Michael Meadows was incorrectly identified in a July 29 Metro article as director of the Dallas Zoo. He is president and chief executive of the Dallas Zoological Society, which supports the zoo. (Published 8/1/2005)
John Berry, a former Interior Department official who runs a multimillion-dollar wildlife conservation foundation, will become the next director of the National Zoo, officials announced yesterday.
The announcement by the Smithsonian Institution ended a search that began more than a year ago with the hope of finding a strong manager with a background in science and animal care to renew the zoo after turmoil over management and deteriorating facilities.
Berry is executive director of the congressionally chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which raises federal and corporate money for a broad range of projects to save wild lands and creatures. He was an assistant secretary in the Clinton administration's Interior Department, a longtime legislative aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and a senior policy adviser at the Smithsonian.
"Because it is the nation's zoo, it has to hold itself to the highest standards of quality," Berry, 46, said last night in an interview. "I believe we can achieve those standards. I'm looking forward to assuming those responsibilities and getting to work."
Although the animal park "has been through some rough times," it has continued to do outstanding work, Berry said, adding that he is impressed with its "passionate, committed" employees. He said that one of his first goals will be to follow the recommendations of a recent National Academy of Sciences panel, which urged reforms to zoo operations and management.
Berry was the top choice of a search committee named in June 2004 to replace Lucy H. Spelman, who resigned after the academy's preliminary report was released. In October, the committee narrowed the list to a half-dozen candidates. Berry was not one of them; he had been approached, but Smithsonian official David L. Evans said committee members did not think Berry wanted the job.
About six weeks ago, Berry said, he got word to Evans that he would be very interested, adding: "It's been a quick six weeks."
Evans, the Smithsonian undersecretary for science, has been acting zoo director since Spelman's departure in December. He said the search process was lengthy because it was difficult to find someone who had strong management credentials as well as either a scientific or animal-care background.
"We were committed to finding a terrific zoo director and not just an adequate one," Evans said. He also praised Berry's "terrific political connections to both sides of the aisle."
Berry, whose salary will be more than $195,000, will begin his job full time in October, overseeing the zoo's 163-acre facility in Rock Creek Park and its Conservation Research Center in Front Royal.
George Rabb, retired director of the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois who served on the search committee, and Michael Meadows, director of the Dallas Zoo who serves on the wildlife foundation board, said Berry's lack of experience in zoo management should not disqualify him from running the zoo. "He's got good people there," Rabb said.
Meadows noted that Berry joined an organization that had been through upheaval when he took over the foundation, which he headed after his predecessor resigned under pressure.
Meadows said that Berry has "increased the amount of grantmaking and increased the budget considerably" since arriving in 2000 and that he has been "deft in his handling of elected officials," who also will control much of the zoo's funding.
Smithsonian officials said they hope that Berry's appointment, coupled with the happy news of recent cheetah and giant panda births, will solidify a turnaround in the zoo's image. The zoo has suffered a string of bad publicity over animal deaths, including those of two endangered red pandas who died in 2003 after ingesting rat poison buried in their yard. The zoo later agreed to give the D.C. government more authority over pesticide use on its grounds.
In addition to being criticized by the National Academy of Sciences panel, the zoo received a provisional one-year accreditation in 2003 before having its full accreditation restored last year. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had been notifying the zoo in advance of its inspections, began to conduct surprise visits, as it does with other zoos.
The National Zoo employs 300 people and cares for 2,400 animals, many of them rare or endangered. Nearly 2 million people visit the Rock Creek Park facility annually.
The zoo also has an extensive conservation science program, much of it based in Front Royal. The zoo's operating budget of nearly $40 million includes about $17 million in federal funding.
Ginette Hemley, managing vice president of conservation at the World Wildlife Fund who worked with Berry on save-the-tiger issues, said he will be a good choice for the zoo.
"He is likable and smart and knows how to navigate both Washington and international issues," Hemley said.
Hoyer, in a statement, called Berry "one of the most extraordinarily capable individuals I have known."
"I've been to the zoo every year since I've been alive," said Berry, who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Northwest Washington. "It's the place that made me believe in conservation and the importance of it. Seeing animals, looking into their eyes, smelling them allows you to identify with the urgency and need for conservation."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.