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Arctic Edge, Buffalo Zoo’s latest step forward, is a tribute to leadership of Fernandes

Much hard work, a lot of determined fundraising and a bit of dreaming went into the Buffalo Zoo’s recently opened Arctic Edge exhibit. With it, Luna, the formerly cuddly, now 6-foot-tall, 450-pound polar bear, can better enjoy life in Buffalo and the region can count this unique attraction among the growing number of destinations that add to the quality of life around here.

The exhibit attests to the fortitude of those who worked to make it happen, especially Donna Fernandes, the gifted and visionary president of the Buffalo Zoo.

The Arctic Edge is the 11th significant project in the 13 years since Fernandes became zoo president in 2002. It ranks as the second-most-expensive project, following the $16.2 million Rainforest Falls exhibit built in 2008. As The News’ Mark Sommer reported, the total for all the projects reaches nearly $50 million.

The exhibit opened 22 months after demolition began on the old Depression-era bear enclosures. The work was on time and under budget, an amazing feat everyone involved can be proud of.

Jonathan Dandes, chairman of the zoo’s board, rightly credits Fernandes’ leadership: “This is a testament to lots of people, but to Donna Fernandes, oh my. She deserves all the credit in the world.”

Fernandes and her team weathered fundraising shortfalls – a $2 million gap in the $14 million goal that led them in 2014 to revise designs. She admitted to sleepless nights, but her dream of an Arctic exhibit, conceived for an MBA course shortly before she started her job at the zoo, would become reality.

Always refreshingly blunt, pragmatic and passionate when it comes to her calling, she remembered her early opinion: “I thought one of the ugliest exhibits on campus was the bear exhibit, and that, absolutely, I couldn’t wait to tear it down and build a better exhibit.”

Done.

Luna, born at the zoo on Nov. 27, 2012, and one of only three polar bear cubs born that year in the United States, seems to have quickly adapted, providing the perfect model for News photographer Robert Kirkham.

So did the other occupants: a couple of gray wolves from Watertown; sister lynxes; and bald eagles that were relocated from other parts of the zoo. And Luna gets to check in with her mother, Anana, who now lives in a second polar bear enclosure.

While Fernandes’ latest vision has become reality, she continues to strive for more. Her list of accomplishments will grow longer still with the next project on deck: renovating the reptile house at a cost of $2.5 million. Already, $1 million has been raised.

Under great leadership and with wide support, the zoo has shed its image as a dark and uninviting corner of Delaware Park, much to the satisfaction of its inhabitants and the appreciation of the community.