Director Susan Altrui Says Zoo Exhibits a Habitat for Inspiration

Director Susan Altrui Says Zoo Exhibits a Habitat for Inspiration
Susan Altrui, director of the Little Rock Zoo (Jason Burt)

Susan Altrui, who had been serving as acting director of the Little Rock Zoo since the retirement of the zoo’s longtime director, Mike Blakely, in October, was named director of the Little Rock Zoo in December.

She joined the zoo in 2005 as director of marketing and development, moving up to assistant director in June 2015.

Altrui, born and raised in central Arkansas, earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and rhetoric from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro in 2000 and a master’s in speech communication and rhetoric from Colorado State University in 2003. She was named an Arkansas Business 40 Under 40 in 2008.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the Little Rock Zoo?

The Little Rock Zoo faces challenges similar to any business or nonprofit. We’re always looking for ways to increase revenue in a mission-focused way while holding the line on expenses. We’ve seen a large increase in the cost of animal feed, construction materials, concession products and other materials that we use every day.

Our largest challenge will be replacing and updating old facilities. Studies we’ve conducted show that the zoo has the potential to double the number of annual attendees from 300,000 to 600,000 with the right capital investment. This would make the zoo a regional tourist attraction and create the kind of revenue the zoo needs to sustain itself in the long run. We need the right public and private investment in the zoo to build exciting new exhibits and facilities that engage the guest while educating them about the importance of conservation.

The role of zoos is changing as people’s opinions about animal rights and welfare are changing. What is your understanding of the role of the Little Rock Zoo?

The zoo is a place where learning lives. There’s just something special about seeing an animal in person that you can’t replicate on a screen or in a book. Zoos and aquariums are inspiring the next generation of biologists, conservationists and wildlife specialists.

It’s important for zoos to emphasize the work we do for conservation and for zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to emphasize the high standards we have for animal care. The knowledge of expert scientists, researchers and animal care specialists in the AZA zoological community will greatly impact the conservation of animals in the wild by contributing knowledge and resources to organizations working to save wild species.

There have been several high-profile incidents of children falling into animal enclosures, including one incident here in 2014. What are some of the zoo’s safety measures?

We take safety very seriously at the Little Rock Zoo. We do regular safety trainings, and that’s the reason we were able to respond quickly and efficiently in the 2014 incident that saved both the life of the child and the lives of the animals involved. Since then we’ve added secondary safety barriers to all dangerous animal exhibits and are always improving our safety protocols and procedures. You can never be too safe. There are more than 180 million people attending an AZA zoo or aquarium each year. That’s more than all professional sports leagues combined. AZA zoos and aquariums have a remarkable record for safety.

How did you get involved in this field?

I started as the director of marketing and development for the zoo nearly 12 years ago. I knew very little about zoos or even about animals, for that matter. I’ve had to learn on the job. I was very fortunate to have mentors like Zoo Director Mike Blakely and City Manager Bruce Moore, who allowed me to grow in this field and take advantage of professional development opportunities. They also gave me responsibilities that challenged me to be a leader. It’s important that executives provide these types of opportunities.