Small wonder: Michael is at the top of his field at an institution that is at the top of its: In American zoos, it doesn’t get better than St. Louis.
When he arrived here from Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in 1990, Michael says, the Saint Louis Zoo was already one of the best in the country, if not the best. Since then, he says, it has only gotten better.
In fact, just since 2004 – when Zagat’s U.S. Family Travel Guide ranked it as No. 1 in the nation – the Zoo here has added spectacular new habitats, for chimpanzees and orangutans, stingrays, elephants, sea lions, and others. It has brought its 12 worldwide conservation centers – two of which Michael heads – into a single umbrella organization called the WildCare Institute that provides more resources and focus. And now, with the purchase of 13.5 acres, the Zoo is poised to expand southward beyond its historic home on 95 acres in Forest Park.
All of which points to something else about the Zoo – the almost visceral connection it enjoys with St. Louisans.
In St. Louis, the director of the Zoo is usually a local celebrity, often a beloved one. Various residents of the Zoo – Phil the Gorilla in the 1940s and 1950s, Raja the Elephant today – are household names. Zoo trainers can be celebrities. For whatever reasons, the Zoo here rocks.
Michael thinks that at least part of the explanation relates to the Zoo’s mission, which, with its emphasis on conservation, has been progressive and visionary from the start. He also cites the Zoo’s inclusiveness; over the years, the Zoo has solicited and incorporated community input in the development of its various strategic growth plans. But another reason, he readily acknowledges, relates to the price of admission: nada.
The Zoo is one of only three free large, accredited zoos in the nation, Michael notes. That means that generations of parents seeking inexpensive entertainment and education for their restless children have seized on the Zoo as an ideal solution – ensuring, in turn, generations of fond family memories with the lions and tigers and bears providing a sepia backdrop.
For all these reasons the Zoo enjoys “incredible community support,” Michael says, support that translates into dollars. Admission is free in part the Zoo receives tax support from property owners in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Taxes account for about a third of the Zoo’s revenues. The remainder comes from visitor spending and remarkable support. Between 2002 and 2012 alone, the Zoo raised more than $200 million in charitable and endowment gifts, sponsorships, memberships, corporate contributions and grants.
With all these resources built on the community’s deep affection, the Zoo has also enjoyed visionary and stable leadership – there have been only two directors in Michael’s long career here. That leadership has done an excellent job of hiring top-quality people and then mentoring and retaining them, he says. Even people who leave often end up coming back, he says.
They return because the Zoos not only has one of the most comprehensive and well-balanced collections in the country, but because it’s one of the most cutting-edge. With animal populations crashing worldwide, many zoos are taking a more aggressive role in conservation. St. Louis is a leader (the Zoo uses only privately raised funds for this purpose). Michael himself now devotes about half of his time to his role as leader of two WildCare Institute Centers, one for Conservation in Punta San Juan, Peru and one for Conservation of the Horned Guan.
Through his work on the coast of Peru, Michael and his associates are trying to preserve one of the world’s leading Humboldt penguin populations. In Mexico, they are trying to preserve one of the rarest birds in the world, an astonishing creature that looks, as Zoo director Jeffrey Bonner has noted, like “a turkey with a party hat.”
Work like this is deeply satisfying to a man like Michael, who loves birds and believes that “everything is connected to everything.”
But he also loves working at the Zoo because it’s in St. Louis. It’s such an easy and attractive place to live, he notes. He lives just north of Forest Park in an old city neighborhood full of big, solid, handsome brick homes and close to the Delmar Loop, a bustling area of independent shops and restaurants. His commute to work is 3.5 minutes. In Chicago it was 75. Wherever he wants to go, he can get there quickly.
He’s been here more than 20 years already, Michael says. He’d like to be here many more.