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Pat Simmons, CEO of the NC Zoo, works to keep zoo a world-class experience

ASHEBORO, N.C. -- She’s accomplished a lot in less than 3 years.

In September 2015, Pat Simmons became director and chief executive officer of the North Carolina Zoological Park, the largest natural habitat zoo in the world.

The zoo is a source of pride for North Carolina. It’s one of only two remaining state-owned-and-operated zoos in the United States. (The other is Minnesota.)

It’s equal to a major corporation: more than 425 employees (700+ if you count the support staff like food vendors), 1,600 animals and 2,200 acres (of which around 550 acres is developed).

Simmons spent 29 years working at the Akron Zoological Park in Ohio where she was president and CEO before coming to Asheboro.

“I’d known about the North Carolina Zoo for a very long time,” she said. “And the opportunity to come here was just so exciting, to work at such a large place, a place that’s supported by an entire state.”

But Simmons didn’t have much of a honeymoon. The NC Zoo was about to lose its accreditation by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The recession that began in 2008 prompted a long string of state budget cuts that forced the zoo’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure to crumble.

“I, quite frankly, was very panicked thinking, ‘How am I going to get the millions it’s going to take to begin to turn this around?’” she said.

The state government, to its credit and at Simmons’ urging, boosted appropriations for repairs and applied $25 million of the Connect NC Bond voters approved in 2016 to the zoo for new exhibits.

This will allow the baboons, for instance, to get a new holding area/exhibit. The old, worn-out African Pavilion (which has been targeted for demolition for at least the last 10 years) will finally get torn down.

Plans are also underway to build a new “continent,” Asia, by 2023 to compliment the zoo’s two existing continents, North America and Africa. Asia is a $30 million project.

“Tigers are going to be the big thing (with Asia),” she said. “And you’re going to have a chance to see them for the first time ever here at the zoo. We’re looking at the opportunity to breed them.”

The zoo is also considering adding an Australian continent as well as one, maybe two, hotels/resorts either on site or nearby to house visitors who’d like to extend their visits more than one day.

All of this is under consideration while the zoo is adding exhibits and activities to enhance the visitor experience.

“Birds in Flight,” for instance, opened Easter weekend. It allows visitors to interact with some of the world’s most beautiful exotic birds.

The new Air Hike Adventure is a type of rope climbing course that takes visitors through the trees.

And “Zoofari” replicates an African safari by taking visitors -- on a bus -- through the African Plains where they get up close to rhinos and other animals.

It’s all part of an effort, Simmons says, to keep the North Carolina Zoo a world class experience.

“World-class welfare, world-class conservation, world-class education programs, world-class size -- it’s amazing!”

For more information, including ticket prices hours and exhibit information, click here.