The newly named president of the Buffalo Zoo has big shoes to fill.
But Norah Fletchall starts her new job May 22 knowing Donna Fernandes, the outgoing zoo president and chief executive officer, was firmly behind Fletchall's selection. The two industry leaders became acquainted through their involvement with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets industry standards and accredits zoos.
"I was thrilled when Norah's name showed up on the list of candidates because of her reputation within the industry," said Fernandes, who is stepping down after 17 years to spend more time with her family. She will remain involved with the zoo to complete some ongoing projects.
"I was cheering for her, and I am glad they made the choice I would have made," Fernandes said. "I can sleep at night knowing that Norah is going to be a wonderful leader at the Buffalo Zoo."
Fletchall worked the past seven years at the much larger Indianapolis Zoo. She was senior vice president and chief operating officer, and before that, supervising vice president of operations and vice president of conservation.
The Indianapolis Zoo, with a botanical garden and aquarium, occupies 64 acres, about three times the footprint of the Buffalo Zoo. Its 2,000 animals are double those in Buffalo's zoo. Last year's 1.2 million attendance more than doubled the 538,000 recorded by the Buffalo Zoo.
Jonathan Dandes, chairman of the Zoological Society of Buffalo, said a rigorous process led to the unanimous choice of the selection committee and then the zoo's board.
Fletchall "has the talent, experience, creativity and energy to take us through the next phase of the zoo's growth, and the next phase of the master plan," Dandes said in announcing her selection from the lobby of the zoo's M&T Bank Rain Forest Falls exhibit.
Fletchall praised Fernandes' accomplishments and said she would focus on completing projects already on the drawing board. That includes expanding the gorilla habitat, renovating the Reptile House and developing a new Himalayan Highlands exhibit.
"I will be moving forward with the master plan, and that will give me the opportunity to identify what other challenges we have, and take those next steps," Fletchall said.
"I'm pleased as punch to have this opportunity. My life's passion has always been and always will be to help connect people with wildlife," Fletchall said. "My career goal has always been to lead a zoo in a community that is part of the fabric of the community, such as it is here in Buffalo."
Fletchall was born in Missouri and raised in St. Louis. She called herself a child of the Midwest, and she recognized similar character traits in Western New York. She holds a bachelor's degree in animal studies from the University at Missouri and a master's degree in business from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
The Indianapolis Zoo's biggest attraction is the International Orangutan Center. The exhibit opened in 2014 and has 12 orangutans, the largest group in North America. The zoo was also the first to successfully breed African elephants through artificial insemination.
Flertchall's responsibilities were for the zoo's animals, facilities and guest services, according to a member of the Indianapolis Zoo's public affairs department.
During the search for a new president — which used an international search firm funded by M&T Bank — more than 100 people applied, Dandes said. The search committee reduced the number to 12 finalists, who were given phone interviews. Six applicants were then brought to the zoo, and three were chosen to meet all of the members of the zoo's board, leading to Fletchall's selection.
Dandes praised Fletchall for "academic credentials that are impeccable, with a long, long history in zoo management, and certainly great activity with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."
Under Fernandes' tenure, which began in 2000, the zoo developed $50 million in new exhibits and visitor attractions, enrolled more than 18,000 households as members and set a 30-year attendance high of 538,000 last year. The zoo also received AZA accreditation for an eighth consecutive time.
On Monday, Fernandes was praised for establishing a modern zoo that was transformed under her leadership.
"Jon (Dandes) mentioned when he introduced Donna Fernandes that she is beloved in this community, and she is beloved in this community," said Mayor Byron W. Brown. "I'm very happy to hear she will continue to make Buffalo her permanent home and will continue to be involved in moving along the mission of the Buffalo Zoo in this community."
"I appreciated her work and her tenacity on behalf of the zoo, and we have a better zoo as a result of it," County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. "On behalf of a very grateful Buffalo community, I want to thank you for all you have done for the zoo, and all you have done for our community."
Fernandes said she will continue to live in Buffalo seven months of the year and will spend the rest of her time in Florida. She will remain involved with the zoo for the time being, helping with design, implementation and fundraising for the remaining master plan projects that, she said, would "finally rid the zoo of the last of the worst of the WPA-era exhibits."
"I'm very upbeat, because I'm really pleased with their choice, and confident in the abilities of the person they selected," Fernandes said. "Because I'm staying in Buffalo, I don't feel the sad nostalgia about staying goodbye to people because I'll still be here."
"I want to thank this community for the amazing support you have given me," she said. "This community has celebrated all of our successes, and has been entirely responsible through their generosity for those successes."
Fernandes said she also didn't want to be a burden on her successor.
"I don't want Norah to feel she has these big shoes to fill," she said. "I think her style will be very different than mine, but I think her commitment to conservation and animal welfare are wonderful. I'm pleased that the zoo is being left in such good hands, with a staff that brought me to the level of success that I had, and the board still here. They'll have a great future."
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