Home National America’s oldest zoo has a new history-making CEO

America’s oldest zoo has a new history-making CEO

Dr. Jo-Elle Morgerman is the new president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo. (Photo: Courtesy Philadelphia Zoo)

(CNN) — Dr. Jo-Elle Mogerman has made history by becoming the first woman and the first Black CEO and president of the nation’s oldest zoo.

Mogerman assumed the role at the Philadelphia Zoo on October 30, but she said she’s continued to receive an outpouring of support since her appointment was announced in August.

“There’s also this additional sense of pride I think that I have felt and seen with Black and Brown communities,” she said. “The internal sort of head nod that we do amongst us. I wear that proudly, and I’ll make sure we’re represented.”

Mogerman said she hopes to inspire the zoo’s guests to develop a love for animals and a passion for conservation.

She said the intersections between animal conservation, guest experience, and community require diverse voices and talents at the table.

“I’m excited to be a part of the Philadelphia Zoo team and have a really awesome Board that gets the value and importance of that,” she said.

New Discoveries

The Philadelphia Zoo launched a national search for a new CEO at the beginning of the year, according to Joanna McNeil Lewis, Chair of the Philadelphia Zoo’s Board of Directors.

Lewis said it wasn’t just Mogerman’s extensive experience that made her the ideal president for the job.

“It was her clear commitment to community, animal welfare, staff development and operational excellence that made her the right fit for our renowned Zoo,” Lewis said.

The Philadelphia Zoo opened in 1874 and is the nation’s first zoo. It is currently home to more than 1700 rare and endangered animals.

Only 14 presidents have preceded Mogerman in the last 149 years.

“I’m really humbled to be the person stewarding this organization,” she said. “It’s not Jo-Elle’s zoo – I am stewarding it for Philadelphia.”

Mogerman said foremost on her agenda is learning how to navigate the zoo’s 42-acre campus.

“I get lost a lot,” she admitted. “But that’s ok, I don’t mind getting lost because you discover things when you get lost.”

Though she’s still learning her way around, Mogerman said she’s already found her favorite animal’s habitat: the cheetahs.

The Philadelphia Zoo is home to Amani and Kalima, 8-year-old cheetah sisters.

As a young Black kid growing up in the 70s, Mogerman said she was always drawn to the beauty of the spotted felines and appreciates that the cats are historically associated with African culture and royalty.

While cheetahs are her favorite, the new CEO told CNN she has a love for all animals.

Given the complex political and cultural climate in the US, Mogerman urged Americans to “go visit their local zoo, go take a hike in nature, get re-grounded, get reconnected.”

Mogerman said although careers in the zoo and aquarium fields have historically been dominated by White people, she has noticed a shift in the demographics from when she first started her career.

“There have been more women appointed in these top leadership positions over time,” she told CNN. “In terms of racial and ethnic diversity, we got some work to do.”

Mogerman is only the second African American woman to be tapped to lead an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institution. In 2019, Denise Verret became the first Black female director of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

As she takes on a new role at the Philadelphia Zoo, Mogerman said she plans to remain authentically herself and purposefully visible to inspire younger generations.

“It’s really hard to be something you can’t see,” Mogerman said. “Hopefully, it helps a variety of different people see that some progress has been made.”

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