FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Chris Gomez, the president of the board at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, quickly summarized the 20 months Executive Director Rick Schuiteman has been on the job.

(“Schuiteman” rhymes with “vitamin,” by the way.)

“Rick joined us in the middle of the pandemic, September of 2020, the worst year of the zoo,” Gomez told WANE 15. “The following year was a record attendance year. So that’s a tribute to not only him but certainly to the team at the zoo.”

Schuiteman’s arrival from Sea World in San Diego was designed to overlap with the Jim Anderson’s departure.

“I was meeting with him every week off property,” said Schuiteman. “That was huge because we could compare notes. I could get some advice. He gave me some history.”

The love and history of the zoo can be a double-edge sword. People want to see new animals but don’t like to see change. For a landlocked zoo, that can be tough.

“Jim and the team had already laid out a 15-year plan,” Schuiteman explained. “You want to keep it fresh and exciting. If you change species from time to time or you add a new species, I think that’s fantastic. I think people generally expect the zoo to change and to grow.”

The suspension – permanent or temporary isn’t clear – of the pony rides last year caused an outcry from traditionalists. The announcement hinted at renovations but those were not confirmed until late March when WANE 15 reported construction on Red Panda Ridge on the hillcrest before the Indonesian Rain Forest.

Gomez said the move to bring the construction equipment from Sherman Boulevard through the pony space made sense financially.

“Anytime you change, you’re going to have questions,” said Gomez. “It was more affordable for us to do the construction on Red Panda Ridge by coming through that side. Being fiscally responsible to the community and to those that support the zoo was the right decision.”

Schuiteman understood the zoo’s rare financial status when he started. It’s one of a handful of zoos in the nation that doesn’t receive government money.

“We are funded by admission, membership, donors and sponsorships,” he explained with deep appreciation.

“The community has been so supportive of this zoo. I took a walk over by our sea lion exhibit the other day. We want to add another species and make some changes. There was a donor who joined us and said, ‘I want to make this happen, Rick. I want to see your vision through.’ It was just so heartwarming that they wanted to be a part of it. We couldn’t be more grateful to the community for that.”

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo opens for the season on April 30, with preview days for members on April 28 and 29.