Philadelphia Zoo’s KidsZooU Opens This Month

CEO Vik Dewan talks better parking, a new elevated trail system and more of what's in store for zoo visitors.

This is a big spring for the Zoo—your new parking garage and new children’s zoo and education center, KidsZooU, both open this month. What can we expect at the kids’ zoo?
It’s going to be phenomenal in so many different ways. It will include things that people will find familiar, but it will also have new ways in which they can experience things—seeing heritage-breed animals, or learning about sustainability, or understanding that their actions have an impact on our wildlife.

You’ve set attendance records the past four years. In the current economic environment, people want to stay closer to home while also having great experiences that keep them connected to the core values of their families and what they remember from growing up. And the Zoo is one of those places. Where did you grow up?
My parents are of Indian origin, but I actually grew up all over the world. My father worked for the United Nations, so every two to three years we were living in a different country.

Were zoos part of your life?
No. Animals were always a part of my life, but zoos became part of my life when I had children. My wife Jamie and I had kids here in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Zoo was a major part of our family experience.

You spent most of your career in the banking industry before joining the Zoo in 2006. Any similarities between banking and zoos?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think there are. Banking is a lot about how attuned you are to listening to customers. Zoos are the same.

The Zoo is creating a series of elevated trail systems that will let some animals roam, above visitors’ heads, from one part of the grounds to another. It’s amazingly cool. Where did the idea come from?
We looked at our experience at Big Cat Falls. Our keepers had created this very innovative system of time-sharing the trail systems so that seven species of cats could move through five exhibits. So we thought, what if we took that concept across our full 42 acres? And so starting in 2011, we decided: Let’s use the trees, let’s use the pathways, let’s use every facet of our 42 acres to create motion and dynamism, so that the animals are having an extraordinary experience and our guests are having an absolutely dynamite experience.

How do you know the animals like it?
The trail system is entirely voluntary—animals can use this whenever they want. And when they voluntarily use it, it’s telling us they’re getting physical and emotional enrichment. But this year, we’re also embarking on an actual study. We’re going to be measuring what creates a sense of optimism among animals, and we’re going to measure this sense of optimism before they use the trail system and after they use the trail system.

Do you have personal relationships with the animals?

Who are your buddies?
One is Kira the tiger, who’s 16 years old and absolutely one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. Another is Tony the rhino, who happens to be in an area right outside my office. Tony is 11 years old, and he has terrible eyesight but great hearing. He does recognize my voice, and I do speak to him every single day. He doesn’t give me any tips that I can use right away, but I can certainly see reactions every time I speak.

This post originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.