Willis’s boss, Lee Ehmke, is one of the most successful zoo directors in the country, admired equally in our state capitol (former governor Tim Pawlenty was a big fan—Apple Valley is near his home in Eagan) and throughout the international zoo industry. He’s universally credited for turning around a state institution with 275 state employees and a $22 million a year budget, primarily by increasing attendance with a couple of boffo new exhibits, but also by operating efficiently and offsetting his costs with private donations (the zoo’s biggest friend is the current governor’s cousin, Ned Dayton, who recently made a $3 million gift).
As CEO of the zoo, Ehmke has a unique skill set, a combination of exhibit architect, fundraiser, and lobbyist. Most of all, he has a firm grasp on his responsibility to make the emotional connection between his customers and the animals in his care: “Most of our research shows that it’s mom who makes the call whether to go to the zoo or not,” he explains. He’s spent an entire career ensuring that going to the zoo remains among mom’s relevant options.
“I think the idea of having people actually experience the geology, the physical nature of the place the animals need to live in, there’s an implicit message there that takes it beyond putting it in a box and looking at it.”
— Lee Ehmke, Minnesota Zoo
After all, he understands how powerful the zoo’s draw is—Ehmke’s first childhood memory is of the black rhino at the Fresno Zoo, an experience that’s had a profound impact on his professional life. He began his career offering freelance legal services to organizations, including the Sierra Club. But he decided he wanted to take a more proactive approach to environmental issues, so he returned to his alma mater, UC Berkeley, for a three-year master’s degree in landscape architecture with a specialization in habitat restoration in zoos and nature.
“Instead of stopping bad things from happening, I was interested in creating something good,” he says. While still at Berkeley, he reached out to the most famous zoo in the world, the Bronx Zoo in New York, which was at the vanguard of a transition in how zoos interact with zoogoers. He was at the Bronx Zoo during a key time in the evolution of an institution—the public zoo—that has been around in some form since the Egyptians.
“It’s been an evolutionary process, but I think there was sort of a punctuated evolution that started in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” he says. “The idea of creating a naturalistic space for the animals but also bringing the visitor as much as possible into that space as well—instead of the diorama concept where you’re on the outside looking at an exhibit.”
Ehmke’s Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo is still regarded as “the gold standard of zoo exhibits.” One of his first major exhibits at the Minnesota Zoo, Russia’s Grizzly Coast, follows that legacy of landscape immersion. “I think the idea of having people actually experience the geology, the physical nature of the place the animals need to live in, there’s an implicit message there that takes it beyond putting it in a box and looking at it.” By expanding exhibits to connect to the ecology in which that animal lives, Ehmke believes the visitor learns the importance of conservation.
While this new conservation philosophy is important to Ehmke, he also understands that you need the superstar animals to get people through the door, the animals known in the zoo industry as “charismatic megavertebrates.” And there is no more popular charismatic megavertebrate at the Minnesota Zoo than the bottlenose dolphins.