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Nature Calls: Palm Beach Zoo, Conservation Warriors

Stephen Brown

   I have been going to the Palm Beach Zoo, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums member zoo, for as long as I can remember. It is the first zoo I ever visited, just a toddler peering through the enclosures at monkeys and panthers. It was here that I first saw the wild animals that held my fasciation in books and on television, the first place I experienced the difference between a domesticated and wild animal.

   For many, their first visit to the zoo is not an experience but a seminal moment in their young lives. It's an event that leaves an impression and spurs the imagination, broadening their tiny worldview beyond Sesame Street and backyard forts.

   For me, going to the Palm Beach Zoo is still a highlight of my rather busy life and one of the real perks of this job. Getting to go behind the fence on assignment, seeing exhibits’ night houses and behind-the-scenes viewing of the animals is a unique experience. What makes each visit special is this zoo is constantly evolving, always working on its mission, continually improving. I am amazed at how such a small zoo, just 23 acres, can seem new each time I step foot through the gate. The mission of conservation and animal welfare not only takes precedent but also is carried through to each visitor who walks into the park.

   Though small in stature, the Palm Beach Zoo is at the forefront of the fight for endangered specie survival. The birth of three Malayan tigers at the Palm Beach Zoo in 2011 was a pivotal moment in the zoo’s involvement in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan.

 Andrew Aiken - CEO & President - Palm Beach Zoo  “Three of the five [Malayan tiger] cubs born [in 2011] in all the AZA zoos were born right here on this site,” said Andrew Aiken (left), president and CEO of the Palm Beach Zoo, while pointing to three larger-than-life photographs of Jaya, Penari and Bunga. “That was sort of a feather in our cap, having proven that our animal care staff is top notch. Tigers don’t just get together and that’s it. It is a drawn-out process, and a very dangerous one if you have the wrong pairs getting together—you just have no idea. So the judgment calls and capacity of our animal care staff to understand the language of the animals and understand when they can be put together, when they should not, is incredibly important. Our folks have done that very, very well. The majority of the expanded population is right here—people are learning about them and looking at them everyday. So that is all pretty exciting stuff.”

   Aiken’s tenure began with a humble footing, as a volunteer. “I joined the board as a volunteer in 2002 when [the zoo] got some substantial sponsorships and donations, principally from George Cornell’s family, which was deployed into the Cornell Tropics of America exhibit,” Aiken says. With a background in real estate development, Aiken was tapped as chairman of the Construction Oversight Committee to manage the development and construction of the Cornell Tropics of America, the Reptile House and Wings Over Water exhibits, followed by the 10,000 square-foot, LEED gold-certified Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex—“the first of its kind in North America,” he says—and most recently the Koala House.

Golden lion tamarin baby and mother - Palm Beach Zoo

   Named president/CEO on September 30, 2011 after Dr. Terry Maple retired, Aiken is now leading the zoo into a new phase of development, overseeing the capital campaign and construction of Tiger Valley, an expanded exhibit and night house that will give the zoo’s tiger residents nearly three times the space they currently roam.

   “Those investments in and of itself tell a lot about the direction of the institution,” Aiken says, motioning to development offices, a trailer easily into its third decade of use. “Where we invest has to do with animals, their well-being, conservation and education. Those are the core elements of our mission.”

 


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