The new director of the Reston Zoo takes on leadership role amid animal cruelty controversy.
Mario Lawrence’s appointment as director of the Reston Zoo comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has filed a formal complaint against the zoo for violations relating to animal care. We spoke to Lawrence about his new job and the current state of the zoo.
How are you enjoying your new job so far?
I really love it, actually. I love waking up every morning knowing that I get to interact with the animals here. There are some difficulties, but I can’t really see myself having any other job. I can’t wait to bring in new animals and continue to expand and improve the zoo.
What kind of improvements do you plan to make?
Ever since I stepped on the property, we have been making improvements daily. Some are subtle changes, like moving animals to better suited exhibits, changing diets and updating paperwork. Other improvements are more obvious. For example, we have added a fountain in the pond, built fences in the kangaroo yards and have added shelters to our hoof stock areas. There will be new animals coming to the Reston Zoo. We have brought in a Eurasian Eagle Owl to join us this summer. We will be adding more soon, however, I must wait until the new exhibits are ready to announce our new arrivals. I will say we are planning on some new animals before the season is over, so keep an eye on our website for exciting announcements.
How are you dealing with the controversy surrounding the USDA complaint against the zoo from a public relations perspective? Do you feel that there’s some mistrust from patrons of the zoo?
I urge guests to come see the facility for themselves. Our facility has very clean grounds, and our animals are very well taken care of. Unfortunately in our industry, as in many others, you never hear people talk about the positives of something because the media only reports on the negatives. I do not feel that there is mistrust from our patrons because our patrons are still coming. I feel the mistrust is coming from the individuals that are not even visiting the facility but are spinning the negativity about us.
Do you see yourself as a fixer of some sort in the wake of this controversy?
Again, I do not see a controversy. This controversy has only been made by the media. At no time has the media asked to come in and see the facility. Instead, they only report a one-sided story that was given to them, usually by an animal rights group such as PETA or HSUS, which are two institutions that have little to no interest in the actual well-being of an animal.
The United States Department of Agriculture is a regulatory agency. They go into all facilities across the United States that have animals. Unfortunately, because of the media, these noncompliance issues get construed by some individuals who are very well-meaning yet uneducated on the issues. For instance, if an animal gets loose in a facility, [it] is a noncompliance issue for structural fencing at a facility, which is legally a USDA violation. However, I have seen the media turn it into a cute little story that an animal wanted to go on a vacation or a walk around the block.
At Reston, we strive to make it the best facility as we possibly can. We are continuing to make positive changes and will not stop that. I work daily with our corporate office to make sure we are covering all our bases and doing what is best for our guests, our staff and our animals. I urge everyone to come visit us, and I look forward to being a part of this great facility and this great community.