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Sacramento Zoo loses its director weeks after announcing a $75 million renovation

The Sacramento Zoo, which recently embarked on a $75 million transformation project, is losing its director and chief executive officer.

Kyle Burks, who has led the Land Park institution for the past two years, is to become vice president and managing director of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, part of the Audubon Nature Institute, Sacramento Zoo officials said Monday.

The Louisiana institution, in historic Uptown New Orleans, covers 58 acres compared to the Sacramento Zoo’s 14 acres, and is home to approximately 2,000 animals.

Just two weeks ago, Burks outlined his vision for the future of the Sacramento Zoo, which turned 90 years old this past month. The “re-invented zoo” has been designed with a more modern look and a renewed emphasis on animal welfare and conservation. The project, launched recently with new signage and paint, will unfold in phases over the next 15 to 20 years, Burks told The Bee.

The changes are aimed in part to give visitors a more interactive experience with the zoo’s animals, which will be housed in exhibits with features that seek to replicate their natural habitats, Burks said. The “Master Plan” for the project includes a biodiversity center that will replace the zoo’s bleak, outdated reptile house; a walk-through aviary in which visitors will be able to commune with exotic birds; and a multilevel “tree house” that will include classroom space.

Burks joined the Sacramento Zoo in June 2015. He was hired to replace Mary Healy, who had served as the zoo’s executive director and chief executive officer for nearly 15 years before she died unexpectedly in 2014 while traveling to the Galapagos Islands.

Burks told his staff about his new job this past week, said spokeswoman Tonja Candelaria. The news came as “a shock” to many, she said, but his departure is not expected to have a major impact on the renovation project, which will require a fundraising campaign.

“It’s full force ahead,” Candelaria said.

The zoo’s board of trustees remains firmly committed to the project, said board president Jeff Raimundo. “This certainly will set us back a couple of months, at most,” he said. “We’d like the new director to take a look at the Master Plan. But this is the board’s vision.”

Burks is scheduled to leave the Sacramento job next week. The zoo plans to hire an outside agency to search for his successor, Candelaria said. In the meantime, Robert Churchill, the facility’s chief financial officer, will oversee its operation.

“Kyle has moved us five to 10 years forward during the time we had him,” Raimundo said. “There is a new vibrancy at the zoo that is palpable, and we’re going to continue down that path.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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