interview condensed and edited by Wes Watson
Do you have the best job in the world? Or do you daydream about being an accountant?
Yeah, I’d say it probably is, especially if you’re an animal lover and you’re creative. My position has a lot to do with creating habitats or unique places for people to observe animals, and that’s very exciting.
I couldn’t ask this in most interviews, but do you have a favorite animal?
You almost feel like that’s not allowed. I think I have lots of favorites. I would say it has to do with that animal’s characteristics or personality because it’s a broad range. But birds are my specialty. I grew up raising birds from the time I was 10 years old. So
I have a lot of experience with birds.
I would say the Asian one-horned rhino is one of my favorite animals that I would like to get for this zoo.
And then there is cassowary (a large, flightless bird). They’re a kind of an unbelievable, sturdy, fearless animal. I think they’re pretty amazing.
There are so many great animals.
Are there any animals at the zoo the staff know to stay clear of?
I guess there are animals that are unpredictable. Then you feel almost comfortable that you can go in with them. And we might, but we have like a riot shield with us – as with the cassowary. They can do you damage. And they can be your friend. They can take a grape out of your fingers, you know, very gently. They can also kick you to the ground in a flash.
We hope to get king cobras, and they’re an amazing animal. If you go in the back with king cobras they really are kind of watching you clean other cages, sweep the floor. They feel very much like they’re an alien. Like there’s some odd connection compared to other snakes.
You’re developing this new reptile enclosure. What will that entail?
It’s actually a renovation of a 1974 original reptile house. We’re adding a crocodile room onto that, which is a 1,200-square-foot room with underwater viewing. We’re adding outdoor aviaries so the monkeys that were inside behind glass can go outside through little monkey doors throughout the year. And then we’re adding a small conservatory, so it’ll be like a little tropical house in there.
That opens this summer. That’ll be remarkable.
Are there any other animals that are coming that you know of?
There will be some rare turtle species. I think we’re going to add 12 venomous snakes to the collection. Those are various rattlesnakes. There’s a venomous snake called the mangrove snake that’s one of my favorites. It’s a black- and-yellow-banded snake, but they get really big, like 8 feet long.
We have our corridor of giant reptile exhibits – there are seven of those. Those will feature monitor (lizards) that get up to 8 feet long. We have some 16-foot Burmese pythons now. So there’ll be kind of the whole array of mini things to the biggest reptiles you can see.
Who draws short straw? Who gets the job of taking care of some of those more dangerous animals?
Reptile people are very much into what they do. And they’re fearless. I think it’s amazing that they take a venomous snake and move it around. They’ve got lots of experience and skill. They’re into it all, feeding them whatever they feed them to handling them. We have three very experienced reptile keepers now, and they get right in there and do everything that’s needed.
Now with a cobra, you shift it like you would a tiger. You train that cobra to leave its big exhibit here and go through a little hole in the wall and go into a lockup room. That’s kind of amazing. That’s something I didn’t know until about 10 years ago. I was like, “What is that hole for there?” They train them to go over here to a vault that’s locked up, so they can service their exhibit.
So they must be pretty intelligent then?
Yeah, it’s pretty remarkable how they feed them. We don’t have cobras yet, because we have to get the anti-venom first.
Your tigers are practically teenagers now, right?
Yeah, about 2 years old.
How long is life expectancy for tigers?
Just like a house cat. At 15, 13 they’re considered old. But we have two cubs that are about 2 years old. Now their father, I think he’s, like, 5.
So where do you see the zoo’s role in protecting endangered species?
We work collectively with 234 other accredited zoos in the country, so we manage those gene pools of animals together. There are committees of experts. We follow their recommendations and guidelines. That’s the only thing that will maintain the long-term survivability of those species in captivity, because it’s pure and clean and proper gene pool of animals for potential release back into the wild, if there were safe parts of the habitat to send them to.
Could you have imagined 30 years ago that you’d be hosting beer events at the zoo? Is that a beneficial relationship?
Yeah, beer makes the world go ’round now.
I was not a believer because I was not a beer person. I know what I like. But it’s kind of funny – in the early days it was like, is beer taking over wine? But it is the whole social aspect. It’s tons of fun. And then everything else that’s happened that’s kind of cooler – more from various eclectic menus, to food trucks to beer coming in.
I work our Growl Fest where I pour beer. I like this wheat beer that has grapefruit in it. It’s excellent. That’s the station I try to work. But yeah,
I would never have imagined how much beer contributes to the party. In my day, you bought a six-pack or a 12-pack and you drank that at the party. Now, I don’t think you can even drink six of these beers.