Fond farewell for Fresno zoo director

When Lewis Greene was hired as director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo three years ago, the zoo was at a crossroads. It had just won public support for a tax measure to finance an expansion, but its board was hobbled by infighting and the zoo itself was at risk of losing the accreditation it needed to keep some animals and obtain others.

Today, the zoo is fully accredited, it has a new master plan for expansion and a growing reputation in the zoo community in species preservation.

Greene is leaving Fresno after Saturday for a job as assistant director overseeing animals at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. It's the hometown of his wife, Patty Peters, who oversees the Fresno zoo's marketing. She will take over the associate zoo director position for community relations in Columbus. Family was the reason for the move, Greene said.

Zoo board members and outside zoo experts praise Greene for steadying the zoo, shepherding short-term improvements, bringing in new staff and new exhibits and laying the foundation for permanent improvements in the future.

"We would have liked to have kept Lewis because he means a lot to our zoo," said John Valentino, a zoo board member. "He really knows the zoo business and his employees and the board think highly of him. ... When he tells you something, you know you can rely on it happening."

The man who headed the accreditation team that inspected Fresno Chaffee Zoo said it was clear in 2007 that the zoo was moving forward.

"Lewis had done a good job of assembling a professional staff," said Chuck Wikenhauser, director of the Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin. "I think the confidence that Lewis instilled in the operation was recognized in the accreditation process."

The Chaffee Zoo is now searching for Greene's replacement and hopes to name a successor as soon as the end of this month, said zoo board member Sheri Manning-Cartwright.

Greene was able to hire staff, make small improvements and plan for larger ones with the help of Measure Z, the tenth-of-a-cent sales tax approved by Fresno County voters in 2004. The money also allowed Greene to bring in one of the zoo's most popular seasonal exhibits, Stingray Bay.

Stingray Bay is credited with helping to boost zoo attendance by about 38% since 2006.

Stingray Bay will begin its third year on Saturday. A new rain forest exhibit, Tropical Treasures, paid for with Measure Z money, also opens Saturday.

Stingray Bay also created a crisis in 2007, when most of the rays died after pool equipment had mechanical problems.

Valentino admitted the stingray incident was a problem for the zoo. But Greene and the contractor, Living Exhibits, figured out a workable solution. None of the rays died from mechanical issues in 2008.

Greene said the community's concerns in 2007 showed the exhibit's importance. People were feeding stingrays and learned they were docile, graceful creatures.

"Once people knew something about them, they became more than just fish," Greene said. "People cared about them. ... That's when we are doing our jobs right, when we get people to care about animals."

Greene leaves Fresno with mixed feelings because he knows Valley residents enjoy their zoo and want to see it grow.

He said he will miss the Fresno zoo's staff because of its friendliness to visitors.

Another reason for mixed feelings is leaving Sara the orangutan, an animal he knew when he worked in New Orleans in the early 1990s. She now lives in the Fresno zoo and recognized Greene immediately when he started in 2006.

In announcing his resignation to the staff, Greene admits to choking up when mentioning Sara.

But Greene said smaller projects, such as colorful signs directing visitors to exhibits, even newly painted buildings, were steps forward.

Those projects improved the zoo, said Ralph Waterhouse, the zoo's director for 12 years before his retirement in 2003.

"There are a lot of interim projects being done without spending a lot of money that show a lot of care and artistic flair," Waterhouse said.

And, though Greene arrived at a difficult time for the zoo, Waterhouse said, he built employee morale.

"He has a great compassion for his job and incredible compassion for the animals and his staff," Waterhouse said.