Q1: How did your career path lead you to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo?
In 1976, during my second year as music major at IU Bloomington, I was home in Fort Wayne for spring break to look for a summer job. By serendipity or divine intervention, I drove down Sherman Boulevard, and there was the Zoo. I thought, “that would be interesting.” Forty-six years later, I’m still here.
That first summer I cared for animals, drove the train, mowed grass and cleaned restrooms. I loved being part of a motivated team caring for amazing creatures and creating an experience that guests clearly wanted and cherished. The more I worked at the Zoo, the more I liked it. And the more Zoos I visited – somewhere over a hundred -- the more I realized what a great experience we offer guests at our Zoo. As our family grew and our Zoo grew, it was an easy choice to remain in Fort Wayne.
Q2: What has been your greatest moment of joy while working at the Zoo?
If you approach it right, almost every day brings another “greatest moment of joy.” Witnessing a few giraffe births has been amazing. Helping a work team get past a challenge or make progress is always a joy. I met my wife at the Zoo, so that has led to many moments of joy! If you wait for that “greatest moment,” however, you may miss lots of smaller ones. Any day, any hour I can walk out into the Zoo and see our mission happening, as we connect kids and animals, strengthen families and inspire people to care. It happens here all day long. That is joyful.
Q3: Any particular points of pride?
Attracting 600,000 guests per year – in Fort Wayne, Indiana – is pretty amazing! The quality of our animal care and guest experience is exemplary. The Zoo has grown from seven developed acres to 40, and everything you see at the Zoo was built with donated money. This is stunning, visible evidence of the generosity and support of our community.
Guests may never see many of our important activities. We provide dedicated daily animal care 365 days per year, including a full veterinary program. We conduct formal education programs for 26,000 people per year. We maintain 40 acres of facilities. Last year we invested $280,000 with 30 conservation partners around the world, helping save lions, orangutans and gibbons. 450 active volunteers donated 42,000 hours of time last year!
The Zoo enjoys the talents and resources of many, many volunteers and employees, and we combine all our commitment and passion to serve hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Q4: Things have been very different for the Zoo this season amid the pandemic, what challenges has the Zoo faced?
This has been a weird summer, for sure. First, I would like to acknowledge our amazing employee team for working brilliantly through all stages of this pandemic. Our teams have accomplished excellent work and adapted to constantly shifting conditions. When the governor asked Hoosiers to shelter in place, many of our team members continued their important work at the Zoo. Animal welfare was unaffected by the pandemic. Education programs were taken online, with many new resources created. Our teams didn’t miss a beat.
Second, it feels like our operating paradigm has changed every week. To comply with state guidelines, we opened two months late, installed timed ticketing and limited attendance. We changed programs, policies and physical facilities. We bought lots of hand sanitizer! These actions allowed us to open the Zoo and host guests, but they also dramatically decreased our guest-generated revenue. We will operate around $3 million in the red this year. It has been a tricky balancing act for the staff, but we are proud to be open and serving the community. We will be happy to see the words “face mask” fade from common lexicon some day.
Q5: How can our readers support and/or get involved with the Zoo?
Every reader should become a member of the Zoo! Register as a new member or renew your membership -- it’s a 90-second action at our website. Members receive free admission for a year, plus other great benefits. Donate! Everything you see at the Zoo was built with donated funds. The generosity of our community is amazing. Visit! We want to share our animals and our passion with you. Follow us on social media! We post great new content every day.
Even after 56 years, many people do not realize that our Zoo operates without government support. This is almost unprecedented among the 240 accredited Zoos in North America. All our operating costs must be covered by earned or donated revenue, so every single act of support from guests, members and donors is essential for us to do what we do. The success of our Zoo is directly dependent upon the generosity of the people who use the Zoo.
Q6: What are you looking forward to most in after you step down as Zoo director?
After 46 years of going to work at the same place, it is a little hard to imagine the next phase, but I am looking forward to it. Serving as Head Monkey is fun, but life in the jungle has its ups and downs. It will be nice not to have to juggle quite so many balls every day. I will look forward to lingering for a second or third cup of coffee on the back patio in the morning. Life-long learning will have to continue. My wife and I look forward to connecting more frequently with our five kids … in California, Oregon, Utah, Bloomington and Italy – and exploring along the way. Anytime our family is together is a good time. That is a high priority.
Q7: What advice would you offer to your successor?
Enjoy working with an amazing team to continue serving Fort Wayne and advancing our mission. Honor traditions but keep improving. Take the Zoo to the next level! Appreciate the opportunity. Have fun.
Q8: What can you and your family be found doing in your free time?
Always look for us outside … Gardening and landscaping in the backyard – I like hostas and hydrangeas! — walking the neighborhood paths, riding bikes on the Greenway, walking the Bicentennial Trail, paddling a kayak at Chain-O-Lakes. I say, “always stick a book in your backpack...” because you never know when you might have a chance to read a couple more chapters. We will try to visit the rest of the national parks that we haven’t seen yet, hike mountain trails, shuffle along sandy beaches… We will probably visit the Zoo, too!