Warren J. Illif

Title: President and CEO

Organization: Aquarium of the Pacific

Born: Madison, Wis., 1936

Education: Bachelor's degree in government, Harvard University

Most Admired Person: Wife

Career Turning Point: Taking job at Aquarium of the Pacific two and a half years ago

Hobbies: Golf

Personal: Married, no children


Senior Reporter

Warren J. Illif seems an unlikely candidate to be president and chief executive of Long Beach's new Aquarium of Pacific. He has no formal training in zoology, oceanography or marine biology. He doesn't even know how to scuba dive.

So how did Illif beat out a field of highly trained Ph.D.s to land what was one of the most sought-after jobs in the world of aquariums? A strong track record certainly helped. Despite his lack of training, Illif has a reputation as a top administrator in the zoo industry. As the director of zoos in Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., Dallas and Phoenix, he has learned to pay equal attention to the health of the animals and the bottom line, forging strong relationships with donors, board members, volunteers and corporate sponsors.

The Long Beach job could be especially challenging. In addition to managing a staff of almost 300 and an annual budget of $30 million, Illif will be responsible for ensuring that the Aquarium of the Pacific is the centerpiece of the city's ambitious waterfront revitalization project. So far, so good the aquarium has pulled in about 270,000 visitors since opening June 20.

Question: In addition to Long Beach, new aquariums recently have opened in New Orleans, Chattanooga, Baltimore and other cities. Why all the interest?

Answer: As cities reinvent themselves, as they've gone from manufacturing and industry into a new era where tourism and travel are much more accessible, it fits that a downtown area would be a natural for an aquarium. There's such an appeal to marine biology, and it's pretty much across the board not just young children. Teenagers and adults are fascinated, too.

Zoo people were always frustrated because zoos were seen as this family recreational place, (as opposed to) an education- and conservation-oriented place. At the other end of the spectrum, museums are always wanting to be much more populist and fun and entertainment-oriented. For me, aquariums are a nice balance between the two they can be fun and interesting for families and yet they also are perceived as being educational.

Q: You don't have any formal training in zoology or oceanography. How'd you get into this line of work?

A: I have the weirdest career path. I majored in government in college and I was in the service after I graduated. I was a Marine Corps pilot, and when I got out I took a job as a crop duster in Central America, working for a company that did helicopter spraying of bananas and cotton in Honduras and Guatemala. Environmentally, not too good. (Laughs). But, nonetheless, I did it. Down there, I became interested in wildlife and had a bunch of pets.

Q: What did you have?

A: I had some monkeys and some birds and a raccoon-like animal called a coatimundi. It was interesting because the people who lived in the country became very interested in the fact that I had these animals. People living in that kind of an economy really treat most things as competition they considered all the snakes poisonous, and all the birds ate their corn. I was fascinated that they didn't know much about their own animals and didn't appreciate them. My thought was that maybe you could build parks in countries like Honduras that would instill a sense of pride in the people. I didn't know enough to do that and part of the idea when I came back was to get a job to learn how to do that and maybe come back (to Central America). But now I've gotten so caught up in all of this.

Q: Is that where your interest in animals came from?

A: Yeah. It was great. The (animals) were interesting and fun and loving. And it gave me a real connection with nature that I had never experienced before. It also opened a whole new world of reading and knowledge for me. When I came back to the states, I took a job with the Air Transport Association in Washington, but I did volunteer work at the zoo. Fortunately, the director of the zoo asked me if I wanted to be his special assistant.

Q: Kind of ironic isn't it, going from crop duster to conservationist?

A: You have to remember, this was in 1964, before any kind of environmental consciousness had emerged. I mean, I smoked. I actually smoked while I was spraying. I don't think I ever understood that it was dangerous. It was being done to kill insects and I was just a stupid non-biologist.

Q: What happened to your finger? (The middle-finger on Illif's right hand is a half-inch stump.)

A: It was bitten off by a chimp in a zoo up in Portland where I worked. I had gone to down to see a new holding area we had built for chimpanzees. Charlie, this chimp, was there. He was kind of the male troop-leader of the chimps. He and I knew each other well and when he saw me, he became very excited. I went over and started scratching him behind the ear, through the bars. But I was really there to talk to the keeper. I think what happened was that Charlie was a little angry and a little frustrated and wanted all of my attention. He bit down on my finger. I probably did more harm pulling my hand out than he did biting. But the result was that this part was gone.

What was interesting was Charlie's reaction to all this. I went back to see him that afternoon. I wanted to tell him it was OK, it wasn't his fault. But he was so freaked out. For about six weeks after that, I would go down to see him and he would avoid me. He was very morose. He wasn't punished at all, but he knew that something went wrong that he didn't understand.

Q: Did the two of you ever work it out?

A: It's interesting. The biggest sign (of Charlie's mood change) was that he didn't beat the females up, which he was usually doing. And then one day, about six weeks later, I saw him and he banged on the glass which was his way of saying, 'You may be the alpha-male out there. But I'm the alpha-male in here.' He started beating up the females again and everything was back to normal.

Q: Has not having any formal training in zoology and oceanography been an advantage or a disadvantage for you?

A: The industry has changed. There was time in zoos where boards of directors felt a comfort level in having a veterinarian as the director. The worst nightmare for a zoo is Bonnie the elephant dying and somebody being blamed for it. Maybe I've just been lucky, but the places that I've worked have been places where they were looking for an outgoing person to do fund raising and public relations and to be a good manager and good planner. I think my interest in education and conservation also fit nicely.

Q: You're obviously an animal lover. Does it ever get frustrating having to be an administrator rather than an animal person?

A: I really am a people person. I do love animals and I appreciate them very much. What used to be frustrating in zoos was that the most talented people would be great with animals, but terrible with people. So they didn't make very good supervisors. They had been playing with snakes since they were 2 years old, but hardly had the social graces. But it's fun for me to be with people who love animals. If I can make their jobs richer and better and more interesting, then that's great for me.

Q: How different is it running an aquarium as opposed to a zoo?

A: One difference is that we have limited capacity. And we're getting such big crowds that we are very concerned about the quality of the experience. Zoos are laid out like a theme park, you have almost infinite space to put people. Aquariums are much more museum-like.

Q: So how do you like it here so far?

A: This has been terrific. When I came here, the aquarium already had been designed, so all my creativity has gone into the programming, the conservation programs, how to make it a reality. One of the nice things when you start an organization is you have a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to create a culture that's the best for the employees, for management, for peoples' careers. It's been a great challenge.

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