Leah Jensen Charts the Future for the Memphis Zoo

The HR and operations expert is able to bring her passion to animals and visitors alike

Memphis Zoo’s China exhibit features a courtyard with southern-style Chinese glazed tile roofs to transport guests to the foreign land while they meet pandas, white-cheeked gibbons, waterfowl, and Asian small-clawed otters, amongst many others. Photos by Brandall Atkinson

It’s unlikely that you’ll often encounter construction plans with a premise to find a home for a retired baseball mascot. But that’s exactly how the world-renowned Memphis Zoo came to be.

Colonel Robert Galloway began petitioning for funds in 1904 to build a home for Natch, a massive Southern black bear—confusingly, the mascot for a team whose name was the Turtles—chained to a tree in Memphis’s Overton Park and being taken care of by city residents. Natch was soon joined by a handful of other nonregional wildlife, and the Memphis Zoo was established in 1906.

Since then, the zoo has gained recognition for impressive residents, such as Adonis, the world’s longest-living hippo, who reached the age of 54 and fathered approximately 25 offspring in his lifetime.

In 2016, one hundred years after the completion of two small pools cut out of concrete, the 4-acre Zambezi River Hippo Camp was opened to the public and hippos alike. The exponentially upgraded facility contains a 200,000-square-foot pool for the hippos with state-of-the-art filtration and life support systems. It was the final accomplishment of the previous zoo master plan that had been developed back in the ’80s.

Over the last 114 years, the Memphis Zoo has repeatedly been identified by publications like US News & World Report and USA Today as one of the finest institutions of its kind. Since then, its animals and visitors alike have inspired it to find even more ways to innovate.

Memphis Zoo’s California sea lions put on daily shows for zoo guests in Northwest passage.

Stakeholders of All Species

Development and implementation of the next master plan will fall partially on the shoulders of Chief Operations Officer Leah Jensen, who has been promoted repeatedly since joining the team in 2017. Prior to her arrival at the zoo, Jensen gained HR and operations experience all over the map, from healthcare to retail—and now hippos.

“Motivating people and helping them recognize what they do matters has always been my passion,” Jensen says. The zoo has offered an even more vital opportunity for the COO, as it works to educate guests about conservation and preservation of the wildlife. “I’m just so fortunate to be connected to a mission that is so impactful; it’s one I really connect and identify with.”

That’s because in everything Jensen does, from implementing operational initiatives to the successful completion of special events at the zoo, she says that the well-being of the zoo’s animals is what comes first, always. “This role has required a significant amount of learning, because even from an operational mindset, you have to be thinking about shifting elephants and rhinos around when you’re doing repair work or consider the noise level when you’re thinking about the events that we throw,” Jensen says. “We have an unbelievable animal care team that I believe is world-class, and they do a great job of educating our team about the best way to move forward.”

Chief Operations Officer Leah Jensen feeds a hungry giraffe.

A New Master Plan

Animals aren’t the only unique challenge to Jensen’s role. The 76-acre zoo is landlocked in the middle of Midtown Memphis and is just one of many residents of Overton Park. “We have a very unique partnership with the city of Memphis because we’re on city-owned land but are privately managed by the Memphis Zoological Society,” Jensen explains. “While it’s always been vital for me to cultivate relationships, there are now taxpayer funds, city-provided technicians, and the reality that when you’re talking about animal welfare, sometimes you need a solution right now and don’t have time to go through the proper channels. It’s very important that we build those relationships and are incredibly transparent and honest in our communication with the city, our neighbors, and all the stakeholders involved.”

The unique history of the zoo also offers its own share of obstacles to overcome. “Our last 20-Year Plan brought us so many unbelievable exhibits,” Jensen says. “But there are also portions of the zoo whose building dates back to the early 1900s. That can create its own maintenance nightmares,” she adds, laughing.

That includes a barn the zoo acquired from the Memphis Police Department in 1923 that used to serve as the base of operations for the Memphis Mounted Police Force. “Our story and how we came to be in Overton Park is so important, and we certainly don’t want to knock down everything we see as vintage or old,” Jensen says. “We have to continue to find a way to incorporate those pieces and preserve the rich heritage that we have.”

None of those challenges seem to rattle Jensen. “There’s no other way to say it, this job is pretty incredible.”

Teton Trek brings authentic features of Yellow Stone National Park to the Memphis Zoo.

Leah Off the Clock

Leah Jensen’s passion for people and animals alike isn’t just evident in her nine-to-five. She acts as a mentor for tnAchieves, which provides support and advice for incoming college freshmen who are often the first ones in their families to pursue higher education. Jensen has also served on a variety of nonprofit boards and is a three-time participant in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, a 60-mile walk to raise money and awareness for breast cancer, a personal and enduring cause for the COO.