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Tracy Frank, Published September 03 2012

Wild about animals: Red River Zoo director’s passion for job evident

FARGO – Though her job is focused on running the zoo, fundraising, and promotion, Lisa Tate, the Red River Zoo’s executive director, is very hands on in all aspects of the operation.

In a walk around the zoo, Tate stopped to talk with a couple about the Suffolk Punch Draft Horse.

In visiting the new baby Chinese red panda, she took a few minutes to coax the cub out of hiding. After noticing a deer near the fence in an exhibit, she bent down to talk to the animal. And in looking in on the new otters, Tate spent some time roughhousing with the playful critters.

“The world that we live in is, I think, more fragile than we think,” Tate said. “I think we need to do more to protect it, but it’s a tough balance between what will work for the human population and what will work for the natural population. Trying to find that balance is, I think, what I like the most about being a zookeeper. People can gain an appreciation for wildlife, and we have an opportunity to teach them why it’s important to care in a very positive way.”

But there’s more to Tate than her care for wildlife.

Tate, who grew up in Missoula, Mont., is also a nationally recognized glass artist and hang glider pilot.

Her glass work, which can be found at www.lisatateglass.com, is featured in museums and galleries throughout the country. She specializes in blowing glass using multiple layers of color, then cutting through each layer to reveal a design.

She has been a hang glider pilot for 32 years but hasn’t been able to do as much lately because Tate, who moved here in 2011, said there really isn’t any hang gliding to be had in Fargo.

“I love soaring flight, which is what hang gliding is,” Tate said.

Leo Bynum, Tate’s friend of 31 years, whom she met through hang gliding, said Tate is one of the most remarkable people he knows.

“She’s a highly professional person. At the same time, she’s a highly unconventional person,” said Bynum, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. “She is not one to adopt the status quo.”

While most people will see something amazing and marvel at it, Tate will wonder if she can do it, he said.

“Anything she touches turns to success,” he said.

Part of it is how smart she is, but the other part is that she is such a hard worker, Bynum said.

“She works harder than most people I know,” he said.

And when she takes on a job, she feels a personal commitment to it and excels, he said.

“I feel like Fargo is really lucky to get her,” he said.

Tate moved last year from Boise, Idaho, where she worked at Zoo Boise for 18 years.

While there, Tate served as the collection manager, working with all of the species and determining what new exhibits would open in the zoo.

Prior to Zoo Boise she was director of a primate conservation facility and aviary in Boise.

The center focused on breeding rare and endangered birds and did behavioral studies on squirrel monkeys and ring-tailed lemurs, primates from Madagascar, Tate said.

“We were studying what types of behavior are inherent and what types of behavior are learned,” Tate said. “It was a really interesting facility and a really interesting study.”

Tate also has a strong nonprofit background, having served as president of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, a national nonprofit organization.

“I left the zoo business to go into the nonprofit world, and I really missed the zoo business,” Tate said.

So when she found out about the executive director opening at the Red River Zoo, she decided to apply.

“I knew of the Red River Zoo because when I was involved in conservation work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, I kept hearing about the Red River Zoo because we breed some of the world’s rarest cold-climate species here,” Tate said.

While she’d heard of Fargo’s zoo, Tate knew nothing about the city, but she said she couldn’t have been more impressed.

“I just loved it,” she said. “I loved the downtown. I loved the zoo. As soon as I saw the zoo, I thought it was amazing. It has so much potential.”

People here don’t understand what a gem they have in their own backyard, Tate said, adding that she felt inspired to share it with them.

“People come to the zoo and they’re happy; they want to be here, so it’s a happy place to come every day,” she said.

Tate is trying to raise awareness of the zoo in the minds of people who live here, and said people who visited the zoo years ago have no idea how much it’s changed. She said people also don’t realize how important their memberships and donations are because the Red River Zoo is 100 percent self-funded, which is very rare. Most zoos are government-funded, Tate said.

“Every little bit really does help,” she said.

In fundraising, the zoo doesn’t just raise the money to build an exhibit, but it also needs to set up endowments to help fund the exhibits over time, Tate said.

“We have to be able to house those animals throughout their lifetime and have proper and adequate staffing,” she said. “We have to do a lot of planning. It’s more involved than people realize.”

Barry Schuchard, Red River Zoo Board of Directors president, said the board was thoroughly impressed with Tate from the outset.

“She has tremendous passion for the zoo,” he said. “It’s very obvious, not only in the things she says, but also in the way in which she does business.”

“It’s really refreshing to have somebody in that position who is thinking years ahead,” he said. “The zoo is great today, but she sees as a much bigger, more vibrant goal for the zoo and it’s pretty exciting.”