Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.
Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society, first realized he wanted to work in the animal kingdom as a 6-year-old, watching the TV program “Zoo Time” in his native England.
“There was a guy by the name of Dr. Desmond Morris who ran the show,” Crowther , 58, said in his lightly tinged British accent. “He worked at the London Zoo. I apparently told my mother that’s who I wanted to be when I grew up. She of course said that was silly and irresponsible, and to go off and be a doctor or something. But I managed to get back to the star that had been drawing me that whole time.”
Crowther immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family as a teenager. Foregoing zoology for training in physics and communications, Crowther first was employed in the theme-park industry. That led to a post at the fledgling New Jersey State Aquarium, which debuted in 1992 and initially struggled with attendance and exhibits that focused only on the less-than-charismatic native New Jersey fishes.
As an executive of the aquarium and its eventual CEO, Crowther helped oversee the creation of new exhibits, the addition of more tropical fish, and a redesign to make visitors feel more a part of the ocean environment.
Named president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society in 2002, Crowther has endeavored to do something similar at the Indianapolis Zoo—break down as many barriers as possible between animals and patrons. The goal is to give visitors a greater sense of empathy for the creatures and hopefully inspire interest in animal conservation.
“The worst thing that we can possibly do is just show an animal in a space and let people look in there and say, ‘Yeah, there’s an animal in a space,’” Crowther said. “We want them to pass through the glass or over the fence or over the moat and think of what that animal’s life is like in the wild and what its story is and what it needs to survive and thrive.”
Notable examples include a “shark-touch” pool in the Oceans exhibit, where patrons are encouraged to pet dog sharks in a shallow pool. The $2 million “Cheetahs: Race for Survival” exhibit, which debuted in 2010, allows visitors to get within a few feet of the cats via fenced or glassed-in enclosures, challenges them to match their running speed on a short track, and emphasizes the efforts of conservationist Laurie Marker to preserve the cheetah population in Africa.
In the video at top, Crowther explains how the Indy Zoo’s approach is part of its overall mission to “save the world.” He also dials in for tight focus on his position at the top of the organization’s food chain, revealing how he hopes to improve as CEO and what he learned from a particular miscalculation.
He continues the conversation in the video below, discussing how he interprets his role as CEO and monitors his own job performance. He also waxes romantically about leopards, the animal he most wishes he could emulate.