New Columbus Zoo CEO Pledges to Restore Public Trust and Regain National AZA Accreditation
Six days into the job, Tom Schmid was dealt a blow by the AZA and had to apologize (again) for past leaders' mistakes. He's ‘the most scrutinized zoo CEO in the country,’ and that suits him just fine.
Tom Schmid’s ideal seventh day on the job at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium likely didn’t include a press conference to address the denial of the zoo’s accreditation appeal by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums—the board of which he once chaired.
But the new president and CEO played the hand he was dealt by the Dec. 13 AZA decision, acknowledging the mistakes of prior leadership—serious missteps that caused the zoo to be stripped of its accreditation—and promising to restore the confidence and trust of employees, stakeholders and the public. He also talked about his short-term goals and hopes to make the zoo accessible to more people in the community, potentially through more free admission days or other measures (see Q&A below).
Schmid invited members of the media to join him on a zoo tour the afternoon of Dec. 14, knowing he’d face tough questions if the appeal was denied. To his credit, he answered every query he got and did so with patience and candor. Afterward, Schmid visited the Asia Quest region, where he got to interact with the red pandas for the first time, feeding them biscuits, and met staffers there and in Adventure Cove, which boasts the world’s only 360-degree tunnel in a seal-sea lion exhibit.
The zoo was stripped of its accredited status in October during a routine reaccreditation process, with the AZA citing financial mismanagement by former CEO Tom Stalf and CFO Greg Bell and a “long record” of transferring baby animals—particularly big cats—with non-AZA members for its outreach programs. (Stalf and Bell resigned after The Columbus Dispatch reported on their personal misuse of zoo resources, later estimated to top $631,000 and still under investigation.)
The zoo appealed the AZA’s decision, citing new leadership as well as improved financial oversight and animal care and acquisition processes. “At the end of the day, I don’t think it was a big surprise,” Schmid says of the denial. “We’ll get it back. It’s just a big blow to the staff here.”
The zoo can apply for accreditation again in September. Schmid says the application submitted earlier this year is solid. “Honestly, most of the work has been done,” he says. He’s optimistic about the zoo’s chances. “If I’m listening to what they’re saying, they just want to see more time to make sure these changes are sticking.”
Schmid said the loss of accreditation won’t affect zoo visitors or animal care but will impact participation in the Species Survival Plan breeding program and animal exchanges, the latter of which could potentially result in the loss of some zoo animals.
Who Is Tom Schmid?
Schmid, 58, came to Columbus from the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, which he joined in 1996, rising through the ranks to become president and CEO in 1999. According to the announcement of his hiring, he helped advance conservation work there and raised almost $100 million for the aquarium.
The Florida native has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stetson University and a master’s in biological sciences from the University of Central Florida. He previously worked at SeaWorld in Orlando and the Nauticus maritime center in Norfolk, Virginia.
He was a member of the AZA board of directors and served as chair from 2012 to 2013, and is a member of the executive committee of the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network and of the board of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Schmid had been to the Columbus Zoo before when it hosted the AZA national conference in 2003. “It’s certainly changed a lot, and so there were a lot of the parts of the zoo I’ve never seen before,” he says. “We just spent some time in the new pinniped exhibit that is unlike any pinniped habitat anywhere in the world, really. The Heart of Africa, when I first saw that exhibit, to me, that was breathtaking. I mean, you go out there and you see that vista, there are no fences there. All you see is just land and wild animals, acting like they would in Africa. That is truly a world-class experience.”
He says he was drawn here in part due to the scale of the Columbus Zoo and the opportunities to affect change. But he acknowledges the uphill battle that lies ahead. Not only does he have to regain accreditation, but he also must work to restore the public’s trust and boost the flagging morale of employees.
In a survey taken on his Schmid’s first day, he asked employees what they want from him in the first six months. Tops on the list: restoring trust, meeting and getting to know him, and having him understand their work and their challenges. He plans to hold small employee group sessions to meet the staff and get additional feedback.
Laura McGlothlin, assistant curator of Asia Quest, says she’s optimistic given Schmid’s strong reputation among zoo staffers who knew him before he came to Columbus. “I’m very hopeful. I’m excited to get new leadership,” she says. “I hope he brings some integrity back to what we do.”
For now, Schmid plans to settle in and get to work. His wife, Kim, will join him in Columbus in the spring. They have two grown children: a son, Max, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a daughter, Alex, in Plano, Texas.
“I will likely be the most scrutinized zoo CEO in the country, and that’s OK. I welcome that. That’s what we need right now,” he says.
Here, Schmid talks one-on-one about his early thoughts on Columbus, short-term goals, his desire to make the zoo more accessible for low-income residents and, of course, the signature Wildlights event now underway. Some of the responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.
How are you finding Columbus so far?
This is a wonderful city. We're excited to be here. I love the diversity of the city. I love all the trees and the wonderful parks here. And there's great restaurants here. Everyone's been so welcoming, you know, certainly the staff in the zoo and all the people that I've met, but even people I run into at restaurants or stores. This is a pretty friendly city, and you can tell people have a lot of pride in the city. It's clean. It's well maintained. We're looking forward to being part of the community here.
What made this Columbus Zoo job attractive to you? You’re going from leading an aquarium to an aquarium at a zoo, with a golf course and a wildlife conservation park and a water park.
Well, I think you hit on it a little bit that the scale of the operation really intrigued me, and knowing that all these different entities each with their individual work that they do all support one common mission of wildlife conservation. So I was excited by that. You know, I've known about the Columbus Zoo my entire professional career, and so the opportunity to join the team here … there's no way I could pass that up. And I wasn't looking for a job. I wasn't planning to move out of Texas. In fact, my wife and I just bought a new house in Texas about a year ago. But that's fine because to me, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. And I do think I can come here and make a difference.
What have been your first tasks?
Well, a lot of listening, a lot of learning, you know, meeting with people, meeting with our team members, meeting with our board of directors and our appointed board, having calls with county commissioners and just really getting to know the stakeholders at the zoo, listening to what their concerns and suggestions are and really just trying to form those important relationships.
What are you hearing from folks about your arrival here and what their hopes are to move the zoo forward?
I think everyone is ready to turn over a new leaf, so to speak. I think they're anxious for new leadership. You know, certainly it's been a challenging year with respect to some of the things that happened earlier this spring, but I think everyone wants to turn the page. They realize that it's going to take some time. It's going to take some time to build that trust. And I've been sharing with folks that trust is vital, but at this point it's trust and verify. So, I know that I'm going to be closely scrutinized and I welcome that scrutiny. I think it's going to be important to be able to restore the trust. But I think everyone's also excited. You know, this community loves this institution, and they want to see it improve and they want to see it continue to operate at a really high level as it always has. There's a lot of love for this institution, and I'm just so happy to be part of it.
What are some of your short-term goals?
First of all is, again, to get to know the community, meet with the stakeholders, understand what their issues are. And then as we move into 2022, we're going to begin some strategic planning. We're coming up on our centennial in a few years, and so I think it's a wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of where we are and where we want to go. That process will lead to some master planning as well, both here at the zoo, at the golf course, at Zoombezi Bay, and then of course at The Wilds. The Wilds is such a tremendous asset for our Columbus Zoo family of parks, and so really determining how we best utilize that wildlife conservation center in the future. So, I think all those things will be in the mix as we begin to chart the course for the next, really, 100 years.
The zoo has all of these other properties, but then also the special events that are so popular, such as Boo at the Zoo and Wildlights. Do you think it's important to continue those, and is there a way that you want to perhaps build on some of those events?
There's an amazing number of events that we host, and I think one thing in particular that's important for me and it's something that I've heard, is we have to make sure that the zoo is accessible to everyone in the community. And I know we've made some good progress this year. We have a significantly reduced [cost] membership program now for local residents, and local residents can now go to the Columbus [Metropolitan] Library and actually check out, so to speak, free tickets to the zoo. So, I want to make sure everyone knows that. We're committed to make sure that our community members know that price will not be a barrier to come to the zoo. If there's a family that wants to visit the zoo, we're going to figure out a way to get them in here. I don't want price to be a barrier, because this is an asset for the community and everyone should have an opportunity to share it with their family.
There are the free zoo admission days that the zoo does twice a year, which are always popular.
Yes, and we'll look at expanding those, and I think there's lots of other ways that we can strategically make this institution more accessible.
Have you seen Wildlights?
Yes, in fact, I arrived here on Friday a week and a half ago, and the next day I came to the zoo and spent about six or seven hours that day at the zoo. I think I walked about 22,000 steps that day, but it was amazing. There were so many people that came out for that. There were definitely some lines in some of the different areas, but everyone was happy. They were in a festive mood. It was a pretty remarkable introduction.