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Donna Fernandes

Seldom, it seems, are people in the public eye so universally admired as Donna Fernandes.

It’s been that way since Fernandes arrived in Buffalo in 2000 to lead the Buffalo Zoo, following stints at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn.

And lead, she did.

Fernandes, the zoo’s president and CEO, came along at a time when the zoo’s accreditation was at risk due to obsolete and inhumane enclosures. Together with the board of directors, she set upon a path to transform them.

The opening of the $14 million Arctic Edge exhibit in September 2015 marked the 11th major exhibit or upgrade since 2002, at a cost of nearly $50 million.

During Fernandes’ tenure, Otter Creek, Sea Lion Cove, Heritage Farm and the ambitious Rainforest Falls were among popular attractions to open. The veterinary hospital also was expanded and the elephant house renovated, although the amount of space for the pachyderms remains a sore spot for animal-rights activists.

Fernandes’ leadership has been pronounced in other ways, too. As people wrung their hands over what to do about Erie County’s so-called red/green budget that threatened cultural funding in 2005, she quickly announced a series of steps that included cutting her own salary by 20 percent.

Fernandes left Buffalo the same year to run the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., but she couldn’t stay away after realizing she was more excited about the birth of a giraffe in Buffalo than the one in Fresno.

Buffalo welcomed her back three months later with open arms – the same position they’ve remained.

– Mark Sommer

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