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Buffalo Zoo president to leave post after years of doing 'remarkable job'

Buffalo Zoo President Donna Fernandes, who announced her retirement Thursday, spent 16 years transforming a once-moribund facility into a cultural asset with a bright future, zoo and community officials said.

Last year’s opening of Arctic Edge, the polar bears' new home, was the latest exhibit added to the Delaware Park attraction.

Rainforest Falls, Otter Creek, Sea Lion Cove, Heritage Farm, EcoStation and Vanishing Animals were all designed and built under her watch, part of the 2002 master plan she formulated.

Some 11 projects, at a cost of $52 million, have been completed since Fernandes arrived, including a new entrance, expansion of the veterinary hospital, renovation of the Elephant House and less obvious improvements such as new electrical and water systems. A 12th renovation – of the Reptile House – is expected to begin construction in 2017.

"Donna's vision and persistence have transformed the zoo, leading that historic institution to a bright future," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. "She has also been a strong presence in our cultural community and a key part of the renaissance that is happening in our area."

Fernandes said she's leaving the zoo to spend more time with her husband, who lives out of state. She told her staff first Thursday morning.

“It was hard. I was trying not to cry this morning, because I love this place and I always will,” Fernandes said. “My husband and I have been together for 20 years, and actually never lived together. We’ve commuted my entire married life. I didn’t want to regret that I didn’t have enough time to share with him because I stayed in this position too long.”

Donna Fernandes, president and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo, plays with Buki the elephant in 2005. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Donna Fernandes, president and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo, plays with Buki the elephant in 2005. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Fernandes will continue to live in Buffalo, and she will remain involved at the zoo with exhibit design and capital campaign fundraising.

She will also spend time at a second home in Florida, where other family members reside.

“This is bittersweet for all of us,” said Jonathan Dandes, the zoo’s board chairman. “We’re thrilled for Donna because she gets to go through her bucket list and do the things she wants to do with her family, which is something she has talked about with the board for many years.

“On the other hand, she has done an absolutely remarkable job here, and this community and the zoo staff and zoo board certainly appreciate and recognize that we have literally the best zoo executive certainly in the country, if not the world, and it will be difficult to replace her.”

The executive search firm that found Fernandes will execute a national search for her replacement. Fernandes will stay until her successor is hired, anticipated in early 2017.

[Related: Editorial: Retiring Buffalo Zoo president helped build a dynamic, forward-looking asset]

“She is a great, great person, and she has done a phenomenal job as president and CEO of the Buffalo Zoo,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “The city has worked very closely with her over the years, and she has been a passionate advocate for the animals, bringing families to the zoo and raising the resources necessary to help built our zoo into a world-class facility.”

When Fernandes came to Buffalo in 2000, she inherited an institution in decline.

Many of the exhibits in the nation’s third-oldest zoo were built in the 1930s and ‘40s and were in desperate need of replacement. Maintenance had been deferred. Attendance was at a low of 345,000.

“The first time I saw the zoo, I walked around and remember thinking the only exhibit worth saving was the hyena exhibit, which was built in 1996,” Fernandes said. “I saw mostly outdated exhibits, and that the polar bear exhibit would have to be on the top of the list of things to be replaced.”

Polar bear Luna in her home at the Arctic Edge exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Polar bear Luna in her home at the Arctic Edge exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Fernandes also inherited a bad report from the American Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Her predecessor pursued building a new zoo on the waterfront. Fernandes was able to get in place funding and designs for the cat and primate areas to receive the association's provisional approval in 2001, and full approval the following year.

Fernandes had ambitious plans for the zoo, but she first had to convince the board they were attainable.

“I think it took a while for the board to understand my level of drive, just because there hadn’t been a lot of capital construction at the zoo,” Fernandes said.

She presented the board with a choice between a plan that would ensure the zoo met the association's minimal standards, or one that would produce a state-of-the-art zoo with better visitor and educational experiences. The board accepted her vision for the future.

A change in the zoo’s culture was also needed with staff. They had grown cynical over plans that had come and gone without being adopted, Fernandes recalled.

“I said, 'This time, we’ll get it done,' and I think it took a couple of projects before the staff had faith that it really would be done. They also came to see it would be of a caliber in terms of design quality and material that would merit respect and admiration from their colleagues,” Fernandes said.

The biggest lift would prove to be M&T Bank Rainforest Falls, which took two years to design and two years to build at a cost of $15.5 million. An indoor South American rainforest was built in the middle of the zoo using heavy construction equipment, while the zoo remained open.

“When we opened the exhibit, I spoke at an AZA conference, and there was this sort of shock that this exhibit had been built in Buffalo, N.Y., because our reputation in the industry hadn’t been particularly positive in terms of exhibit quality,” Fernandes said.

[Related: Fernandes lifted the zoo out of the Dark Ages, Donn Esmonde wrote in 2015]

Today, Fernandes is struck with how little the map of the zoo looks today compared to the visitor map from 2000. She said it’s better for the animals, too.

“We have larger enclosures, a lot of issues of health have been addressed, including lead paint, and we have great breeding success because of the way we’ve designed exhibit and holding areas, so it’s definitely been much better for their psychological well-being,” Fernandes said.

The changes have also prompted better behavior by the people looking at them, she said.

“When I first started here, a lot of kids would throw things at the animals or bang on the glass,” Fernandes said. “But when you display them respectfully, it engenders respect from the visitor. You see a lot less of what I would consider malicious behavior from visitors than when I first got here.”

Fernandes encountered financial hurdles, such as a county shortfall of funding in 2005 when she acted quickly by laying off people, slashing her own salary 20 percent and closing the zoo two days a week.

She also left the zoo to take a job at another zoo in California during her tenure, but returned after realizing it had been a mistake.

Fernandes is leaving on a high note, with so many exhibits and infrastructure projects completed. This year's attendance passed 500,000 this week, already more than last year.

She is quick to credit others, including animal curators, horticulturists, art directors and educators who have helped her craft the exhibits.

“When you work at a cultural, particularly one dedicated to wildlife, you have really dedicated people,” she said. “There aren’t huge salaries, so you get people really committed to the mission. I’ll miss my day-to-day interaction with them.”

Fernandes will also miss the animals.

“I go around every day, and the animals recognize my voice,” she said. “It’s very touching when the hyenas run over to the glass, or Luna goes over to the glass,” she said, referring to the popular polar bear.

Dandes said the zoo and the community owe a great debt to Fernandes.

“When it comes to the zoo, she has a backbone of steel, which is another reason why everyone loves her,” Dandes said. “We call her our rock star. That’s because you can’t go through Wegmans or walk down the street without someone literally wanting her autograph.”

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