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Animal operations Featured

8:31am EDT November 26, 2002
Jerry Borin has been managing daily operations at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for more than 15 years, if you include a seven-year stint as general manager that began in 1985.

Borin took the reins from the well-known Jack Hanna and became executive director in 1992, although he says many people aren't aware that Hanna isn't in charge anymore. But as director emeritus, Hanna is still an important part of the zoo's brand identity -- a good thing for the organization -- and Borin isn't worried about becoming the national figure that Hanna is.

"I'm just focusing on moving forward and building a better zoo," he says.

Like many zoos, the Columbus Zoo faces challenges including increasing its visitor count, recruiting a quality seasonal work force and battling Mother Nature.

With more than 500 acres, the zoo has plenty of room to develop and grow, something many zoos don't have. Borin says future development plans include an African savanna and a new Powell Road entrance.

In the meantime, he continues to do what he loves -- promote and manage the zoo.

SBN Magazine sat down with Borin to discuss the zoo and its operations.

What are your biggest operational challenges?

What we're finding is one of our biggest challenges is increasing our number of annual visitors. There is a lot of competition for people's leisure time in Columbus.

People have a lot of choices. That's why we develop new exhibits and programs, so that it is a fresh place to visit. It also pays to invest in marketing and promoting the zoo.

Periodically, it is a challenge to hire and train a large seasonal staff. During the summer, we increase our staff to 400 workers. After Labor Day, that number drops off to about 250.

How do you develop new exhibits?

When we discuss which animal exhibits we want, we first select the animals that need help in a captive situation. We also pay attention to what the public is interested in seeing, so the combination of the two criteria determines which animals are selected to be exhibited.

We have a comprehensive master plan and have identified animals and areas of the zoo we plan to develop. This allows us to organize the exhibits logically by geographical area, although animals that were available five years ago are not always available now.

Do you have adequate funding?

We have a budget of more than $1.25 million. We generate 75 percent of our revenue through earned income and the remaining 25 percent consists of the property tax levy and philanthropy and fund-raising. A large part of our budget comes from visitor admission, so that's where we focus our attention.

How do you go about hiring a seasonal staff?

We start hiring early in the year, in January and February, and we advertise at area colleges and universities. We also go to senior citizen job fairs and we do some print and radio advertising.

Each year we get a little better at recruiting, and we encourage the students to come back each year -- and that is happening more. The advantages are we have less recruiting to do, and the returning employees have already gone through the four-week training program and are familiar with our operations.

Some of the local students do continue to work part-time at the end of the season.

What are your biggest personal challenges?

Fund-raising is always a challenge, especially in this economy, and there are a lot of other organizations trying to get money. Weather can also be very influential on how well we do each summer.

We are working on ways to overcome rainy weekends and poor springs. Some of our newer facilities are designed as all-year-round exhibits, and we are working to get more exhibits under roof.

We are also working to generate more revenue through other lines of business, like as a meeting location for companies, and special events and weddings. Generating revenue through these channels lessens our dependence on normal zoo visitors.

What are the pros and cons of taking over the role of executive director from Jack Hanna?

Working with Jack has always been a lot of fun. His association with the zoo is an important part of our brand and works extremely well. But I am following a legend, so to speak, and I fully realized that Jack is unique and there is no way to match his career, the way he has become a national celebrity.

Many people still feel that Jack is still director of the zoo, and that's fine. Whether it's new exhibits or Jack's association -- whatever works for the organization is what is most important. And Jack's such a nice guy. It's a very easy situation to handle.

Are there plans to expand the zoo?

Over the last few years we have acquired some additional real estate, and today we have 580 acres for current and future use. Only 250 of those acres have been developed.

Having that room for expansion is exciting. We won't be landlocked any time soon, and there aren't a lot of zoos in the country in that situation, so we are fortunate.

Some of the projects we are discussing are moving the entrance to Powell Road and building a large African savanna exhibit. That exhibit will give the animals a lot of room to roam and create more realistic exhibits of mixed species.

We will provide some means of transportation through the exhibits. Some exhibits we are planning are open islands of Indonesian orangutans, gibbons and birds, and the following year we are planning an Australian exhibit with koalas and kangaroos within the boundaries of the existing zoo.

The landscaping and horticulture that we have planted in the past years is now reaching maturity, and the zoo has never looked better. With the 580 acres, we are now -- with the exception of a few state zoos -- the largest municipal zoo in the nation, areawise.