A national search is underway for the zoo's next leader to build upon this model of success
The board of directors of the Buffalo Zoo announced Thursday Dr. Donna Fernandes will retire from the Buffalo Zoo, stepping down as president of the organization. She said she will remain committed to staying involved with long-term exhibit design and capital campaign fundraising.
When Fernandes arrived in Buffalo in 2000, the Buffalo Zoo was facing the loss of its professional accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and a steady decline in visitation due to outdated exhibits and aging infrastructure.
Sixteen years later, the Buffalo Zoo is thriving, with over $50 million in new exhibits and visitor attractions, and an annual attendance exceeding 500,000.
Upon her arrival, Fernandes was instrumental in the formulation of a new master plan to completely transform the third-oldest zoo in the country into one of the best. During her tenure, numerous projects have been completed on time and on budget, including Vanishing Animals, Ecostation, Otter Creek, Sea Lion Cove, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls, Delta Sonic Heritage Farm and Garman Family Arctic Edge.
Fernandes, 57, announced to staff she will step down from her role as president in the spring of 2017 - once a suitable successor has been hired. Her decision will allow her to spend more time with her family, all of whom live out of state.
"Although I am leaving my position as president of this wonderful organization, I will continue to assist the zoo and my successor with long-term exhibit design and capital fundraising," Fernandes said. "I am looking forward to having more flexibility to spend time with my family, to travel and to pursue some of the other goals on my bucket list."
Jonathan A. Dandes, chairman of the Zoological Society of Buffalo/Buffalo Zoo board, praised Fernandes for the zoo's transformation over the past 16 years.
"Dr. Fernandes has made a significant contribution to this community as a result of her leadership and dedication to the Buffalo Zoo," Dandes said. "The zoo is now among the very best accredited facilities in the nation. We will miss her, but are pleased that she will continue to be involved with our future capital projects."
The Buffalo Zoo has welcomed more than 450,000 visitors in each of the past five years and is on track to break an attendance record of 512,000 set in 2013. When Fernandes joined the zoo in 2000, attendance was under 345,000. Membership and earned income have grown significantly, and the zoo has completed two successful capital campaigns.
Fernandes is now raising money for a new Amphibian and Reptile Center to replace the original Reptile House, built in 1942.
"It is gratifying to see how far we have come with all of the new exhibits, our AZA accreditation for the eighth consecutive five-year term, and the success of our captive breeding programs," Fernandes said. "We have had so many significant births in recent years, including lions, gorilla, Indian rhino, polar bear and giraffes. But equally important has been our success with Chinese three-striped box turtles, Annam leaf turtles, Massasagua rattlesnakes, Eastern hellbenders, Puerto Rican crested toads and Golden frogs."
In addition to her work at the Buffalo Zoo, Fernandes has been an instructor for several years at AZA's School for Professional Management, taught behavioral ecology and zoo husbandry at Canisius College, and served as an adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo.
The Buffalo Zoo board of directors has retained executive search firm Korn Ferry International to execute a national search.
"Our goal is to create a seamless transition from Dr. Fernandes' leadership to our next president," Dandes said. "This board is fully committed to continuing the outstanding progress made by Dr. Fernandes and to ensure the future of this magnificent community asset."