The Zookeeper: Donna Fernandes ’81

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
As a child growing up in rural massachusetts, donna fernandes loved to explore the woods behind her house. She often searched for insects and other creatures that typically enthrall little boys but gross out young girls. “I used to spend a lot of time turning over rocks and bringing home things,” she says. Now as president of the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, it’s Fernandes’s job to provide a home for a whole alphabet of animals, from anteaters to zebras.

Founded in 1875, the Buffalo Zoo is the third oldest zoo in the United States. By the time Fernandes arrived in 2000, it looked like it was at the end of its life cycle. Facilities had deteriorated so badly that the zoo faced losing its accreditation. Fernandes’s predecessor had quit after a plan to scrap the old zoo to build an entirely new one on the city’s waterfront was rejected. Fernandes, the zoo’s first female president, needed to develop a plan that would reinvigorate the place, improve conditions for its animals, and attract new visitors. Inspired by Buffalo’s location near two Great Lakes and Niagara Falls, she suggested reorganizing the zoo around the theme of water and the role it plays in regulating all animal life. “This is Buffalo’s zoo,” says Fernandes, who also has a doctorate from Princeton in ecology, evolution, and behavior, as well as a degree from Boston’s Simmons School of Management. “This is Buffalo’s story.”

So far Fernandes has helped raise $14 million of the $26 million needed to complete the first phase of her planned renovation, which includes a new entrance and visitors’ center, river otter and sea lion exhibits, and a rain forest pavilion. Plans currently call for the entire 23.5-acre zoo—which sits in a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—to be renovated over the next twelve to fifteen years at a total cost of approximately $75 million.

With that in mind, Fernandes estimates she spends half her time on the fund-raising circuit and frequently leads tours of the zoo for potential donors and local dignitaries. Though she loves telling the zoo’s story, squeezing checks out of fat-cat contributors doesn’t come naturally. “I couldn’t sell Girl Scout cookies when I was a kid,” she says. “I just hate asking for money.”

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September / October 2003