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5 Questions with Stu: Mark Shafer of the Brandywine Zoo

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The Brandywine Zoo is Delaware’s only Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited Zoo. The Zoo is located in Wilmington’s Brandywine Park. The facility is home to a variety of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians and hosts numerous community and educational programs.

Mark Shafer volunteered to take over as interim executive director in May 2020. With a background in banking and risk management, he’s tasked with steering the zoo through a leadership change, as well as a pandemic, which closed the Zoo for months. Shafer and the zoo have managed to build opportunity internally and externally, despite a unique set of challenges.

How did your organization shift or pivot at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic?

It seems like all we did is pivot in 2020.  To start with we anticipated a delayed opening until April at the Brandywine Zoo due to construction of our new Madagascar exhibit. When we were ready to open the state mandated we close for public safety.  Of course, we recognized the necessity to keep our staff, animals and public safe, but we also knew that the spring/summer season revenue, which is typically our highest, would be reduced to zero. To help stay engaged with the public we increased our social media presence and produced some free video content and interactive activities on our website.

What is the biggest or most creative way your organization adjusted to address community needs during the pandemic?

The biggest shift was to expand our online learning offerings.  We offered free videos about animals; we ventured to produce educational content for schools to help provide valuable video content for teachers.  The DCF was instrumental in helping us do so by providing a grant which allowed us to purchase the equipment necessary to produce high quality video content.

Olive the opossum takes in an online program

Has all that happened in 2020 changed the way your organization will operate in the future, even after the pandemic?

I think it’s impossible to imagine something as impactful as this pandemic won’t have lasting effects on how we operate.  For one, again with the help of the DCF, we were able to put a ticketing reservation system in place which allowed us to manage state-mandated capacity requirements.  We’ve heard from guests that the Brandywine Zoo is a fun and safe place to visit.  The fact that we can better control the number of people visiting us throughout the day via the ticketing system is something we will definitely keep in place long after the pandemic is behind us.

What are the organization’s top priorities going forward?

Our priorities have not changed.  We want to keep the public engaged safely and continue fulfilling our commitment as the dedicated partner of the Brandywine Zoo.  The Delaware Zoological Society will support the Brandywine Zoo’s mission through on-going development and with engaging educational and recreational programming that inspire wildlife protection and conservation.

Going forward, what are you most excited about?

There is so much to get excited about.  We’ve heard repeatedly from guests what the zoo has meant to them during the pandemic.  It really is heart-warming.  But success is not final!  We are expanding our early childhood on-site programming, we continue to expand our virtual educational programming, and we will ramp-up our $5MM fund-raising effort for Phase 3 of the “Zoo re-imagined” campaign which will include a dramatic new entryway and an exciting South American wetlands habitat with Chilean Flamingos! The campaign was paused due to the pandemic but we are eager to pick up where we left off.