University of Minnesota Alumni Association

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Animals Make Us Better People

Jo-Elle Mogerman leads the 160-year-old Philadelphia Zoo—the nation’s oldest.

courtesy of philadelphia zoo

“We have more visitors to accredited zoos in the U.S. than go to see sports teams,” says Jo-Elle Mogerman (M.S. ’94), who thinks a lot about how to keep zoos relevant and build beneficial relationships between people andwildlife. Over 183 million individual tickets are scanned annually at zoo entrances— more than the total MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL attendance combined—according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a national nonprofit organization.

Mogerman holds a master’s in conservation biology from the U of M, which she earned between her bachelor’s degree in biology from Macalester College and her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Today she’s president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo.

Throughout her career, Mogerman has focused on connecting people with nature. “That makes us better people,” she says. Mogerman remembers childhood zoo visits in her native Chicago and watching Wild Kingdom on television, both of which fueled her nascent awareness of the animal world. Then, as a little girl, she received a memorable Christmas gift: “It was a red tape recorder, and I recorded a song ‘I like elephants because of their big fat rumps. ...’ That was a Jo-Elle original,” she says with a laugh. “[And] I had the picture of a cheetah [still a favorite for its “fascinating” dog and cat features] on my wall at age 8.”

Early in her career, Mogerman was thrilled to accept a position at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, where she was on staff for 14 years before becoming vice president of learning and community across town at Shedd Aquarium. “I [have been] super fortunate to have dream jobs,” she says. “At Brookfield [and Shedd], I got to give back to kids that look like me, where I grew up, and get them excited about science. I saw how programs that were nuanced to communities of color could accelerate the programs—not just in education, but in ways that could be of service to the community. Black and brown people in STEM are my legacy.”

When the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri initiated plans for a major ground-up addition—its 425-acre, $230 million WildCare Park—Mogerman was chosen as director of the project in 2019. She led strategic planning; applied her vision and skills as a project manager, conservationist and problem-solver; and developed a team for the WildCare Park that will combine safari experiences with animal science and conservation breeding. Scheduled to open in 2027, the park welcomed its first animals as Mogerman prepared for her own relocation from the Midwest to new adventures in Philadelphia.

"International relationships [between researchers and conservationists] can be crucial for species survival. Zoos also have a role to play in maintaining genetic diversity."
Jo-Elle Mogerman

Leaving behind a major project that she put into motion, Mogerman is now undertaking a new set of challenges leading the nation’s oldest zoo. The 42-acre Philadelphia Zoo, chartered in 1854, opened in 1874. Locked into an urban setting by railroad lines, thorough fares and highways, and the Schuylkill River, the zoo has long embraced innovation: It established a first-of-its-kind animal health laboratory in 1901; developed “zoocake” (a scientifically controlled diet) in 1935; opened the nation’s first children’s zoo in 1938; and saw the first U.S. captive births of an orangutan, chimpanzee, cheetah and echidna or spiny anteater. “The Philly Zoo [also] pioneered [exploration trails for] primates,” Mogerman says.

In 2011, Zoo360, a campuswide network of mesh trails (separate trails for small primates, great apes and recently, big cats), opened, spanning a collective 2,565 feet. The first of its kind worldwide, now widely copied, the trail system allows animals passage around, and even above, the grounds and visitors. Monkeys and lemurs can travel 1,735 feet and up to 37 feet high over the treetops; kids can join them on an adjacent (but safely separated) climbing tower.

Besides creating exhibits that combine both animal well-being and better viewing experiences, Mogerman firmly believes 21st century zoos now need to be in the business of sharing information—with their local communities, other institutions, and wild-population field experts and conservationists. “We directly lend our expertise in veterinary care [and] animal behavior to [those working in] the wild,” she says, noting that better understanding improves life for wild and captive animals.

“We might bring a wild population that is dwindling into human care,” for example, she says. “[And] international relationships [between researchers and conservationists] can be crucial for species survival. There is also a growing understanding that zoos have a role to play, for instance, in maintaining genetic diversity,” Mogerman says.

“Knowledge is changing rapidly," she adds. "I think what you will see in zoos is more innovative habitat design. And better storytelling—with data to back it up.”

In Philly specifically, Mogerman wants the zoo to help shape the city’s future. “My approach is always place-based. We can freshen the border and involve the community in that, so that the facility doesn’t look inward,” she says—an improvement that doesn’t have to take years.

Mogerman’s cross-disciplinary course work at the U of M continues to inform her work and leadership today. “I can directly attribute value added to anything I do to my Minnesota conservation biology background,” she says. “In anthropology courses we learned to look at root causes. I would not have gotten this insight in a strict zoology or biology [degree program].”

She’s grateful that her immediate predecessor at the zoo, outgoing president and CEO Vikram Dewan, has the “financial part of the house in good order.” Mogerman plans for her tenure in Philly to start with relationship-building among donors, the zoo team, and governance. “Together we will set our direction with strategic key input. And a lot of people time,” she says.

“Sometimes, you take a walk out in the park and hear the delight of families and see them engaging. You watch the cool behaviors of animals. And then you return to devise strategy and spend time on the budget. One of the things I love about working at this level is that you never have a typical day.”

Margaret Shakespeare is a New York-based writer who often reports on wildlife and wild places for national publications.


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