Fixing the Columbus Zoo: New CEO Tom Schmid says he's up for the challenge
Tom Schmid has restored reputations before, can he do it again for the Columbus Zoo?
As the new director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium walks the path near the outdoor elephant yard, a shoe catches his eye. More specifically, an untied sneaker worn by longtime docent Nancy Mulholand as she hurries to her next volunteer post on a sunny spring day in March. Without thinking, the zoo’s new leading man, Tom Schmid, bends down and ties Mulholand’s shoelaces.
Since coming to the zoo in December to replace CEO Tom Stalf, Schmid has been a sort of Mr. Fixit for problems small and large. For decades, the Columbus Zoo was one of the most beloved institutions in the area. After former director Jack Hanna arrived in the late 1970s, the once-struggling zoo became a nationally acclaimed institution, earning significant public support and expanding dramatically.
But that stellar reputation has taken a beating over the past year. First, Stalf and three other officials were accused of misusing zoo money. Then Hanna himself was dragged through the mud, when a documentary alleged that the zoo icon dealt with backyard animal breeders. The zoo hit a low point in December when the Association of Zoos & Aquariums pulled its accreditation, a stunning turn of events for what was once one of the most admired animal care facilities in the country.
Today, Schmid is working to rebuild the zoo’s credibility, earn back its accreditation and regain its lost trust with the Central Ohio community, which provides the zoo with public funding.
Much work remains, but five months in, Schmid seems to be winning over staff, volunteers and community leaders with his calm manner, humble personality and positive demeanor.
“When I heard Tom Schmid was on the short list [to become the next zoo leader], I was surprised and thrilled,” says Doug Warmolts, the zoo’s vice president of animal care who has known Schmid for years as the latter worked in aquariums. “A year ago, I thought things were looking pretty bleak, and I was contemplating retirement. Now our excitement and passion has been rekindled. Tom Schmid has revived us. I think there’s a second golden age coming for the zoo.”
New Columbus Zoo CEO has a history of restoring reputations
To understand Warmolts’ enthusiasm, it helps to consider another controversy Schmid navigated while leading the Texas State Aquarium, where he served as president for more than two decades. In 2015, hundreds of fish at the Corpus Christi aquarium died suddenly when staff poured what they thought was an anti-parasite drug into aquarium tanks. An investigation quickly revealed that the drug’s container had been mislabeled, and it actually contained a poisonous chemical, hydroquinone.
“It was a catastrophic loss,” says Schmid. He notified the media and other aquariums and learned two things: Some aquariums had previously used the mislabeled chemical but hadn’t revealed their losses, while others still had the mislabeled containers on their shelves. “That was a case study in communicating, moving quickly and being transparent,” Schmid says.
The decision to go public, says Jesse Gilbert, who was chief operating officer at the aquarium under Schmid, reflects his leadership style. “We told our managers that we’re not willing to do anything that we don’t want to put on the front page of the newspaper,” says Gilbert, who is now the aquarium CEO. “It’s not fun, but that’s the litmus test.”
Some recent Columbus Zoo officials wouldn’t have passed that test. Stalf’s tenure ended abruptly in March 2021 when he and former CFO Greg Bell were forced to resign after a Columbus Dispatch investigation revealed they had improperly used zoo properties and other resources. A forensic audit released in August found misspending and questionable business practices by Stalf, Bell and two other employees led to a$631,651 loss for the zoo amid what was described as an “overall culture of entitlement” among its executives. Three of the four employees have repaid nearly $550,000 to the zoo; the zoo continues talks to regain nearly $57,000 from Pete Fingerhut, former vice president of marketing and sales.
With its top two executives gone, the zoo’s board convinced former director Jerry Borin to come out of retirement to calm the waters while a search firm hunted for a new director. “I was glad to step in and be a familiar name to reassure everyone,” says Borin, who served as interim zoo director last year until Schmid took over. “We worked through the issues, reassuring donors and staff and figuring out how we could solve the zoo’s problems.”
Borin, his predecessor, Hanna, and former Columbus Recreation and Parks leader Mel Dodge are generally considered the three major figures in the transformation of the Columbus Zoo. In 1978, Dodge hired the then 31-year-old Hanna to lead the small and underfunded zoo. During Hanna’s 14 years as director, it flourished and Hanna developed a national reputation as a zoological leader.
Borin, who previously served as general manager, became zoo director in 1992 and the charismatic Hanna was named director emeritus, gaining celebrity status as a television show host, author and wildlife correspondent while still serving as the zoo’s public face.
Supported in part by a Franklin County property tax levy and blessed with a location with plenty of room to expand, the Columbus Zoo’s growth continued. A massive aquarium and home for rescued manatees were added in the 1990s, The Wilds safari park and conservation center near Zanesville became part of the zoo in 2009, and the Polar Frontier for polar bears and grizzly bears opened in 2010. The 43-acre Heart of Africa exhibit was unveiled in 2014 for giraffes, lions, zebras and other animals.
After Borin retired as director in 2008, the late Jeff Swanagan and then Dale Schmidt served stints as director until Stalf, the chief operations officer under Schmidt, became the director in 2012.
Known as a humble, hands-on leader, Borin is bewildered by the attitudes of Stalf and others. “There seemed to be a sense of entitlement among them,” he says. “At the zoo, you have to remember you’re a nonprofit with a foot in the public sector, and you can’t think that you’re a corporation and have the perks and benefits that might come with that.”
Borin enlisted Dr. Jan Ramer, a veterinarian and vice president at The Wilds, to work with him during the transition.
“Jerry came in at a time when most of us had our hair on fire, and he’d say, ‘It’s OK; we’re going to get through this,’ ” says Ramer, now senior vice president of animal care and conservation at the zoo and The Wilds. By October, the board had selected Schmid, president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, as its permanent leader, and he and Borin jointly made decisions until Schmid took over in December.
In the midst of the zoo’s financial scandal, its reputation took a second hit when the documentary “The Conservation Game” was released last spring. The film alleges that Hanna and other wildlife celebrities borrowed baby tigers and other exotic cats from backyard breeders to use during television appearances. According to the film, Hanna and others said the cats came from accredited zoos when they sometimes came from—and were returned to—facilities with substandard animal care. (Hanna’s family announced in April 2021 that he was suffering from dementia, had declined rapidly in the past few months and had withdrawn from public life.)
The allegations about Hanna and the zoo’s financial issues rattled the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the top accrediting body for such facilities. In October, it refused to renew the zoo’s accreditation after a standard, five-year review. The zoo appealed and in December, a few days after Schmid officially took over, the association denied the appeal. By then, zoo leaders had made numerous changes, including additional financial oversight.
One important change was to the zoo’s ambassador animal program, whose animals are separate from the public animal collection and are used for promotional and educational purposes. That program, overseen by the zoo’s CFO rather than the zoo’s animal care division, provided Hanna with animals to use during his national television appearances, which included regular stints on Good Morning America and several late-night talk shows.
Borin and Ramer restructured the ambassador animal program used by Hanna last year, placing it under the zoo’s animal care department where it had been in the past and developing strict protocols about which facilities it could do business with. “The things stated in the film—none of that can possibly happen at the Columbus Zoo from here forward,” Ramer says. The department continues its work, she says, allowing people to see wildlife close up during events on site and off.
Tom Schmid pledges to lead with transparency
With a calm, Mister Rogers-like demeanor, Schmid has made listening his first order of business in his new post. He’s met with most of the zoo’s staff, kibitzed with zoo donors and introduced himself to city and county officials as he works to understand the zoo’s public and private partnerships, the politics behind them and how he can regain public trust in the zoo.
“He’s as honest and straightforward as they come,” says Warmolts, who has worked with Schmid on various national committees over the years. “He says what he means, and he means what he says. What the zoo has gone through has really shaken its foundation. In short order, Tom has stabilized and started to build all that back.”
Zoo volunteer Dennis McNulty, who met Schmid when the new leader had meetings with hundreds of volunteers via Zoom, has been impressed. “He’s been real about where we’re going,” said McNulty when he met Schmid in person as he walked the grounds. “I love his honesty.”
Schmid, 59, had been at the Texas aquarium for 25 years when headhunters from Columbus came calling. Born in Miami, he’d grown up diving, snorkeling and swimming in the gulf in southwestern Florida. He majored in biology as an undergraduate at Stetson University in Florida and got his master’s in biological sciences from the University of Central Florida. Always fascinated by sharks, his plan to pursue a doctorate was derailed when an opportunity to work with sharks at SeaWorld Orlando opened up.
After six years at SeaWorld, Schmid was asked to join a team developing Nauticus, a maritime science center in Norfolk, Virginia.
A few years later, Schmid joined the Texas aquarium and within three years became CEO. One of the smallest aquariums in the country at 45,000 square feet when Schmid took the helm in 1999, it now houses more than 4,000 animals and is among the largest at 200,000 square feet.
As Schmid and other aquarium leaders convinced donors and politicians to invest in the attraction, habitats and exhibits were added, including the 400,000-gallon saltwater Dolphin Bay and the 71,000-square-foot Caribbean Journey.
“Tom was an integral part of the success of all those projects,” says Charles Zahn Jr., chairman of the aquarium board. “He has a tremendous knowledge of the business of operating a zoo facility, he has tremendous people skills. He can communicate with people young and old, wealthy and poor, and he has the ability to work with government officials.”
His most recent legacy is the 20,000-square-foot Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue, now under construction. It will house rescued wildlife, including manatees, and its research center will carry Schmid’s name.
When Zahn learned last fall that Columbus was courting Schmid to be its new leader, he hoped Schmid would turn the job down. “But I knew if they were to hire anyone in the United States to address their problems, Tom Schmid was the right person,” Zahn says. “He’s going to be a tremendous asset. He’s going to give the community and politicians trust in the zoo again.”
Schmid says while recruiters had approached him over the years with job offers, he’d never considered them until the Columbus Zoo came calling. He knew some Columbus zookeepers through his work with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, including a stint as its president, and had great respect for the zoo’s extensive conservation work, its innovative exhibits and its team members.
“It’s iconic in the industry and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “I want to help craft a new vision for the Columbus Zoo. In Texas, I was able to work closely with our teams, the board, stakeholders, donors and legislators to create advocates, and that’s the skill set I bring to Columbus.”
But first, the cleanup continues.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium still on the way up after turmoil
Fallout from 2021 isn’t over. An Ohio attorney general investigation into the financial scandal is ongoing, as is a plan to restructure the zoo’s boards, per a Franklin County commissioners demand. Schmid is trying to balance those challenges. In Columbus, Schmid says he’ll be just as transparent and expects his staff to follow suit.
Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady is happy to hear that. He says when the commissioners learned about the Stalf scandal last year, they demanded the zoo share the results of the investigation with the public.
“This wasn’t something we were going to allow to stay undercover,” he says. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the public.” That’s because about 20 percent of the zoo’s income comes from a 10-year, 0.75-mill levy on Franklin County property taxpayers. The levy is up for renewal in 2025, and commissioners must approve its placement on the ballot.
Commissioners also insisted that the zoo restructure the groups that oversee it, which include a board of directors, a public-sector board and a zoo association. “We want to make sure the public sector board has more influence,” O’Grady says. An outside firm examining the board structure has yet to issue a report.
Regaining the zoo’s accreditation is one of Schmid’s major goals. He says the zoo will reapply in September and expects to have an answer in spring 2023. In the meantime, the zoo has obtained approval letters from other zoos so it can continue their joint work breeding endangered species. Schmid says a few zoos have been reluctant to work with Columbus right now, but no animals have had to leave the zoo because of the accreditation denial.
“Losing accreditation has been an eye-opening process,” says Warmolts, involving mountains of additional paperwork and seemingly constant inspections by colleagues at other zoos to make sure Columbus’ animal-care standards are up to AZA standards. “Usually accreditation is every five years, but now we’re under a microscope every day.” He says so far the animals at the zoo haven’t been affected but could be if the denial was long-term.
Schmid says the Columbus Zoo has applied for accreditation from another body, the Zoological Association of America. It expects a decision from it by summer.
Schmid particularly laments how staff careers were affected when the zoo lost its accreditation. Those in species survival program leadership within AZA—positions some had worked their entire careers to attain—had to step down because the zoo no longer was a member of the organization.
But Schmid hopes he can help lessen the blow. “I don’t manage from the top down,” he says. He eliminated a vice president position and replaced it with three full-time employees to beef up the animal care staff, which he says is stretched thin.
The zoo staff still isn’t where it was before the pandemic, when it had 283 full-time workers, compared with 261 now. In April 2020, it furloughed 29 employees and eliminated 33 positions at the zoo and The Wilds. It posted a $20 million revenue loss in 2020.
“Tom’s restoring a sense of teamwork, and there are more fluid, sharing lines of communication,” says Warmolts. “There’s a renewed sense of confidence and passion and positive outlooks. He recognizes the expertise of the people who work here. His expectations are high, but he’s giving us the tools to meet them.”
Schmid sees habitat improvements in the future for the bonobos, orangutans, wolves, river otters and kangaroos, to name a few, as well as a major renovation of the North America exhibit. He’d also like to improve housing for some animals that aren’t on exhibit during the winter to give them both a healthier environment and one that guests could visit.
Schmid already has begun working with his staff on a new master plan. More broadly, he envisions a zoo that would attract visitors year-round rather than largely in the summer and in December for the annual Wildlights. He also sees a focus on strategic conservation mission.
Keith Shumate, chairman of the zoo’s board of directors, says the zoo has plenty of land it can still develop.
“People should be excited about the zoo’s future; it’s bright,” he says. “Tom really wants to be here despite all the issues and challenges. He’s looking at the zoo with fresh eyes. We told him, ‘Use a critical eye and make the changes you think make sense.’”
As for Jack Hanna, his legacy will continue to be part of the zoo, both Shumate and Schmid say.
“I don’t think Jack knew [about the backyard breeders],” Schmid says. “He trusted the team he worked with. He will always have a legacy at the Columbus Zoo. He inspired so many people with his ability to relate and connect with people.
“He’s one of the most famous zoo conservationists in the world. There’s no replacement for Jack. Certainly not me.”
Schmid says the zoo is the last stop for his career. He and his wife, Kim, bought a house in Powell where they’re moving with his mother-in-law, who began living with them during the pandemic. Their daughter, Alex, 24, is an aspiring actor living in Plano, Texas, and their son, Max, 26, works for the city of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Warmolts, who has seen zoo leaders come and go for 34 years, is expecting no less than a revival under Schmid.
“I felt fortunate to have lived and worked during the glory age of the zoo, the years of growth with Jerry and Jack, and I thought perhaps that was over.
“We have serious growing pains as we climb out of the last few years. But Tom has the right acumen, the right vision and the right personality to take us out of this. Everyone’s catching wind of it. Tom realizes the zoo is a diamond that needs to be dusted off and put back out there again.”
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.
President and CEO, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
In position since: December 2021
Previous: Served Texas State Aquarium since 1996, most recently as president and CEO (1999 to 2021). Prior, Schmid was director for Nauticus Maritime Center (1993-1996) and senior aquarist, SeaWorld Orlando (1987-1993).
Education: Bachelor of science in biology, Stetson University; master of science in biological sciences, University of Central Florida
Family: Schmid and his wife, Kim, have a son, Max, 26, and a daughter, Alex, 24