National Aviary’s Cheryl Tracy on Working in Pittsburgh’s Most Colorful Environment
By Colleen Ferguson
Photograph by Michael Fornataro
Sponsored by CONSOL Energy
What does your typical day look like?
A typical day for me is probably a lot of meetings [laughs]. I’m very hands-on, and there are a lot of committees because of all of the decisions we make — we want all decisions to be based on our mission; it’s very collaborative. My typical day is meeting with the different departments — including conservation, education, animal collections, veterinary medicine, marketing, development, and finance administration. The Aviary is so multifaceted. There’s our visitor program, but we also have so many things that go on behind the scenes — from our teaching hospitals, to our conservation field research programs, to our breeding programs, etc. It’s hard to get bored here!
What’s your favorite part of your day?
I worked in the corporate world for the first 20 years of my career, and I really wanted to do something that tied my professional skills into something that was meaningful to me, personally. The fact that I can work here at the National Aviary and inspire respect for nature — well, I feel very blessed.
Tell us about your background.
I started my career with Ernst & Young, and I worked in a lot of corporate environments where I was responsible for the financial management and day-to-day management of the operations. I worked in everything from manufacturing, to nonprofit, to retail — you name it. I have a really solid business background, so I think that lends itself well to a nonprofit. You have to be business-minded, but because my personal goals tied so closely to the mission, it’s the perfect blend for me. I decided I wanted to work for a nonprofit, and there just happened to be an opening at the National Aviary for the position of chief financial officer. It was serendipitous, I would say. I took the position eight years ago. I was CFO for six years, and then I was promoted to managing director, which I’ve been for two years now.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve been a part of at the Aviary?
One of the changes that we’re trying to implement currently — and I think it’s been one of the reasons for our success — is that we’re highlighting what happens behind the scenes. There’s so much that goes on that I think the average visitor still doesn’t know, including our highly advanced avian medicine hospital, conservation field research, and endangered bird breeding programs. We have a geriatric program for our birds that we’re very proud of. Older birds that have worked their whole lives may become disabled and aren’t able to thrive on exhibit anymore. For them, we have a geriatric care center. For the rest of their lives, they live a very comfortable life, but we also use these birds to teach approximately 50 pre-vet interns annually — and they get to work with these birds one-on-one. Also, we bring them out daily for our “Meet a Patient” program, and even take them to nursing homes, where our veterinarian talks about relatable problems, such as cataracts or arthritis.
What are you most excited about right now?
One of the things that I think sets us apart from other zoos is that we really highlight everything here that’s interactive. We really want to connect people here with our birds. We focus on the interactivity, getting “nose to beak,” as we refer to it, so that our guests can feed our birds, walk through the exhibits, take part in the theater shows, where we do a lot with audience participation, and connect one-on-one. With the Wings & Wildlife Art Show, coming this fall, we’re hoping to connect people in a different way. It can bring in people who have an appreciation for art or who may have never been to the National Aviary. This was a show the Aviary did in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and a lot has changed. We’re planning to get about 40 local artists, debuting their work throughout the Aviary.
What is your motivation behind each event or new exhibit?
It’s all about the birds. Our birds are ambassadors teaching us about our natural world. We have an active collections committee, and we’re constantly looking for new dynamic birds to bring in — birds that might have visitor appeal, birds that are endangered and can participate in our breeding programs, as well as birds who work well with people and can participate in the numerous educational programs that we have.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
We have a lot of new dynamic species coming! We have a new strikingly colorful eagle that we will be announcing in April, and we have the Raggiana Birds of Paradise, which also have beautiful plumage. Our Raggiana Birds of Paradise are juveniles, so guests will get to watch them develop. We have some Roadrunners that we’re excited about. And, we have a new Condor exhibit coming.
What do you think makes the Aviary so successful?
Our staff. The passion of our staff surpasses anything I’ve ever experienced. Employee engagement and teamwork is really important, and I feel it’s one of the keys to our success. I come from a business background, so I think it’s important to be business-minded. But, the key here is that we never lose sight of our mission. The value of the staff, our board of directors, our volunteers, and interns, and the trust and respect that we have, is really the most critical part.