News Column

Akron Zoo leader leaves job for new adventure

August 30, 2014

By Kathy Antoniotti, The Akron Beacon Journal

Aug. 30--Akron Zoo leader L. Patricia "Pat" Simmons walked up the hill to Grizzly Ridge relishing the sun and the rare opportunity to enjoy the zoo built, for the most part, in the past 29 years that she has served as its president and chief executive officer.

She stopped to admire a metal sculpture that artist Elizabeth Allen created of a mother otter teaching her baby to swim. It stands at the entrance to the otter exhibit in the zoo's largest expansion, Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge, which opened in 2013.

The sculpture is dedicated to the late Conrad Ott, former superintendent of Akron Public Schools who was known as a huge zoo supporter. His widow, Jeanne, and friends donated it.

Simmons related the story behind the metal sculpture.

"When I first met Conrad Ott, we had a baby otter that needed to be raised by hand. I was teaching it to swim in my bathtub, and I called it 'Conrad C. Otter,'?" she explained.

Simmons realized at a young age that beauty was right outside the door of the central Ohio farm where she grew up. She willingly risked the ire of her kind and understanding mother to bring that beauty inside.

She recounted the day when, at age 7, she tried to re-create a moving stream with "beautiful, flowing green algae" in the middle of the family's TV room with her mother's bowls, a pile of dirt and a bunch of rocks. She didn't get in trouble for the mess, but because it "was too important" to put aside when she was asked to set the table for dinner.

"It was the only time in my life I was ever paddled," she said.

Simmons, president and CEO of the Akron Zoo since 1985, will leave the post Sunday, seeking broader challenges at the state-supported North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.

"I think I am most pleased that we have created a zoo that this community wanted and having their support and trust to accomplish it, " she said in an interview shortly before her last day at the helm.

New beginnings

During a tour of the zoo, Simmons and 4-year-old Laralie Staniford of Cuyahoga Falls were equally excited when one of the sloth bears began interacting with them in the Tiger Valley exhibit.

Laralie and her mother, Larissa Shockly, were visiting the zoo on "Cuyahoga Falls Day," when city residents were offered free admission.

"That's wonderful. Community days are a 'thank you' for supporting the zoo," Simmons said.

She said the opportunity that beckons in North Carolina is worth uprooting her family, which includes her husband, Bruce, and son, Franklin, from the farm where they live just outside the city.

The 2,000-acre North Carolina Zoo, situated in the center of the state, is home to approximately 1,600 individual specimens representing more than 225 species and supports a field conservation program in the highlands of Nigeria and Cameroon in Western Africa.

"They are doing everything there that we are doing in Akron, but on a much larger scale," she said.

When zoo representatives "came knocking on my door," Simmons said the timing seemed right. She felt that with the Akron Zoo on firm financial ground with a levy renewal in 2013, she could make the move.

"The zoo's finances are secured for the next seven years," she said.

That wasn't the case in 1983, when Simmons first entered the front gates as a newly hired director of development and administration and walked into "what most of the world would consider a dump," she said.

"The zoo had $10,000 in the bank and a million dollars in deferred maintenance," Simmons said. Nonetheless, she fell in love "as soon as I walked in the door."

Her personal mission was to make the old, neglected, formerly city-owned Akron Children's Zoo, then the target of vandals and site of past mayhem, "become beloved" by the community and respected by guests.

Building a zoo

In six years, Simmons earned a certificate of authenticity for the zoo through the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, the forerunner of the worldwide Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

"Accreditation was critical to becoming a professional organization in people's minds," she said she realized. Only 10 percent of the zoos in the country today have standards high enough to rate accreditation by the AZA.

Simmons quickly discovered that in order to learn what people wanted in their zoo, she had to pose questions to guests and listen to their answers.

"We never want to build something our guests don't want," Simmons said, a policy the zoo still practices.

In the beginning, as she walked around the zoo that primarily was home to North American animals, people complained because there were no monkeys, she said.

"So, we put in monkeys. Then, they complained there were no penguins. So, we put in penguins."

When guests complained there were no lions, tigers and bears, Simmons said, she knew it would take a bigger effort to satisfy the community's wish list.

"I was finally able to get enough momentum to raise $1 million in private donations, and we put in lions, tigers and bears."

Opening Tiger Valley in 1998 was key to convincing a doubting county administration that voters would support zoo operations with their tax dollars.

The first levy request was approved in 2000 by 51 percent of Summit County voters.

Former Summit County Executive Jim McCarthy remembers the day Simmons walked into his office and proposed the tax.

"When Pat and I met to talk about the possibility of a tax that would only be used to support the zoo, I was a little skeptical, to say the least. Thirty minutes later, I was one of her biggest supporters and have never regretted that decision," McCarthy said by phone from his home in Florida. "I wish her all the best."

After that election, Simmons gathered zoo employees, patted them on their backs for their hard work, then issued a word of warning, recalled David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services: "She told us to be careful of what you ask for, 'you just might get it.'?"

Dedicated employees had worked for 60 consecutive days on the levy, he said.

"And here she is, she's telling us that our work was just beginning. She told us we had six years to prove ourselves," he remembered. "Making us accountable was a good lesson that I've never forgotten."

Rapid growth

In 2003, the Barnhardt Family Welcome Center, Penguin Point and Lehner Family Zoo Gardens opened.

In 2005, Legends of the Wild opened. The $8.6 million investment included 16 animal exhibits and marked the largest expansion in the zoo's history. That year, the $9.3 million Komodo Kingdom education building opened with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. It was the first LEED building in Summit County and the third in zoos nationwide.

The following year, voters showed their satisfaction, renewing the levy with 63 percent approval.

In 2008, the zoo opened what would prove to be one of the most successful exhibits in its history. Jellies: Rhythm in the Blue, helped set an annual attendance record of 328,953 guests.

In 2010, the zoo opened the $1.2 million, 38-foot Conservation Carousel project with almost $300,000 in donations and sponsorships. Simmons became president and CEO of the AZA, and the zoo became home to the first four-star green-certified restaurant in any zoo in the U.S. and the seventh restaurant nationwide.

With the opening of Grizzly Ridge last year, the zoo reset its attendance record at 389,000. The zoo has grown from a couple of dozen animals in 1983 to more than 2,470 animals living in exhibits that cover 60 acres, up from 24 acres.

A budget of $240,000 in 1983 is now just over $12 million, and the staff has grown from seven employees to 106.

Replacing Simmons won't be easy, said board President Bob Littman, CEO of regional accounting firm SS&G. He has served on the zoo's board of directors for 20 years.

"Pat is a visionary and a leader that the zoo will surely miss. She's left the zoo in a great place for her successor," Littman said.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or


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