Q&A with Tom Schmid: New Columbus Zoo CEO expects, welcomes scrutiny after difficult year

Jennifer Smola Shaffer
The Columbus Dispatch
On just his second week on the job, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid stops to feed some red pandas as he walks through the park.

Just days into his new job as president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Tom Schmid seemed to have at least a few devoted supporters.  

The zoo’s three red pandas, with their eyes fixed longingly on Schmid and their paws placed gently on his knee, might have followed the new zoo leader just about anywhere.  

He was, after all, holding a container of biscuits for Santi, Bandit and Kora.  

At the end of a year of challenges for the Columbus Zoo, Schmid knows he must earn the trust and support of more than just furry mammals.

 “I will likely be the most-scrutinized zoo CEO in the country,” Schmid said. “And that’s OK. I welcome that.” 

Schmid took over at the zoo officially on Dec. 6. The months before brought a deluge of troubles for the central Ohio institution. 

In March, the zoo’s former top executives resigned amid allegations of malfeasance. The next month, the family of celebrated longtime zoo director Jack Hanna announced he had been diagnosed with dementia. By the summer, a new documentary raised questions about how Hanna and the Columbus Zoo acquired and returned exotic animals for entertainment purposes, sparking policy changes within the zoo’s animal programs department.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid talks to media about the loss of accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Forensic audit reports released in August revealed even more details about former zoo leaders' improper use of zoo assets. Then, in October, the zoo announced it had lost its accreditation with the industry’s top body for animal standards, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  

On Monday, just a week into Schmid’s tenure, brought yet another blow: the AZA denied the zoo’s accreditation appeal, stripping the Columbus Zoo of the industry’s top mark of approval for at least another year. 

Laura McGlothlin, assistant curator of the zoo’s Asia Quest region, said she is hopeful Schmid will help move the zoo forward.  

“He gives good energy,” she said, after interacting with the new CEO on Tuesday near the zoo’s Asian elephant exhibit. “What I would like to see from him is, if we’ve lost trust in the community, we gain it back. Keep moving us forward, putting animal welfare as a top priority, followed quickly behind with (zoo) guests.”  

Schmid, who comes to Columbus after two decades as the president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, sat down with The Dispatch this week to discuss his transition, his goals for the zoo, and his top priority of restoring the community’s trust. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length:  

What are you first impressions of the zoo and the Columbus community?  

Schmid: My overall impressions and everything are just amazing. This certainly this is an amazing institution. I've known about the Columbus Zoo, you know, for my entire career, but I really hadn't explored it deeply. By every metric that you could come up with, this institution is a top-performing institution.

And the city so far has been just wonderful. I think it seems to be a very progressive city. The people that I've met have been very friendly. I think people drive better here than they do in Texas.

You fed red pandas for the first time this week. How has it been to see and interact with zoo animals that you maybe didn’t have experience with in an aquarium setting? 

Schmid: Yeah, it's remarkable. We had a few mammals and birds at the Texas State aquarium but obviously, you can't compare the two. That's actually one of the things that I've been very intrigued by, is just focusing and working with the staff on the terrestrial side of the zoological world. So, it's been amazing. The animal collection here is wonderful. I try to get over to see the primates at least a couple times a week.

And then I spent last Friday at The Wilds. It is such an extraordinary asset. When you are out there in the middle of The Wilds, you don't feel like you're in central Ohio. You feel like you're in Africa, and to see the animals out there, free roaming, and the habitats, it is really remarkable. And so I had a chance to do that last Friday and got a chance to feed the baby rhino, so (it’s) pretty amazing. 

You were just a week into this job, at the end of a difficult year for the zoo, when the AZA denied the zoo’s accreditation appeal on Monday. What was your reaction to that news? 

Schmid: My emotions were similar to when the commission first denied us. I fundamentally disagreed with the decision. I don't think it was fair, and I don't fully understand it.

Where we lapsed was the acquisition and disposition (of animals) because those were programs that were run independently from the animal care team here. And obviously, the financial issues that came up as a result of collusion between the former CEO and the former CFO, all of which have been very, very effectively dealt with.  I think the (AZA) board recognized that. The feeling, at least the way it was articulated to me, was that even though we're doing well now, the things that happened three, four, five years ago, were so serious, that they can’t accredit the institution today.  

And that's where the fundamental disagreement is. As I said, I don't agree with the decision, I don't fully understand it, but at this point, I accept it, because I have to. We're now moving forward, there's no other recourse at this point. So, we'll apply again in the fall, and I'm confident by (the following) spring, we'll be reaccredited.

But it certainly will impact some of the wildlife conservation work that we do, and that's unfortunate. 

What should the public know about what this means for their zoo experience?  

Schmid: The general public should know that our animal care work will not change. Our staff do a terrific job, they always have here on site, they always will. None of that changes. Our animal welfare programming, the assessments that we do on all of our animals here, the incredible care that goes into it, the enrichment activities, all that continues. It continued this year and it will continue next year. That's unabated.  

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid walks through Adventure Cove. Schmid official started at the zoo on Dec. 6.

It's really about how a lot of the animals that we have here are, essentially, collectively managed as one population within, it could be two zoos, or it could be 20 zoos. Some of the potential (animal) transfers could be impacted by this. But I think any zoo that knows Columbus Zoo, that have been here, that know our staff, know that we provide excellent animal welfare and care, and so my hope is that if decisions are based on animal welfare, then I think we'll be in really good shape. If politics begin to get into it, then you know, some institution may want to suddenly move an animal out because we're no longer accredited, even though they know that we're a great institution. That could happen. I don't think that's going to happen, but that's a possibility.

Some of our staff were leaders in some of the (AZA) animal management programs, and so they will have to step down, at least for a short period of time. They can still participate, they'll still be members of the team, but they can't lead the team. And that's a blow. Some of these curators, they've worked decades to try to get into these positions, and now to suddenly be told you can't do it anymore because of what your CFO and CEO did a year ago, that's really the heartbreaking part of it.

When did you first learn about the allegations surrounding the former executives and their improper businesses practices as well as the animal acquisitions and disposition practices by Jack Hanna and the Columbus Zoo? What were your thoughts?  

Schmid: I learned about the financial proprietary activity first, as soon as the news broke. My first thought was sadness, disappointment. I didn't know Tom (Stalf) well, but I knew him, I’d met with him at conferences and he was always very pleasant to me. (I felt) shock, to some extent, and then, immediately (felt) this is going to hurt the institution, this was going to hurt Columbus Zoo, which is so well-respected and such an esteemed organization. Then it wasn't until several months later when I first became aware of The Conservation Game (film).

What were your thoughts on the allegations in the film, and have you seen it?

Schmid: I have seen the film. I think the producer had good intentions. I don't question his motive, but those films tend to have a very one-sided perspective. I don't think it was balanced. For the film to suggest that Jack was a knowing part of this, I think was just flat wrong. I don't believe that happened.

I only had one opportunity to interact with Jack Hanna and it was about 10 or 15 years ago. We were actually riding in a cab and coming in to New Orleans. And after that 15-minute cab ride, it occurred to me that the person I just spent time with was exactly the same person that I had seen on TV over the last 30 years. He is such a genuine, sincere person. And I just remember, so clearly, him joking around with the cab driver, joking around with me, and we were talking about AZA and other things.

There has probably been no better zoo spokesperson on the face of the earth, than Jack Hanna. He was so well-loved, and so revered by so many people. I just imagine how many people are in the field today because of Jack. That’s what's so unfortunate about all this.

As far as former zoo directors go, The Columbus Zoo has had a household name and a community giant in Jack Hanna, and Tom Stalf, who, in the words of a forensic audit, was at the top of a “culture of entitlement” with a “cavalier attitude” toward certain zoo expenses and financial practices.  Who will you be as president and CEO? How do you move past the legacies — good, bad or in between — of these former leaders?  

Schmid: Well as much as I would love to be like Jack, I will never have his charisma, I will never have his energy. That's just that's not me. Honestly, if I had to choose (a former zoo director to compare to) it would be Jerry Borin. I think Jerry and I share a lot of common traits. I knew Jerry, Jerry served on the AZA board in the early 2000s. I followed him a few years later and ended up serving for eight years. Jerry, in my view has always been a  smart, thoughtful, humble leader. And if I had to choose a couple of adjectives about my leadership, I think it would align with that. I think the staff will probably see some similarities between how Jerry ran this institution and how I will run it. My plan is to listen to the staff, to respect their opinion, to let them know their voices are heard and understood, and just to be a thoughtful leader. 

How would you describe your leadership style?  

Schmid: I've always felt like I can walk the talk. As the CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, I always felt like the staff could turn to me, my door was always open. I understood what their needs were, I always felt like I supported them. And I would never ask them to do something that I wouldn't do. So I think that's part of it.

What are you hearing from zoo staff as you’ve arrived? How are they feeling at the end of this year, and what have they shared about what they hope to see from their new leader?  

Schmid: I think staff, they want to get to know me, they want to understand who I am, what kind of leader I am. They absolutely want me to understand what they do, understand what their day looks like, what are the challenges that they face. That's hugely important, because in many respects, what my job is, is to remove barriers for everyone in order to be the best they can be. I want to make sure that I can do everything I can, that all of our team are successful and satisfied in the work that they do.

Tom Schmid rides through the zoo with vice president of communications and marketing Nicolle Gomez Racey.

The AZA accreditation, I think everyone's anxious for us to move forward with that. I think they want to understand more about how the board's role impacts the zoo, exactly what the board does, how the governance model operates.

Certainly, transparency I think is important.  We've got to make sure that our community leaders, our county leaders, our city leaders, our stakeholders, our donors, our partners and our staff, and our colleagues around the country, trust what we do, trust that what I say is what we'll do, trust me.

For the folks in the zoo and aquarium community that know me, I don't think that's going to be much of an issue. But I've got to earn that trust for people who don't know me and so that's going to be very important.

Aside from that big goal of building trust, what is at the top of your to-do list as you get settled in, and what are some short-term goals you're hoping to tackle? 

Schmid: There's a couple of big ones. I want to make sure the zoo can continue to increase its accessibility to the community. Zoos and aquariums are expensive to operate. And while we get a wonderful amount of money from Franklin County, this is a nearly $100 million operation so we've got to earn revenue, we've got to charge admission. But I would like to see that any family in Columbus and Franklin County that really wants to come to the zoo, but feels like they don't have the financial means, that we'll figure out a way to get them here. The staff has done a great job moving forward with that (with) the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (Culture Pass program and other discount programs). Expanding those programs are important.

We're going to be doing some work on the board, looking at the board structure, looking at (diversity, equity and inclusion) both among the staff, the board and our visitors. That's going to be a really important issue.

On the exhibit side, we're just beginning to look at our North America habitat areas. Doing a major redo of that section of the zoo, I think, is going to be really important.

So those are sort of somewhat shorter-term goals, but they will all fit into what will be our new strategic plan. In the first and second quarter of 2022 we'll (start to) create a new strategic plan for the zoo and for The Wilds, and for all of our family of parks, that will guide our growth over the next five years.

In a few years, this institution is going to be 100 years old, so there's going to be a lot of opportunity to celebrate, and look back and look forward. The work that we do over the next five to 10 years basically sets the course for this institution for the next 100 years. So this is such a pivotal time, I think it's a really exciting time for the community and for the zoo and all of our partners. And I’m just I'm very fortunate to be here now. 

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola