Newly named Buffalo Zoo president and CEO Norah Fletchall will officially take the position on May 22. When she completes her move from the Indianapolis Zoological Society, where she has served most recently as a senior vice president and chief operating officer, she'll face the challenges of running a smaller zoo with fewer dollars and a mission to build upon last year's significant uptick in attendance.
Upon introducing Fletchall to guests inside the zoo's Rainforest Falls exhibit Monday morning, Zoological Society of Buffalo chairman Jonathan Dandes stated that the incoming president and CEO had been charged with three things: care for the animals, continue with the zoo's master plan and ensure a positive experience by its visitors.
Fletchall will soon be leaving an institution where the average yearly attendance is estimated at 1.2 million people.
"That's a challenge where, I think, the biggest thing we need to do is create an experience that, when our guests get here, they have a wonderful day, they have a great opportunity to see some animals," Fletchall said. "Maybe learn a few things, have a nice meal, sit down and have a nice visit. And when they're leaving, the first thing I want everyone to say is 'let's go back.'"
The Buffalo Zoo enjoyed its highest turnout in three decades last year, with more than 538,000 people coming out to the Delaware Park attraction. It was an increase of about 52,000 from the year before.
Various new opportunities brought people to the zoo, including the new Arctic Edge exhibit, birth of lion cubs and, late in the year, the arrival of an additional polar bear.
The Buffalo Zoo continues to have some older exhibits and shelters, some that are deemed inadequate in size and quality. The elephant house is often criticized and Fletchall is aware of it. She was asked what her plan might be to address it.
"What I'm going to do is spend a lot of time when I first get here, to understand the situation," she replied. "I'm getting to know the animals, getting to know the staff, the community's thoughts on what's best for the animals. And then together we'll make that decision."
If and when such a decision comes, Fletchall will find herself in a situation with far less funding available. The Indianapolis Zoo, which is larger than its Buffalo counterpart, had an estimated budget of $29 million last year. By contrast, the Buffalo Zoo according to its 2015 annual report had an operating revenue of a little less than eight million dollars.
About one and a half million dollars of that came from local governments. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who along with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown delivered remarks to welcome the zoo's new hire, assured her of the county's support for the institution.
"We understand that as a community, we need to grow. And we need to assure that to continue to grow, we need to have the nest types of arts and cultural institutions that exist," Poloncarz said. "One of the best in this community is the Buffalo Zoo."
Fletchall said on Monday that her career goal has been to lead a zoo that plays as important a role in its community as the Buffalo Zoo does. She also defends zoos as institutions which are still important to the community as an educational resource.
"This is where people often times have their first experience with wildlife," she said. "They often have the opportunity to see animals that they will never see, for whatever reason.
"Zoos play a critical role in helping people learn about animals, learn about nature and then make positive decisions that will impact wildlife and wild places."