January 10, 2022
Chris Papaleo: Part of the Bronx Zoo Family
- as seen by -Julie Larsen Maher
Chris Papaleo was born and raised in the Bronx, a borough of New York City known for its rich history and culture including institutions like the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo. Part of a family work tradition that includes both his parents and an uncle, Chris began his career at the Bronx Zoo when he was 14 years old as a parking attendant. Twenty-five years later, Papaleo is now Director of Admissions and Parking Operations. He supervises a diverse group of frontline team members that delivers a first-class experience for zoo guests.
Papaleo and I talked about his Bronx life as a family, a student, and on the staff at WCS.
JLM: What does it mean to be from the Bronx?
CP: To be a Bronxite is truly special. My family is originally from the Arthur Avenue area. I was born and raised in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. I attended school in the Bronx, going to high school at Cardinal Spellman in Baychester and getting my undergraduate degree in business at Monroe College, just off Fordham Road. The Bronx is home.
JLM: Tell me about the members of your family that have worked at the Bronx Zoo.
CP: It is a tradition. In my family, we refer to my mother as the “original” Papaleo in that she was the first to be employed by WCS. Dolores (Dee) Papaleo worked for WCS for almost 50 years. She met my father, George, at the zoo. My Uncle Peter worked in the zoo’s maintenance department for over 10 years. I’ve been at WCS for 25 years. My family’s service at WCS is over 85 years.
JLM: Do you have any first memories of the Bronx Zoo?
CP: Hands down, it was being driven around in a zoo golf cart (used on the zoo campus for business transportation). When I was a kid, I felt like a VIP. My mom would take me for rides around the zoo. I always asked her to take me to see the polar bears and sea lions.
JLM: When did you know that wanted to work at the Bronx Zoo?
CP: When I was 14 years old, I wanted to start working. The zoo was the ideal place. It was close to home, a well-known employer, and I could work part-time while in high school. I got the job and really liked working at the zoo. I wanted to stay. Nearly three decades later, here I am!
JLM: What is your role now?
I’m Director of Admissions and Parking Operations for all five WCS parks in New York City including the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and Queens Zoo. I’m responsible for 250 team members that provide service to more than 4 million visitors a year. Admissions is the first touchpoint that our guests have with WCS. We need to set the right tone. It is our opportunity to gain return visitors and members as well as advocates for conservation.
JLM: Have you had any challenges while on the job?
CP: Working through this pandemic has certainly been one of the toughest times I’ve ever experienced at WCS, let alone in my personal life.
Another was Hurricane Sandy that struck New York in 2012. The devastation to our physical infrastructure at WCS’s New York Aquarium was a particularly hard time for me. I was tasked with reopening our frontline businesses. I remember my initial assessment – our eating establishments were turned upside down, our gift shop was flooded, our lobby entrance and 4D Theater were covered in sand, and the parking lot looked like a war zone. I had a dedicated team with me and, in 2015, we reopened. We got through it like we’re getting through this pandemic – together.
JLM: What advice would you give someone looking for a career with WCS?
CP: Among the great things about working for WCS is the variety of career paths. One could choose to work with animals, in a trade, as an educator, in hospitality, or in other areas of the business. The list goes on. My advice is to jump in with both feet. WCS is a world-class organization. The work is for a great purpose. You’ll have a lot of fun doing it along the way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out WCS’s career opportunities at the Bronx Zoo and other locations here.