March 30, 2022

Women Making History: Maria Clara Dominguez

By Kathy Wagner

In our continuing celebration of women making history during Women’s History Month, we feature an interview with Maria Clara Dominguez, Directora of the Zoológico de Cali. Note that this interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What excites you now about your work?
Our growth! I’ve been Director of the Zoo for 35 years. When I started, the Zoo was not doing well—no money, no staff, our facilities were in bad condition, but now I am excited by our growth and success. We now manage the Zoo, the city botanical garden, a historical hacienda that became a renowned restaurant, and a protected wetland area 60 km north of our city—where we are working with the local community to protect this ecosystem. There is always something new!

What are some of the pivotal moments that brought you to this point as a leader?
When I first started out in the zoo field, I visited the San Diego Zoo and the Bronx Zoo where I met with Dr. Bill Conway. I saw what they had accomplished and hoped that one day the Cali Zoo could resemble one of these institutions. As time went by, I started becoming active in AZA and ALPZA, where I was then able to stand as president and grew its community from 12 to 72 institutions. Interacting with the tightly knit zoo community, I was able to grow my practical knowledge on zoos but also be inspired by zoo leaders around the world.

What advice did you receive?
I knew nothing about running a zoo—it was like jumping in the middle of the ocean! I wish I had had more support and advice to help me gain confidence. In 1989 Dr. Conway was generous and kind; at the end of our conversation, he told me that ‘running a zoo is an entire life’s work´—my initial intention was to work for two years, but here I am 34 years later.

Was there a time when your gender was a barrier to your success/advancement? Or maybe gave you an edge?
I never felt like being a woman was a barrier. I’m very strong and had a good education, and my mother was a strong woman. I never felt lower than others. I learned to have confidence. I do think that being a woman has been beneficial in raising funds for the organization, it’s like we are the more trusted gender.

How do you find a source of renewal and replenishment?
Weekends are mine! I love to take walks in nature by the river. My vacation time is important too; I’ve learned to set barriers and disconnect. I exercise and try to take care of myself.

How would you tell others to save the world?
Sometimes it can be overwhelming; there are so many problems. We need to live more simply. At the Zoo we raise awareness about the importance of consuming less and protecting nature as a personal responsibility. We need to change our behavior and find ways to be a good human—respecting others and contributing to our society.

Your final thoughts?
Sometimes it seems like too much, but I love my work, and people in Cali love the Zoo. I think the key to our growth has been to make a plan and follow it. It is important to empower people, so they know how to ask for help when it is needed. And I love working with other women.

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