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POTY / Donna Fernandes

It’s always paradise in Rainforest Falls

Photo by kc kratt



She’s leaving the zoo in much better shape than when she found it. When Donna Fernandes started as president/CEO of the Buffalo Zoo in 2000, the institution was close to losing its professional accreditation and was known for its sad, outdated animal enclosures and environments. Now, a few months before Fernandes steps down (in spring, 2017), the zoo is once more a vibrant attraction, known for such fun, popular exhibits as Arctic Edge, Rainforest Falls, Otter Creek, and a new Heritage Farm. None of these existed before she came. The zoologist plans to consult for the zoo when possible; she will also maintain her Buffalo residence, living part of the time in Florida, near family.


Tell me about some of the milestones that have moved the institution forward since your arrival.

When I started, our yearly attendance was in the low 300,000s, and when we opened the rainforest, we broke 450,000 for the first time. We’ve been above that number ever since. This year, we’re already past 500,000. That is the result of the arctic exhibit being open one full year, in addition to the rainforest. Those two habitats encourage year-round visitation. The Arctic Edge opened in September 2015.  It’s a home for polar bears, arctic foxes, bald eagles, and lynx—these animals are cold-adapted so they’re outside year-round. The displays are very nice; the water viewing for the bears is very popular.


We all know Luna.

Yeah, Luna and her mother, Anana, are the two bears. Eventually, we’ll be getting a breeding loan to send the mother away and we’ll be getting a breeding bear for Luna. 


Other highlights?

We’ve spent—since 2002—$50 million. The rainforest was $15.5 million and the arctic exhibit $14 million, so those two are the bulk of it. But we’ve also built a sea lion exhibit, a new children’s zoo, which is called Heritage Farm, a new entry complex, a new vet hospital, and an endangered species exhibit called Vanishing Animals. We’ve pretty much opened something new every year. 


Which of the older exhibits have yet to be transformed?

The one we’re planning on right now—fundraising and designing for—is the reptile house, which opened in 1942.  That building is really showing signs of age, and it has lead paint. It will be $2.5 million to gut all of the exhibits and redo everything; new heating, misting, a new roof, boiler. We’re trying to retain all the historic character: the terrazzo floor, the brass railings, the brick façade, that will all be maintained. We have to; it is listed in the National Register under Olmsted’s nomination. [Other national register buildings include the elephant house and the shelter house, which has restrooms and offices.] Whenever possible, we try to save and reuse our old buildings. 


What are visitors most impressed by?

The rainforest was really transformative, because when it’s ten below zero with a wind chill factor, it’s always paradise in the Rainforest Falls, because it’s seventy-eight degrees, eighty percent humidity year-round. There’s quite a bit of diversity, with over thirty-five different species of animals, including free flight birds. You really do have the feeling that you’re in a rainforest. We get a lot of calls from other zoos that are interested in building similar habitats. 


What’s your biggest limitation here?

I think our biggest limitation is parking. We have only 305 parking spots, and when we brought in an outside consultant, they said we should have twice the parking. It’s not uncommon on a summer Saturday or Sunday to have the parking full by 11 a.m. We’ve tried park ’n’ ride with nearby lots like Medaille, Nichols, and St. George’s, with shuttles, but Buffalonians are used to being able to drive right up to their destinations—and a lot of people have double-decker strollers, which are hard to load onto the shuttle. The cost of underground parking would be prohibitive, and an above-ground structure would be aesthetically horrible. That’s the thing we haven’t been able to crack. 


You’ve been lucky with donors for new exhibits, though.

We started out with $20 of $24 million committed right off the bat for phase I, and we were able to get to $32 fairly quickly. It’s been a mix of private and public funds, including New York State, Erie County, and M&T Bank in the beginning and then additional funds from government and private donors after that. It’s always been a great partnership. If you look demographically, the zoo appeals to all ages, from infants to octogenarians, every ethnic group, and every educational level. There’s also no language barrier. That helps with public support.


Tell me about some of the lesser-known animal-related initiatives. You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the new lion cubs and the baby rhino, Monica. What don’t people know about?

We just flew down thousands of tadpoles from the Puerto Rican Crested toad, an endangered toad that was down to just one small population. The Buffalo Zoo was one of the first zoos to get involved with bringing in females and males, mating them, hatching out the tadpoles, and then flying down buckets of tadpoles to repopulate the species. It’s not the most attractive toad, but it does have this little crest. When we open the new reptile center, we’ll create two breeding pods, so people can see the tadpoles before they’re flown out. The same thing with the Panamanian Golden frog, which is completely extinct in the wild, but we do have one of the few remnant populations that we’re breeding for ultimate reintroduction. Those programs will be on exhibit. We also do Hellbender salamander headstarts; we are raising them up from eggs to the point where they can survive in the wild. They’re part of the Allegany watershed.


Are there other underdog animals you’d like to advocate for?

I think many of the amphibians and reptiles are often unfairly maligned; so many people have phobias about snakes. We have a great track record for many of our reptiles and amphibians, but when I mention the new exhibit, people would rather hear about something else—like the outdoor gorilla exhibit, which will come after that project. But, you know, these are major indicator species that are extremely susceptible to degradation in water quality as well as global warming. We’ve been monitoring what’s been going on around the world and collecting the species that are getting wiped out as temperatures rise and they become more susceptible to diseases, like this fungus that wiped out the Panamanian Golden frog.


For you personally, what has been most important about your time here?

Before I came here, everything I had read about the zoo was quite negative—there was that push to rebuild the zoo by the waterfront. When I came here, I did think, wow, what an old zoo, but I really liked the trees, the beautiful Olmsted park location, and a wonderful surrounding neighborhood. So I thought, “Well, step by step, it will take a while, but we’ll get to all the areas.” Now, I walk around and see how different it is. There are only a few things left. 

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree and a big fan of reptiles and amphibians.

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