The selection of a wildlife conservation foundation executive with political credentials to lead the National Zoo was an unusual choice, but the heads of two groups that recently reviewed the management of the animal park said yesterday that John Berry could be the right kind of leader to restore the institution's luster.
Berry held a variety of Capitol Hill and federal jobs before becoming executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation five years ago. He will be the first National Zoo director who is not a scientist, according to a historian who has studied the zoo.
Search committee members, who took more than a year to make their selection, emphasized Berry's skills in management, policy, politics and wildlife conservation.
The zoo's 300 employees probably will meet Berry next week. Zoo officials notified them Thursday that Berry was selected, but the director-to-be was home with the flu. Berry, 46, will be at the zoo part time during September and begin working full time Oct. 1. He replaces Lucy H. Spelman, who resigned last year.
The National Zoo, a Smithsonian Institution facility heavily dependent on federal funding, recently has been under unusual scrutiny after a series of questionable animal deaths. A study by a National Academy of Sciences panel found that zoo standards had slipped over the years and identified problems at all levels. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association gave the zoo only a one-year provisional accreditation in 2003 before restoring the full five-year accreditation last year.
The chairman of the science academy panel, University of Missouri Professor R. Michael Roberts, said Berry "at least on paper looks as though he can carry the zoo with him and give it some strength within the Smithsonian."
The zoo "is on the way up," Roberts said, but needs a leader with clout who can oversee its many complicated facets.
"It was clear what you needed at the National Zoo was someone who had good organizational skills," he said. "Zoos are very complex organizations, from fundraising down to education to conservation research and, of course, the collection itself. . . . I think that it is very encouraging."
Sydney J. Butler, executive director of the zoo and aquarium association, said today's zoo leaders increasingly need to have "a passion for conservation" that fits the broadened mission of animal parks as more than menageries.
Recently named zoo directors are a varied lot, he said. Some have traditional animal park experience. But the Brookfield Zoo, outside Chicago, named a director from the Florida Audubon Society; the Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, named a director who had worked for the Nature Conservancy; and Zoo Atlanta named a director who had been a marketing specialist and Coca-Cola executive, Butler said.
Berry is "a smart guy, a Washington guy," he said. He recognizes the zoo has some "notoriety," Butler said, but will listen carefully to staff and other experts before acting.
"A dramatic move would not be his style, and it would be counterproductive," Butler said.
Jeffrey Hyson, a professor at St. Joseph's University who is writing a cultural history of U.S. zoos, said he was surprised that the Smithsonian did not name a director with a strong background in animal care to send the message that creatures come first.
"But perhaps that fits the unusual nature of the National Zoo," he said. "It being the only federally funded zoo in the country, having somebody who knows how to handle the political side of things could be a huge help."
Friends of the National Zoo, which raises funds and supplies volunteers for zoo operations, praised Berry's appointment in a statement. FONZ President Mark R. Handwerger, a member of the selection committee, described Berry as an "accomplished and visionary leader" in the statement.
Berry takes over as the zoo is undergoing millions of dollars in renovations to address years of neglect. His supporters note that under his leadership, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation nearly doubled its assets, to $200 million, showing fundraising prowess that is highly valued at zoos these days.
"We are long past the date when zoo purists in the United States can roll their eyes at corporate sponsorship," Hyson said. "If you are going to have a major new exhibit at an American zoo today, you are going to have to slap a corporate name on it."
Hyson said there are special concerns at the National Zoo -- and other Smithsonian facilities -- about "corrupting of the atmosphere," though he said Berry's background suggests he "has some potential to navigate the very ambiguous territory between the private and public sector."
In an interview Thursday, Berry said that there are "always ethical issues with fundraising" but that his goal is to make sure corporations respect the charitable purposes for which they are being asked to give money.