If you’ve been to the Buffalo Zoo any time lately, you’ve likely noticed how much there is to do. All of the new exhibits and animals. The zoo has been experiencing incredible attendance rates and has a lot to offer. If you haven’t been there lately, you are missing out! For the past sixteen years, Donna Fernandes has been at the helm, bringing in money and animals, making capital improvements, and turning the park into a true destination. Soon, she will retire as President, but will continue to help with fundraising and exhibit design. We talked with Donna about her favorite animal, what she’s most proud of – and that time the Gorilla almost escaped – in this Spotlight Interview.
Q) You’re leaving the zoo in just a few months, how are you feeling about it right now?
A) Obviously I am a little sad, but I’m also excited about having so much free time on my hands. It will be nice to spend more time with my family, none of whom live in New York.
Q) Do you have a favorite animal at the zoo?
A) We have so many great animals at the zoo that it is hard to pick a favorite. But if I had to, it would be Luna, the polar bear. She has an engaging personality and always comes to the window whenever she sees me or hears my voice.
Q) What will you miss most?
A) I’ll miss working every day in a beautiful park with this amazing animal collection all around me. I will also miss the incredibly dedicated staff and board that we have at the zoo.
Q) You will be leaving the zoo in a much better position – financially. What do you contribute the success to?
A) Prior to my arrival, there had been very little capital investment in the zoo for many years. We’ve spent over $50 million on new exhibits and visitor attractions, so there’s a lot more to see and do at the zoo. This has led to a substantial increase in attendance which has placed us in a more stable financial position than we were in when I started.
Q) You’ve dealt with people and animals in life – which is easier to deal with?
A) As an introvert, I have always been more comfortable around animals than people. Animals are generally more honest and straightforward than humans. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dealt with a lot of great people in my life. But I have found there to be more bad people than bad animals on earth.
Q) What is one thing you’d like to accomplish before you leave?
A) I am hoping to complete the capital campaign for the new Amphibian and Reptile Center before I leave. We have about $300,000 left to raise. It’s been a challenging campaign because so many people have a negative attitude toward reptiles and amphibians, which is all the more reason to educate the public about their value.
Q) Of all that you’ve accomplished at the zoo – what are you most proud of?
A) My biggest accomplishment has been building a zoo that the staff and community can be proud of. When we post job opportunities, we now get applications from all over the country. Our reputation within the industry has dramatically improved.
Q) You left once – and then came back – could that happen again?
A) Well this time I’m not really leaving. I will continue to assist the Buffalo Zoo with fundraising and exhibit design. My primary residence will remain in Buffalo, but I will be spending 4-5 months a year in Florida, where my husband and I have a winter home.
Q) What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen at the zoo?
A) I wasn’t here for the Blizzard of 77, but the October storm we experienced in 2006 was pretty crazy. Half of the zoo was without power for nearly a week and lots of trees came down across pathways and fences. Fortunately, there were no animal injuries, but there was a lot of damage we had to deal with.
Q) Nobody ever talked about the time that the gorilla escaped – can you tell us what happened and what it was like for you that day?
A) That day is one that I will never forget. The gorilla never actually escaped, but it did gain access to the keeper area adjacent to its night quarters. Zoo visitors were moved to secure areas as a precaution in case the gorilla figured out how to turn the doorknob and enter the public area. We regularly train for these kind of situations, so we were able to tranquilize the animal fairly quickly and return him to his holding cage.
Q) What makes you “Totally Buffalo”?
A) The fact that my husband and I have chosen to retire here makes us Totally Buffalo. We have even purchased spots in the Blue Sky Mausoleum at Forest Lawn, so we’ll be here forever.
In my experience, Donna has always been incredibly sweet and accessible and we wish her all the best in the future. Zoo reps tell me they do not know when Donna’s exact last day will be.