Lessons from the Zoo, Introduction, Part 2

In 1978, I learned that Bob Bean, my old boss from Busch Gardens, was looking for a general curator at his zoo in Louisville, Kentucky. I took the job in hopes that it would advance my career and save my broken marriage. My career flourished. My marriage did not. When my divorce was finalized in 1984, I moved back to Tampa—this time to direct the Lowry Park Zoo and to, once again, help build a new zoo. I also married the love of my life and began a lifelong partnership with Louisville zoo volunteer, Karen Liebert.

The cages I inherited at Lowry Park were mostly chain-link boxes of various sizes that housed lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars, bears, and primates. Two chimpanzees, Herman and Gitta, lived behind iron bars covered with heavy fencing that rendered them almost invisible, while otters and alligators swam in water-filled pits. Shena, the lone elephant, was confined to a small pen with a shelter about the size of a two-car garage.

It was a grim place, but by late 1985, money had been raised and construction began on a new zoo. For nearly three years, workers poured concrete, sculpted artificial rocks, and installed caging until we were finally able to plant grass, test waterfalls, and move animals into their new homes. One of the highlights of my zoo career came in the winter of 1988 when I witnessed Herman and Gitta step out of their new night house and walk on grass for the first time in many years.

Karen and I saw the completion of the Lowry Park Zoo in 1988, then moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I managed the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum of Natural History for a couple of years. By that time, we had led two trips to Africa, and she was expecting our first (and my fourth) son. When the Toledo Zoo announced it was looking for a deputy director, we jumped at the chance to move closer to family.

If I had to name a favorite zoo, it would be the Toledo Zoo. When I first visited there in the summer of 1991, it struck me as a unique blend of historic old structures and cutting-edge new animal exhibits. The thirty-acre site was compact and filled with interest. Intense, colorful plantings accentuated the architecture of ornate brick and stone buildings. It billed itself as America’s most complete zoo because of its museum, aquarium, and plant conservatory. It had a reputation for developing the latest in immersive zoo exhibits like the African Savanna with its one-of-a-kind Hippoquarium.

From my first project, the three-million-dollar Kingdom of the Apes that opened in 1993, to my final project, the Arctic Encounter that opened in early 2000, Toledo was a whirlwind of animal experiences. I traveled to Africa, South America, and Europe. I encountered Beluga whales and polar bears in the Arctic and stepped over blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands. But after ten years in Toledo, I had the bright idea I wanted to retire from the zoo business and open a home inspection franchise in South Carolina. For some reason, that never took off. Maybe it was a combination of poor business acumen and the fact that the first day of my training took place on 9/11/2001.

The final stop on my zoo odyssey began in June 2004 when I re-entered the zoo world to take over a 700-acre park and zoo in Albany, Georgia, known as Chehaw. We revitalized a small zoo when we brought in black rhinos, flamingos, and cheetahs. I learned the importance of harvesting pine trees sustainably and maintaining the pine savanna woodlands of South Georgia by intentionally setting them on fire. Finally, at the end of 2015, I officially retired and found myself a part-time gig driving a mule wagon at a local quail hunting lodge.

In my career, I have traveled the world working with animals and viewing them in the wild. The number of animals I have encountered is beyond measure. I have watched animals being born and seen them take their last breath. I received animals that were rescued and brought to zoos as orphans from the wild, helped nurse them through sickness, and watched their lives unfold over decades.

I have had an impact on the lives of countless animals at seven different zoos, but they have had an impact on my life, as well. They have quite literally changed my life. So, back to the question, “What is my favorite animal?” I can’t name just one, but I can think of ten that are on the short-list.

Next week: Lesson 1, Showdown with an Elephant

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