By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Inspired by the success of last year’s virtual fundraiser, the Birmingham Zoo will be hosting its largest fundraiser, ZooRendezvous, online and in-person on Sept. 9.
Chairs Alexia Borden, Melanie Hennessy and Jenny McInerney have set a goal to raise $450,000 for the Zoo’s Emergency Animal Fund.
Honorary chairs for this year’s event are Phil and Karen Carroll and their family. Karen Carroll said the entire family is excited.
The Birmingham Zoo first entered the Carroll family’s lives in the 1990s, before it transitioned into a public-private partnership and nonprofit organization. The Carroll’s first experiences at the zoo were pushing their children in strollers along the paths.
Carroll spent 18 years working in the development office at the zoo, collaborating with board members and volunteers to raise funding for numerous capital campaigns and projects that have transformed the facility.
She attempted to retire once but couldn’t stay away.
“I retired from the zoo again this past December, and I still cannot stay away, working now as a volunteer in planned giving,” she said. “You can’t leave what you love.”
When she first joined the staff in August 2002, Carroll was invested in the future of the facility and its potential to serve children for generations.
“I have been sold on inspiring passion to conserve the natural world since the day I wore a hard hat for my interview and walked on the shell gravel under the pergola in the Children’s Zoo that my family would later name,” Carroll said. “It’s easy to want to give time or treasure to something you know will have a lasting impact on you and your family and for the community to enjoy.”
Working in development for the zoo under former President and CEO William R. Foster and current President and CEO Chris Pfefferkorn, Carroll has seen corporate, government and individual donor support lead to transformative advancements in how the zoo serves the community.
In 2006, the Junior League of Birmingham and Honda Manufacturing of Alabama funded an educational pilot program that has since become the Spire ZooSchool, serving more than 500 Birmingham City Schools students each year.
Major capital campaigns funded the completion of the Hugh Kaul Children’s Zoo and the Alabama Wilds, an exhibit that features animals native to the area, including the Barbara Ingalls Shook Black Bear Trail.
“I saw the old bear moat and monkey island transform into the Trails of Africa and the Kiwanis Giraffe Encounter and tell the story of the plight of African elephants and farmers in Africa,” she said.
The facility’s most recent improvements, including renovations to the front entrance and development of a space formerly occupied by ponds into the Henley Park event lawn, are a point of pride for Carroll.
“The old front entrance was in such bad shape and the ponds were anything but glorious,” she said. “To see the transformational improvements to what it is today is a lifetime achievement that I will never forget. To think, new bathrooms now stand where the old administrative offices once were.”
The project also included updates to make the facility more inclusive with the addition of sensory-friendly signage throughout the facility and a sensory-friendly room.
Zoo guests’ experience now begins before they even enter the gates.
“I heard one guest say, ‘It is palatial and so welcoming,’” Carroll said. “This is what the South is known for in welcoming all into their home. The zoo is home.”
Carroll has seen the zoo reach many milestones beyond capital improvements.
In September 2004, the first successful implant of a cardiac resynchronization therapy device was conducted on the zoo’s western lowland gorilla, Babec.
She has seen the addition of zoo residents, including Max, a southern white rhinoceros; Bulwagi, an African elephant; Khan, a jaguar; and American black bears Bety and Sassy.
The zoo also established its Passion into Conservation Action program and an endowment given by Larry and Phyllis Wojciechowski that provides grants to zoo staff members to take part in in-the-field research and learning opportunities around the world.
“Donors are what make the Birmingham Zoo possible, and we need the community now more than ever,” Carroll said.
She also notes that one of the best ways to help the zoo grow and survive is to become a member or gift a membership to someone.
Carroll has been involved in the production of ZooRendezvous, formerly known as ZooGala, since she joined the staff in 2002.
While event officials always try to meet or exceed their fundraising goals, this year it is especially important to meet their $450,000 goal.
“I would say that out of all the ZooGalas I have been a part of, this one is the most critical due to the ongoing financial impact of 2020-21 on the zoo,” Carroll said. “The fact that it takes $30,000 a day to run the zoo, and the zoo had to close on Mondays and Tuesdays to the public to save money and slowly recover, says that they need us more than ever now.
“Zoos across the nation are riding the same tide that we are, and every dollar counts,” she added. “We need everyone’s support now more than ever.”
Presented by IberiaBank/First Horizon Foundation, the 2021 ZooRendezvous will feature a virtual program that is free to the public on Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m.
Virtual experience enhancements will include charcuterie and champagne packages that are delivered the day of the event, as well as dessert trays and cocktail kits that can be picked up at the zoo. Dining options must be ordered by Aug. 27.
The event also will include a limited-capacity, in-person “Roaring Twenties” watch party. The costumed event will be a black-tie affair in a speakeasy setting.
In addition, an online auction will be available from Sept. 2 through Sept. 11, and donations can be made the night of the event online and via text message.
For more information, visit birminghamzoo.com/ZooRendezvous or text “Zoo” to (202) 858-1233.