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Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo jettisons COO, conservation exec and animal care director

June 28, 2022 Updated Tue., June 28, 2022 at 7:02 p.m.

By Daniel Beekman The Seattle Times

Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has dismissed three top leaders, all at once, in a major shakeup directed by the zoo’s president.

The zoo’s chief operations officer, vice president of conservation initiatives and director of animal care were each “separated from their roles” on June 22, after their positions were “restructured to realign our resources, focus and strengths to achieve our bold strategic plan,” President and Chief Executive Officer Alejandro Grajal said in an email Tuesday afternoon.

The 92-acre zoo is owned and partly funded by the city of Seattle but has been run since 2002 by a private nonprofit, the Woodland Park Zoological Society. A new, 20-year management agreement with the nonprofit approved by the City Council last year, unlike the previous agreement, provides the city with no direct authority over how animals are bought and sold.

Grajal declined to name the leaders who were let go. The zoo’s website, not yet updated Tuesday afternoon, listed Sheri Horiszny as chief operations officer and Peter Zahler as vice president of conservation initiatives. A news release last month referred to Nancy Hawkes as director of animal care.

Horiszny declined to comment Tuesday. Zahler and Hawkes couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Though Grajal consulted the zoo’s board of directors about the changes, “the ultimate decision was mine,” the president and CEO said.

“I won’t get into the personnel aspect of each position,” he added, pointing instead to a message he sent to all zoo employees Tuesday morning.

The zoo, Grajal wrote in his all-staff message, is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic in a strong position. The zoo’s revenues totaled about $67 million last year, including $19 million from visitors, $14.5 million in federal COVID-19 assistance and $15 million from the city and King County. Its expenses totaled about $44.5 million, with $9.5 million for animal care.

The zoo’s strategic plan, initially developed for 2018-2022 and recently updated to run through 2025, stresses commitments to providing animal care, “extraordinary experiences,” engaging a diverse and broad audience and propelling an “inclusive social movement for wildlife conservation.”

When Grajal was hired in 2016, Hawkes had been at the zoo for years. Zahler was hired in 2018 and Horiszny was hired in 2021.

Grajal took charge in the wake of controversy over the zoo’s elephants. That debate raged between 2012, when a Seattle Times investigation found that elephants across the country were dying at double their birth rate, and 2015, when the zoo’s elephant exhibit closed under pressure from activists.

Grajal wrote in his all-staff message that the zoo will now search for a new COO with more emphasis on construction and contracts versus animal management experience; a new vice president of conservation and climate with more emphasis on climate issues; and a new senior director of animal care with emphasis on “quantifiable indicators of success.”

The zoo’s head human-resources position is also vacant; the zoo’s vice president of people and culture took a job elsewhere last month.

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