Q & A
Donna Fernandes,
president, Buffalo Zoo
By Christopher Schobert; photos by kc kratt

Donna Fernandes in the new Rainforest Falls.
Donna Fernandes’s full job title is president of the Buffalo Zoological Gardens. But for most of us, Donna Fernandes is the Buffalo Zoo—its face, its voice, and its strongest protector. Under her leadership, the Zoo has embarked on an ambitious master plan featuring the recently unveiled M&T Rainforest Falls. Despite the occasional controversy, and the ongoing debate over whether large animals belong in zoos at all, the Buffalo Zoo—with its classic WPA-era buildings and beautiful Olmsted setting—remains a WNY cultural gem and a beloved spot for local families and field trips. For keeping that tradition alive and bringing dynamic new attractions, the area owes Fernandes a big thank you.

One of the big stories at the Zoo during the past few months was the return of the elephants. Tell me about this process; how involved was it?
The biggest issue was locating another facility that was willing to house our three elephants while their indoor holding area was expanded. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has excellent facilities and is only a short drive away. We were fortunate that they were willing to accept our elephants for four months. The animals were transported in a specially designed vehicle and accompanied by our curator, veterinarian, and elephant keepers. Two of our keepers remained in Columbus to take care of them for the entire time they were there.

Has there been a real sense of excitement among staff and Zoo visitors since the elephants’ return? And how have the elephants reacted since returning?
We are all delighted to have the elephants back in Buffalo. Many visitors have commented to me that they’ve made a special trip to the Zoo just to welcome them home. The elephants really seem to enjoy their larger holding facilities and new cushioned flooring. Buki, our eldest, now gets two rooms to herself, so she’s particularly pleased.

M&T Rainforest Falls is a unique, large-scale habitat and visitor facility. How long has the planning and preparation for this been? And tell me about the effect you hope it has on visitors.
Design work began in April 2004 and lasted over two years due to the enormous complexity of the project. Construction began in October 2006 and was completed in August. We’re hoping that this climate-controlled habitat—it simulates a lush tropical forest—will encourage more attendance during the winter months. The exhibit is based on an actual rainforest in Venezuela. The back wall is modeled after a flat-topped mountain, known as a tepui, with layers of rockwork, lush vegetation, and a dramatic waterfall cascading twenty-five feet to the ground. Following the curved pathway through the exhibit, visitors first encounter an ocelot hiding in the bushes. Next, they view a large wetland fed by the waterfall with islands of towering trees and open areas for basking in the sun. The wetland exhibit contains capybara, dwarf caiman, and dozens of colorful birds. To the left, giant anteaters can be seen digging for insects or lounging in their pool. At this point, visitors pass behind the rushing waterfall and enter a cave inhabited by vampire bats, piranha, and anaconda. Next, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, and howler monkeys run through the treetops. The last enclosure features toucans, white-faced saki monkeys, tamandua, and armadillo.

It seems like this is a very detailed and immersive exhibit. In some ways, do you think this approach points to the Zoo’s future?
Ever since 2002, when we created our new master plan, our exhibits have been designed to immerse visitors in more natural habitats to better educate them about ecology and the environment. Otter Creek, Sea Lion Cove, and now Rainforest Falls are all built using the latest technology in exhibit design and interpretation.

How common are exhibits like this one, which has a strong environmental message?
The role of zoos has changed over time from menageries designed to amuse visitors to centers for wildlife conservation designed to educate visitors about the plight of endangered species and the role we can play to protect the environment. Rainforest Falls is a wonderful replica of a unique and fragile habitat that will help us teach children about rainforest diversity and conservation.

There was some controversy last year regarding the Zoo’s polar bears, and you made it clear that in the Zoo’s opinion, PETA’s report was not accurate. What is the latest on the polar bear situation?
PETA claimed that the Zoo was at fault for the death of three polar bears. However, the pathology reports proved that the bears died of gallbladder cancer, kidney failure, and heart disease.

Did these stories bother you, and do you think that they were unfounded?
There are certain organizations that are opposed to all zoos. They typically exploit any unfortunate event at a zoo to advance their agenda.

Are any updates currently planned for their habitats?
A new polar bear habitat is planned for Phase II of the master plan. It will feature a large saltwater pool with underwater viewing.

In terms of funding, do you have any concerns that New York State’s budget crunch will have any impact on the Zoo? Have there been any cuts to your funding yet?
We have not heard of any impending cuts to New York State’s grant program for zoos, botanical gardens, and arboretums, but we are concerned that the budget crunch may impact us.

How supportive is the local business community, and what role might they place in the future?
The local business community has been very supportive of the Zoo through capital grants as well as sponsorship of new exhibits and public programs. M&T Bank was the lead donor for the rainforest exhibit and we’ve just secured a major gift from Delta Sonic for our new Children’s Area.

What’s next in the Zoo’s master plan? And how much has been completed?
We are about to break ground on a $1.8 million expansion of our veterinary hospital. That will mark the end of Phase I of our master plan, and the completion of $30 million in Zoo improvements. The first project in Phase II is the Heritage Farm Children’s Area. This family-friendly exhibit recreates a historic farm along the Erie Canal with heritage breeds of domestic animals and includes natural wetlands. Visitors will enter the area by traversing a small bridge that crosses over a replica of a lock and canalway. They’ll follow a path to the barn and farmyard housing domestic animals that were commonly used in local farming practices in the 1800s. Visitors can enter the barn and pet several species and view demonstrations involving other animals. Following the path to the right takes visitors to a demonstration-seating area and garden featuring heritage crops. They’ll also encounter a wild bog where they can view native wildlife naturally found in wetlands and conduct investigations of water quality and animal habitats.

Are you pleased with where the Buffalo Zoo is right now? How is this Zoo different from the Zoo of ten years ago?
We are about halfway through our transformation of the Buffalo Zoo. In the last six years we’ve opened a number of new exhibits and visitor attractions: Lorikeet Landing in 2001; Vanishing Animals in 2002; the Bone Zone in 2002; EcoStation in 2003; Otter Creek in 2004 and the Living Treehouse in 2004; Sea Lion Cove in 2005; and Rainforest Falls in 2008. I’m very proud of the progress we ‘ve made to date.


Spree associate editor Christopher Schobert loves spotting the giraffes while driving down Parkside.


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