Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak to retire

February 24, 2021

Mayor Greg Fischer announced today that John Walczak, longtime Director of the Louisville Zoo, is retiring, and a national search will be conducted for his replacement.

Walczak has been with the Zoo since 1985 and was named Director in 2004. During that time, the Zoo has added the award-winning Islands, Gorilla Forest, and Glacier Run exhibits, each recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for excellence and innovation.  Also under Walczak’s leadership, the Zoo celebrated  its 50th anniversary in 2019, as well as milestones in its Black Footed Ferret Conversation Center, which marked its 25th  anniversary in 2015; the much-anticipated and important birth of male elephant calf “Fitz”; and  the transport and care of wild-born, rescued polar bear, Qannik. 

“It’s impossible to overstate John’s influence and commitment to making our Zoo one of the best in the nation, and his success can be seen in the smiles of every single person who visits,” the Mayor said. “John is dedicated to the Zoo’s mission to ‘better the bond between people and our planet,’ as evidenced by exhibits focused on education and conservation. John is an experienced, innovative leader and he will be missed. I deeply appreciate his willingness to stay on while we conduct a national search for his replacement.”

As Zoo Director, Walczak has been responsible for shaping the Zoo’s vision as well as creating and implementing its strategic plan while overseeing the work of 120 full-time, 10 part-time and more than 100 seasonal employees. He and the Zoo’s team won the AZA’s “Significant Achievement Education Award” for their School at the Zoo program and, along with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and nine other collaborating conservation partners, received “Top Honors” in AZA’s 2017 International Conservation Award  for gorilla conservation. 

Walczak’s leadership on the $26 million Glacier Run Capital Campaign funded exhibit openings from 2006 to 2013, growing the Zoo’s business through a recession, with more than 940,000 guests in 2012. He most recently oversaw the completion of a $14 million Leadership Campaign, which included the expansion and renovation of the elephant exhibit, the creation of the Little Penguin Conservation Center, as well as the addition of Snow Leopard Pass and Colobus Crossing, which opened in April 2019. Snow Leopard Pass also introduced the Zoo’s first dedicated early-learning play space for young children called The Cub House. The campaign is also funding renovations to Lemur Mountain, set to open later this year.

Walczak has served on many local boards, including the Partnership for Creative Economies, Rotary Club of Louisville, the Arts and Cultural Attractions Council, and Indiana University Southeast. He was very active in the AZA, having served on the Ethics Board, Membership, Government Affairs and Honors and Awards Committees, the Accreditation Commission, and the AZA Board of Directors.

Walczak said his nearly four decades at the Louisville Zoo “have been a labor of love.”

“It isn’t easy to step away, but this is the right time to do so. We have a strong leadership team with a dedicated and passionate staff that will help the next leader continue advancing the success and mission of this community treasure,” he said. “I have heard many stories from the 25 million people who have visited our Zoo during my tenure. It is beyond rewarding to learn from these members and guests that the efforts of staff, dedicated volunteers and donors have created many great memories for them and inspired caring for wildlife and the health of our planet. It has been an honor to lead this wonderful organization these last seventeen years. I look forward to watching and supporting the growth of our Zoo into the future.”

Sheryl Snyder, chair of the Louisville Zoo Foundation Board, said, “John’s unwavering passion for the Zoo, his staff, the animals, as well as the Louisville community have served the Zoo well. The Zoo is a gem in the state of Kentucky because of John’s strong leadership for the last 17 years.”

“The Zoo we all know and appreciate ranks today among the best accredited zoos in the nation because John has worked tirelessly with so many friends, donors, staff and volunteers with a laser focus on success and growth,” said Councilman Pat Mulvihill, an ex-officio board member whose district includes the Zoo. “John has been a positive force in our community, igniting people’s passion for animals and working to advance species conservation and education. He helped bring us all nose-to-nose and hand-to-paw with animals, new exhibits, and presentations to strengthen our connection with wildlife and enhance our empathy for animals and nature. It has been an honor to work alongside John, along with our community, and I wish him all the best in retirement.”

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