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0 Comments | Aug 05, 2019

Animal Spirit

IMG_5599The San Antonio Zoo has been around—officially—since 1914 (the zoo celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1989). But if you spend some time exploring the history of the zoo—which CEO and Executive Director Tim Morrow, subject of this month’s profile, was kind enough to provide to me—you’ll find references to animal collections dating back to as early as the 1870s, with the original small animal collection residing in San Pedro Park. Credit for creating the original zoo goes to Colonel George W. Brackenridge (also founder of the Express News), and since its inception just over one hundred years ago, the zoo has had seven executive directors, with Tim having begun his stint in the position in December of 2014. But the path that got him to the zoo’s leadership role was a decidedly serpentine one, bearing absolutely no resemblance to what he thought lay in store as a youth growing up in San Antonio.

Tim’s father was an FBI agent and his mother was a teacher. Adopted at two month old in Washington DC, Tim and his sister (one year younger) moved to Hunters Creek, where they lived throughout his second- and third-grade years. Soon, though, with his father being a government employee, the family relocated briefly to Virginia Beach and then Dallas.

“Turned out,” Tim recalls, “the house in Virginia Beach was available because the previous resident, a man named Michael Smith, was relocating in order to begin training for the astronaut corps.”

Smith would later serve as pilot on the ill-fated Challenger crew that suffered its tragic accident on January 28, 1986.

The family lived in Plano through Tim’s high school years, returning to the Hunters Creek area following his sister’s graduation from high school. He recalls playing plenty of sports while growing up, but he always assumed he would follow his father into the FBI. Upon returning to the Alamo City, Tim began pursuing a law enforcement curriculum at San Antonio College while working at Fiesta Texas as a lifeguard during summers and holidays. He also worked for a while for the David Robinson Group, helping the Spurs star respond to fan mail and other correspondence, an experience that gave him an early sense for what great customer service looks like, a passion that would factor heavily in the years to come. He completed two law enforcement Associate degrees and then transferred to UTSA to pursue a Bachelors degree in Sociology.

“By this time my dad had retired from the FBI and was working security for the NBA. I remember all of his police colleagues trying to talk me out of going into law enforcement, which is sort of ironic given how things played out.”

Around 1996, Tim got a call from Seaworld asking if he’d be interested in helping to run their waterpark. He initially declined the offer, citing his law enforcement studies and his strong desire to work in that field. But they encouraged him to come by anyway, if only for a tour of the facilities.

“Well, long story short, I ended up loving the place. Once I started working there full-time, I decided this was going to be my permanent profession. A couple of years into it I attended a huge International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) convention and realized for the first time what a huge industry I had gotten myself involved with. In the end, I stayed nineteen years. I’ve made so many friends. I can’t go anywhere in the world now where I don’t meet people I’ve worked with in the past.”

When asked nearly two decades later if he was interested in being considered for a leadership position with the zoo, Tim again initially declined (“My first response has been ‘no’ to every job opportunity I’ve ever received”), but once again he was eventually convinced by the chance to make a difference in a one-hundred-year-old San Antonio institution. He arrived at the zoo in December of 2014—the zoo’s one hundredth anniversary—and quickly went into learning mode, absorbing all that he could about the place, its people, its infrastructure, and the animals that would now be his responsibility. His original plan was to spend the first ninety days just listening and learning, but without changing anything.

“That plan lasted three days,” he says. “When I arrived, there was already a project in the works to update the giraffe exhibit, but I didn’t feel like it was the sort of larger more naturalistic habitat that we should be pursuing. So we scrapped the existing plan and started from scratch.”

Tim’s biggest priority upon arrival—aside from learning as much as possible—was getting the word out about the zoo and what it had to offer to the community. That meant doing as many as five events a week for his first couple of years. One important aspect of the zoo’s operation that Tim discovered upon arriving was that, unlike many other city zoos, San Antonio’s is not supported by the city government; it is a self-sustaining nonprofit. And that means fund raising—lots of it. Dallas receives fourteen million a year from the city government, Houston and Fort Worth as much as ten million. But the San Antonio zoo must generate its own operating budget, doing nearly everything in-house rather than contracting it out.

So what’s the day-to-day job of a zoo director like?

“I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of nothing, “Tim asserts. “Every day is completely different. Some days it might be meetings with city officials. Other days I’m focused on guest experience, working to make that as positive as it can possibly be. I’ve traveled to over forty other zoos since starting here. San Diego and WCS (Bronx Zoo, etc.) are the benchmarks for zoo management. On the other hand, San Antonio was the first zoo in the country (and one of just two still) to have achieved all three major certifications for operations: Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Zoological Association of America (ZAA), and The American Humane Society, the latter of which has certification standards so detailed that they check down to the level of the crickets being fed to lizards.”

Zoo management comprises nine vice presidents who work with Tim to ensure smooth operations and financial solvency. Departments include Animal Care, Guest Experience, Conservation, and others. Tim, in turn, reports to a ten-member executive board as well as a full board of sixty-five members, all of whom are very enthusiastic about where the zoo is headed in the coming years. The zoo’s conservation efforts are a particular point of pride for Tim and the zoo’s supporters. These efforts are headed up by Dante Fenolio, Ph.D., and are at the core of the zoo’s purpose, as stated in the official vision statement—Secure a future for wildlife.

In order to bring to his leadership responsibilities as much experience as possible, Tim remains quite close with the executive directors who have preceded him at the zoo.

“There are more than fifty years of collective experience there, and that is of tremendous value to me.”

Other notable accomplishments since Tim’s arrival nearly five years ago?

“Well, lots of births for starters—lions, jaguars, you name it. We brought in two new elephants from Ringling Brothers, and we’ve expanded their habitat. We’ve also expanded the giraffe and rhino habitats, and are continually working to improve the others. We have the second largest bird collection in the country, and we’re world renowned for our expertise with flamingoes. We have two koalas on loan from San Diego this year. That requires flying in eucalyptus every day; it’s the only thing they’ll eat.”

Returning to the topic of the zoo’s conservation efforts, a great deal of this work happens outside the zoo proper, and so isn’t commonly known about. For example, Project Selva works with indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon Basin to provide tribe members with a means of generating cash (something the tribe members rarely use, except for when someone becomes ill and medicine is needed) that doesn’t require engaging in contracts with loggers or miners to exploit local resources. One innovative way of approaching this challenge has been the organization’s work with local artists leveraging the huge diversity of fishes in the area to create prints using a Japanese fish printing technique known as gyotaku. Lots more information about the zoo’s conservation efforts in the Amazon Basin is available at www.projectselva.org.

Another unsung challenge of zoo operation is the constant movement of animals from one park to another. Every species has its own coordinator, and animals are routinely swapped among zoos based on genetics, breeding, and other considerations.

“We recently moved one of our rhinos to Natural Bridge Caverns Park. We’ve supplied so many hippo babies to other zoos that we’ve been asked not to send any more over concerns about genetic diversity. We also just sent a big load of snakes and reptiles to Russia. There’s a web site for all of these exchanges—kind of a dating site for zoo animals.”

One of the biggest challenges of operating the San Antonio Zoo is working within the geographic constraints they have been given, i.e., fifty-five acres in the center of the Brackenridge Park area. Not only is the zoo surrounded by other parks, museums, and golf courses, severely limiting expansion opportunities, the land is also split by highway 281 (with fifteen acres on the east side of the highway).

“In addition to our space constraints, we encounter some interesting infrastructure issues from time to time. In 2015 we found hundred-plus-year-old wooden piping under the admin building. Every year we tackle one or two new sections of the zoo for modernization.”

Tim lives on the upper west side with his wife Jennifer Morrow, a USAA executive, and the couple’s son Colton (7) and daughter Sofia (5). And while the kids love the zoo, as you would expect, they are at a point in their lives where they’re especially keen on visiting Fiesta Texas. In addition, Tim has a son Austin (25) and a recent daughter-in-law L’Cee.

So what characteristics go into making a successful zoo director?

“I refuse to give up or take no for an answer. The key to success is to keep employees in mind first, and, of course, the animals! My ability to generate funding is critical to our work as well. Every penny we generate goes right back into the zoo.”

In addition to all its other projects and responsibilities, the zoo operates the nation’s largest nature-based pre-school. It’s called the Will Smith Nature School, and today it teaches 228 students, who are outside 65-70% of each day engaged in nature-based education. There’s more information about the school at www.sazooschool.org.

We eventually, inevitably made our way to the difficult topic of ethics and animal treatment policies, topics brought prominently into the spotlight by the 2013 release of the documentary film Blackfish, an event that took place toward the end of Tim’s tenure at Seaworld.

“What I learned from that experience is that you have to continually tell your story or someone else will make one up for you. I’ve made a point of being totally open about everything we’re doing here at the zoo. Sharing our story has been huge. We had 19,000 likes on Facebook when I got here. We have 173,000 now. We’re as open as we can be about our standards of care, our habitats, everything. Anybody can ask me anything they want and I’ll give my honest position on the issue. Zoos used to be judged by the quantity and diversity of their animal collections. Now we’re judged by the quality of our habitats.”

The challenge, of course, is to achieve these goals while ensuring animal keeper safety and creating high quality viewing experiences that do not compromise the habitats. With over a million zoo visitors each year, that is a monumental undertaking.

“We want visitors to have fun, but also to be constantly learning while they’re here. Part of our role is awareness building. There are things happening in the wild that people simply don’t know about, like the fact that giraffes are going extinct.”

It’s definitely a complex role, with a lot of moving parts. But it’s one that Tim feels he has spent his entire professional life preparing for—SeaWorld, Fiesta Texas, The Robinson Group, all of it. His goals are lofty but highly focused on outcomes.

“I want people to come down and see the zoo. I want them to have a fun time and to learn about all the things we’re working on. We want the city to be excited about what we’re doing here. We want everyone to come together and do it as a community.”

 

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