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VIProfile: Lisa New



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Story by Gay Lyons

Lisa New, President and CEO of Zoo Knoxville, didn’t aspire to the head job there.

“My goal was to be a field researcher in primatology--more of an academic and science role,” she said. “The zoo was a pit stop that became a life goal.”

New, a Knoxville native and graduate of Carter High School, earned a B.S. in Zoology and an M.S. in Ethology, the study of animal behavior, from the University of Tennessee. In October 1990, while in graduate school, she took a job at the zoo as a Research Assistant/Curator.

“As part of my job, in the midst of entering data, writing and conducting scientific literature searches, I had to take care of two infant chimps,” she said. “The problem of how to integrate them back into their own social group was the basis for my thesis. As I worked through my thesis, my network grew, and I started moving away from the academic world to applied science. I never aspired to this business role; I wanted to work with wildlife.”

“I love exciting people about animals,” she continued. “”If zoos really care about conservation of wildlife, it has to go on on different fronts. Some species are designated for reintroduction to the wild. Others--ambassador animals--will never go back to the wild. In some cases, there’s no wild to go back to. They represent animals in the wild.”

During an accreditation inspection at another zoo, New had what she describes as “an epiphany moment.”

“I was in awe of where this zoo had come in five years,” she said. “I wondered whether I could do this kind of job. I saw in action how it could happen, so I came back and put my name in the hat for the job.”

“There was a national search with over 100 applicants,” she continued. “It was a long, stressful process, but it validated the choice. I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.”

In May 2013, New became only the fifth director in the institution’s history and the first female.

“Our attendance was declining, and our market penetration was stagnant,” said New. “Incoming board chair, Eddie Mannis, insisted we needed a strategic plan, a road map for the future. The goal was to turn us into a world-renowned zoo.”

“In 2014, the board and staff were ready to embark on a strategic plan,” she continued. “The momentum of the zoo has come from that plan. It’s nice to have a ‘To Do’ list.”

A five-year capital campaign launched in 2016 will fund the Boyd Family Asian Trek, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus and the North American River Otters Habitat.

“We don’t break ground until we have the pledges in place,” said New. “We’re being good financial stewards.”

New gives a great deal of credit to “an invigorated board with strong leadership.” She also credits luck.

“In 20 years of holding gorillas, we’d never had a birth,” she said. “Then we had three births in two years (2014-2016), and people just went nuts for them. We hit our attendance goal in 2016 and have done so ever since.”

“If you want to help the zoo, just come,” she said. “We are dependent on attendance, and attendance is dependent on the weather. Our guests are our lifeblood. Eighty-six percent of our revenue comes from attendance and on-site sales.”

“It’s humbling how much Knoxvillians love their zoo,” said New. “In 2013, when we arrived in the morning to find 33 reptiles dead or dying, the outpouring of love and support got our staff through. We still don’t know what happened.”

New and her husband, Eric, who’s a chef, have two sons, Isaac, age 20, and Gabriel, age 16.

“They think I have the coolest job in the world,” said New. “They’ve grown up here. There was a time when it wasn’t cool to come here. Then they figured out it was a cool place to bring dates.”

“Sometimes I take for granted where I work,” said New. “I have an office. I get bogged down in spreadsheets. But I can hear the gibbons outside and remember where I am. That’s really special.”

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