THE face of the biggest overhaul ever at the Assiniboine Park Zoo is leaving his job, the zoo announced Wednesday.
Tim Sinclair-Smith, director of zoological operations, leaves just as major drawing cards in the project, such as the Journey to Churchill exhibit, are about to be rolled out to the public.
Sinclair-Smith, his wife and 22-month-old son are returning to their native Australia and their extended family.
Sinclair-Smith was hired in June 2011 and was expected to oversee the zoo during its $90-million reconstruction.
A brief statement from the zoo's corporate board made the surprise announcement.
"Tim's contributions to our success to date are too many to mention," said Margaret Redmond, president of the non-profit Assiniboine Park Conservancy, which runs the zoo.
"He brought a great deal of knowledge to (us) and a love for connecting people with animals that endeared him to our community right away -- he will definitely be missed and we will take great care in finding his successor."
The conservancy lauded Sinclair-Smith's key role in the zoo's redevelopment plans, including the signature Journey to Churchill exhibit now under construction and set to open in 2014. It includes an international component with SeaWorld and Busch Gardens for Arctic research and conservation.
This winter, Sinclair-Smith helped bring Journey to Churchill's first permanent resident to Manitoba -- Hudson the polar bear.
In an interview, Sinclair-Smith said it's hard to leave but his son comes first and at 22 months, the toddler has never even met his relatives.
"The important thing to know is this is a family decision. You have a wonderful team of people here and we're all close friends, almost family. And there have been a few tears. It was a tough decision but no one can fault me for putting my family first," Sinclair-Smith said.
His wife has lined up a job as a high school teacher but he's going to be a stay-at-home dad for now, he said.
The conservancy expects to open a recruitment process as early as next week to find a replacement, first by spreading the word through the industry in Canada and the United States.
"There are times when career aspirations and family priorities are in conflict and I respect Tim's decision that his family has to come first," said Don Peterkin, the conservancy's chief operations officer.