New Beginnings at the Dallas Zoo

“Hello!” From Lisa New

I want to take a moment to say hello to you, our valued Dallas Zoo members! I’m Lisa New, and I am privileged to be the new CEO at your Dallas Zoo. While I am still getting to know my way around the Zoo, and around Dallas in general, I am absolutely thrilled to be here. There are so many amazing things on the horizon for the Zoo I’m looking forward to sharing the excitement with you as we go on this journey together!  

Q: Getting to know me a bit…

A: I moved to Dallas from Knoxville, Tennessee, at the very end of 2023 to start my new chapter at the Dallas Zoo! I’ve moved into a house in Oak Cliff, so I’m close by in a nearby neighborhood. I have two grown sons – one out of college and living in Washington, D.C., with a career in cybersecurity. And my younger son is still in school at a small college in Tennessee, pursuing a degree in environmental science. They are excited for me and my new adventure, and I can’t wait to have them both here for a visit and to introduce them to the Dallas Zoo! 

Q: How did I get into the zoo world?

A: I discovered my interest in wildlife biology while I was in college. During that time, I had several internships researching spinner dolphins and humpback whales, and my interest was sparked. While figuring out what direction I wanted to follow, I volunteered and was eventually hired at Zoo Knoxville. And the rest, as they say, is zoo history? I had the opportunity to hand-raise two orphaned chimpanzees while working on the animal care team at Zoo Knoxville, and that experience changed the trajectory of my life. I decided rather than pursuing a life in academia or on the ocean, I wanted to focus my attention on great apes and how they might thrive under our care. That was meant to be the focus of my master’s thesis, and it became the foundation of my career.  

Q: What drew me to Dallas?

A: Gregg Hudson was a mentor and a friend to me, and it is so special to me to have been given the opportunity to build on Gregg’s legacy here at this Zoo he loved so much. I have so much respect for this organization, the leadership, the dedication of the teams, the track record for growth – and the entire staff’s commitment to the Zoo’s mission.   

I was on an AZA accreditation team that came here to Dallas more than a decade ago, and I had the chance to get to know Gregg. I saw how, under his leadership, the Zoo had experienced substantial growth and change under the unique public-private partnership structure with the City. I saw a united staff that understood and believed in the big future ahead, and I saw what “could be” in Knoxville. That’s what led me to apply for the CEO position in Knoxville.  

What I feel here now, and what I’m excited to be a part of, is that same momentum and enthusiasm for what lies ahead – among employees and the Board, in the City’s belief in the organization, and the immense support from the community, including you – our members.  

Q: What am I most excited about?

A: I’ve already been able to hit the ground running! In my first month here, I’ve been able to begin to get to know staff, begun to connect with key community leaders, met with the Board, and even had a chance to attend events with some of you!  

In the coming year, I’m thrilled to marry my commitment here at the Zoo with my role as the chair of the board for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums – it’s going to keep me busy, but that network of leaders and colleagues across the country within AZA inspires me to bring innovative ideas and industry-leading practices back here to Dallas with me.  

Okubili Turns One:

Looking Back on the Elephant Calf’s First Year of Life

By: Chelsey Norris, Guest Contributor

In the wee hours of February 26, 2023, the air in the Dallas Zoo’s elephant barn was thick with anticipation as Zoo staff watched a very pregnant Mlilo try to get comfortable while moving around in her birthing stall. After a brief period of labor, Mlilo gave birth to a healthy calf, who was standing up and nursing within his first few hours of life, just as a newborn calf should. This surreal moment was not only the culmination of nearly two years of careful planning, but also a historic first-ever “herd birth” for the Dallas Zoo. Mlilo’s herd-mate Zola was in the same space with her while she labored and during birth. This closely mirrors how wild elephants welcome a new baby into the world, surrounded by the other reproductive-aged females in the herd who offer support for the new mom while simultaneously learning important parenting skills themselves

“Elephants are observational learners, so if Zola is going to be a mom herself someday, it’s great for her to have had the exposure to this birth,” said Audrey Lagemann, zoological manager of large mammals. “We were excited to see how Zola did, and once Okubili was born, she stepped right in to help raise him like he was her own.”  

“We were excited to see how Zola did, and once Okubili was born, she stepped right in to help raise him like he was her own.”

Okubili – the Zulu word for “two” or “duplicate” – was a fitting moniker for this not-so-little one, as the second calf born at the Dallas Zoo and who, according to his caretakers, is a “carbon copy” of his mom, Mlilo. The first six months of his life seemed to fly by, as animal care staff watched the newest member of the herd grow bigger and stronger each day. At birth, Okubili weighed in at 290 pounds. Just six short months later he had already doubled in size, tipping the scales at 610 pounds. Now at a year old, he’s just over 1,000 pounds! Even more rewarding, zoologists say, has been watching Okubili’s confidence and personality develop. 

“Okubili is very rambunctious and constantly moving. He rarely stays still. He has a spunky personality and is very smart,” says zoologist Keali’i Castellano. “He catches on to new behaviors very quickly, often mimicking what he sees the adults do. He loves to play in the pool and enjoys throwing around big enrichment items like large boomer balls and tires.” 

“He is very independent and the comedian of the barn,” Lagemann added. “He is usually high energy and a big goofball first thing in the mornings, almost like he missed us overnight and wants to show off.” 

As Okubili approaches his first birthday, Dallas Zoo animal care staff reflect on how things have changed since he came on the scene, from their daily routines to watching as each member of the herd has formed their own unique bond with him.  

“Each of the adults has been very interested in him and were very gentle when first meeting him,” said Jenny Roath, lead zoologist. “The elephants responded as a herd should, and everyone has taken on the ‘babysitting’ role, giving Mlilo small breaks.” 

In the animal world, this is called “alloparenting” and is common among primates and other mammals who live in social groups. In addition to the other adults playing the “babysitter” role to give the new mom a reprieve, elephants will exhibit friendly alloparenting behaviors with a calf like physically touching trunks, feet, and faces, as well as browsing and foraging for food together. One of the most heartwarming relationships animal care staff have seen with Okubili so far has been with the herd’s oldest female and matriarch, 47-year-old Jenny.  

“She surprised us all by seeking out Okubili and being very gentle with him when he was a newborn,” recalled Sarah Bettinger, senior zoologist. “When the two are reunited after being apart for short periods of time, Jenny will bee-line straight to Okubili, passing up all sorts of food to rumble and show physical affection towards him.” 

Training is another vital part of all the elephants’ daily routines, including young Okubili. Zoologists work with each elephant to master behaviors like opening their mouths and presenting their ears, trunks, and feet for visual exams, all of which provide the foundation for their long-term health and welfare. 

“We rely on the elephants’ cooperation and our working relationship with them to provide the care they need,” said lead zoologist Sam Safranek. “Okubili has already learned ‘mouth open,’ name recognition, ear presentation, and a lean-in behavior. These small building blocks will add up to more complex behaviors in the future that will help us administer healthcare like voluntary blood draws, visual exams, and more as he grows up.” 

The next major milestone for this little one will be meeting his dad, Tendaji, and spending time with the full herd in the Gregg Hudson Giants of the Savanna habitat, where he’ll continue to capture the hearts of Zoo staff and guests alike. Although Okubili’s name means “two,” he is truly one-of-a-kind. 

Log in here to reserve tickets to come to the Zoo and visit Okubili.  

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