Following a tumultuous year marred by scandal, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has its man to lead the organization forward into a new era. President and CEO Tom Schmid began his new role on Dec. 6 after being hired in October to take over for Tom Stalf, who along with former CFO Greg Bell, resigned in March following allegations of improper use of zoo assets.
Schmid came to Columbus after most recently serving as the CEO of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, and he brings to the position more than 34 years of experience in modern zoo attractions as well as having been both a board member and chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
On Tuesday, Schmid met with the media for the first time to discuss his decision to accept the position and the path forward to restoring the zoo’s once-sterling reputation.
Schmid told The Gazette he had no original plans to leave the Texas State Aquarium and had, in fact, just purchased a home in Texas a year ago. However, when a recruiter called him about the opening in Columbus, it was a chance Schmid had to take.
“It’s one of those things where if the best zoo job in the country comes up, you have to put your name in the hat,” Schmid said. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t expecting to make it this far, but I am very blessed and fortunate that it seems like my skillset is a good match for what is needed right now.”
Asked what intrigued him about potentially landing the position, Schmid pointed to the the zoo’s longstanding reputation as a world-class facility as well as his ability to resolve the issues that have tarnished that reputation of late.
“I knew the great work the zoo was doing and had been doing,” he said. “When you’re in the AZA community for as long as I have been, the Columbus Zoo has an incredible reputation. But I also thought I could make a difference, and I think I can. So that’s what gave me hope that I can be successful in this position. We have a bright future. Everything that has happened is fixable. We have good programs and policies in place, new governing structures, so we’ll continue all of that work and start moving the zoo ahead.”
Schmid admitted there is a “steep” learning curve attached to transitioning from an aquarium to a zoo. However, before he fully concerns himself with learning the ins and outs of the zoo, tasks he referred to as “the fun part” of the job, Schmid said he first wants to continue meeting with the various community leaders to hear their concerns and further establish a line of dialogue on the changes that are being made.
“It’s just getting to know me, me getting to know them, and understanding what their concerns are. And then there will be a lot of regular updates as well,” Schmid said. “We’re going to be communicating a lot over the next 3-12 months, so it’s going to be a gradual but consistent process of keeping everyone informed, sharing information, and at the end of the day, showing specific progress on a lot of the goals we’ve set.”
Of course, at the forefront of the issues Schmid must resolve as he settles into his new role is regaining accreditation status from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) after the zoo was stripped of it in October. On Tuesday, just prior to Schmid’s meet and greet with the media, the zoo was informed its appeal to the AZA Board of Directors for reinstatement was denied, meaning the zoo won’t be able to reapply until September 2022.
“Going into it, we were repeatedly told it would be an uphill battle, so I was cautiously optimistic that some of the information we shared with the AZA Board after the commission hearing would maybe influence their decision,” Schmid said during the press conference. “But at the end of the day, they really felt like they had to adhere to the decision that the commission made.”
Schmid added he felt the AZA’s decision to strip the zoo of its accreditation had more to do with the zoo’s ties to the illegal big cat trade as alleged in the “Conservation Game” documentary as the financial improprieties that initially dominated the headlines.
“There were roughly a handful of times we know our outreach animals were obtained from institutions that don’t meet our standards,” Schmid said. “If you look at the collection of animals, 99.9% of the 8,000 or 9,000 animals that we have, it wasn’t an issue. But it was an issue with a few of the cats.”
Schmid expressed confidence the zoo will regain its accreditation but said the loss “is a blow to the staff here that does such great work every day for wildlife conservation. He added that the staff is being penalized “for what a few bad apples did.”
While the zoo goes about regaining its accreditation, Schmid said the quality of animal care and welfare will not be affected in the interim. Mostly, the lost status will affect some of the zoo’s Species Survival Programs, of which the zoo is involved in more than 190.
As for whether or not the zoo will lose any animals as a result of the AZA’s decision, Schmid said it remains unknown at the moment, although he noted that some institutions could have the opportunity to take an animal back if they desired to do so.
“I think if they look at it from an animal welfare perspective, they know that we provide great animal welfare here,” Schmid said. “If they really consider what is in the best interest of the animal, that animal will more than likely stay here.”