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Paul Baribault takes charge as the San Diego Zoo’s first new leader in 34 years

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Patrick Smith, senior horticulturalist at the San Diego Zoo, left, gives Paul Baribault, the new president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global, a tour of the African Garden section in the Africa Rocks exhibit at the zoo on Tuesday.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

At Disney Studios, Baribault learned from a world-class storyteller. Now he’s in charge of telling the zoo’s stories to the world

On a clear, crisp morning this week, Paul Baribault was once again drinking from an information firehose. The native of La Cañada Flintridge has been gulping from it ever since being named head of San Diego Zoo Global.

Baribault has just taken over from Douglas G. Myers, who announced his retirement earlier this year. After spending October working with Myers, the zoo’s future is now the responsibility of Baribault, the zoo’s first new president and CEO in 34 years.

“I’m talking with every member of the team at the executive level, and then spending time with their team just to learn about how everybody does their business,” he said.

Baribault is evidently comfortable meeting new people. With a wide, toothy smile, he easily glides into conversations about his work, and about his life, as well as listening and learning.

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On this visit, Baribault is learning about African plants. Patrick Smith, a senior horticulturalist, walks Baribault around the African Garden at the zoo’s Africa Rocks exhibit.

Most of the vegetation looks suited for a dry climate like San Diego’s; cactus-like shrubs, trees with thick trunks and stubby leaves, and spiky bushes that give an unmistakable warning not to touch. There’s also a small tree, Boswellia sacra, best known for the product of its sap, frankincense.

Some of these plants are quite rare, including one particular cycad, a grouping of primitive treelike plants. This particular cycad in the species Encephalartos latifrons is believed to be more than 5 centuries old.

The collection is part of the world seen by visitors to the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park and its sister zoo, the San Diego Safari Park, near Escondido. But as leader of their parent, San Diego Zoo Global, Baribault is now also responsible for much more that the public rarely sees.

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San Diego Zoo Global operates around the world, working with governments and conservation groups to protect and restore wild animals and plants. It also conducts groundbreaking biological research to that end.

This global role was developed under the leadership of Myers, whose imprint is everywhere. During his walking tour with Baribault, horticulturalist Smith mentions that some of the rare plants in the African collection were secured only with Myers’ energetic involvement.

Baribault doesn’t have a zoo background. His entry into the world of wildlife conservation came from managing the Disneynature film division of the Walt Disney Studios, a unit of the Walt Disney Co.

In that capacity, Baribault met the famed chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who invited him to become vice chair of the Jane Goodall Institute.

“There’s no question that the Disneynature films make a huge impact whenever they are shown,” Goodall said in a 2014 profile about Baribault in Stanford Magazine. (Baribault is a Stanford alumnus.)

So for Baribault, who celebrates his 46th birthday this month, leading a world-famous zoo and conservation nonprofit is a logical progression. He’s ready for the challenge. But is the zoo ready for someone from outside the close-knit zoo world?

Baribault is aware of the potential pitfalls.

“I come from a different culture, a different company with Disney,” Baribault said. “We had a way of doing things. I’m learning the passions and priorities that everybody has here, and how I can support that.”

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At first, there was a normal tinge of unease among the staff, who were getting a new leader after so many years, said board chairman Steven G. Tappan. But now that they’re getting to know Baribault, people are beginning to relax, he said.

“I think the general consensus right now is that people are smiling,” Tappan said.

And Baribault brings something new to the zoo: Expertise in storytelling from the world’s foremost storyteller.

“We as humans connect through stories,” he said. “Facts and figures are important, but we can’t just rely on facts and figures to educate, inform and inspire.”

But while Disney is famous for fantasy, San Diego Zoo Global’s stories are real. So the messaging must be authentic and grounded in fact — which Baribault was careful to ensure with Disneynature’s movies.

Tappan said Baribault’s storytelling ability is just as important to the board as business skills.

“We were looking for someone to communicate to the public, communicate to all our stakeholders who we are, and why we feel so passionate about what we do.”

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Patrick Smith and Paul Baribault, right, on their African Garden tour.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Learning about conservation

Baribault was born in Burbank, literally in the shadow of Disney, which is headquartered there.

“The window that I had at Disney looked directly out on the house where I was born, it was just across the street,” he said.

Later, his family moved to La Cañada Flintridge.

“I had the amazing fortune of growing up down the street from two of Walt’s ‘nine old men’, Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas, two of the original luminaries of the animation world,” he said. “I got to know them as a high school student. They were both roommates at Stanford. I thought, how neat would it be to go to Stanford and work for Disney?”

But Baribault couldn’t draw. That ruled out Disney, he thought.

“When growing up, I looked at them as an animation studio,” Baribault said. “When I entered Disney, they were much more than that. But as a kid, I had that view of animation.”

No suspense in this part of the story: Baribault did go on to Stanford, to USC and, finally, to Disney.

His mother, Susan, who had been an animation research librarian, helped. And Baribault reached out to everyone he knew at Disney, securing an internship in 1994, “the summer of Lion King,” he quipped. He came back the following two summers.

Baribault said his awareness of conservation began when he was attending Stanford University and doing his Disney summer internships.

It happened at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a renowned aquarium and conservation center established by Stanford scientists on Cannery Row.

“I would drive down to Monterey Bay Aquarium on a weekend day, which was about a four-hour round trip, just to see this underwater world, that I couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to see and witness and learn from,” he said.

“It blew my mind. And so I would go there countless times. I felt drawn to this space in a very special way, but I couldn’t quite figure out how I would get there.”

To Disney and beyond

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Paul Baribault, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global
(San Diego Zoo Global)

At Disney Studios, Baribault was in charge of movie promotions for Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios and the Muppets, and Disneynature.

For Disneynature, Baribault had to adapt those skills to the demands of real-life movie-making. He helped nurture a stream of nature documentaries.

“Baribault’s unique contribution to the franchise has been to design marketing programs in which a portion of each new ticket sale in the opening week is donated to conservation projects around the globe,” according to the Stanford Magazine profile.

One of those movies, “Chimpanzee” (2012), was unexpectedly difficult to make, but turned out to be rewarding, Baribault said.

“Chimpanzee” was filmed in Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa. It focuses on Oscar, a young chimp, as he grows up. During the four-year process of documenting the story, his mother was killed.

“We thought that that was going to end the movie, because normally in the chimp hierarchy, that baby would die because it would be put behind all the other children” in care and feeding, Baribault said.

But the film crew kept on documenting what happened. And that turned out to be something unexpected and heartening.

“The alpha male stepped in and took control of raising that baby, something that had never been filmed in the wild,” Baribault said.

“That completely changed the whole movie. We thought were telling a family story the whole way through. And then all of a sudden, this moment happened toward the very end of filming. And we realized this now is the cornerstone of the movie.”

When Baribault screened the movie for Goodall, she was impressed.

“Jane herself could not believe that we captured that on film,” Baribault said. “And after I showed her the film, she and I sat for almost two hours just talking about the film and talking about the priorities that I had for the [Disneynature] label.”

Bonding over their shared conservation interests, they became friends. About two years ago, Goodall asked Baribault to join the Jane Goodall Institute.

“Chimpanzee” brought in about $40 million in revenue internationally, about $29 million in U.S. theater showings. That made the film the seventh-highest grossing documentary, according to a July 12 article on the entertainment site The Wrap.

Tappan, the zoo board chairman, said the zoo is impressed with how Baribault accomplished his work by building coalitions inside and outside Disneynature.

“He had to pull from a lot of the organizations within Disney that weren’t necessarily under his control,” Tappan said. “And then he had to work with a lot of the conservation organizations that had, well, let’s say, touched the space when he was doing a film and as well as the government.”

Fikes writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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