New Cameron Park Zoo director starts with eye toward future

Politics


New Cameron Park Zoo Director Brendan Wiley had a busy first week on the job, officially taking the post Nov. 27 during a period of significant growth at the zoo.

With two ongoing construction projects set to open by the summer, the Cameron Park Zoo is set for big changes in the near future, though Wiley is used to taking on challenges.

Wiley, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, got started in the zoo business through volunteering at the Kansas City Zoo while in college. That turned into an 11-year stay at the zoo, working as a zookeeper before eventually being given responsibility over half of the zoo’s animals and staff. In 2005, Wiley crossed the Kansas River into Kansas City, Kansas, to join an animal shelter nonprofit called Animal Haven, where he said he learned great lessons on taking care of animals and building programs that can carry an organization forward.

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When he took the job as director of the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center in Topeka, Kansas, in 2010, the zoo was not in a good place. Several years of constant turnover with a revolving door of multiple directors had left the zoo with a poor public image and a culture problem, said Fred Patton, president of the Friends of the Topeka Zoo board of directors and a member of the Kansas House of Representatives.







Brendan Wiley started last week as the new director of the Cameron Park Zoo as it prepares to open a new penguin exhibit this summer. He got his start volunteering at the Kansas City Zoo in college and comes from the Topeka Zoo, where he led a turnaround after a period of leadership turnover and compliance issues.




According to articles from The Topeka Capital-Journal, prior to Wiley taking over, the zoo had dealt with several animal deaths, compliance issues with federal zoo regulations and was close to losing its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which it had previously lost in 2001 and regained in 2003. Many employees were embarrassed to even be associated with the zoo, Patton said.

However, Patton said when Wiley came in, he immediately took charge and became focused on fixing problems and uniting zoo staff. He said under Wiley’s leadership, the zoo saw construction of three major projects as well as the beginnings of a fourth, changed from being run by the city to being privately run by the Friends of the Topeka Zoo, significantly increased its operating budget and became one of the top tourist attractions in northeast Kansas, drawing a number of annual visitors nearly double Topeka’s population.

“The zoo was falling apart, and he turned it into something we are all really proud of,” Patton said.

When asked why he wanted to make the move to Waco, Wiley cited the “incredible story” of the Cameron Park Zoo, the upcoming opportunities the zoo will have in the next few years and the people and community of Waco. Originally opened in 1960 as the Central Texas Zoological Park on 10 acres near the Waco Regional Airport, voters countywide approved bonds that led to the zoo being moved to a 52-acre plot of land in Cameron Park in 1993.

“It’s a story about a zoo that was in one part of the city, that a group of community members said ‘We can do better,’” Wiley said. “It’s kind of a legendary story in the industry. It’s a well-known, well-respected zoo. It’s a leader in a number of different areas.”

With only a few days on the job, Wiley said he has mainly been spending time getting to know the zoo’s staff and getting acquainted with Waco, with the city’s food being his favorite thing about the city so far. He gave an especially good review to Slow Rise on the Brazos, just across the river from the zoo. Looking to the future, he said he is thrilled to finally bring penguins to the zoo this summer when the new penguin exhibit opens, as well as the new education center and veterinary clinic.

Kristi Webb, interim executive director of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, said the society is looking forward to working with Wiley on future zoo projects. She said his background in both publicly and privately owned zoos gives him a good blend of expertise to apply at the Cameron Park Zoo. Wiley’s start during the slower holiday season also gives him plenty of time to get situated in Waco, Webb said.

The Cameron Park Zoo is operated under an agreement between the zoological society and the city, with the city owning and governing the zoo and the zoological society operating zoo fundraising, capital expansion planning and volunteer recruitment. Prior to 2019, the zoological society had more direct control over the zoo, but the city took over more responsibilities following an inquiry by an accounting firm into cash-handling practices at the zoo and a former employee’s allegation she had been groped by former zoo Director Jim Fleshman, who was asked to resign amid the accounting firm’s inquiry.

Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said the candidate pool for the zoo director job was excellent, but Wiley’s time in Topeka really stood out to the selection committee. Topeka’s zoo is roughly the same size as Cameron Park Zoo in terms of collection size, and Ford said Wiley led the Topeka Zoo through a “rebirth” and was able to get the community excited about the zoo again while also aligning zoo staff and partners.

“He’s a leader who can be collaborative, and a builder and visionary,” Ford said. “He’s positive and he has good energy.”

Ford also said Wiley has a good vision for the future of the Cameron Park Zoo. After the current projects are finished, Ford said the city will work together with the zoo and the zoological society to determine what maintenance needs to be performed next at the zoo and keep building for the future. Ford said Wiley’s approach in Topeka was to develop three-, 10- and 20-year plans for the zoo, which will also be done in Waco to determine what exhibits need to be remodeled, upgraded or replaced.

Ford also expressed his gratitude for Duane Hills, the zoo’s deputy director who served as interim director since March following the retirement of Johnny Binder. Ford said Hills did an excellent job leading the zoo during the search for a new director.

Wiley said he first began working in zoos because of his desire to work with a diverse range of animals, but soon realized it was actually the people he enjoyed working with the most.

“That’s how I found that I can make the most impact, is working with people and whether it’s internally or externally, telling the zoo story and connecting people to what our mission is,” Wiley said. “And for a zoo the size of the Cameron Park Zoo and a community the size of the metropolitan Waco area, over 300,000 people a year are going to come through our gates. That’s an amazing opportunity to pair what we offer, our mission, with every one of those people that come through the gate. And that’s my why.”







Zoo director

Brendan Wiley started last week as the new director of the Cameron Park Zoo as it prepares to open a new penguin exhibit this summer. He got his start volunteering at the Kansas City Zoo in college and comes from the Topeka Zoo, where he led a turnaround after a period of leadership turnover and compliance issues.






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