During the 2019 Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference in New Orleans, La., we at ZooMontana received the wonderful news that we were once again accredited by AZA. For us, this was an incredible milestone, achieved after eight years of hard work by a dedicated group of employees and volunteers.
ZooMontana has traveled a rocky road during its 25 short years. In the late 80s, a great, local campaign built the Zoo; however, little thought was given to future operations, causing the organization to operate hand to mouth. After some stability, ZooMontana was AZA-accredited during the early 2000s, but unfortunately hit rock bottom in 2010, losing its accreditation and nearly shutting down. During that time, a few dedicated past team members joined a new administrative team with a new focus: bring ZooMontana back to the forefront of people’s minds. We all felt every good city needs a good zoo, and Billings was no different.
The rebuilding of ZooMontana had to focus on two areas: donor trust and public perception. At first, we felt the need to get the media on our side. Sometimes in our industry, we are afraid of the word “entertainment”. However, we all know our news segments are just that, despite the fact we make them as educational as we can. In Billings, animal news segments were limited, so approaching the media with an offer of fun material was a no brainer. Once they saw the success through viewer feedback, they were hooked, consistently getting our messaging in front of the masses, for free. We used this platform to let the community know we were open, offering fun events while ramping up our education programming.
Next came the hard part—repairing donor bridges that had been burned. To this day, some of these have yet to be repaired; however, our recent AZA accreditation has helped. Our first success came as one of our top donors offered us an olive branch. He liked the energy he saw coming from the Zoo and offered financial support for our otter exhibit. At the time, he made it clear; “use the money as intended with results, and there will be more, not to mention, I’ll spread the word.” At a time when that money could have been used to cover payroll, we had to prove ourselves. We did, and he is still a top donor to this day.
After eight long years, we felt we had built a respectable organization that was once again capable of achieving AZA accreditation. We knew the value AZA would bring to our tiny organization and with a little bit of hope and a lot of hard work, we made it happen, and you can too if you are struggling. Our best advice—utilize AZA’s guidance, remember you are a business first, and above all, be proud of who and what you are, no matter your size, budget or reach.
Photo credit: ©ZooMontana
Jeff Ewelt is the executive director of Zoo Montana.
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