Managing Mill Mountain with Derek Kellogg

Journey 8 min read

Learn about managing a zoo during COVID-19 and leveraging your strengths through our exclusive interview with a Derek Kellogg, co-director of the Mill Mountain Zoo.

We sat down with Derek to learn more about his journey through the zoological industry, what it takes to manage the business side of a zoo, and diving into how you can leverage your organization’s local history for grants.

Before diving into our interview, here’s a quick background about the Mill Mountain Zoo

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About the Mill Mountain Zoo

Mill Mountain Zoo was founded in 1952 as a nursery-rhyme themed petting zoo that featured farm animals, birds, and native Virginia wildlife. For the first twenty-five years, we were operated by Roanoke's Parks and Recreation Department.

In 1978, the Roanoke Jaycees renewed the zoo and replaced old exhibits to create a place appealing to all ages. Governance was turned over to the Blue Ridge Zoological Society of Virginia, Inc. in 1988 (more commonly known as Mill Mountain Zoo).

Explore the Zoo!

In the early 1990's, a citizens' committee created a master plan for exhibitions, visitor amenities, and expansion of the site to our current eight acres. Other improvements included new exhibits and an upgrade of infrastructure. Mill Mountain Zoo (MMZoo) is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to promoting an appreciation and understanding of the animal and habitat preservation through the use of quality exhibits, educational programs, and partnerships with other conservation programs.

Mill Mountain Zoo is currently home to more than 183 animals, representing 70 species from around the world. Through our admissions and donations, we support local and global conservation efforts. The Zoo is also restoring habitat on-grounds to benefit declining pollinator species and participates in a national monitoring program for amphibians -- Frogwatch. Keeper Chats The zookeepers love sharing information about their animals.

Credit: TripAdvisor

Building a career at a smaller zoo

Not all careers start out at large state-sponsored zoos. In fact, there are over 200 smaller zoos around the United States that protect and nurture wildlife in order to teach their local communities about the world we live in. Working in these zoos feels like working with a family. They are perfect places to get your feet wet within the zoological industry as well as gain valuable work experience in various fields before specializing in your career. As with any other zoo, small zoos are a business and come with their own unique challenges, challenges you'll be able to help solve.

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1) How did you get started with the zoo industry?

“After my master’s in entomology, I got experience working a managment role in a nonprofit setting.”

Like many zoological professionals, Derek’s education was deeply rooted in the life sciences. With a background in entomology (the study of insects), you might not be surprised that Derek’s first role out of school was managing a butterfly exhibit at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. During this time he gained hands-on experience turning the gears of a nonprofit museum and managing a living collection of butterflies and a 2000 gallon coral aquatic exhibit. Surprisingly there are a lot of similarities between these seemingly polar opposite exhibits of land vs sea, and it comes down to the proper nourishment of each ecosystem. For the butterfly exhibit, the focus was on making sure various factors such as soil chemistry, nutrient levels and light levels were just right, and similarly for the coral exhibit, making sure the water chemistry, nutrient levels, ammonia/nitrate levels as well as light levels allowed for the ecosystem to flourish.

Photographer: Daniel Klein | Source: Unsplash
An opportunity to bring a concept to life from scratch, and understand the bigger picture.

After half a decade of understanding the ins and outs of exhibit management and generating revenue for the museum, Derek moved to Roanoke to build a butterfly exhibit from the ground up. Through this cycle of creation, he acquired more and more responsibilities while working with other departments and started to understand the bigger picture as well as bigger budgets. His work didn’t go unnoticed though, and when the co-director role opened up at the Mill Mountain Zoo, it was a natural transition where he works to manage the revenue streams of the zoo, specifically through guest services, education, fundraising, and budgeting. That’s a lot of hats to wear!

2) What’s the biggest challenges with your role with COVID-19 ?

“State level legislation, policies, restrictions were pushed without much guidance or warnings.”

If you look through the government’s eyes, zoos are often not the priority, however unlike other businesses, zoos have to operational expenses to cover as well as unique tourist and attraction policies to adhere to, especially during the coronavirus. Weekly changes from the governer’s office, led to frequent policies pushes each of each require effective communication to the various stakeholders they affected. As with any industry, the zoological community came together to adopt the best solutions to adhere to these policies.

3) What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had in the last few months and why?

We raised ten times our usual fundraising amount through a GoFundMe
Tap to view the campaign

As the COVID-19 took the nation by storm, like many zoos Mill Mountain was forced to shut down during its peak season. But just because the zoo is closed to the public doesn’t mean the animals stop eating. There was work to be done and Derek and the team were able to effectively communicate that message to their community. They blew past their usual funding amounts of 2500-5000 dollars and raised 10 thousand dollars as well as additional donations resulting in close to 20-25 thousand in fiscal support, proving that a community will support organizations they are proud of. However the support wasn’t just monetary, the zoo saw a showed their support through letters and community support.

4) What’s an area you are curious about and why? Or, what are some of the things you’re researching the most right now?

How do we engage people and facilitate people in a technological environment?

When it comes down to it, zoos are a business and the role of attractions is changing. If we were to put it in the context of a history museum, it would be why should people spend money to visit the museum when there is so much information on the internet. Derek supported his views on the matter in two ways:

Learn about Mill Mountains Red Wolves
  1. Stories! You can read about mandrils online and they can I've you all the info about the species, but you can’t replace it in real life. Understanding how it fits within its ecosystem and more importantly experiencing is vital to connecting with the subject. If we took an example of wolves, visiting them in real life at the zoo lets you see first hand how they interact with other organisms, their pack as well as their routines. At Mill Mountain, their wolves will howl back every day to local sirens, an experience you can never emulate digitally.
  2. Humans are inherently experiential learners, especially through the senses. Real-life exhibits provide tactile and elements hat olfactory elements that you can’t replace in real life. To improve this, Derek is looking into improving the signage across the zoo to provide a more visceral experience.

5) Can we talk about grants and we to get started with the fundraising side?

Focus on one or two messages that you hammer home.

To many applying for grants is a long tedious process that requires hours and hours of paperwork and writing. You’re not wrong, but that is also a fundamental nature of fundraising. There are a few different types of grants and most organizations will have better luck catering to local grants compared to national ones where the competition is stiff. There are a few places to start looking for grants you might be eligible for: such your local library or online resources that will act as a sort of grant agency, but the real work is understanding what you need the money for. Derek’s advice is to find grantors that are interested in supporting your topic and pitch your assets by focusing on a few messages to hammer your point home.

Many grants are capital projects that go towards physical exhibits, people love branding their name on things! For example at Mill Mountain, Derek focuses on leveraging the local history and presence of red wolves, diving deep into the history of the species in Roanoke, and showing off the biggest red wolves exhibit in Virginia.

5) Advice on how a beginner can start working in a similar role? Skills, expectations, experiences...

Experience with communicating effectively and the ability to write either technically or scientifically.

In terms of fundraising and grants, being able to communicate your message is fundamental to marketing as well as being able to put the pen to paper and write your message down. When it comes down to it, grants are not a risky business, they like to invest in solid projects with guaranteed results, and being able to leverage and market your strength can lead to a big impact.

When we break it down there are two aspects that can help individuals grow into similar roles:

  1. The first is education and experience. Similar to other careers, producing results requires you to know what you’re doing and that takes time, effort, and motivation.
  2. The ability to leverage your background with leadership skills, public speaking, and the ability to market yourself will give you a paw above the competition.