Saturday, April 20, 2024

CEO transition at St Louis Zoo as Dr. Bonner retires

International search underway to identify successor to Dr. Jeffrey Bonner

After leading the Saint Louis Zoo for 19 years, Jeffrey Bonner, Ph.D., Dana Brown President & CEO announced on March 24, 2021 his intention to retire at the end of the year. The St. Louis Zoological Park Subdistrict Commission has begun the process of an international search to identify Dr. Bonner’s successor in the coming months.

Accomplishments include WildCare Institute and WildCare Park

During Dr. Bonner’s tenure, the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute was launched in 2004 through a generous $19 million commitment from the Zoo Friends Association (now the Saint Louis Zoo Association).

Photo at top: Dr. Jeffrey Bonner with California sea lion. Photo credit: Ray Meibaum, Saint Louis Zoo

With Dr. Bonner at the helm, the Zoo also acquired a 425-acre property in north St. Louis County in 2018. This property, named the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park, will be home to conservation breeding programs and wildlife adventures for the public to enjoy and connect with nature and animals. It is planned to open in 2026.

“It truly is astonishing to think about all the success the Zoo has achieved under Jeffrey’s leadership,” said Cynthia J. Brinkley, Chair, St. Louis Zoological Park Subdistrict Commission.

Dr. Jeffrey Bonner of the Saint Louis Zoo, with penguins. Dr. Bonner announced his retirement as President and CEO, effective at the end of 2021. Photo: Gregg Goldman.

Other noteworthy Zoo transformations during Dr. Bonner’s tenure include the Mary Ann Lee Conservation Carousel; Edward K. Love Conservation Foundation Cypress Swamp in the 1904 Flight Cage; Animals Always sculpture donated by Thelma Zalk, located in the Steven F. Schankman Family Plaza; Wells Fargo South Arrival Experience; Edward Jones Pavilion; and the Orthwein Animal Nutrition Center.

A champion for the zoo and for conservation

“Dr. Bonner has been a champion for our Zoo in every way, and his dedication and leadership have positioned the Zoo for sustained success,” said Brinkley.

“Jeffrey played an instrumental role in modernizing the Zoo’s century-old campus with world-class experiences and habitats, much of which was made possible by approximately $150 million raised during The Living Promise Campaign, which launched in 2010,” said Alicia S. McDonnell, President, Saint Louis Zoo Association Board. “This resulted in some of the most dynamic experiences and habitats currently at the Zoo, including the Judy and Jerry Kent Family Sea Lion Sound, The Staenberg Group Elephant Woods, Andean Bear Range, Purina Painted Dog Preserve, Robert and Kathy Williams Sun Bear Forest, McDonnell Polar Bear Point and Centene Grizzly Ridge.”

Under Dr. Bonner’s leadership, the Zoo created an endowment in 2004. As of January 31, 2021, the endowed fund is valued at $93.2 million. This fund is available to support Zoo operations, positions, camp and preschool scholarships, animal care, and more. “These funds help create a permanent, reliable source of income for the future, a living promise to future generations,” said McDonnell.

Regional and international impact

In addition to providing a backdrop for countless happy memories for guests, the Zoo has proven to be an invaluable cultural and economic resource for the region. The Zoo typically aids in the generation of over $200 million annually for the regional economy.

Dr. Bonner, 67, started with the Zoo in April 2002. Since then, the Zoo has maintained its premier status as the top local and tourist attraction. Since Dr. Bonner joined the Zoo, over 56 million guests have been introduced to the wonders of the natural world by visiting the Zoo.  

“For over 100 years, including under Dr. Bonner’s leadership, the Zoo has been a respected and responsible steward of the public and private funding it receives, operating a world-class institution without charging admission,” said Brinkley.

“Jeffrey advocates and speaks for animals, as they cannot do it on their own,” said McDonnell. “This includes some of the world’s smallest creatures, like the often underappreciated American burying beetles, Partula snails or hellbenders, of which he shares tales in his 2006 book, ‘Sailing with Noah: Stories from the World of Zoos,’ writing, ‘They have voices we will never hear. We must speak for them, and we must speak in a voice much louder than we have used in the past.’”  

With the creation of the WildCare centers, the Zoo’s field conservation efforts have grown to include 17 Centers around the globe, all of which are founded on wildlife management and recovery, conservation science with applied conservation action, and working with communities. Five of these Centers focus on wildlife conservation efforts in Missouri.

Due to public support in the passage of Proposition Z in St. Louis County in 2018, the Zoo has begun to receive funding that is helping it continue to serve its mission and enabled it to start on several much-needed repairs and replacements at the Zoo. Additionally, with the sales tax funding, the Zoo is able to begin developing and eventually operate the WildCare Park.

Dr. Jeffrey Bonner of the Saint Louis Zoo with a Sumatran orangutan. Among Dr. Bonner’s accomplishments are the establishment of the WildCare Institute and the acquisition of 425 acres to expand the Zoo with WildCare Park. Photo: Gregg Goldman.

“The Saint Louis Zoo is poised to achieve true greatness under new leadership, and I feel that I have made a small, but important contribution in that regard,” said Dr. Bonner. I am excited to see what a new era of guidance and leadership from my successor will bring to this amazing place. I strongly believe that she or he will take the Zoo further and faster than I could even dream, and I am delighted at the prospect of a fresh vision. The best days for the Saint Louis Zoo lie ahead!”

About the Saint Louis Zoo

Home to over 12,000 animals, representing 500 species, the Saint Louis Zoo is recognized worldwide for its innovative approaches to animal care and management, wildlife conservation, research, and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, the Saint Louis Zoo attracts approximately 3 million visitors annually and is the most-visited attraction in the region. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Saint Louis Zoo is part of an elite group of institutions that meet the highest standards in animal care as well as provide fun, safe and educational family experiences. The Saint Louis Zoo and the other AZA-accredited institutions collectively dedicate millions of dollars annually to support scientific research, conservation and education programs. For more information, visit

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She reports on design and technical design, production and project management, industry trends and company culture. From 2005-2020 she ran communications and publications for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA and publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association, and has contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a BFA from Pratt Institute. She has lived in Detroit, New York, Oakland, and now Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts community.

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