Buffalo her primary residence for the future, but will also be spending time in a Florida home during the winter.

Looking back on all her time at the zoo, Fernandes pointed to some of its more recent accomplishments – the Arctic Edge and Rainforest Falls exhibits – as being among those she’s most proud of.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
The Arctic Edge Exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo

“$30-million alone just for those two exhibits,” Fernandes noted. “So I think it was really just being transformational in terms of how people perceive the zoo. Our attendance has skyrocketed with those two exhibits, in particular. It’s just been really important for me to bring the zoo into the 21st century.”

But soon it will be time for Fernandes to focus on some lifelong personal goals, who was originally trained as an animal behaviorist.

“I have a book idea that I’ve sketched out since I was a graduate student, and I’ve got chapters outlined,” said Fernandes. “So I think that I want to really have the time to do some of the fun things that I’ve talked about doing but just didn’t really have the time to devote that much focus on.”

For those around Fernandes, it’s a bittersweet time. Staff and board members have expressed happiness for their President and CEO’s future, along with sorrow at seeing her go. But humans may not be the only one’s feeling the loss. Fernandes makes daily rounds to see all of the zoo’s animals, and she said they’ve come to know her voice.

“It’s very touching when I come up to an exhibit and the animals hear me, and the hyenas run over to the glass, or Luna [the polar bear] runs over to the glass. So I think that they probably won’t notice until I’m actually gone that anything’s up,” said Fernandes. “I will continue to stay involved and I’m sure I’ll do my rounds on the days that I’m here just to say hello to all the animals as well as the staff.”

After enjoying the job for so long, Fernandes said the timing is right to let someone else do the same.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
Related Content