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Honolulu Zoo gets Latino Director

By Priscilla Cabral-Perez
Hawaii Hispanic News
HONOLULU, Hawaii — When Mayor Peter Carlisle recently introduced the new Honolulu Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo, he described him as someone whose “wealth of zoo and park managerial experience and his clear love for animals is sure to benefit Honolulu.”

zoodirector.jpgMollinedo’s wealth of experience is traced to a humble background. He was born in East Los Angeles and his father died when he was just a few months old. The major figures

in his life were all women: his mother, his grandmother and his great-grandmother. The latter took care of him while his mother and grandmother worked.

Honolulu Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo

“I remember she would tell me these incredible stories about the Wild West when she was a young girl growing up in Chihuahua (Mexico). And some of her stories ended up getting me in trouble because she grew up in Chihuahua during a time when Pancho

Villa was still alive… and she would explain to me that he was a real hero because this terrible person named John Pershing was always chasing him.”

He continued: “And so one time, I think it was in third grade… our teacher was telling us about this great American hero, John Pershing, chasing the bandit Pancho Villa in Mexico. So I raised my hand… and I corrected my teacher: ‘Oh, no. You’ve got it wrong.

Pancho Villa was the hero. Pershing wasn’t a very nice person.’ And man! I ended up

having to stay after school for that.”

He went on: ” It was something that stayed with me for many years. I never realized what

happened until I was in college studying history and, all of a sudden, it just dawned on

me that history really depends on who’s telling the story.”

Another of Mollinedo’s treasured childhood memories was captured with a camera.

“There’s a photograph in my home of when I three-and-a-half or four years old. It’s a picture of my mother and me at the old Griffith Park Zoo. She was very young and here I was this tiny, snottynose kid sitting on the fence – which she shouldn’t have done — looking at the monkeys. Who would’ve guessed that years later I would become the director of the Los Angeles Zoo?

It’s bizarre. But seeing this photograph really made me think about the forks and different roads fate takes you on,” he said.

Mollinedo encountered one of those forks when he was asked to fill the director’s position temporarily at the Los Angeles Zoo.

He said: “When I first went there, I thought going to the zoo would destroy my chances for becoming the general manager of the Los Angeles Parks Department because that was my longterm goal,” said Mollinedo.

His perspective changed quickly when he realized that the zoo was the perfect setting to put his managerial experience and his studies in physical anthropology to work. When Mollinedo took over the Los Angeles Zoo in 1995, it was in dire condition, to the point that its accreditation was threatened because of numerous health and safety violations. It also had outdated animal facilities and the inability to protect the animals from disease

and predators.

He said: “I was able to focus the management and get things turned around. But it was my knowledge in physical anthropology, and the great apes, that provided me a little more understanding and sensitivity on to how to manage an animal collection. When you

have animals in captivity, you have issues because many of them are endangered species.

“One of the things I discovered quickly was that no zoo in the world has a large enough animal collection to make it sustainable, so any species you have is destined to become inbred, if it’s not managed properly”

After Mollinedo had served a year as interim director, the zoo showed palpable changes and improvements. Soon thereafter, he became the first Latino zoo director in the nation.

“I’m proud of it, but it’s also something that is a big responsibility. You symbolize something that other people look up to you for. It’s is a big responsibility because if you don’t to the job properly, it’s going to hurt other Latino kids who are wanting to go into this type of career,” he said.

Even though his new position was a great accomplishment and the ability to sustain endangered populations fascinated Mollinedo, what really made him stay was the zoo’s impact on children’s lives.

“(Kids) would come to the L.A. Zoo in the children’s contact area and they would get to touch a goat or a lamb. And you could just see, all of a sudden, how they felt about touching a living creature. I really feel that those moments can change a person’s life and really develop a stronger respect for life, especially in an urban environment,” he said.

According to Mollinedo, the zoo “could be a tremendous catalyst for change.” But, before that, the Honolulu Zoo has to undergo some changes itself, some of which have already begun.

The zoo unveiled its new entrance and ticketing area earlier this month, and the new elephant exhibit will be completed this summer. New additions to the animal collection are also looming.

“I really want to develop and strengthen the Australia area. We can bring koalas in here, which creates some logistical issues because we have to have a special diet with them with eucalyptus trees. There’s an antelope called the “gerenuk.” They have these beautiful large eyes and really long necks. They kind of look like mini-giraffes in a way, except they don’t have the spots. I’ve already been talking to the Los Angeles Zoo about the possibility, maybe seeing if we could bring some of those and put them into our African savannah area,” he said.

Other plans to attract more visitors include developing a night zoo and establishing partnerships with other institutions, such as the Waikiki Aquarium.

“I really would like to make this zoo one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of the Hawaiian Islands. I think that if we can generate the type of revenue that we can from the visitors, we would then have the resources to really provide a product for the people who live here in Honolulu – who live here on Oahu,” said Mollinedo.

His ultimate goal is to work with the school system to develop lesson plans that meet the state’s science requirements and incorporate the zoo as a teaching tool.

“What I would like to do is work with the teachers, provide them lesson plans, send them back to their schools where they can implement these lesson plans with their students. Then we would – hopefully – be able to provide the bus transportation to bring those kids to the zoo, get them in here free-of-charge. They could then experience the zoo, not as a recreational venue, but experience the zoo as an outdoor classroom,” said Mollinedo with excitement.

“And maybe eventually expand the program and be able to reach out to all the kids who

live throughout the Hawaiian Islands. We would actually pay for their transportation to come out here, but we would just need to get some foundation help in order to do this,” he continued.

Mollinedo and his wife bought property on the Big Island years ago hoping to someday move to Hawaii. His new position as the Honolulu Zoo director has provided him the opportunity to fulfill that dream while progressing in his career.

“I really do feel very fortunate to be here,” he said.

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