Kirby Fowler was named president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore in 2020.

Kirby Fowler became president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore in mid-2020, and was immediately tasked with re-opening the institution amid a frightening pandemic that cost the institution about $1 million in revenue. With no previous background in the animal industry, Fowler brought to the position skills and connections forged as president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, where he had worked for 16 years.

Now in charge of the third-oldest zoo in the country, Fowler is passionate about Baltimore — where he and his family have lived for more than three decades — and knows how to create great destinations. Under his direction, the zoo released an ambitious master plan that plots improvements and development for at least the next decade.

He recently spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl about the zoo’s role in the community, its conservation efforts, and getting spit on by chimpanzees.

Baltimore Fishbowl: After 16 years at the Downtown Partnership, helping make sure Downtown Baltimore was successful, what made this position attractive to you?

Kirby Fowler: My predecessor at the zoo, Don Hutchinson, was the president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and was the Baltimore County Executive before that. He had really no animal industry work in his background, but he basically paved the way for me, because, for 12 years, he was able to manage the zoo well. Of course, he learned it on the job and became an expert in the end. So he already opened the door for somebody with a non-animal background to run a zoo. Thankfully, I have the nonprofit management side which I could bring, and it’s very important for us to keep on attracting donations and initiating capital projects, attracting attendees. In some ways, there’s so much overlap with downtown because our goal downtown was to attract people and to create a good environment for them when they came downtown, to build projects to attract and retain them downtown. So it’s about creating a destination, whether you’re downtown or at the zoo.

BFB: One of the first things you did was undertake a master planning process, and last year you unveiled a plan to guide the zoo’s growth over the next decade. Tell us about that plan.

KF: I found that having master plans was a very useful tool for me at the Downtown Partnership. … So I got our trustees involved, staff, volunteers, under the watchful eye of a consultant who has been the architect at our zoo, helping with the habitat constructions for quite some time. All told it took about a year and a half for us to go through the process.

There are three different buckets. First of all, with regard to animals, it’s continuing to provide excellence in animal care, but also getting more involved in conservation activities locally and internationally, and making sure the public is aware of them. We want people to be able to connect the dots. When they’re here, they can see our keepers or vets working directly with animals. Those same people can take their skills and go to Africa or Panama, and assist with our conservation programs, where we’re leaders. We want people to understand there’s a next step after visiting a zoo: you learn about an animal, you learn about the environment, you learn about climate change, but what can you do after leaving a zoo? We want people to know that we are doing that kind of work; we are going out and doing great, great work internationally.

The second category is people. The zoology field is not very diverse. It’s something that’s been recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. So we would like to figure out how we can create diversity in the pipeline of people who are getting involved in biology or environmental science. I also want to continue to figure out how we can improve compensation for our employees. Zoo employees, I feel, are often not compensated fairly. A lot of these people just love their jobs so much, and we shouldn’t take advantage of that…. We should make sure that they’re compensated appropriately. We should continue to be a zoo that’s accessible to all kinds of people and improve upon our accessibility. We can improve our Spanish-speaking outreach; we are connecting more with the School for the Deaf, and with groups that address challenges with autism and other sensory needs.

And then finally, with regard to creating the right habitats and environment, we realized that we had to go back to the Main Valley, the central core of the zoo where it all started in 1876.

My predecessors and others over the past 30 years did a great job in moving animals out of substandard habitats, and into more expansive open naturalistic habitats. And that meant clearing out the historic zoo, with small cages and small holding areas. … But by creating this back part of the zoo, with the African journey, the penguin coast, the Maryland wilderness and more, the Main Valley was closed and left as really a behind-the-scenes area for operations. So in 2021, we reopened the Main Valley as a walkway through the zoo. It’s the fastest way to get from the front of the zoo to our live animals. But there’s great history there. How can we honor that history, but also finally get some new habitats in there? …So that was really the focus point of the building part of the plan. How do we bring life back to Main Valley?

BFB: Are there a shrinking number of zoos in the U.S.? Do all zoos survive? How should we think of the Maryland Zoo in the pantheon of zoos in the U.S.?

KF: Well, I think we’re going to survive because we are associated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Every five years, we go through accreditation with the AZA, and it’s the highest standard for animal care, building design, habitat design. It’s really the blue ribbon. And we are going through that right now — our five-year accreditation. The zoos that are associated with that group are thriving and doing good things and attracting attendees. Gen X and millennials, we want to have a full experience, and we want to make sure the animals are being treated well. We want to know that when you visit a zoo, that you’re helping something internationally. You don’t just want to see three tigers in a pool. … But I have heard anecdotally of zoos shutting down — the ones that are on the edge. Tri-State Zoo, for example, which is in Cumberland, recently was shut down. It was one of those where they weren’t keeping up with the standards. …But others just like us, we’re doing cutting-edge research. The animal care is phenomenal. I often say that our keepers and vets are like Hopkins Medicine but for animals.

BFB: The location of the zoo is phenomenal, on 135 acres in Druid Hill Park. But are you connected well enough with Baltimore — not just in terms of people but also physical connectivity? What do you think about making sure the Maryland Zoo is connected to Baltimore?

KF: We want to do whatever we can to attract people to the zoo. Most recently, we participated in a Downtown Partnership initiative, where we charged $1 for entrance in January. And we had tremendous attendance. I got letters from people thanking us for basically not charging them to come to the zoo…We recently gave free admission to Afghan refugees who are actually living right outside of our park… There are ways that we can continue to draw people in people of all incomes…In terms of the physical connectivity, the city is teaming with the federal government to build those big tanks which will hold our drinking water; I think it’s the biggest effort in the country right now to safeguard drinking water from bio hazards but right now that is creating a bit of a gap between the park and the neighborhoods because of the construction work that’s happening there. And on the other side of the zoo, there’s the issue that many people are trying to address — it may not be necessary to have four lanes of traffic going all the same direction. …In fact, we just talked to MTA MDOT recently about how we can connect better to them, and Mondawmin Mall and the Metro station. But yeah, we do have this circle of roadways around us, it makes it a little challenging.

BFB: And you must have all the land you need to do stuff with, right? One hundred thirty-five acres is a lot of land. Or is it not enough?

KF: A lot of our land is the home of an old-growth forest, and it actually creates a great environment for us. It’s a great ecosystem for us. We track turtles and deer within our own boundaries. But we have to be careful that we don’t encroach too much on the old-growth forests within the zoo. Having said that, we’ve got plenty to do in Main Valley. That will take probably 10 years, and we have many different habitats. We are planning to build a gibbon habitat. Gibbons are these wonderful primates that have an iconic call, and they swing from the trees, and it will be a great way to enter the zoo. We also want to have what we will be calling Raptor Ridge, where we have Steller’s sea eagles which are from the Arctic, and they would be in much larger habitats than we had 150 years ago.

BFB: I didn’t see a total price tag in the master plan. Is there one?

KF: There is not. There are so many moving pieces. There is even compensation for employees. … And I know that people get fixated too much on that, and it can scare them away. Whereas if the gibbon habitat is $3 million, and the raptor habitat is $3 million, that’s manageable. So we’re going to do bite-sized chunks.

BFB: The zoo is a non-profit organization, and Baltimore has many challenges. How hard is it to try to raise resources in a city like Baltimore, where the needs are education and health care and crime and much more? How do you develop the pitch that really makes sure you have a lane there?

KF: Having lived in Baltimore for 30-plus years, of course, I recognize the needs, the social needs in the community. But we also can address those social needs. So when I’m talking to philanthropies, first of all, just the fresh air experience that people can have here, there are studies that say that your blood pressure drops the minute you walk into a zoo. So there’s the health benefit. There’s also the educational benefit, if kids can learn more about animals, that might inspire them to take STEM courses or pursue an environmental studies degree. …. And I think more philanthropies are connecting climate change to local health and the environment, and we’re all an ecosystem. And when a species goes extinct, who knows what ramifications that could have on us. So I think just teaching the lesson to people about the need to support biodiversity could satisfy a lot of needs of philanthropies. But beyond that – the state is a wonderful supporter of us on the capital side, as well as on the operating side. Then, of course, we look to private donations. We’re looking to raise, in this first phase of the master plan, about $10 million to $15 million, and we would like to raise about 20% of that privately.

BFB: Do zoos need a signature animal, like something so people say ‘That’s the animal of the of the Maryland Zoo.’ And do you have one?

KF: Well, they’re all signature animals, David. But babies matter as much as anything else. We have three young chimps. And we may be the only zoo in the country that has three young chimps. And it’s drawn a lot of attention and guests. But its a good question though because we’ve got the National Zoo down the road with pandas. But there’s a really compelling essay from the head of the Bronx Zoo in the 1970s about how to exhibit a bullfrog. So even a humble bullfrog, with the right exhibits, could be a wonderful learning experience. It’s all how you present things.

BFB: That actually gets me to a question I want to ask you. Tell me about your Panamanian frog conservation efforts.

KF: It’s been going on for years at the zoo…So these Panamanian golden frogs, they were dying from chytrid, which is a fungal disease…And so we collected a bunch of frogs along with our partners in and around Panama. And so we’ve been able to save a bunch of frogs and bring them to Baltimore, and breed them here, and actually loan them out to other zoos. We own every Panamanian Golden frog that’s in a zoo or aquarium in the country. And we are studying how we might be able to reintroduce them back in the wild.

BFB: I read a very scary article recently about the current avian flu and what it’s doing to birds — not just poultry and cultivated birds, but birds in the wild in the U.S. How worried is the zoo world?

KF: We have teamed up with our state, the state veterinarian, to find the right protocols to handle our birds and safeguard them. It looks like it’s gonna be an epidemic where we’re gonna have to live with this almost forever.

So last year we worked with the state vet, and actually the state vet was very supportive of our precautions, because we don’t want to be in a situation where, God forbid, a penguin gets bird flu, and we could be instructed to kill all of our penguins, just like what happens with the chickens that are in poultry farms on the Eastern Shore. So we took precautions immediately, we brought our birds inside. We had to cover a lot of our aviaries because the flu is transmitted by wild migrating waterfowl. During the migration season, they’re flying all over Druid Hill Park, and they can drop their feces in the cage, or our own guests and keepers could bring in the feces on their shoes. So we have a cleaning protocol for some of our experiences with animals — shoes get cleaned before you can enter. You can be walking on some of this contaminated material and then bring it to the zoo. So it is scary. This next round this year, I think we learned a lot from the precautions. I’m hoping we can dial it back. Birds should be outdoors as much as they can. We don’t want to return to that, but we’ll be following the advice of our vets as well as the state vet.

BFB: When you first went through the facilities and the back of the zoo, what was the most surprising thing to you? What did you learn that you didn’t know?

KF: Well, you don’t turn your back on (animals) because they might spit on you. I got a christening when I was on my first visit to the chimp area. That was fun. But I was blown away… To see our keepers or vets in action, to see our volunteers engaging with the public, it was extraordinary. And what we can see behind the scenes, one of our lions was under anesthesia, and to see our vets with his arm fully in the mouth of a lion, trying to deal with intubation and breathing, it was extraordinary to see that. I am so in awe of the skill level of our people who deal with our animals.

David Nitkin is the Executive Editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He is an award-winning journalist, having worked as State House Bureau Chief, White House Correspondent, Politics Editor and Metropolitan Editor...

One reply on “Big Fish: Kirby Fowler and the future of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore”

  1. Love this conversation. I grew up in Baltimore and spent a lot of time at the Zoo – so many great memories. It was part of how I learned to love animals and the natural world. Of course, so much has been learned and improved upon for the animals since then – and I have no doubt, Zoos will continue to change over the next 25 years.

    Now, I’m working at the Houston Zoo, in development. It’s wonderful to see that you’ve got so many plans in the works – can’t wait to come by on my next trip home! Best of luck to you as you raise funds.

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