For zoo’s new CEO, saving animals and habitats is a passion project

Margo McKnight is the new president and chief executive of the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

McKnight, the former senior vice president of conservation, science and research at the Florida Aquarium, took over the zoo’s top position in May. She replaces Andrew Aiken, who stepped down in November.

McKnight’s tenure comes on the heels of a record-breaking year for the nonprofit, which welcomed 330,000 visitors in 2017. About one-third of those visitors came from outside the county, officials have said.

In May, the zoo was the recipient of the county’s top tourism award — the Providencia Award — which is given annually to an individual or organization that plays a prominent role in the tourism industry.

The zoo beat out two other tourism groups for the coveted title.

Name: Margo Mari McKnight

Age: Ageless … OK, 57

Hometown: North Miami Beach

Where you live now: Wind in the Pines, Palm Beach Gardens

About your company: The Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society is a zoo with a big heart, fascinating creatures and an important job. As communities continue to disconnect from each other and nature, there is a growing body of science illuminating the need to unplug from our electronic man-made world. It is clear that we are healthier and happier when we spend time in nature. The other important role we play is to help push back on the loss of wild animals and wild places. Our mission is to inspire our guests to act on behalf of these wild things that need our help. By simply visiting the zoo, you are saving animals in the wild because you are helping fund our conservation work.

How your business has changed: Through technology and design, zoo and aquarium guests are experiencing our animals more closely and naturally than ever before. Advancements in research and science are responsible for creating an environment of world-class animal care. We are able to enhance the quality of life for our animals by performing root canals on a jaguar to relieve dental pain and providing preventative medicine for anteaters. I have been working in this field for almost 30 years, and although sadly we have lost many species of animals in the wild we have saved many as well. The most important role we play is to help protect and restore our beautiful planet.

First paying job and what you learned from it: I was a hostess and waitress at Sweden House in North Miami Beach. I learned how satisfying it was to work hard and to serve others. I think everyone should experience a service job.

First break in the business: When I was a freshman in college, I landed a job working in the zoo at Busch Gardens Tampa teaching children in Zoo Camp. It was there that I fell in love with introducing people to wild nature. Seeing children have transformational moments hooked me forever.

Best business book you ever read: There are so many excellent business books, but my most recent favorite is “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Selnik. I am a biologist by training, so it really makes sense to me to think about how our physiology affects our behavior. Once you understand the complexity, you can start relating it to real situations and the workplace.

Best piece of business advice you ever received: You need to learn how to listen, really listen, active listening. It can become a superpower!

What you tell young people about your business: Saving the planet is one of the best jobs on the planet. Working with animals and people who love animals is amazingly rewarding. Our job is to get people to have fun and to fall in love with nature and wildlife. If you are already in love with nature and wildlife, we want you to be even more committed and join us in protecting and restoring it.

What do you see ahead for Palm Beach County? I see the weaving of a tapestry composed of diverse communities enjoying, nature, art and technology. This county has spectacular natural areas, a gorgeous marine environment with the northernmost coral reef ecosystems in the U.S., a wonderful zoo, science center and aquarium living right next to amazing cultural superlatives including a robust visual and performing arts scene, historic architecture and cutting-edge technology. I see an integration through partnerships and networks.

Where we can find you when you are not at the office: You can find me getting extra “doses of nature” outside with my horses, dog or floating somewhere in my kayak. When I am not outside, I am in my art studio with a paintbrush in hand.

Favorite smartphone app: “OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker,” if you don’t have it get it — it is fascinating to see where these amazing creatures go. It’s especially useful when you are floating in your kayak, just kidding!

What is the most important trait you look for when hiring? Emotional intelligence and skills to work effectively in a team.

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