Honolulu Zoo director Jeff Wilkinson has resigned after nine months on the job.
He’s the zoo’s fourth director in five years to call it quits.
Assistant zoo director Dr. Baird Fleming will serve as acting director.
Wilkinson sent the following email to zoo staff Sunday night:
“I wanted to reach out personally before the news hits the coconut wireless. My sister, our elderly parents’ main support system (doctor’s visits, groceries, companionship, etc.) past (sic) away last April, shortly after I started at the Zoo. Returning home to Hawaii had been my dream for the last twenty years, but you know the saying, “Life happens while you’re making other plans.” So, I’ve made the difficult decision to resign my position at the Zoo and move back to California to care for my parents.
The friendship and comradery you’ve shown this zoo greenhorn makes it particularly bittersweet. Your passion for the Zoo and its animals – despite the many burdens and hardships – has inspired me. I am so proud to have been part of this team. During my short time here, I hope we’ve planted some seeds that will take root and one day bring more resources to the Zoo.
I’ll treasure this experience for the rest of my life and think of you all often and with fondness.
Aloha and my deepest mahalo for your extraordinary investment in our zoo.”
Wilkinson brought more than 20 years of executive experience, but admitted in his note that he was a “zoo greenhorn.”
The University of Southern California and Punahou School graduate previously served as chief operating officer of non-profit St. John’s Program for Women and Children in Sacramento, Calif., since 2011. He was also college director at ITT Technical Institute and president of Menco, Inc., which sells consumable products to retailers.
The director position has been a tumultuous one for the zoo with unusually high turnover.
Wilkinson officially assumed the post on April 1, 2014, replacing Dr. Jeffrey Mahon, who resigned in December 2013 citing personal reasons. Mahon was on the job for only five months.
Before him, Manuel Mollinedo served as director for two years. He resigned in February 2013. Stephen Walker preceded him as director in 2009.
Mollinedo said Wilkinson’s departure could put the zoo’s chances of getting re-accredited in jeopardy.
“This additional resignation is just going to make the hill that much steeper in the future to be accredited,” he said. “What the city really needs to do now is really focus on bringing on a real zoo professional.”
According to the city, every zoo in the United Stated must complete a thorough accreditation process every five years through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The accreditation, as stated on AZA’s website, ensures zoos meet the association’s standards for “animal management and care, including living environments, social groupings, health and nutrition.”
Even after the zoo won accreditation in 2012, then-director Mollinedo said he saw a decline in support for the zoo.
“Unfortunately, after we received accreditation, people became lazy and didn’t think that the zoo continued to need the support it had in the past,” he said.
Mollinedo said when he resigned, he recommended Fleming, a veterinarian he had brought in with zoo management experience. But Mollinedo said Fleming was passed over for someone the city considered had managerial expertise.
Mahon was an expert on aquariums who was last with the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center before he got the job as Honolulu zoo director.
Zoo visitors said they’re concerned about the turnover. “It makes me wonder why people are quitting so often?” said Michelle Young. “Does it have to do with something going at at the zoo?”
“They shouldn’t be that frequent in such a short period of time,” said Nicole Kuamoo, “so I hope they can find a candidate and stay for a while.”
“We certainly don’t want high turnover in any of our management positions,” said Roy Amemiya, the city’s managing director. Amemiya said the priority for the zoo is not just to hire a new director, but to make sure animals are well cared for at the zoo.
There are 70 employees at the zoo with a current fiscal year operating budget of $5.169 million.
Accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is usually good for five years, but because of previous problems at the zoo, it was tabled for one year. The zoo was able to win accreditation in the spring of 2012, which is in place until March 2016.
The mayor does not appoint the zoo director. Applicants apply for what is considered a civil service position.
Mollinedo says it took him about five months to become zoo director in Honolulu.