In the middle of a busy weekday at the Denver Zoo, Denny O’Malley squats to pick up the discarded crust of a grilled cheese sandwich.
A wave of people — kids, parents and grandparents streaming toward him from the Predator Ridge exhibit, which on this day features African lions and wild dogs — parts around O’Malley as he tosses the crust into a trash can.
It’s not exactly his job. As the zoo’s interim CEO, O’Malley is only a temporary steward of 121-year-old city within a city that costs $100,000 per day to run and houses about 4,000 animals representing 600 species.
But before the Denver Zoological Foundation can hire a new CEO to replace ex-president Shannon Block — who left abruptly in June, after the zoo’s high-profile spat with the city auditor — O’Malley needs to attend to the fine details of this nonprofit institution that last year welcomed a record 2.2 million visitors and bills itself as Colorado’s most-visited cultural destination.
Even if he must attend to the grilled-cheese crusts.
“On real busy days, this can be a tough place,” said O’Malley, a former zoo board chairman who was previously president and CEO of Craig Hospital. “Parking can be tough, and if we continue to see a spike in our attendance, there’s some concern about that. But there’s many days when that’s not a concern, because there’s unused capacity here, too.”
Photo provided by the Denver Zoo
Zoo officials hope to tackle these issues with their revised master plan, which includes a $20 million, state-of-the-art animal hospital scheduled to break ground later this year, supported by $10 million from the $937 million General Obligation Bond Denver that voters passed last year.
The zoo last month also received city approval for admission-fee hikes — $2 to $3 per visitor — to cover operational costs that have risen 28 percent over the past four years. The higher fees are projected to raise $1.5 million in the next year, boosting the zoo’s $41.5 million annual budget by 3.7 percent.
“We’ve got a lot of things like this around the campus that are in need of updating,” said Brian Aucone, senior vice president for animal sciences, as he stood outside the 84-acre zoo’s current hospital, a squat cinderblock structure built in 1969.
At 23,000 square feet, the new hospital will more than double its size and allow visitors to actually see the animals being cared for.
“We requested $70 million from the (GO Bond),” O’Malley said, “and we got $20 million. We’re grateful for it, and we’re not looking to do everything at once, but we did need to revise our master plan as a result.”
Adaptation is vital for a complex organism such as the Denver Zoo. Zoos and aquariums have evolved from the live-animal galleries of yore to wildlife conservation and education centers — led, at times, by the Denver Zoo’s innovative exhibits.
Those include the oft-copied “rotational” habitat of Predator Ridge (opened in 2004), Toyota Elephant Passage (2012) and the up-close-and-personal tiger exhibit, The Edge (2017), which instantly doubled the tigers’ outdoor space and allows the animals to prowl 12 feet above visitors’ heads on bridges.
Of the roughly 2,300 zoos regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 10 percent have been accredited through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the Silver Spring, Md.-based body that since 1976 has set standards for the biggest municipal zoos and aquariums in the nation. Most of the 2,300 are “roadside zoos,” according to Aucone.
“They were right there at the start when we first started accrediting institutions, and they’ve been consistently there ever since,” said AZA spokesman Rob Vernon. “That alone puts them in rarefied air, but they’ve always been ahead of the curve in conservation.”
The Denver Zoo has sent staff to more than 600 wildlife conservation projects since 1996, according to spokesman Jake Kubie. Among its 350 employees and nearly 700 volunteers, the zoo employs a 14-member Field Conservation team to support the $2.2 million it spends on protecting wildlife annually around the globe.
Roughly $20 million, or half of the zoo’s annual budget, goes toward care for animals, from Instagram-ready baby giraffes and orangutans to free-roaming peacocks and insects. Some of that comes from taxpayers in the seven-county Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, a special tax district that last year gave the zoo $9.1 million.
“The Denver Zoo plays in the national arena,” SCFD executive director Deborah Jordy said. “They’ve really stepped up to being a leader in conservation. And having a healthy and vibrant zoo is critical to our arts, science and culture ecosystem.”
Unlike other Tier 1 SCFD organizations — such as the Denver Art Museum — the zoo relies less on changing exhibits and more on the perennial appeal of seeing exotic and wild animals with one’s own eyes.
“I have pictures of myself at 3 years old in front of the giraffes here,” Aucone said. “You can’t get that smell, that feeling, in a book or in virtual reality.”
Despite the Denver Zoo’s built-in family audience, the attraction’s reputation has been challenged in recent years. In general, animal rights activists have highlighted the dangers of keeping animals in captivity, while the zoo has had its own woes with the city.
In September 2015, zoo officials dropped plans for a biomass gasification system that they planned to use to convert animal waste into energy. Neighbors had fought the proposal, raising questions about its safety and the potential for odors from what they described as an incinerator in the middle of City Park.
Zoo officials said the decision was largely about money and the difficulty of adapting untested technology. But the abandoned plan raised issues between the zoo and the Denver Auditor’s Office. In April 2016, Auditor Tim O’Brien said officials had been stonewalling his efforts to audit the zoo, which he had been pursuing for months.
When the long-awaited city audit arrived in January 2017, it revealed that the abandoned waste-conversion plan cost the zoo $3.5 million. The zoo eventually took a $1.7 million write-off on its accounting records.
Significantly, the audit, which was the zoo’s first, didn’t find any major demerits. And as recently as last week, city auditor O’Brien’s follow-up report praised the zoo’s embrace of all of the city’s recommendations, including updates to a cooperative agreement that holds the zoo more accountable with accreditation and other standards.
But since Block departed in June 2017, neither she nor the zoo has explained why or whether she quit or was forced out.
“Ultimately, the zoo is responsible to the public,” Block, now the CEO of the volunteer-focused World Forward Foundation, wrote via email from Australia last week. “The taxpayers make the zoo possible. The public defines the zoo’s value.”
Whoever is chosen as the new CEO — final applications were due Friday — will oversee deferred maintenance on the aquatic Northern Shores area, as well as a board that’s being split into operations and finance (the new Board of Governors) and a Leadership Council, which will spearhead fundraising.
“We’ve got 68,000 household memberships,” O’Malley said. “We’re proud of that. But our priority is taking care of our animals and maximizing guest engagement so that they feel they’re a part of this — beyond just walking through and being an observer.”