New zoo president and CEO remembers past, looks to future

By Updated: June 03, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: May 31, 2019 3:50 PM CT

When Jim Dean graduated from Memphis State University in 1980, he couldn’t wait to leave.

“It was just like, I couldn’t stay any longer,” he said. “I’ve got to go now.”

Nearly 40 years later, he couldn’t wait to return.

“When the opportunity came to come to Memphis, to run my hometown zoo, I couldn’t pass that up,” he said.

On April 29, Dean started as the new president and CEO of the Memphis Zoo, replacing Chuck Brady. A native Memphian with more than 30 years of experience in the tourism and attractions industry and past executive roles at SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island, Dean acknowledges that the zoo is already “world-renowned.”

“I think we have one of the best animal collections in the world,” he said. “We have the foundation, and we have an incredible history.”

But he thinks it can be even better.

“We were ranked number 8,” he said, referring to USA Today’s recent list of top zoos. “But let’s be honest. There’s number 1, and there’s everyone else. Unless we’re the best zoo in the world, we’re not happy.”

Since taking over, Dean has hit the ground running. He’s joined the board of the Overton Park Conservancy in hopes of building a better relationship with the park. He’s working to give the zoo a cleaner look, and has pressure washers out every day. He’s also making sure there’s less garbage on the ground.

“We have a new policy,” he said. “We’re passing ‘no trash’ at the zoo. That’s something we’re working on – a cleaner, nicer operation.”

“When the opportunity came to come to Memphis, to run my hometown zoo, I couldn’t pass that up.” 
Jim Dean, Memphis Zoo president and CEO

In addition, construction on the new parking plan will start in July, and he hopes it will alleviate some of the zoo’s challenges.

But Dean has another vision – and it’s much bigger.

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“We’re going to start on the next master plan,” he said.

In 1986, the Memphis Zoological Society created the first master plan, one that would change the landscape of the zoo forever and bring it international attention. It included layouts for the China Exhibit, Northwest Passage, Teton Trek and Zambezi River Hippo Camp.

But now that plan is complete, and Dean says it’s time for a new one.

“We’ll put a lot of ideas on the table,” he said. “And we’ll figure out what’s best for Memphis and the zoo.”

For starters, he wants some of the exhibits to be updated.

When Dean returned to start as president, it was the first time he had been to the zoo in nearly 40 years. And he noticed something.

“I was last in the zoo before I came back to Memphis in the ’70s, and the aquarium looks very similar to the way it did then,” he said. “The west end of the zoo is a little bit tired.”

He believes the aquarium, farm, round barn and penguin exhibit are due to be upgraded, which will strengthen the zoo overall.

“We’ve done a really done a great job on the east end of the zoo, and it’s certainly world-class now,” he said. “We’ve got to finish that with a good renovation on the west end that will make it front to back the best in the world.”

He’d also like for visitors to see more behind-the-scenes work. 

The Memphis Zoo has a state-of-the-art animal hospital. It has research facilities and does important conservation work. It currently has a collection of Louisiana pine snakes, an endangered species it’s trying to save. But this is work the public rarely gets to see, and Dean wants to change that.

“We’re going to work hard in this master plan, to not only create great exhibits and habitats, but to turn the zoo inside out a bit so we can show people really how things get done here.”

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Growing up, Dean never imagined he’d run a zoo. His father  worked at Firestone and his mother worked at Sears. He went to Bishop Byrne High School and lived in Whitehaven with his family. When it came time for college, he had just one thing in mind – getting a job.

So, he majored in engineering, and moved to St. Louis to work for McDonnell Douglas after graduation.

But there was a problem – he didn’t want to be an engineer.

“I spent five years there and realized engineering wasn’t what I was really cut out to do,” he said.

He had friends working for Anheuser-Busch’s theme park division and decided to change paths.

“To work for a beer company getting free beer every month, and to work for a theme park, I don’t think I could have written a better job resume,” he said.

He traveled for work and met influential people. He lived in London and Philadelphia. He worked hard and ended up president of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island, then SeaWorld Orlando.

Most recently, he served as interim president and CEO of Visit St. Pete Clearwater.

But when the chance came to run the Memphis Zoo, he couldn’t ignore it.

When Dean talks about his new job, there’s a sense of wonder in his voice. His first morning on the job, he thought the lions he heard roaring were part of a recording. They weren’t.

 And when he saw zoo employees in action, he was amazed.

“They all love what they do and work harder than anybody I’ve ever seen,” he said. “To say they’re passionate about the zoo, and what they do here, is an understatement.”

Most mornings, Dean will take a walk around the zoo before it opens. He’ll marvel at the gibbons, which walk right up to the windows of the Cat House Café. He’ll bend down to the water at Zambezi and watch the crocodiles. He loves his new job, and is excited about where it will take him, the zoo, and the city.

Perhaps more simply, he’s just happy to be home.

“I always wanted to come back to Memphis,” he said. “Coming home is special.”


Memphis Zoo Jim Dean

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