CLAIM TO FAME: Ken Mitchell ’87 is the executive director of the Staten Island Zoo, a small but vital institution of education and conservation. Annually, close to 200,000 people visit its 350 animal species, including 69 that are endangered or even extinct in the wild.
SPECIES SURVIVAL: The zoo recently became home to the world’s rarest cat, the amur leopard. Only 50 survive in the wild, and the hope is that the zoo’s pair will breed. Last year, the zoo’s scimitar-horned oryx, a Saharan antelope extinct in the wild, bore its first calf. The zoo specializes in reptiles, including such threatened species as the Aruba Island rattlesnake. “We are not just exhibiting animals, but making sure they continue to thrive and flourish for generations to come,” Mitchell says.
LEGAL EAGLE: Mitchell grew up near the zoo, riding his bike through the leafy eight-acre property. But he had no boyhood dreams of becoming a zookeeper. “I always had an interest in politics, civics, and law,” he says.
SEAHAWK FAMILY: Mitchell names his uncle, Alex Mitchell ’57, an American Airlines executive who oversaw the company’s financial regulatory analysis, as an early influence. He followed his uncle’s footsteps to Wagner College to become an economics and business administration major. Two sisters, Elizabeth Mitchell Diaz ’92 and Ann Mitchell ’04 M’08, also are alumni, as is his wife, Jacquelyn Mahoney M’00. He hopes his 6-year-old son, Charlie, will be part of the class of 2032 or so.
WIN SOME … After Wagner, Mitchell earned a JD from New York Law School. For seven years, he was chief of staff and general counsel for the Democratic city councilman representing northern Staten Island. When his boss was elected to Congress, Mitchell won the council seat in a February 2009 special election. In the next general election, however, Mitchell lost to a Democratic challenger.
HOMECOMING: In early 2010, the zoo’s former executive director stepped down. Mitchell agreed to serve as executive director on an interim basis, and it turned out to be a good fit. His knowledge of city government and local organizations is extremely useful in advocating for zoo support and funding.
LESS IS MORE: What makes the zoo most special to Mitchell? Its intimacy. “You come here, and it’s small enough that you can do it in a day, and you can get close to the animals. Our docent program allows people to touch the animals. At a lot of other zoos, you don’t have that personal touch.”
STUDENT OPPORTUNITIES: Over the past several years, all of Wagner’s pre-veterinary students have interned at the Staten Island Zoo, says Chris Corbo, assistant professor of biology. This valuable hands-on experience has given them a leg up in the highly competitive admissions process to the veterinary schools at Cornell, Tufts, and Ohio State.
A NEW LOVE: Admitting that he prefers the leopards to the rattlesnakes, Mitchell says, “I had no idea how involved the work of a zoo was. I’ve grown to love it and appreciate the work of our professionals.”