Lee Ehmke has spent the past 15 years shaping new homes for some of the Minnesota Zoo’s residents — grizzlies, penguins and monk seals — to attract more human visitors.
But the zoo director and CEO, renowned for designing immersive exhibits, is leaving for a zoo with more money and plans for redevelopment.
The Minnesota Zoo announced Friday that he is resigning to lead the growing Houston Zoo. Ehmke’s last day at the Minnesota Zoo is Aug. 11.
Houston officials said Ehmke, 57, will have more chances to design and upgrade exhibits there. They are trying to refresh the zoo ahead of its centennial anniversary in 2022.
Ehmke was not available to comment Friday. In a news release, he said, “I am thankful for my 15 years at the Minnesota Zoo and the remarkable transformation that has taken place here.”
Ehmke’s departure from the Minnesota Zoo comes months after the state agency considered closing exhibits and struggled with a $1.5 million budget shortfall — the result of rising employee salaries, increased animal feed costs and a drop in attendance because of bad weather.
But things are looking up after a beautiful spring and a $1.35 million special appropriation from the Legislature, said Beth Burns, the zoo’s vice president for external relations.
Lobbying the Legislature is not part of the job description in Houston, where the zoo privatized in 2002.
It has an operating budget of $46 million, nearly twice the Minnesota Zoo’s. About 2.4 million people visit the 6,000 animals at the nonprofit Houston Zoo each year, making it one of the top 10 most-visited zoos in the country, according to the job posting for the president and executive officer position.
The Minnesota Zoo, which houses 4,700 animals in Apple Valley, attracts an average 1.2 million visitors annually. It is on track to see 1.25 million people this year, Burns said.
The zoo recently opened new exhibits for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and jellyfish.
There is not a good time to lose a director, said Peter Maritz, chair of the Minnesota Zoo’s board of trustees. But the transition will be easier now that the zoo has legislative support and is financially sound, he said.
“I think we’re in tremendous shape,” he said.
A search committee for Ehmke’s replacement will be formed by the end of the month, Maritz said.
Before coming to Minnesota, Ehmke designed and managed the construction of acclaimed projects at the Bronx Zoo in New York, including a Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit.
Ehmke is a prominent figure in the zoo industry, and was elected president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2013.
Houston Zoo officials were attracted to his design background and his experience with conservation, said Suzanne Nimocks, chairwoman of the Houston Zoo’s board of directors.
“That is core to what was done in Minnesota, and it’s core to us here,” Nimocks said.
Ehmke will replace Deborah Cannon, who is retiring. Last year, Cannon made $336,369 and earned $19,679 in other income.
Ehmke’s salary was $248,388 last year, according to Minnesota Management and Budget.