Denver Zoo names museum exec its new CEO

Polar bears at Denver Zoo (Photo: Mark Harden | Colorado Politics)

Denver Zoo on Friday named its first permanent president and chief executive officer since June 2017.

Bert Vescolani comes to the city-owned zoo after seven years running the St. Louis Science Center, a science museum and planetarium complex with about 1 million visitors a year.

He previously was director of the John Ball Zoological Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before that he was senior vice president of aquarium collection and education at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

“Bert was chosen to lead Denver Zoo because of his depth and breadth of experience in both animal care and executive leadership, and for his tremendous energy and enthusiasm,” Sherri Koelbel, chair of the Denver Zoological Foundation, said in Friday’s announcement. “We have full confidence that he will uphold our position as a world-class cultural and conservation organization, and provide strong, steady leadership through this exciting and pivotal period for the zoo.”

Koelbel led the search effort for a new president and CEO with help from national recruiting company Isaacson, Miller Inc.

Vescolani is slated to assume his new role in mid-September.

“It’s a tremendous honor to join the Denver Zoo team and have the opportunity to contribute to an institution that is so well respected for its commitment to animal welfare, conservation, education and guest experience,” Vescolani said in Friday’s announcement. “I look forward to helping Denver Zoo reach its significant potential by fulfilling the long-term master plan, improving the campus and guest experience, and building on educational and conservation programs.”

Shannon Block, who had been president and CEO of Denver Zoo for more than three years, left in June 2017 with no explanation from zoo officials at the time.

Block — previously a health-care executive who lacked zoo managerial experience — had been picked for the post in January 2014 over Kyle Burks, the zoo’s longtime executive vice president and chief operating officer, who had been serving as interim CEO. Burks soon exited to join the Sacramento Zoo in California, rising to CEO, and last year moved on to become managing director of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

During Block’s tenure, the zoo got into a spat with the Denver city auditor over accounting and board-meeting attendance, and a proposal to burn animal manure didn’t pass the smell test with its residential neighbors and was dropped. Block is now president and CEO of World Forward Foundation, an executive-volunteering organization.

Denny O’Malley has served as interim president and CEO of Denver Zoo since Block’s exit. He was president and CEO of Craig Hospital until his retirement in 2009 and is a former chair of the Denver Zoological Foundation.

The zoo, which has been busy adding exhibits and attractions, set a new record for annual attendance in 2017 of 2.24 million, topping the 2016 total of just under 2 million.

The zoo announced in April that it was splitting its governing board into two bodies, one overseeing operations and the other to handle fundraising and community outreach.


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