On The Scene: The Oregon Zoo

sceneblogbwThe director of the Oregon Zoo, Kimberly Smith, spoke to City Club members last Friday, unveiling a variety of new initiatives for the state’s most popular paid tourist attraction.

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By Emma Hall

Portland City Club’s Friday Forum centered around the Oregon Zoo – the state’s most popular paid tourist attraction. City Club and the Zoo have a storied history together. In 1951, City Club members helped the zoo move to its current location. Now, the zoo has a new director, Kimberly Smith. In a room at the Governor Hotel, with walls appropriately bedecked in birds and other animals, Smith chronicled her long journey in an interesting career that she decided on when she was merely 12 years old.

Smith described the first time she patted the head of a 4,000-pound Asian elephant as a 17-year-old volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo. That love for the huge animals still exists, and elephants are at the center of the Oregon Zoo’s $125 million bond measure that passed in 2008. The Zoo is expanding the current elephant habitat from 1.5 to 6 acres. They also are designing a new off-site elephant habitat that would cover 200 acres. The intention is to create herds, to allow bulls to associate with the female elephants as they would in the wild.

Primates, polar bears and condors will also get new habitats.

Environmental changes are also afoot at the zoo. “The question we always ask ourselves at the Oregon Zoo is ‘why?'” Smith said. “Why do things the way we’ve always done?” For example, she plans to eradicate the outdated practice of using concrete as flooring. Despite its negative environmental impact, concrete was used because it was easy to disinfect. Now, with veterinary medicine technology advances, this is no longer necessary.

The zoo is also building a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital to be opened in the Fall. The zoo expects to receive a LEED silver rating for the hospital.

Smith explained that in her opinion, part of sustainability is being good stewards of public money as well as natural resources. She said her frugality was a trait she picked up when she raised calves in high school for spending money. That early experience served her well, and she went on to earn a college scholarship from the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America). Now, she hopes to pass her love for animals on to other teens with various outreach programs. Currently, teens do everything at the zoo from running the insect area to training goats to bow. Smith hopes to expand the programs regionally, to children who live in remote areas of Oregon that prevent them from visiting the zoo.

Overall, Smith’s City Club talk served as a coming out party of sorts for the new director, who took the helm at the Oregon Zoo in March 2010. Although everyone in her neighborhood may only know her as “Clancy’s mom” (Clancy being the family beagle), Smith is sure to become more well known in the coming years as the zoo implements its multimillion dollar changes.

Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business.

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