SALT LAKE CITY — Running a zoo might seem pretty simple to anyone who has watched the family comedy drama “We Bought a Zoo.”
But to Craig Dinsmore, president and CEO of Utah’s Hogle Zoo, nothing could be farther from the truth.
“My life is nothing like Matt Damon’s,” he joked. “People might not realize how complex an organization a modern zoo is.”
Dinsmore has served for 20 years at the 42-acre Hogle Zoo, which houses more than 800 animals and over a million visitors every year.
“You don’t do it for the money, you don’t do it for the glory. You do it because you care about the mission,” he said. “Doing something good matters. And that’s what I think drives people here at the zoo, and it’s certainly been my motivation over the years.”
After 42 years working in zoos across the country, Dinsmore announced Wednesday that he plans to retire in October.
“I leave the zoo with mixed emotions. I’m proud of the accomplishments that we’ve made together as a team, but I’m going to be very, very sad to leave these people and to leave this place,” he said. “The zoo is just a wonderful place, and it does wonderful work. I couldn’t have hoped for a better job or a better group of people to work with over the years.”
Dinsmore, 66, earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Colorado State University, saying he was fortunate to turn his academic training into a lifelong career.
“I was able to find my niche and make a career out of it, and always be able to say I studied animals for years,” he said. “I’m a perfect example of someone who had a dream to pursue a career with animals and I couldn’t be happier with the opportunities that I’ve had and where it led me.”
He came to Hogle Zoo in 1997 after serving in leadership positions at Topeka Zoo in Topeka, Kansas, and Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.
Though each zoo has differences, Dinsmore said the location of a zoo is less important than what zoos are striving to become.
“I’ve seen tremendous change, from the desire to have as many animals as you can to more of an approach of having the right animals for the size of zoo, for the climate that you’re in, and giving them larger and nicer homes to live in,” he said.
Hogle zoo received nearly $72 million worth of upgrades during his tenure, including new exhibits like the Elephant Encounter, Asian Highlands, Rocky Shores and African Savanna. A new animal hospital was also constructed under his administration.
He also pointed out the zoo’s conservation efforts, including preserving water, using recyclable materials and installing solar panels on zoo buildings.
“That is one of the highest callings for a modern zoo. It’s absolutely essential because we’re losing species out in the wild at an alarming rate. The only ones who can stop that are us, humans,” Dinsmore said. “I see the zoo as the catalyst for engaging our community in conservation and saving endangered species.”
But he refuses to take all the credit for the zoo’s improvements.
“They’re not my accomplishments, they’re the result of our staff team here, the support of our board of directors, the support of the community. It’s really been everybody working together,” he said.
During Dinsmore’s first year at Hogle Zoo, the park saw 750,000 visitors. Now 1.1 million visitors flock to the zoo each year, making Utah’s Hogle Zoo one of Salt Lake City’s most-visited attractions.
But his time as president hasn’t always been smoothing sailing. Hogle Zoo was riddled with controversy when Dinsmore was first appointed.
“There had been some unfortunate animal deaths — a string of them,” he said. “While they were generally unrelated, it kind of cast a pall up on the zoo and on the community.”
At another point he faced a political proposal to move the zoo to another location. The zoo ended up staying in the same place it has been since the Hogle family donated land at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in 1931.
Although he sometimes wishes some issues had been handled differently, Dinsmore said he doesn’t have regrets about his time at Hogle Zoo.
“I think any leader who thinks they have a perfect record is not being honest with themselves,” he said. “I’m not an expert in a lot of areas, and so I’ve made my mistakes. But I think the key to leadership is to surround yourself with people who bolster your weaknesses. I think that’s helped keep me from making too many big ones.”
Dinsmore served on the board of directors of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and on the association’s Accreditation Commission.
He claims not to have a favorite zoo animal. When he walks around the zoo, he said, he’ll have a dozen favorites by the time he finishes.
“I’m an expert at none of them, but I know a little bit about a lot of them. And I admire them all,” Dinsmore said.
He did have a special connection with Rizzo the polar bear. When the bear died in April, Dinsmore said the loss was personal.
“Not because polar bears are my favorites, just Rizzo was a favorite,” he said.
James E. Hogle Jr., chairman emeritus, said he was impressed with Dinsmore’s vision of what the zoo could become.
“For the years that followed, Craig never wavered from bringing his wonderful vision. Today’s highly regarded zoo reflects much of what he hoped and planned. We will all greatly miss Craig, his dedicated leadership, wisdom, wit, and especially for me, his friendship,” Hogle said.
Paul Dougan, chairman of Hogle Zoo’s board, said that thanks to Dinsmore, the zoo has financial security and a stable operations plan that runs through 2030.
“Over my career in business and service with other nonprofits, I have never worked with a better manager than Craig,” Dougan said in a statement. “He has a unique combination of technical and practical knowledge of the zoo world and the people skills to both manage and develop a wonderful staff, and to work seamlessly with our board and officers.”
Hogle Zoo officials said they hope to have a new president and CEO by the time Dinsmore retires in October. He and his wife plan to travel the country, visiting national parks and saying hello to friends at other zoos.
In announcing his retirement, Dinsmore expressed his gratitude for support from staff, members and donors.
“As you go forward, never forget how important each of you is to the zoo’s success and remember also that the work you do makes a difference: for a guest, for our animals and for each other,” he said.