Personal Space

A one-on-one conversation with Chris Pfefferkorn of The Birmingham Zoo 

Chris Pfefferkorn, president and CEO of the Birmingham Zoo, is a firm believer that when people connect with animals, it’s a short path to helping them connect with the beauty of nature and our collective role in preserving it. A native of Illinois, Pfefferkorn has more than 25 years of zoological experience at the Oregon Zoo, Ellen Trout Zoo, Peoria Zoo, and most recently as senior vice president of the Birmingham Zoo before taking the helm as CEO last summer. He sat down to talk with us about the role of zoos in promoting conservation, continuously improving the zoo experience for people and animals, and the zoo’s breakthrough research on bachelor elephant herds.

B-Metro: What are your earliest memories of being around wild animals?

Pfefferkorn: When I was young, a friend of my dad’s worked at the zoo in Bloomington, Ill., and I got to help him hand-raise some raccoons.  That helped hook me into animals. I also grew up watching “Wild Kingdom.” I didn’t want to be Marlin Perkins; I wanted to be Jim (Fowler) down with the animals.

In college, I got a job at the zoo in Peoria. I was a part-time zookeeper and a part-time horticulturist for a summer. I was just thrilled to be there. I walked out at the end of the first day and said, ‘That’s what I want to do the rest of my life.’ I’ve always wanted a job where I made a difference, and I think this makes a difference.

B-Metro: What do you think sets the Birmingham Zoo apart?

Pfefferkorn: A number of things. First off, the community support for this zoo is incredible. If you were a member roughly 15, 16 years ago, the zoo was losing its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Visitor numbers were down. And Dr. (William) Foster (the former president and CEO) and the staff turned that around, and you can’t do that without the community’s support.

B-Metro: In 2013, the Birmingham Zoo became the first zoo accredited by AZA to replicate an all-male African elephant herd as they live naturally in the wild. Why is that work important to the zoo?

Pfefferkorn: In African elephants, you will see bachelors together; sometimes you will see elephants by themselves; and you will also see them in with herds of females. So they have a lot of different social situations in the wild, and we’re working here to replicate (one of those). We learn a lot about social interactions and hierarchy. We monitor their behavior, including how they change behaviorally and physically as they grow older. We’re collecting a lot of good information that helps us provide better welfare and management of these guys. A lot of folks had talked about doing this, but we stepped up to do it here in Birmingham, and I think the work is phenomenal.

B-Metro: How do you manage the balance between creating exhibits where people can easily see as many animals as they want while meeting the animals’ needs for natural habitats?

Pfefferkorn: I do believe in a smaller number of animals in our zoos with bigger exhibits. But the real trick is, what is that space? If you’re a primate who’s normally found in the trees, giving you 100 acres in a grassy field really isn’t going to do that animal much good. The gist of it is the space should be what the animal needs. I want our animals in the best setting that we can provide them, and then through our enrichment and training program as well, we will have active animals. We’ll have healthy animals. We’ll have animals that folks will see.

B-Metro: You yourself have done a lot of animal conservation work in Zimbabwe, and now through the PiCA (Passion into Conservation Action) program, zoo employees are invited to apply for grants to do conservation work around the country or the world. Why do you feel that’s important? 

Pfefferkorn: The zoo industry is built on passion, and our team has a tremendous amount of passion. For them to be able to go anywhere in the world or locally and get hands-on experience with an animal that really drives their passion, it makes them much more knowledgeable about the animals that they take care of, they can apply that to how they care for the animals, and it turns them into better educators. Wherever they go, it sparks and drives that passion, and when they come back that passion spills over to our visitors.

That helps us meet our mission to inspire passion to conserve the natural world. So they make that connection. 



Snakes. “I have a lot of respect for snakes,” Pfefferkorn says. “But I’ve never been able to get over that (phobia). It’s my personal thing.”

Leave a Reply