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In depth

Interview With Deborah Cannon, President and CEO of Houston Zoo

The seventh most visited zoo in the US, Houston Zoo is based in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  Houston Zoo’s President and CEO, Deborah Cannon, reckons she has the best job in the city.  A banker for 30 years – she was President of Bank of America in Houston prior to joining the Zoo – Deborah is now responsible for creating memorable experiences for its 1.2 million annual visitors and for providing the best possible care for its 6, 000+ animals. 

Houston Zoo conservation sea turtle

Deborah has brought her business skills to her role at the Zoo, which is privately run by a non-profit corporation, helping to deliver inspiring educational programs and working to conserve animals and ecosystems both locally and across the world. We caught up with her to find out about life at one of the world’s leading zoos, and to talk conservation, education and Lowland Gorillas.

Related: Chester Zoo's New MD Barbara Smith on Why it's All Happening at the Zoo/ Zoos – Releasing Wild Success: PGAV Destination's Latest Research/ David Kimmel, COO Georgia Aquarium on Exceeding Expectations  

Banking vs Zoos

You have said that you joined Houston Zoo partly to prove to yourself that “If you run a non-profit like a business how much better you would do on delivering your mission”.  Please can you explain and how has this worked in practice?

By that I mean that you need to maximize revenues and rationalize expenses so that you create a positive cash flow that enables the organization to deliver better on their mission.  In our case what this has enabled the Zoo to do is to add new animals and exhibits and add considerably greater capital improvements.  As the Zoo has gotten better and better we have been able to attract more quests and members each year which then enables us to continue to improve the Zoo and the zoo experience for our guests.

Many people would be surprised that someone from the banking world would want to come into a zoo.  Have you always had an interest in animals and conservation?

Yes—I have always loved going to zoos and seeing the animals.  When we’ve travelled we’ve gone to zoos all over the world.
Houston Zoo conservation in the field
What’s the difference in the culture between a bank and a zoo and have there been any particular challenges?

A bank is very bottom-line driven—while they serve a very necessary purpose they are ultimately about generating profits for their shareholders.  Zoos, on the other hand, are about using animals to create interest, knowledge, and care for the animals and thus leading to the conservation of those species.

Through our education programs we hope to inspire young people to explore careers in animal and science based fields.

Do you think that you have surprised people in terms of their expectations about what you would be like to work with?

Yes, I think many people thought my entire focus would be about the bottom line—and while it is clearly important, my interest is equally about caring for our staff and our animals and creating memorable experiences for our guests.

What lessons have you brought to the Zoo from your previous roles and what lessons have you learned at the Zoo?

The lessons brought have been more basic business, people and leadership skills, Houston Zoo Africa Forestwhich are the same wherever you are.  The biggest difference I’ve learned is the need to build consensus when introducing change, which makes it much slower.  Clearly, I have learned an enormous amount about animals and conservation.

Challenges and Goals

What are your own responsibilities in terms of delivering the Zoo’s mission and how is your success measured?

My responsibility is to lead the team and set the example for all of our staff.  No two days are alike which makes it very stimulating.  Whether it’s working with our architects on the next new exhibit to picking up trash on grounds to reviewing the prior day’s attendance, every day is interesting!

What has your biggest challenge been in your role?


How would you like the Zoo to develop in the longer term – what’s your overall aim?

We have a plan for the next ten years in terms of major new exhibits and a five-year plan for basic renovations and smaller new exhibits.  But our overall goal is to be in the top three or four zoos in the country.

The ZooHouston Zoo conservation work

Having opened the first phase of the African Forest experience in 2010, Houston Zoo is now planning the next phase.  Please can you tell us about the plans, the challenges and fundraising activities?

The next phase is to bring gorillas back to the Zoo.  Because we want to replicate the animals’ natural habitats as much as we can, we will be putting Red River Hogs in with the gorillas.  In the wild rarely do you see one species alone.  This exhibit will feature a family troop of Lowland Gorillas set in a forest setting so that our guests will see them as they would if they were seeing them in the wild.  The challenge is raising the money to do this.  It’s a $27 million campaign which is still a challenge given the economy.

The Zoo’s annual report states that it is “impossible to save a species if the local people have no economic hope”.  How does the Zoo’s conservation strategy tackle this problem?

A number of our field conservation projects are actually aimed at helping the local people so that they don’t destroy the animals’ natural habitat or prey on or endanger the animals.  For example in northern Mozambique where a very large intact group of lions still lives, one of our projects involves training the locals to build liGiraffe Feeding at Houston Zooon-proof fences to keep the lions from preying on the livestock which then means the people aren’t killing the lions.  In Rwanda, one of our projects involves providing health care for the villagers and their families who protect the gorillas.  By keeping them healthy it also serves to protect the gorillas from contracting human illnesses which can be fatal to gorillas.

Attractions are now challenged by the technological advances in home entertainment.  There are some great interactive family experiences at Houston Zoo – giraffe feeding, the splashpad and also a 4D movies.  Have these helped deliver guest satisfaction and what other kinds of activities are you planning for the future?

Clearly the giraffe feeding enables guests to get “up close and personal” with the giraffes who are truly majestic creatures.  It is awe-inspiring and makes our guests appreciate them and, by extension, our other animals even more.  The waterplay area, Wildlife Carousel and 4D theatre are just fun.  While we want to inspire our guests, we also want them to have fun.  We are working on other opportunities to add fun or up-close animal encounters—more to come on that later.

How much investment is there in social media, have you seen a benefit from it and how is this benefit measured?

The investment is largely in staff time.  We have four FTE’s who are devoted to social media.  We are on Facebook all the time.  We have a very active website with constant new videos.  Many of our keepers do regular blogs.  I think the investment has been very worthwhile as we reach via Facebook posts a minimum of 150, 000 people per week (some weeks it is as high as 400, 000!).  Last year there were more than Houston Zoo Orphan Gorilla3, 000, 000 visits to our website.  Additionally our You Tube videos have been viewed more than 3.7 million times.  You can see how broad our reach is via social media.

As a much loved local attraction how important are the Zoo’s outreach programmes and membership schemes in engaging the local community?

Our outreach programs are important in that they connect the public who might not otherwise be able to come to the Zoo to still enjoy the Zoo.  We do distance learning programs with both children’s hospitals as well as MD Anderson’s Children’s Unit.  We also take the Zoo to schools, libraries, and other venues via our Zoomobile, and we now deliver interactive educational programs via distance learning all across the country.

Have you got any other projects planned for the Zoo that you would like to tell us about?

We will be redoing our Flamingo exhibit this fall and in the spring we will be making some changes to the Children’s Zoo.  We will also be adding some new hoofed animals in the spring.  So stay tuned!

Houston Zoo Africa Forest

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