2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Barbara Baker’s leadership as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. On this occasion, Pittsburgh Quarterly posed a series of questions to Baker, a doctor of veterinary medicine with an MBA, about her tenure and the future of the zoo.
What brought you to Pittsburgh and what were your first impressions of the city?
I’m originally from South Carolina, and I first came to Pittsburgh in 1986 to accredit the zoo. I was very impressed with the zoo and the community and the people I met. But it also seemed to be a diamond in the rough; someone needed to take it and run with it. I told the city (the zoo was under the city then) that if the zoo director position ever became available to give me a call. And so when the position became available in 1990, I applied. We came and interviewed at a time when it was very green and beautiful. And because I’m a country girl, I was impressed that I could be in the big city and could live out in the country. I was very, very impressed with everyone I met, from the mayor all the way down and especially the staff at the zoo.
In 1994, the zoo became its own separate organization. What was that process like, and how has that changed the zoo?
When I started in 1990, the economy was going south and by 1992-93, the city was asking, “What should a city be running? What should be the governance of the aviary, Phipps Conservatory, and zoo?” While we were under the city, we were always competing with very essential services—fire, water and police—so it was hard to be a top priority; and it was hard for the city to afford the kind of zoo they really wanted to have. Zoos were privatizing across the country.
Over a 14-month period, we studied the key questions: Who would govern it? Who would run it? What would happen to the staff? The union? We developed a 99-year lease for the zoo. We maintained the same bargaining unit but rewrote the contract to better fit the zoo. We developed a financial plan and a business plan prior to privatization. At the same exact time, we were also working on the authorization of the Regional Asset District tax at the state legislature. It was pretty exciting but also fatiguing. And it came down to the exact same day in December 1993. The city approved our privatization at 11:08 a.m. and the RAD passed a little past 5 o’clock. And then we had a big party that night.
We literally took the zoo on a wing and prayer. We worried about how to fund it. The city paid for salaries of zoo staff for the first year, and then for the second year, the RAD tax support began—which now provides about 20 percent of our operating budget. We really didn’t know if we were going to make it. Most impressive to me was that supporters began calling within the first month. “How can we help to make the zoo a success?” That was one of the main reasons to privatize—foundations and corporations had been leery about giving large amounts of money to a governmental agency. In our first four years, we thought $200,000 in grants from private entities was a large amount. Now we have donations in the millions. We had 45 full-time employees when we left the city. Now our staff is 148. Our budget has gone from $3 million to $17 million.
How has the ideology of what a zoo should be changed from 1990 to 2015?
Dramatically. In the first 10 years, we strove to grow, maintain the zoo and build a solid foundation—for the community, our visitors and the animals, of course. Now, the modern zoo is really focused on what can we do for wildlife and conservation. We’re losing so many of these magnificent animals rapidly. For example, the African elephant—we’re losing 96 African elephants a day. The poaching for ivory in Africa has just exploded. So we really have to look at conservation of animals at the zoo but also outside the zoo.
“Our detractors sometimes say zoos shouldn’t be around. But the number of people visiting zoos continues to increase.”
In 2011, we rescued three African elephants from Botswana—two 18-year-olds and a 20-year-old. That’s prime breeding age. They had been rescued by a wonderful family in Botswana who built an enclosure for them. But there was an accident in Botswana in which a keeper was killed. These elephants were being used for a ride, and by law there, if there’s a death, the animal has to be destroyed. Several foundations pitched in, we rented a 747 plane, trained the elephants to go into the crates and flew them directly to Pittsburgh. We had nine before these three, and now the Pittsburgh Zoo has the largest collection of African elephants in the country.
About 10 years ago, we developed a conservation fund with our partners at PPG, and so far, it’s funded projects in 72 countries and two oceans. This includes coral propagation, in which we’re catching polyps off of coral reefs and planting them back out on reefs that have been destroyed. We’ve done this coral re-population in Guam, Mexico and Florida, including rescuing coral off of a Navy pier, where the pier was going to be blown up. We took that coral to other reefs, and some came to our zoo. Zoos and aquariums work together on these kinds of projects, multiplying our effect.
How does our zoo’s size, at 77 acres, compare with others, and how does that fit into your strategy? And what is the role of the 724-acre conservation center in Somerset?
Our zoo is considered to be a medium-to-large zoo. In our national association, the vast majority have a budget of $3 million or less and are smaller than our zoo. There are some mega facilities—such as the North Carolina Zoo with over 300 acres and the San Diego Zoo, which is actually only 62 acres but has about 1,000 acres in its wild animal park. (What they have that we don’t have is huge marketing budgets!) Our 77 acres provide a wonderful visitor experience. People can see the zoo in a day, and we’re one of only six zoos in the country with a major aquarium—and we don’t charge separately for visiting it. We have 8,918 animals (we just did a census) with 909 species. And right now we work with 52 species of concern, which are either endangered or threatened.
After the accident in 2002 in which elephant handler Mike Gatti was killed, we really took stock and thought about what we were going to do with elephants. Should we continue our elephant program? After much thought, from the board down to staff, we decided we should either get out of elephants or make a major effort with elephants. Mike had felt the work was very important, so we decided to continue the program and in a big way.
We decided to look for a breeding center off site, away from the zoo, not only for elephants but also for rhinos and cheetahs. We spent two years looking and ended up finding a 724-acre facility in Somerset that used to be a deluxe hunting ranch. The owners had decided to sell, and we bought it. It’s a gorgeous facility, with 20 paddocks and four different houses. It was perfect, and it’s very isolated, which is good for the animals. All we had to do was build an elephant barn—10,000 square feet—and we’re raising funds to build a maternal care center for cows and calves in a herd situation.
Jackson, who is the most valuable breeding bull elephant in the country, moved out there in 2009. It’s a beautiful area, and the Somerset community has been very welcoming—even to the point where they made a statue of Jackson at the Eat’n Park parking lot, and they decorate it at Christmas with a wreath around its neck.
How has the conservation message for the public changed, and what are the goals of the zoo in that regard?
Our detractors sometimes say zoos shouldn’t be around. But the number of people visiting zoos continues to increase. When I first got here, attendance was about 450,000 and had been dead flat for 10 years. Now we fluctuate between 850,000 and a million visitors a year, so we’ve really doubled the attendance.
I’ve always believed you can’t really justify having these fabulous animals in captivity unless you’re doing everything you can do to educate the public about them. When I started, we had 453 people in educational programs. Now, we’re up to 400,000, and we’ve built a 17,000-square-foot educational complex. We’ve gone from zero classrooms to 10, plus a large lecture hall. We have 24 different educational programs—all certified—which teachers can choose from. And we also have teacher workshops and our very popular summer programs. We have educational programs for just about every aspect you can think of in the community. And we have off-site programs where we go to the schools and nursing homes.
You’ve led the zoo through two high-profile crises, one in 2002 involving an elephant killing its handler, and the 2012 death of a 2-year-old boy who fell into the exhibit of African dogs, which killed him. How do you handle such crises, and what have you learned from them?
What you learn, ironically, on a personal level, is that some things simply aren’t your plan. We, as humans, desire to control our environment. Some things are just bigger than we are. What you have to do in my role after a tragic accident is, first, you’re the spokesperson. You have to be truthful and get as much accurate information out to the public as you can because people are concerned about the zoo.
Second, your biggest role is being supportive of your zoo and staff and community at large to help them through a tragedy. You have to be there for them. I spent a great deal of time on the grounds with the staff, and keeping the board informed. You really try to communicate as much as you can, so people have someone to talk with. Any tragedy like those is extremely hard on the staff and the community. People in Pittsburgh are proud of their zoo, and they consider it to be their zoo. One of my jobs is to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward because you can’t go back.
I’m a mother of seven children, so losing a child was extremely difficult. All of our zoo folks here have families, and 82 percent who come to the zoo are families. It was very hard. There’s a fine line. Having people be able to see the animals and having the appropriate codes for the animals to be viewed. The old school was they’re just behind bars and glass and in cages.
You’re working on a new exhibit—The Islands. How do you keep the zoo “fresh” and what is your strategy for its future?
The zoo is first and foremost a recreational facility. We’re very proud we’re the No. 1 cultural attraction in Pittsburgh and have been for probably 15 years. We try and open a new exhibit every three years, but because of what’s happened over the last six years, we’ve not opened a new exhibit. So we’re very excited to be opening The Islands. It’s an exhibit featuring five species, and each of them is endangered. We’re very proud of that, both educating visitors about these marvelous species but also having breeding programs for them as well.
We’ll have Philippine crocodiles, the most endangered crocodile species in the world, with fewer than 100 in the world. We’ll also have Galapagos tortoises, clouded leopards, warty pigs and siamangs. Siamangs are a lesser ape, the next level down from chimps, apes and gorillas. They swing through trees and are huge vocalizers. So not only will Highland Park hear the lions, they’ll also hear the Siamangs. Fortunately, they don’t call at night.
The zoo is in a great place right now. We have a fabulous board and wonderful support from the community. The zoo now has no unsupported debt. That’s amazing. We have a fabulous staff, and our management team has over 300 years of animal expertise. People stay for a long time.
We have a daughter who just got accepted at Kent State. So I’ll be here at least another five years because I have to pay one more college tuition. But I’ll probably be here another 10 years unless they kick me to the curb. We’ve been here 25 years, and Pittsburgh is home, even though I still have a Southern accent. We’re really looking forward to the great things we can do for wildlife and conservation in the future.