Meet Norah, The Buffalo Zoo’s New President and CEO
By Christian Dobosiewicz
As many members already know, the Buffalo Zoo has a new President and CEO. Norah Fletchall took over as the head of the Zoo at the end of May. She comes to Buffalo from the Indianapolis Zoo where she served as COO. We sat down with Norah and asked her some questions so that Western New Yorkers can get to know Norah better as she starts her new role here at the Buffalo Zoo.
When did you become interested in working with animals and what was your first job in the Zoo field?
From falling in love with horses as a youngster to spending hours fishing with my family I have always felt very connected to animals. My first job in the zoo field came purely by chance when I answered a classified ad for zookeepers at the St. Louis Zoo. With a bachelor’s degree in Animal Sciences and my experience with horses and cattle I quickly found myself caring for hooved animals ranging from sheep to kudu to giraffes and zebras. Within weeks I knew this was the career for me.
Having worked in zoos your whole life what are some of your most memorable experiences?
I’ve been privileged to see so many things in my zoo career from animals being born to a child’s eyes light up with joy when they are brave enough to touch a snake for the first time. I’ve also been deeply touched by being present when an animal takes its last breath. To see the staff who have provided exemplary care mourn for that animal in a very personal way was very humbling. One experience though is with me every day. Very early on in my first zoo job one of the antelope species I helped care for gave birth. The calf was undersized and her damn was a first-time mom who refused to care for the little one. A whole team of zoo staff worked tirelessly to save the calf. I’ll never forget that experience and to this day I keep a photo of a gerenuk on my desk with a caption underneath it that says “Remember Why..”.
I also have fond memories of the wonderful people I have worked with in my career. Zoo people are so passionate and dedicated. While I came from the animal side of the field many of our dedicated zoo professionals work in non-animal related areas. Two of the most inspirational people I’ve ever known were women I worked with for years at John Ball Zoo in Michigan. Their area of expertise was on the people side of zoo management and their service to the zoo helped shape my appreciation for how important a zoo is to the community in which it sits. No matter what the weather, the situation or the challenge those two were there to help and to guide, assuring that guests were well taken care of and the community knew about and appreciated the zoo.
I have already seen that same level of dedication and passion amongst the various staff departments here at theBuffalo Zoo as well as from our volunteers, board, members, donors and public officials.
What attracted you to the Buffalo Zoo? Had you ever been to Buffalo before you were hired?
My first visit to the Buffalo Zoo was in the early 1990’s when I transported Alexander the alligator here from the John Ball Zoo in Michigan. I remember that visit very distinctly because I was impressed by the architecture in the zoo, how accessible the zoo was to the community and the beauty of the western New York region.
I was attracted to the Buffalo Zoo and this opportunity for several reasons. The size and location of the Buffalo area so close to the largest bodies of freshwater in the world coupled with the beautiful climate help keep me connected to nature. The tremendous support of the community for the Zoo and the cultural attractions in the area demonstrate to daily that people genuinely care about the quality of life. The friendliness and authenticity of everyone I meet is wonderful. The progress the Zoo has made in the modernization of exhibits, animal care, and conservation programs is impressive and I look forward to continuing on that course.
What are some short and long term goals you hope to accomplish as President of the Buffalo Zoo?
We have several projects in front of us to complete the next phase of the master plan so that will be a priority. We also need to re-visit our strategic plan to make sure we are laying the foundation for the next decades of the Buffalo Zoo. Continuous improvement in our exhibits, animal care, and guest services programs are important. Maintenance and needed improvements of our infrastructure must also be a focus.
We continue to get better at telling the story of zoos and the great work that we do collectively to positively impact conservation of wildlife and wild places. Zoos are oftentimes the first and only contact that many people in a community make with wildlife with any animal. Zoos play a critical role in connecting people to wildlife so they can make decisions in their daily lives that positively impact animal conservation. Some of the species you see and learn about in zoos only exist in the wild because of direct support from zoos.
The care that our animals’ receive is of the highest standard and we much constantly challenge ourselves to do better in this regard.
Do you have a favorite animal or species?
I have hundreds of favorite species. Aquatic invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians fascinate me because of their very specific environmental needs and their adaptations. Birds intrigue me with the huge differences in appearance—who would ever think that a penguin is so closely related to an ostrich! Mammals and the richness of diversity of their behavioral patterns are equally as intriguing. I will say that I have a special place in my heart for native North American species, particularly those found in more temperate areas of our continent—mountain lions, otters, lynx, wolverine, musk ox, bears, eagles, turtles, and frogs. This list goes on and on. I’m also a big fan of humans—after all, we are the ones that have to do more to make a difference.
Although you have only been in Buffalo for a short time, what some things you like about the city?
Hands down the number one things are the openness and friendliness of the people. The minute people realize that I’m new to the area they go out of their way to say “Welcome to Buffalo”. I’m also looking forward to experiencing all the wonderful food, the great cultural attractions in the area and all that nature has to offer in western New York.
The Zoo has a large membership base of about 21,000 households, what message would you like to send to members?
First and foremost thank you for your support. Please let us know what we do well and what we can do better. Your thoughts are important to us as we move into our next phase of development of the Zoo.
You’ve shared with staff and board about the importance of the Zoo being part of the fabric of the community, can you expand on that?
Our lives are very busy as today’s high tech world is much faster paced than it ever has been. Opportunities for families to connect and spend some leisure time together having fun, being outdoors and learning about nature are more important than ever. The Buffalo Zoo provides that opportunity.
What is one thing you want families to walk away with after visiting?
A smile on their faces, a stronger appreciation for wildlife AND an eagerness to come back again because they had a great time!