Honolulu Zoo’s first female director reflects on 1st year on the job, plans to modernize facility

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The Honolulu Zoo has struggled with much over the years: funding issues, losing accreditation, and leadership turnover. There have been six directors in seven years.

But it’s been over a year since a “local girl” took over as head of the zoo. 

“It was a really quick year. Busy!” said director Linda Santos. 

So busy, Santos did not realize an accomplishment. 

“I was surprised to actually think: ‘Oh yeah, I’m the first female zoo director.’ It finally hit home. It just shows women can do everything men can do,” she said. 

Santos started as a trainee in the bird section in 1986. When she took over as director in 2017, she inherited a zoo with an aging infrastructure and the loss of accreditation. 

“We get these old lines underground, all of a sudden we have a water leak. It’s a huge impact. Sometimes we have to shut down the zoo because we don’t have restroom facilities that are operable,” said Santos. 

As for the lack of accreditation, Santos added “What was the key to the loss of accreditation was a lack of stable funding.”

Now, she says, the zoo has stable funding, thanks to a voter approved charter amendment. It established a fund using a portion of property taxes for zoo maintenance, repairs and improvements.

“I’m kind of the vision and leader guiding us into the direction. The focus is, how do we prepare ourselves for accreditation?” 

She plans on applying for accreditation in fall 2019. 

“When we get to that point, we have to assess and have our ducks aligned. To make sure we’re ready. And the zoo is looking good.”

Santos wants to modernize the zoo, which opened in 1947. Since taking over, the facility opened a new “Ectotherm” exhibit, and started a “Sloth Cam” to include the birth of a sloth. 

On average, the zoo has 1500 visitors. On a busy day, it jumps to 2,000 to 3,000 visitors. She says the zoo makes $400,000 to $500,000 a month in revenue. 

“We’d like to see it go up. The more guests we get, the better our revenue is,” said Santos. 

Zoo attendance was approximately 560,000 for fiscal year 2017, according to city officials. 

While the director is confident she can improve the facility, Santos is still hoping for local businesses to sponsor segments of the zoo as a way to bring in more money. 

“There’s been little changes and some bumps on the roads, things were slower than we’d like it to be. The main thing is we’re moving forward, and we’re trying to accomplish that visions and goals.” 

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