Again, Buffalo is having to say goodbye to Donna Fernandes. More than anyone else, she made the Buffalo Zoo what it is today, a modern, expanding zoological park that is among the primary attractions of the New Buffalo.
Fernandes announced Thursday that she will retire as president and CEO of the zoo, causing heartburn among the zoo’s human supporters and possibly among its nonhuman inhabitants. She’s that good.
Fernandes has decided that, at age 57, it would be a good idea “to spend time with my family, to travel and to pursue some of the other goals on my bucket list.” It’s understandable, if regrettable.
Still, she will remain at the helm until sometime in the spring, giving the zoo breathing room to hire a new leader – one who is up to Fernandes’ high standards. Even after, she said she will remain available “to assist the zoo and my successor with long-term exhibit design and capital fundraising.”
That’s something. Indeed, it is far a better situation than the one that Buffalo and Erie County faced 11 years ago, when Fernandes resigned to lead the zoo in Fresno, Calif. It was an unhappy time in Buffalo, but not for long: Fernandes stayed only three months in Fresno before coming back.
Buffalo, too, is that good.
This time it’s safe to presume she is gone for good. There will be a new leader for the Buffalo Zoo and in selecting that person, the Zoological Society of Buffalo will have to pass two crucial tests: sustaining recent hiring standards at other important cultural institutions in Buffalo and ensuring that the zoo’s new leader is up to the standards set by Fernandes, who calmly and ably guided the zoo through trying moments and who also improved it. She has made a difference.
Only last month, the zoo won a new five-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Less than 10 percent of zoos in the country qualify for that standing, which requires high standards of animal care, keeper training, conservation, finances, education and visitor services, research and safety. It’s no slam-dunk.
And the zoo continues to improve. Last year it opened the $14 million Arctic Edge exhibit, a unique setting that provides a home for gray wolves, lynxes, bald eagles and polar bears, including Luna, the endlessly enchanting youngster who, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, is world famous in Buffalo. Fernandes had a hand in it all.
Next up is the Reptile House. The 74-year-old exhibit is overdue for an upgrade. That $2.5 million project could be ready by June, allowing the acquisition of a Komodo dragon, the largest lizard in the world. Other species will include the African dwarf crocodile, Fiji Island iguana, a gila monster, king cobra, Chinese three-striped box turtle and American alligator.
And after that comes the $6 million Himalayan Highlands exhibit, which will become home to a snow leopard, red panda and other species. That’s Fernandes’ influence.
Through it all have been animal births, including three polar bears, a hyena and others. Some caused criticism of the zoo. Fernandes responded thoughtfully and made improvements where necessary.
If anyone needed more evidence that Fernandes was the right person at the right time, she made this prescient observation in a 2002 interview: “Rebuilding the zoo will be part of a rejuvenated Buffalo.”
She was right. Both are happening simultaneously and should help to attract a bold new leader to succeed Fernendes. In that, the zoo’s board will have its own test: matching the quality of leadership recently selected for other prized institutions, including the Buffalo Museum of Science, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and others. All have hired leaders who show signs of excellence, which is the overarching quality that Fernandes brought to the Buffalo Zoo.
We wish her well. Even as we wish it weren’t true.