Kathy Fenton Wagner ’68, a consultant for zoos and aquariums around the country as a principal team member of Zoo Advisors, compares her professional path to that of Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.”
Wagner, a Latin major at Bucknell, did not set out to make a career in zoo education and conservation — those fields barely existed in the 1970s, when she was a high-school Latin teacher and began volunteering as a docent at the Philadelphia Zoo. Eventually, she was hired to help found the zoo’s education department. For more than 30 years, Wagner held several titles at the Philadelphia Zoo, including head of education, visitor services, global conservation, and even fundraising and development. Her office overlooked the zebra and giraffe enclosures. “I had the best office in the zoo,” Wagner says.
Now Wagner helps zoos around the country and the world face a tricky challenge: Because of a spate of recent negative media attention, from Sea World to Harambe the gorilla, the public tends to view zoos and aquariums with suspicion.
“People are still very willing to give their money to zoos and aquariums, as long as they understand and believe that they’re doing a good job with conservation,” Wagner says. “Every zoo we work with comes out with a renewed focus on conservation.”
From leading conservation trips to places like Tanzania and the Galápagos Islands to helping lead her national trade association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Wagner is still following the advice of an early boss, who saw her potential and urged her to think big, offering her a promotion at a time when few women served in executive roles at zoos. “I remember asking him, ‘Why do you think I can do this job?’ ” Wagner says. “His response was, ‘Why do you think you can't?’ ”