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Omaha Magazine

The New and Improved Henry Doorly Zoo

Mar 28, 2022 05:34PM ● By Mike Whye
dennis pate in front of henry doorly zoo aquarium tank

Photo by Sarah Lemke

Even though Dennis Pate is not an elected official, there are times that he finds himself in charge of Nebraska’s fifth largest community. That puts his community ahead of all others in the state except Omaha, Lincoln, Bellevue, and Grand Island. 

On some summer Saturdays and Sundays, about 15,000 people visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, where Pate is the president and CEO. Of course, he has about 30,000 other heads in addition to the visitors—the small to large inhabitants of the zoo.

The zoo has come far since it opened in the 1890s when it was named the Riverview Zoo and had 120 animals. A good portion of that growth occurred since 2010, when the zoo kicked off a multi-layered improvement plan under Pate that was to cost $175 million. As it turned out, some portions of that plan finally finished this spring and the expense was nearly $195 million. 

Despite the extra time and expense, Pate, who announced his 2023 retirement Feb. 14, is pleased. “I think a lot of people do plans and they never quite finish them. It’s awfully nice to say we finished ours,” he said. “We’ve raised the money, and more, that we said we were going to. For the most part, we built all the exhibits, at least the major ones.”

Along the way, changes occurred, such as when more utility work needed to be done in the $71 million African Grasslands exhibit that opened in 2016. “We had a  South American section planned that we deferred in order to put more money into the utility side of the grasslands,” Pate said. “Things come up that you discover along the way that need your attention that weren’t necessarily in the plans. If I were to do this again, I’d put a lot more money into the unknown pocket of the plans. There’s a lot that you can’t anticipate.”

The zoo had hoped to build a new animal hospital, but it didn’t because a decision was made to upgrade the sea lion pool from what had been originally planned. Construction costs escalated, as did materials. “Some increased costs can be accommodated but that’s always guesswork,”
Pate added. 

“For the most part, we did it. We started at $175 million and we finished at [nearly $195 million],” Pate said. “Since that plan came out in 2010, we’ve done more exhibits, more construction, and raised more money than any other zoo in the United States.”

From his office in the zoo’s administration offices on the third floor of the Robert B. Daugherty Education Center, Pate can see the zoo’s latest addition, Glacier Bay Landing. Adjacent to the $26.35 million Owen Sea Lion Shores that opened in 2020 (Pate proudly pointed out that recent visitors say it’s the zoo’s best exhibit), the theme of Glacier Bay is that of an Alaskan coastal town.

Large shade structures and umbrellas shelter its plaza, and 1890s-era false front buildings serve food, including new menu items Crab Cake Sliders and Alaskan Cod Sandwiches. 

Its structures include men’s, women’s and family restrooms, a nursing area, a rental facility with seating for up to 240 visitors, a children’s playground with climbing structures and a lighthouse. The zoo’s new north entrance brings visitors immediately into Glacier Bay Landing, which is now the home of one of zoo’s longtime favorites—Sue’s Wildlife Carousel. The popular merry-go-round sports 33 fiberglass animals that whirl around under a colorful structure as calliope music fills the air.    

The aforementioned Daugherty Education Center overlooks Glacier Bay Landing. This 42,000-square-foot structure was built to consolidate educational facilities and administrative offices that had been scattered across the zoo grounds. In particular, the center’s two lower floors house classrooms for courses that had been taught on a part-time basis over the years. The zoo now has a full-time high school of juniors and seniors, offering core courses with a focus on biological programs.

“We have students from eight school districts—from Council Bluffs to Millard to private schools. We have 120 slots and this is pretty much their full day,” Pate said. “Students work in teams making use of our curators, Ph.D. researchers, and veterinarians, doing studies they normally wouldn’t do until they’re juniors in college. We have six Ph.D.s in our conservation department.”  

The center also has two pre-K classes, one full-time and the other part-time, and two full-time kindergartens.

The windows of the center are etched with one-inch-wide silhouettes of about 50 Nebraska animals. The symbols help deter birds from flying into the windows. 

In the meeting room next to his office, Pate remembers the first zoo he visited as a child in San Diego. As he attended high school and college, Pate realized he was not cut out to be a veterinarian as he had hoped. He landed a job as a keeper at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and later became its assistant curator of mammals. Next, he was the general curator at the Portland, Oregon, zoo before he returned to the Lincoln Park Zoo, this time as its senior vice president. In 2002 he became the director of the Jacksonville, Florida, zoo, where he created five new exhibits, including the nation’s largest collection of jaguars. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree for his studies of the double-striped stick-knee, a shorebird that lives in parts of Central and South America. 

In March 2009, Pate became Henry Doorly’s new director, succeeding Dr. Lee Simmons who had joined the zoo in 1966 as a veterinarian and became its director in 1970. During Simmons’ tenure, he directed a spate of improvements that propelled the zoo into joining the nation’s top five zoos as determined by various publications. Among his achievements, all of which cost more than  $150 million, are the Lied Jungle; the Desert Dome, where the world’s largest glazed geodesic structure covers the world’s largest indoor desert; Kingdoms of the Night; Hubbard Gorilla Valley; Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium; Skyfari; and Expedition Madagascar. 

“Doc Simmons had done some very nice things, and one of the reasons I came was because of the head start he gave this place,” Pate said. “And I saw lots of potential for moving it forward.”

In particular, he liked the immersive experiences where, instead of looking at animals contained in small spaces, visitors walk through areas embraced on many sides by the animals and their environments. The indoor desert and jungles are prime examples of immersive environments, as is the Hubbard Gorilla Valley. 

Once he was at Henry Doorly, Pate walked its grounds and began seeing things, so to speak. “I saw all kinds of possibilities and I wanted get the rest of the staff involved in that vision,” he said. “This was not just me. It was 20 people or so, the board members and more, and we wanted to develop a common look forward.”

To help create the master plan, the zoo hired CLR Design, a Philadelphia planning firm with expertise in planning zoos. 

One area that the planners saw as a problem was just that—area. The Omaha zoo has little room to grow beyond its boundaries. It’s hemmed by neighborhoods, railroad tracks, Interstate 80, and south 10th Street, although the location where Rosenblatt Stadium and a Nebraska Tourism building once stood has become parking spaces. Still, creating more room for exhibits within the zoo’s 162 acres—which is smaller than the Columbus, Ohio, zoo’s 580 acres and the 2,600-acre North Carolina Zoo—is akin to making a picture on a sliding tile puzzle. Some elements had to be shifted, and Pate and his crew squeezed out more space wherever they could. Every square inch counted. 

From the plan has come the 28-acre African Grasslands, where two baby elephants joined the herd in January; and the $20 million Asian Highlands that feature ancient temples. Visitors can touch the smooth skins of rays gliding through the pool in Sting Ray Beach. Circulation patterns were rerouted to form loops into various regions along a main path that passes through the zoo with improved lighting. Steps are gone and the zoo is ADA compliant throughout. More benches were installed along with more venues offering food. Speakers low to the ground softly play music relating to the nearby exhibits of the world’s animals. Gardens now sprout where lawns were once mowed. Overall, 24 buildings disappeared, replaced by 52 new ones that use the space more efficiently.  

Not only has the zoo increased its space for animals, it’s given them what Pate called a richer space. “It’s more engaging for them. There are more climbing structures, more heat pads for them and more ways for them to interact with the keepers for training, space we didn’t have before,” Pate said. “The biggest focus is on the animals, to really upgrade their exhibits. We have to really take care of them or people aren’t going to come.”  

When African Grasslands opened in 2016, it proved so popular that attendance swelled to 2 million in that year and in 2017. It fell a bit, to 1.78 million, in 2019, and then COVID-19 hit. Attendance for 2020 was 817,000. It rose to 1.68 million in 2021. 

“We lost probably 44% of our revenue in 2020 and 54% of our attendance. That was over $20 million,” Pate explained. 

As with any zoo, the animals come first. “That puts pressure on everything else,” Pate said. “There were labor cuts but we were fortunate that the federal grants came through and helped pull us out of that. Some of the community donated $3.5 million to help. It was a tough year. ’Twenty-one was a much better year. We’re not back to where we were but we’re considerably better than we had been.”  

Admission tickets make up about 25% of the zoo’s income, with another 25% from membership, down to about 86,000 members from 90,000 a few years ago. The rest comes from the zoo’s entrepreneurial side. “We have to run this like a business—the restaurants, the gift shops, the facility rentals, the rides like the Skyfari, train, and tram,” he said. “It’s about a $50 million operation here.”  

By comparison, the San Diego Zoo has a $300 million budget. After the cost of living difference, that is about three times higher than Omaha’s budget; and San Diego’s zoo is 100 acres and houses 12,000 animals.

Pate is proud when he hears people talking positively about the zoo, like when Omahans are asked by out-of-town visitors what’s to do in Omaha. “Invariably, they say go to the zoo,” Pate said. “The community is proud of the place, and they tell everyone and their brother about it.”  

The zoo impacts Omaha and Nebraska by about $200 million a year, Pate said. That relates to people paying for gas, meal, hotels, and more while
in town. 

Deb Ward, executive director of Visit Omaha, the city’s tourism bureau, said research shows that 60% of the overnight leisure travelers in Omaha visit the zoo. Likewise, 33% of the business travelers and 45% of those attending sports events also go to the zoo. 

“Roughly a third of our attendance comes from out-of-state including across the river. We advertise from Kansas City to western Nebraska, and over into Iowa and Minneapolis,” said Pate, who noted that some years ago, the zoo began creating packages combining various elements of the zoo for lower prices, such as admission, the giant screen theater, rides on the train and tram, and more. 

Some area hotels have also been creating packages that cover rooms and admission to the zoo.

“I can tell you that one of our most popular packages is about the zoo,” said Ward. “And we recommend to hotels that they put together these packages.” 

Adam Daeges, general manager of Four Points by Sheraton Omaha Midtown, a Marriott hotel  at 30th and Dodge streets, said the zoo is among the first things guests mention. He also believes packages are worthwhile. 

Ward said Visit Omaha has tracked an increase in visitors to the metro area over the years, 2020 and 2021 notwithstanding. “When the zoo started its [master] plan in 2010, [we saw] a gradual increase in out-of-town visitors coming to Omaha. Is it all for the zoo? No, but it is a huge catalyst for the leisure market,” Ward said. “It’s our top attraction. In addition to Omaha Steaks and Berkshire Hathaway, the zoo is one of the things Omaha is known for.”  

A major part of the zoo’s appeal, said Ward, is that it grows and evolves. “The zoo doesn’t rest on its laurels,” she said. “It’s constantly creating new travel experiences.” 

Visit omahazoo.com for more information.


This article has been updated from the original to reflect updated numbers. 

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2022  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.