At Zoo Advisors, we like to think a bit differently—so while others mark March as Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating women leaders making history. The first leader we’re highlighting is Susan Altrui, Zoo Director at Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas.
By Kathy Wagner
My story starts out in my hometown of Little Rock, not too far from the Little Rock Zoo, in a town called Sherwood where I was born and raised. I spent my days playing in the creek behind my house and enjoying the outdoors. To this day, I continue to love the outdoors which is easy to do in The Natural State where we have endless hiking with beautiful waterfalls to see, rivers to kayak, and mountains to climb.
The City of Little Rock is known for many great things. We are the home to the Clinton Presidential Library, home to the largest pedestrian bridge in the country, the Big Dam Bridge, home to expansive walking and biking trails, and of course, home to the largest attraction in central Arkansas, the Little Rock Zoo.
For many of you, working with animals or in conservation is something you’ve done your entire professional career. For me, working in this profession is something I never thought I’d do. I started out my career working in politics and government affairs. Before working at the Zoo, I lobbied for the State Legislature. I often joke that I traded one zoo for another.
When I joined the Little Rock Zoo, I used my communication and fundraising skills for the greater good and began as the Zoo’s Director of Marketing and Development. I knew very little about AZA zoos and aquariums and had much to learn. Over the last 15 years, I’ve met some of the most passionate people and most amazing animals. I’ve seen lives transformed when they step through our gates, and I’ve come to understand the power we have to effect change.
We invite the public into our spaces to take part in something special, and in that invitation is opportunity. With an invitation is a guest, and we greet guests every day and invite them to come on a journey with us. I am passionate about the conservation work we do because of the uniqueness of being a zoo or aquarium. We give the public the opportunity to be a part of the conservation solution. We invite guests to join us hand-in-hand and be with us side-by-side as we fight for change. In a world polarized by difference, we build community when others are tearing it down.
But also in that invitation is a chance to see something you might not see anywhere else. It’s a chance to be amazed, to have your breath taken away, to wonder in amazement and to be in awe. This happens every day at AZA zoos and aquariums, and we should never forget the unique ability we have to create these incredible moments. I’m passionate about providing the opportunity for these amazing moments so that we can open minds to conservation and create change.
We live in a world where science is under attack by religious extremism, social media misinformation, flat earthers, climate change deniers, and others who threaten the natural world we live in and the animals we love. We are also threatened by those who deny diversity and inclusion and seek to tear apart the fabric of social justice at its very core by denying us the right to learn history as it should be taught. This fight is not just a fight for social justice, but a fight for all of us. It is a fight for the appreciation of the diversity of our zoo and aquarium animals and the wonderful diversity of our planet. They are banning books on race and social justice, but soon they will ban books on climate change, saving species, and protecting our planet. We must be vigilant.
Zoos and aquariums are becoming one of the few places where science is real and alive and can’t be denied. And so, I do what I do every day knowing that what we do is so very important. The smile on a child’s face from a silly otter has the potential to invite a conservation conversation. It has the potential to open minds and change hearts. It has the potential to turn back the tides of radical behavior and get us to a place of common understanding. By invitation we create healing, understanding, and a sense of common ground.
I invite all of you to continue sharing your stories as we work to change our communities and our world.