John FrawleyThis week marked the beginning of my tenure as the Minnesota Zoo’s new director. After spending the past 20 years in California working to protect San Francisco Bay and its watershed, I am grateful for this opportunity to return to my roots (I was a zookeeper here from 1988-1992) and to serve the community that inspired my love for the natural world.

Growing up in Red Wing, I found solace in nature. My formative experiences came from the outdoors, and I am concerned that young people today will not recognize the importance and power of the natural world if we do not draw them out and inspire their engagement. Families and individuals need a place to go that is safe, fun and exhilarating. Zoos play a critical role in connecting people to wild animals and wild places, and I’ve never been more proud to work in the zoo field than I am right now.

Of course, the role of zoos reaches far beyond the people we serve. Our mission statement is clear: the Minnesota Zoo exists to save wildlife. Collectively, zoos contributed $160 million to field conservation last year. The Minnesota Zoo’s own field conservation work to protect rhinos in Namibia, tigers in Russia, and bison and prairie butterflies right here in Minnesota is evidence of this zoo’s long-standing commitment to protecting animals in the wild. Here at home, we participate in collective breeding programs and provide the animals in our care with the highest standards of animal welfare. Our 485-acre campus is the envy of accredited zoos across the country because it means we can create appropriate habitats and exhibits for our animals.

And when people can’t come to our beautiful campus, we will go to them.  The most meaningful experience I’ve had in my first week on the job came Thursday morning via email right after a staff gathering:

“[Today] we saw the Zoomobile at St. Paul Children’s Hospital. A few hours after my daughter, Isabella, was sedated she was interviewed by your amazing staff. Just after our visit with the animals we received the news we were and weren’t waiting for – she has a rare growth on her spinal column. While not cancerous it is not easily cured or treated and is compressing her spine significantly. Amidst the sadness and fear that all things neuro bring was a constant twinkle of joy in Isabella today. She proudly told each and every specialist how she was interviewed today even though her brain felt foggy. She stood tall and excitedly embraced this simple opportunity. Thank you for bringing us this bit of joy today. Thank you for touching our little girl’s heart by simply being kind.”

For this, and many more reasons, I am proud to lead the Minnesota Zoo.  Thank you for your role – whether it be as member, donor, volunteer or friend – in making the Minnesota Zoo a great institution for the people we serve and the animals we are here to protect. Your engagement is, in and of itself, an act for conservation.