New director: Zoos can ‘change lives’Written by Morgan Delp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Some children want to be fire-fighters when they grow up. Some want to be artists or the president of the United States.
Since Jeff Sailer was a child, he wanted to be a zoo director.
Sailer will continue living out his dream as he takes over for Anne Baker as executive director, effective Aug. 1.
“I’m one of those people that’s been blessed with doing what they have always wanted to do,” Sailer, 37, said.
The decision came after a nearly six-month search prompted by Baker’s decision to retire after six years as executive director, said Zac Isaac, president of the Zoo Board of Directors. Baker will help Sailer transition into his new position, Isaac said.
“We engaged a search firm, Isaacson Miller, out of Boston and Washington, D.C., and they helped us through the search process,” Isaac said.
A search committee consisting of five board members, the past zoo chairman and three or four other community leaders worked through a process of evaluating resumes and conducting interviews of the top five candidates, Isaac said. Once they narrowed it down to two finalists, the Zoo Board reviewed both resumes and conducted an extensive interview of each candidate before making the ultimate decision.
Isaac said Sailer is the “right person at the right time with the right experience” for the job with duties that include fiscal responsibility, animal welfare, conservation and education.
“It was [Sailer’s] experience and career, No. 1, also his passion for conservation and education in the zoo world,” Isaac said of the board’s decision. “He’ll bring great leadership skills as well as great ideas to take us forward and make us an even better zoo than we are today.”
Fascination with animals
Sailer was born and raised in Indiana, where a fascination with animals was cultivated early on through a passion for birds. Sailer began keeping birds when he was 7 years old. He lived on a small farm where his dad kept birds and each of his siblings had their own hobby, Sailer said.
“I always kept birds, not so much as pets but more like a garden in that I didn’t name each of them or anything,” Sailer said. “That interest really helped generate an interest in zoos.”
Sailer, being a “precocious youngster,” tracked down the names of the curators at his zoo and wrote letters to them about the birds, to which the curators responded with information. Little did they know the curious bird enthusiast was a 12-year-old boy.
“They were surprised when I showed up (at the zoo) with my father, who drove me,” Sailer said.
Sailer received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Ball State University before attending the University of Florida (UF) for graduate school. While earning his master’s degree, Sailer traveled throughout the South Pacific and supported himself by teaching ecology classes to nonbiology students at UF.
“Those five years were some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” Sailer said. “I was dealing with people [for whom] biology and ecology were new, so it was exciting to them. I was also getting them when they were out on their own for the first time and in school because they wanted to be there.”
Sailer said each year he had one or two students who, after taking his class, switched their major to biology or at least decided to get more involved with biology. Sailer credits this to his hands-on approach to learning.
“I always thought, ‘who wants to do a paper or busy work?’ I gave them an option — they could either do a five-page paper or ten hours of volunteering,” Sailer said. “The hands-on stuff got them excited about biology; they got to meet actual scientists doing work. That would be a hook to get people to switch over to biology.”
Sailer’s teaching experience influenced his management style in future zoo careers, he said.
“Zoos have an amazing opportunity to do that as well,” Sailer said. “With projects and internships … [zoos] really can change lives.”
Upon receiving his master’s degree, Sailer took a position as curator of birds at the Miami MetroZoo. According to a news release issued by the zoo, because Hurricane Andrew had destroyed most of the bird department facilities in 1992, Sailer helped plan and build a 1.5-acre Asian-themed aviary with a world-class bird collection. However, Sailer’s experience in Miami was not limited to birds.
“It may have seemed that way on paper, but with the way the zoo was broken up in Miami, my keepers were taking care of other animals in my area,” Sailer said, including rhinoceroses and crocodiles.
In 2006, Sailer moved to New York City to become the curator of animals for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Central Park Zoo. Shortly after this, Sailer was promoted to director of the Central Park Zoo and later to director of city zoos.
“One of the reasons I went to New York was to get more experience with other animals. I have a great interest in fish, reptiles, amphibians and [many others],” Sailer said. “[Transitioning to director] was even more fun because now I was in the position to provide support to give others the opportunities I had. I really like birds but I really don’t work with birds anymore; but now I get to be the person that allows others to follow the passions they have.”
As director of city zoos, Sailer was responsible for overseeing Central Park, Prospect Park and Queens Zoos, which all together receive about 1.6 million guests a year.
“With every zoo, no matter where it is, you have an amazing amount of responsibility,” Sailer said. “…You have the responsibility for the public coming into the park, you have the responsibility of animal collections and a staff that is usually putting in 150 percent for 100 percent pay. You have all those different things weighing on you and you want to do right by all of them.”
Sailer said that while it carries great responsibility, his career reaps great rewards.
“I get to see a toddler see their first elephant or see someone fuel their passion for conservation,” Sailer said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and stress, but also a lot of rewards.”
Sailer said he is very excited to be moving to Toledo, which he said has everything he is looking for in a city.
“It’s a great opportunity and I will enjoy being closer to my family (in Indiana),” Sailer said. “It’s a smaller community where people know each other. … There’s an amazing amount of cultural and entertaining options here, and you don’t see that in a lot of small towns. … I think the region as a whole offers a lot to do, but in a community where everyone knows everyone.”
Once Sailer moves to the Glass City, he said his priorities are the aquarium and penguin projects at the Toledo Zoo because they are both pretty far along in design and are major exhibits that need to be completed. Sailer also plans to emphasize education and staff involvement in zoo projects.
“The education program will receive a lot from me,” Sailer said. “It’s one of the most important mission-related elements in a zoo. With a lot of facilities, it is not given the importance it deserves. [The Toledo Zoo] has a fabulous program, but there is always room to do more.”
One of Sailer’s main focuses in New York City was staff development, allowing the entire staff to take credit for zoo success. This success includes an increased revenue and attendance over the past six years, according to the news release.
“Whenever possible we did in-house projects and really involved as much of the staff as possible,” Sailer said. “With some of the animal-related programs, even if there wasn’t a direct role for maintenance and operations folks, they realized how important they were to the program. … They took pride because I pointed out to them that it’s not one-sided, it’s not all about the animal department.
“I’d like to see the same sort of programmatic [approach] here, by finding ways to draw in as many of the departments as possible,” Sailer said. “When the staff is building programs, they’re going to take pride in it because it’s something they built.”
Sailer said the Toledo Zoo staff is one of the positive points about his move to Ohio.
“You can see from the quality of the exhibits and the cleanliness of the parks, this group of employees feels very strongly about their zoo,” Sailer said.
One of the most impressive and telling aspects of the Toledo Zoo is the longevity of its staff, Sailer said.
“When I was interviewing here, [the board] was telling me how long they’ve each been at the zoo and I was floored,” Sailer said. “Only two people have been here less than five years, and one person had been here for 42 years.”
Sailer said the variety in his daily duties keeps his zoo career interesting and exciting.
“What’s kept me in this career is that each day is different. Absolutely no two days are the same. … It’s an intersection of dealing with people, animals, weather and the community,” Sailer said. “You can’t get bored doing that. It keeps your creativity high and keeps you young.”