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Denver Zoo CEO Bert Vescolani holds a black-breasted leaf turtle inside the zoo's Tropical Discovery exhibit on Jan. 29, 2019. Vescolani was named the zoo's CEO in August 2018. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

Bert Vescolani took over as Denver Zoo’s new CEO late last summer, but he says it’s a position he’s been working toward for decades.

As a kid in Michigan, his family would take winter breaks from laboring in his father’s sporting goods shops to go skiing in Colorado, and, as an adult teaching high school science, he says he would spend his summers hiking and mountain biking around the West. As an executive at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and then later as the leader of the John Ball Zoo in Michigan, he said he was wowed by the innovation of Denver Zoo’s Predator Ridge exhibit. And as the CEO of the St. Louis Science Center, he said he was impressed with Denver Zoo’s collaborative staff.

“They just always seemed to be a team, and that’s what resonates with me,” he said. “I want to be part of a culture that works together and finds ways of doing things that make a difference.”

But he takes over the zoo at a critical point in its long history.

Many of its exhibits are aging and in need of modernization — part of the reason the zoo sent away its popular polar bears to different zoos with no timeline for a return. Many of its animals are growing older, as well. Two giraffes at the zoo, including one that was the oldest in North America, have died in the past six months.

More people are visiting the zoo than ever, but funding to address some of the problems is tight, after the zoo asked for $70 million from a general obligation bond package passed by Denver voters but received only $20 million. That’s causing the zoo to rethink how it implements its master plan.

So where does the zoo go from here? Vescolani said the zoo will have to become “probably more focused in our collection,” but he talked about a lot more than that during a recent interview with The Colorado Sun.

The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.

“This is what I really love”

The Colorado Sun: What brought you to Denver after seven years of running a nature and science museum?

Bert Vescolani: There’s always been this kind of getting back to this industry. I always loved it. I missed it. There was someone who said to me, a colleague of mine, who said, “Everytime you talk about your zoo experience and your aquarium experience, that’s when your face really lights up, that’s when you get really excited.” And I went, “You know, why am I fighting this? This is what I really love.”

CS: You started your career in zoos and aquariums as a volunteer then worked your way up. What was the No. 1 lesson you learned when you stepped from an executive role to the executive role?

BV: I think the hardest thing is moving out of programmatic management to not owning programs anymore. And, when I say owning them, they’re your babies. When you develop an education program or we had this whole diver program we established around safety and training programs for our sharks, those are your babies. You hatched (the programs) as a team and you worked really hard at that.

So giving them up was tough, and the more senior you got, the more responsibilities you got, the less you could do that.

CS: Did you say … training sharks?

BV: Yeah. In the animal care field, the optimal opportunity to take the best care of those animals almost always is around training. And if you can find an animal that is food-motivated — like sharks — you can train them. Or at least we believed we could, and we had success with it.

So we developed a shark training program. It was target training. You used a stick with a ball on the end. The shark would come up and put his nose on it; you’d feed him. After a bunch of times, it worked out so that we could get a really good look at that animal so we wouldn’t have to get in the water with them all the time.

CS: You’ve talked about the admiration you’ve had for Denver Zoo throughout your career. What’s made the zoo stand out nationally, in your view?

BV: Predator Ridge was the first big innovation. … It was one of the first — there may have been one or two others that were pushing the edge on this — but it really was the first place in time where they had taken a multi-species approach to different yards. Habitats that were changeable that you could move different animals in and out throughout the day — which is a little bit more like it would happen in nature. The ability to move them around, with the scents and all the other things that come with having multiple animals in those spaces, that was pretty innovative.

The way they built the movement of the animals behind the scenes for safety and training and for aspects of care was also pretty unique. It was complicated, but it worked. And it still works.

Veterinarians at Denver Zoo perform an exam on a tiger on March 7, 2013. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The zoo’s place in a modern Colorado

CS: This gets to a pretty big challenge for zoos, the potential conflict between caring for animals and providing viewing experiences for visitors. What do you see as the best, highest purpose of the Denver Zoo?

BV: For sure, education is at its heart. That is the core of all zoos and aquariums across the country. No matter what they do in their other things, that’s what we’re all about. And we’re all about that because of some ends, right? And some of those ends are — wildlife needs us. There’s no doubt about it that we are in a time where animal life, plant life, habitats, ecosystems are all under pretty major threats. And some of that, we can identify and work with.

And zoos and aquariums are involved in conservation and try to help create awareness and buzz, if you will, around issues that are out there. And some of that is about helping people find the right behaviors and things they can do in their own life. And we’ve stopped a little bit short of that here, but you will start to see more of that.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: It’s interesting, when I first got here, I was living in a hotel room. And I’d turn on the news, and I’d see all these reports about bears. Bears are in someone’s backyard; bears are in someone’s garage. They broke into someone’s car; they’re in someone’s restaurant.

So, as people have gone further out and bears’ habitat is being encroached on, how do we help people cope with that? How do we help the bears stay where bears are supposed to be and people stay where people are supposed to be? You know, be conscious of these are big, aggressive animals and they can do harm, but their intention — they’re looking for food is what they’re doing. And so how do we better prepare people for that?

So as we think about the future, what’s our role? How can we help people connect with nature in a different way? We utilize this environment because you can see them close. And some of the animals we have, people will never see in the wild, either because they’ll never go to those places or because they’ll be gone before they get there.

Cranbeary, one of Denver Zoo’s former polar bears, is photographed in her exhibit on July 27, 2016. She was moved to a zoo in Alaska in October 2018. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

“Exhibit changes need to happen”

CS: As you’re trying to implement this vision, how do you deal with the zoo’s limitations — its age and its size?

BV:  It’s a 123-year-old facility. With an aging infrastructure that we have, it’s looking at the magnitude of change you can make, how much disruption you can manage and — money, right? Twenty-five-ish percent of our revenues come from city, county support. The rest of that, we earn and raise. So, in a $40 million to $42 million budget, that’s a lot of money.

…We’ve got to figure out how to do that in the best possible way we can — managing our resources, managing expectations and opportunities. So, exhibit changes need to happen. They’re just not cheap to build.

CS: When you’re changing exhibits, what will they look like? Are they bigger? More naturalistic?

BV: Not everything needs bigger space, but where they do, yes. Naturalistic is definitely much more appealing to the guest. It doesn’t always translate to the animal. It might surprise you. Sometimes they’re much better in an environment that’s a little safer for them, which might not have dead trees and big rocks and so on and so forth.

And you say, “Well, in nature they would have that, why not here?” They may be geriatric animals that, in the wild, would not be alive. So we’ve got to develop habitats and exhibits that match the animal needs and public needs, but animal needs first.

…Safety, security and their well-being are the three bigs. And then after that, it becomes a guest experience perspective. If we can’t exhibit them well to the guest, we probably shouldn’t have them.

CS: Can you make these changes while keeping the same number of species? How many animals does the zoo of the future have?

BV: Probably in pure numbers, probably less. And probably more focused in our collection. The animals in our care, we want to make sure we’re being really thoughtful about it. And that master plan expressed that. That was the focus of the master plan.

…I would love for people to have that experience where they see the awe of seeing a lion and they say, “How are lions doing in the wild? How can we make a difference?” And we help them navigate that.

An artist’s rendering of what Denver Zoo’s new animal hospital will look like. Construction began on the facility in February 2019, and it is scheduled to be completed in 2020. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

Aging animals, limited money

CS: If there’s going to be fewer species here, how do you decide what stays and what doesn’t?

BV: I think that’s a process. We are constantly thinking about, as we’re making exhibit changes and modifications, it’s not as simple as saying, you’ve got an elderly animal and ultimately when that animal fulfills its life here, we may not replace him, that group of animals. That’s how we make most of our decisions around that. We let them live their life where it makes sense.

Sometimes we get recommendations for breeding purposes. Most animals in zoological settings were born in zoos, and they’ve been multi-generational zoo-born animals. So the population genetics is managed at a national and international level.

CS: You mentioned the zoo’s master plan. The money from the general obligation bond wasn’t as much as you were hoping for. So will the plan need to be rewritten?

BV: Rewritten is not what I would want to do. There’s so much good work that went into that. I think it’s a scale thing. Let me put it this way: The first project on that master plan was the hospital. The hospital will be amazing. It will be truly a state-of-the-art focused space that will allow us to do the work we already do really well but will give us the best tools possible.

After that, we’re doing the grizzly bear exhibit. And that will be that story — how do you live with grizzly bears in the wild and in your own backyard.

CS: This is in the former polar bear space?

BV: Right. … The spirit of (the master plan) is still very much where we’re going. Many of the big pieces of that master plan, we’ll do. It’s just scale. I’m definitely committed to polar bears. I want to bring polar bears back. I think seals and sea lions — sea lions make a lot of sense for us in the future. It’s a really important story for us to tell, from the meltwater all the way to the ocean and the challenges that oceanic wildlife are dealing with right now.

CS: Any desire to expand the zoo’s overall footprint?

BV: Well … not now. Not really. It’s really this: We’re in a park; there’s nowhere else for us to go here. This is a community park, we have neighbors that are the Nature and Science Museum. It’s a public space. It’s well used. The golf course is across the street. This is good.

I think if we had to think about the future, it’s working collaboratively with other zoos in other places to think about how we work together differently. And that might expand the footprint of any of the three of us accredited zoos in the area — the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Pueblo and us. But that’s way down the road.

A Lake Titicaca frog is seen in its enclosure at Denver Zoo in March 2016. The zoo has a long-running conservation project in Peru to preserve the frog. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The beauty of ugly creatures

CS: When looking at the species that are part of the master plan, how much do economic considerations come into play and the visitor draw? Sea lions can do performances but seals generally don’t.

BV: So consideration for optimal care is always first. Habitat, animal wellness, all those things are generally first and foremost. The second consideration is what are the things around those animals that may be cost-prohibitive. So maybe they have a special diet and that special diet has to be flown in from some special place. And that becomes a question mark. What happens if you can’t get that diet or it becomes cost-prohibitive?

The public appeal is definitely part of it. There are some animals that may have no public appeal that we have on exhibit, and we’re going to keep them on exhibit because we think there is a really important conservation story.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: Lake Titicaca frogs. Have you ever seen a Lake Titicaca frog?

CS: Probably here?

BV: To some, they are a not overly attractive frog. But their story is so important. They live in a lake that is — we’ve got a project in Peru — and that lake has gone through the worst it can go through. And will it ever come back? What are some of the important species and indicator species for us to have? And frogs are this really kind of interesting intermediary, right? They eat the insects and they provide food, and they’re just kind of one of those, in the food chain, a pretty important animal.

We’re committed to doing that for as long as we need to from a standpoint of replacing those into the wild or helping people understand how to raise them. But no one is standing in line to go see the Lake Titicaca frog.

So it’s a blend. There are animals that are very charismatic that people get drawn to. And those are opportunities to help people see those not-so-charismatic animals that people aren’t so drawn to but are still an important part of that balance of nature. … So, yes, we’re committed to those not-so-attractive animals that we think are important stories to tell.

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...