You What?

Rick Schuiteman, Executive Director, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo
Mar 3, 2021
Jeffrey Crane
You What?

Describe yourself in three words. Humble, Dedicated, Funny (or at least I think I am)

In what city did you grow up? Boston, Massachusetts. My Mother and I moved to San Diego when I was 13 where I lived for 37 years before moving to Fort Wayne in September. We still have a family home in Massachusetts, and I return for a few weeks every summer.

What is your favorite part of your job? No doubt the animals. I’m an animal lover and I first became interested in this industry because of animals. But, while I do love animals, I enjoy seeing our guests enjoy the animals as much as I do. To see them connecting and caring, is wonderful. Jack Hanna, the recently retired director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo would always say: “Touch the heart to teach the mind.” I think that’s exactly what happened to me as a young teenager first visiting SeaWorld. Now I’m an animal advocate for animals not only the animals at the Zoo but animals around the world. 

What do you actually do at your job? That’s a great question! I’ve only been on the job for a few months, so I’m still trying to figure that out! In all seriousness, I ’m only the third Executive Director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, so I take that very seriously. It’s such an honor and privilege to be leading the Zoo. I believe my role is to advance our mission, maintain a beautiful zoo, ensure we provide excellent animal care, and develop a growth plan for the future. That’s a lot of big picture things! Operationally, I focus on taking care of our team members and guests. I want to make sure they have a great experience at the Zoo. 

What is your favorite animal at the Zoo? Jim Anderson, my predecessor, would always say with a laugh that it was liking choosing your favorite child. I do have a few favorites, but don’t tell the other animals that. Right outside of office door are the Lynx. Every morning they growl and hiss at me when I come in to work. It’s quite the welcome. The giraffes are also pretty amazing. I’ve also come to enjoy the Orangutans quite a bit as well. The baby, Asmara, will come right up to the window and will play hide and seek with me. And then there are the goats! There really are so many incredible animals, it might be best to just say all of them are my favorites! Aside from the animals, there are other things I really like about the Zoo that caught my attention right away. Our Zoo is just beautiful. I love the running brooks, waterfalls, and pathways that circle about the zoo. The landscaping is so gorgeous. The boardwalk in the Indonesian Forrest that looks through the woods to the pond. It’s all so pretty. It’s the same for the animal exhibits, they are all so natural and organic. They are really well done. I also appreciate the interactive elements for children… not just the rides, which are fun, but the learning and hands-on opportunities. It’s really a great Zoo! 

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I was always interested in the television news business. Every morning my Mom would watch the morning news shows when we were getting ready for school and every night my Dad would watch the evening news and I started to become interested in the production of it all. The live news element fascinated me. To this day, I still ‘geek out’ when I get to go into a television studio for news interviews. 

What famous person would you most like to meet? At SeaWorld, we had a lot of celebrities come visit us. From Bob Hope to Justin Bieber. Both were very nice by the way, but I’d love to meet Tom Brady. I’m a huge Patriots fan and have always loved watching Tom Brady play. What a great leader on the field and off. And, by the way, you can be a Patriots fan and a Buccaneers fan at the same time. 

What do you love most about Fort Wayne? Our first visit to Fort Wayne in July 2020, we were really enamored by the feel of the City of Fort Wayne. It’s a big city with a small town feel. While eating dinner out on the patio, we saw families walking and riding bikes from the Prominade Park to Debrand for dessert. It was so great to see. We appreciated how clean the downtown was and noticed all of the great revitalization efforts happening. The city is easy to navigate and we really have liked exploring new restaurants and walking around the downtown. Everyone has been so kind and welcoming to us! Of course, I really love the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo!

What was your first job? Technically I was a paperboy for the Gloucester Daily Times in Massachusetts. I was 11 years old. I loved writing personal notes on the top of each paper “Have a great day today!” just to make people feel good. My second job, when I was 15, was at SeaWorld. They had me directing traffic in the parking lot, renting strollers, and taking tickets at the turnstiles. I worked for SeaWorld for 34 years! My last few years with SeaWorld I was the Vice President of Entertainment at the San Diego park and, until recently, on a special project for the CEO and Board of Directors working at the SeaWorld parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio on in-park branding and messaging. It was an incredible adventure. I met so many amazing people including my wife of 20+ years. 

What is your greatest accomplishment? I cried when I was told I had to repeat 2nd grade because I “wasn’t taking school very seriously.” The truth was, I was constantly struggling to understand concepts. I couldn’t read or spell very well. My math was terrible. I was so frustrated. The best way to get past it was just to be the funny kid in school. When my mother fought for additional school testing, it was determined I had a learning disability. She started to search for new schools. One school told me: “You just aren’t the right fit here.” My Mom was furious: “Are you saying he isn’t smart enough?” No answer back. I burst into tears when I got into the car. Eventually my Mother found the right place for me. A school that focused on kids with learning disabilities, specifically Dyslexia. A school that focused on individual learning techniques, which also had incredible confidence building opportunities. For many years, I felt I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or I didn’t have the skills to be impactful. But that just wasn’t true. I worked hard, I stayed dedicated and determined, and climbed the leadership latter. I’ve been able to make a positive impact on thousands of employees and entertainment and educate millions of guests. Today, I’m executive director of a world class zoo. 

Do you have a motto/saying you live by? If so, what is it? “Everything is possible for those who believe.” When we created the killer whale show, Believe back in 2006 – this was the last line in the script. The story was about a boy who wanted to work with orcas when he grew up. This was due to his love and passion for the species. It was a great story and great show, but the message was clear: if you want to do something set your heart and mind to it, you can. I felt the same about my life’s experience. Sometime later, I learned there is a verse in the Bible: Mark 9:23b. As a Christian, I believe this is true too!

What is your dream job? Is it too cliché to say I’m living it? I’m surrounded by hundreds of amazing animals. I go out and walk around our beautiful zoo every day. When the zoo is open for the season, I share these animals with thousands of people every year and get them excited about animals and protecting the wild world we share. Who wouldn’t want to work at a zoo? 

What is your biggest pet peeve? I tend to be a bit impatient, so I get frustrated when others aren’t keeping up with my pace or trying to slow me down. One of my colleagues always said: “Don’t race with Rick!” while my wife just says: “Rick, Stop!” 

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to cast as you? Matt Damon 

What would you choose as your last meal? A delicious bone-in Ribeye, baked potato with the works. Dessert would have to be an ice cream sundae with a warm chocolate chip cookie. 

Who would you like to see perform in concert? I really wish I had seen Michael Jackson in concert. That would have been amazing!

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Someplace tropical! Warm blue water. Palm trees. Beautiful beach. Warm breeze. 

If you were stranded on a deserted Island, what three things would you want (besides food and water)? I’m going to assume this is a beautiful tropical island… A Hammock, Fishing Pole, and umbrella. 

What does your workout regimen consist of? I walk. It sounds boring, but I plug in to my podcast and walk to get my 10,000 steps. My goal for 2020 was to walk every single day of the year. I got close. At the time of this interview, I’m at 100% of my goal in 2021. 

What profession would you never try? A profession where I would be required to wear a suit to work every day. 

If you could solve one major problem, what would it be? Child abuse

Where will you go on your next vacation? My family has a seasonal cottage in northern Massachusetts. It’s a pretty rustic place, but it’s been our summer place my entire life. Every year I go back to enjoy the beach, sailing, kayaking, eating sea food, enjoying old friendships, and relaxing on the water. It’s a mult-generational place: my mom spent summers there as a kid, I spent summers there as a kid, and my children have spent summers there. When you see your 12 year old son heading off on a fishing trip in an old rusty skiff with the a kid, who’s Dad you did the same thing with and on the same boat when we were 12, it’s pretty cool. A lot of history and legacy there which makes it extra special. 

If you had a time machine, where and to what time period would you travel? Growing up in Massachusetts, I was exposed to many of the historic locations of the revolutionary war. On our way to school, we would pass the Lexington Battlefield and my school was located close to many battlegrounds. We would often walk the freedom trail in Historic Boston and see house after house that was built before we became a country! If I had a time machine, I would go back to the 1700s when our country became a new nation. 

What’s one thing you can’t live without? Sweets! I have an incredible sweet tooth. Most people workout to lose weight and stay fit… I work out so I can eat more sweets! 

If you could give your 15 year-old self advice, what would it be? Travel before you get locked into a career. I was so career focused, I let trips get past me. By the age of 21, I had a full time salaried job. I worked 50+ hours a week. I wish I had taken more time to go away and explore the world. 

What’s some good advice you’ve been given relating to your job field? Many years ago a park general manager said to me: “Rick, stop watching the animals and the presentations and start watching the guests.” – What he meant was, you might enjoy watching the various presentations and the animals in the park, but do the guests? If they are smiling and engaged, great. If they look bored and uninterested, it’s not working and it’s time to make changes. So, I do both! The perfect example of this was a Christmas show we created a few years ago. The staff all loved it! We were convinced it was the best show ever. We watched the first show with big smiles and gave each other high-fives. Suddenly, mid-show, people started to walk out! We had to make some changes. 

Secret getaway? About an hour and a half East of San Diego is the Anza-Borrego Desert. It’s a small quiet desert community tucked away between a Anza-Borrego Mountains and the Salton Sea. There is one main street with a few restaurants and campsites. There are plenty of desert trails and places to explore but mostly it’s warm and quiet. We found a lovely resort there and it’s made for several special secret getaways over the years. 

What’s your biggest fear? Snakes! And I work at a Zoo!! So, I’ve spent some time with our snakes. I’m doing ok now.

What is the best gift you have ever been given? My family. I have an amazing family. I met my wife at work over 20 years ago. She’s an incredible mom to our three beautiful kids. My oldest son attends San Diego State University. My daughter in with us in Fort Wayne, attending college and my youngest is at Homestead High School. He loves to play football. We are the party of five that enjoys being together – dinners, playing games, going on vacation, going to church, and just enjoying each others company. I’m blessed! Over the years, working at a major theme park, it’s been hard to juggle family time with work. I had to work many holidays and weekends, but I work hard to find time to be with my family and attend school/sporting activities. My family is the best gift I’ve been given, I want to enjoy it!

Name one person who has inspired you in your life. My mom has been an extraordinary inspiration to me. She has always been an incredibly caring and loving parent. While growing up, she always made me the priority. She fought for me time and time again. She was always adventurous. After her wedding, she moved to Columbia for several years. She went to nursing school in her 30s. At 50, she picked up her home and moved us from Boston to San Diego without a job. She took on new hobbies and learned how to paint in her 60’s and golf in her 70’s. She loved animals, loved to laugh, and was a health hound, always walking morning and night and eating right. She was dedicated to the nursing field for decades. She was always kind to others. Today she has Alzheimer’s and sadly doesn’t recall any of the things I mentioned. Her motto in life was: “Be thoughtful, kind, and loving” – she still is… that is one thing the disease hasn’t taken from her. 

If you hosted a talk show, who would be your first guest? I’m going to have a little fun with this one… I’m going to say Jim Anderson! Jim was with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo for 44 years. 26 of them as the Director of the Zoo. That’s an incredible accomplishment. He built a world class zoo. I’ve only know Jim for a few months, but he is an incredible inspiration. When I took his job, I asked if he wouldn’t mind staying longer so I could work for him. He has incredible stories about the zoo, the mission, the animals and conservation efforts. I’d want him to share all of his great experiences on the show!

What fad do you wish would come back or stay gone forever? I’m not a fan of fads. They cost too much money and you regret the purchase a year later. Do you know how many beanie babies I purchased for my wife, then girlfriend, at the time? I still find them from time to time when I am organizing things!

If you could send a message to the entire world, what would you say in 30 seconds? My mother would always say: “Be thoughtful, kind, and loving.” I think the world could use a bunch of all three. 

If you had to teach someone one thing, what would you teach? I’ve always been passionate about customer service. Taking care of the customer – making sure they have what they need – be kind and friendly – and make sure they leave satisfied with their experience. Those are all positive things that are meaningful. But, it’s not just about the business and your customers, it’s about every day life. Shouldn’t we treat everyone we meet the same way? 

When was the last time you tried something new? I’ve lived in San Diego for 37 years and worked at SeaWorld for 34 years. I was furloughed in April 2020 due to the COVID-19. I decided to try something new. I applied for a job as the executive director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana and now, here I am in Fort Wayne! I think that qualifies as trying something new? 

What gets you excited and driven to achieve? I love being a part of a project from start to finish. I love the creative phase and project development. I love to help build and manage the project until it is shared. It’s so gratifying to see others use it and love it, just as much as I do. 

Do you have any guilty pleasures? What are they? I’m a gamer. I was first introduced to games during the Atari and Intellevison days. We didn’t have any gaming systems at home (My Mom was against any sort of TV activity) but my friends did. Today, I like to play the game Fortnite. I’m terrible at it, but it’s still fun. At night, after the kids go to bed, I’ll play some Fortnite just to relax. Don’t judge me. 

What is your favorite…

Vacation spot? Essex, Massachusetts 

Holiday? Why? Halloween. It’s that one time of year when all of the kids go out in the neighborhood, in a costume, and knock on doors. It’s also probably the one time of year people answer the doors… and give them candy. If you were to try to explain that to someone that didn’t know what Halloween was, they would look at you funny. 

Sports team? New England Patriots! I grew up in Boston, so it makes sense, but when Tom Brand moved to Tampa, we just added the Buccaneers to our “favorite sports team” list. He is amazing! 

Song? In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. 

Drink? Flavored Water

Candy? Kit Kat 

Music? 80s music

Pizza? Meatlovers

Season? Fall

Fort Wayne feature? The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, of course!

Fast food restaurant? In n Out 

TV show? Kid friendly = Brady Bunch. Wife friendly = Modern Family, Me friendly = Game of Thrones

Hobby? I like to be in the water or on the water. Swimming, motor boating, kayaking, sailing. 

Flavor of ice cream? Chocolate Carmel

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