May 9th 2014 | President

Karen Sausman

Although Karen’s degree is in computer science, she started her animal career working with horses in the Chicago area. She was able to land a volunteer job at the Lincoln Park Zoo working in the zoo nursery, which eventually lead to part-time keeper work.
© Caravette Productions Ltd.

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Well, my name is Karen Sausman. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, and on November 26th, 1945.

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Well, my name is Karen Sausman. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, and on November 26th, 1945.

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What are some of your earliest memories of zoos?

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What are some of your earliest memories of zoos?

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My very earliest memories is of Lincoln Park Zoo, and of the rookery as we were not a very wealthy family. Indeed, we were quite a poor family, and so the zoo was free and we lived on the Near North Side. So, I think I was predisposed to wind up being in the zoo business because I was at the zoo almost every weekend because it was a free place where my dad could take me.

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My very earliest memories is of Lincoln Park Zoo, and of the rookery as we were not a very wealthy family. Indeed, we were quite a poor family, and so the zoo was free and we lived on the Near North Side. So, I think I was predisposed to wind up being in the zoo business because I was at the zoo almost every weekend because it was a free place where my dad could take me.

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Did you have a favorite animal at the zoo that impressed you?

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Did you have a favorite animal at the zoo that impressed you?

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As I got older, oddly enough, I always loved the antelope. I could walk, maybe because they were kinda built like horses and I liked horses, but I used to walk the antelope string a lot, and particularly when I could go to the zoo on my own.

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As I got older, oddly enough, I always loved the antelope. I could walk, maybe because they were kinda built like horses and I liked horses, but I used to walk the antelope string a lot, and particularly when I could go to the zoo on my own.

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Now, tell us a little about, maybe the family life, what’d your father do for a living?

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Now, tell us a little about, maybe the family life, what’d your father do for a living?

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I was an only child and my dad worked as a production manager for Curt Teich Postcard Company on Irving Park. And my mom periodically worked out of the home, but most of the time she was home.

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I was an only child and my dad worked as a production manager for Curt Teich Postcard Company on Irving Park. And my mom periodically worked out of the home, but most of the time she was home.

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Did they influence you in any wave toward animals or was just your exposure at the zoo something that brought you in a certain direction toward nature?

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Did they influence you in any wave toward animals or was just your exposure at the zoo something that brought you in a certain direction toward nature?

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I think it was mostly the exposure at the zoo was my, my mother certainly was not interested in anything to do with animals, domestic or otherwise. And my dad was too busy working to worry about it, but I always had this love, although I was not allowed, we lived in a one room apartment. And so, there was certainly no room for animals and my mom didn’t ever encourage animals, and then when we moved to a larger home near Des Plaines, again, she had no interest in having any animals in the house of any kind.

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I think it was mostly the exposure at the zoo was my, my mother certainly was not interested in anything to do with animals, domestic or otherwise. And my dad was too busy working to worry about it, but I always had this love, although I was not allowed, we lived in a one room apartment. And so, there was certainly no room for animals and my mom didn’t ever encourage animals, and then when we moved to a larger home near Des Plaines, again, she had no interest in having any animals in the house of any kind.

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Were you were walking distance to the zoo or were you, did you have to physically get transported?

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Were you were walking distance to the zoo or were you, did you have to physically get transported?

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I had to have transport ’cause we were at a Lincoln & Montrose. So, it was a ways away. And when you were at the zoo as younger, did you know about Marlin Perkins and… Absolutely.

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I had to have transport ’cause we were at a Lincoln & Montrose. So, it was a ways away. And when you were at the zoo as younger, did you know about Marlin Perkins and… Absolutely.

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Did you watch him on television?

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Did you watch him on television?

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Yes, once we could afford a TV. I used to watch him on television, you bet. Absolutely.

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Yes, once we could afford a TV. I used to watch him on television, you bet. Absolutely.

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So, you knew he was the director of the zoo and- Did you ever bring home animals or you weren’t allowed?

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So, you knew he was the director of the zoo and- Did you ever bring home animals or you weren’t allowed?

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Weren’t allowed. No, that was forbidden.

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Weren’t allowed. No, that was forbidden.

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Can you tell me something about your schooling?

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Can you tell me something about your schooling?

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Well, I went to public schools and then once I finished high school, I knew I needed to get a college degree. Again, there weren’t any funds for such things so I started working, but unlike most young gals, instead of babysitting and doing things like that, I, by that point we were living in Des Plaines area, I started working for a dog kennel. I decided to get my dogs and my animals one way or the other. So, instead of babysitting, I made money working in a dog kennel and saving money to go to college. So, I went to first two years to something that probably doesn’t exist anymore, it was called Chicago Teacher’s College. And because it was essentially as cheap as you could go and get at least the first couple of years of education. And so, I went there. By that time I was driving, had my own car.

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And so I drove to that and then after the first two years, I kept saving money and then transferred to Loyola, and I wanted to, planning to be a math major because at that point, although I, by that age, I knew I really wanted to work somehow with animals, I also knew that there wasn’t any career in animals for young ladies. So, I decided I’d be a math major. I was good with numbers. And so I went to Loyola. I wound up at Loyola at the Water Tower. And while I was there, I was still visiting Lincoln Park Zoo on a routine basis, but I was also at that point earning money to go to school, riding, exercising horses, and still working with dogs (chuckles). Tell me about the horses, though.

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And so I drove to that and then after the first two years, I kept saving money and then transferred to Loyola, and I wanted to, planning to be a math major because at that point, although I, by that age, I knew I really wanted to work somehow with animals, I also knew that there wasn’t any career in animals for young ladies. So, I decided I’d be a math major. I was good with numbers. And so I went to Loyola. I wound up at Loyola at the Water Tower. And while I was there, I was still visiting Lincoln Park Zoo on a routine basis, but I was also at that point earning money to go to school, riding, exercising horses, and still working with dogs (chuckles). Tell me about the horses, though.

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How did you evolve into working with horses?

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How did you evolve into working with horses?

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That started when I was very young again, in that Chicago Near North Side flat. We were still in a neighborhood where the ice man delivered ice for the ice boxes. And he delivered them in a wagon drawn by a horse. And my dad knew the ice man, and knew where he stabled his horses. And I’ll never forget the gentleman’s name because I, my dad would take me there too ’cause I was happy there and it was free, and the ice man would let me ride around on his horses. And ultimately, both the ice gentlemen named Mr. Rody, moved out towards Des Plaines and we then moved out towards Des Plaines, and then he introduced me, Mr. Rody, to other people who had horses and told them I loved horses and I love to ride, and so he wound up introducing me to Henry Silverman’s trainer and he had Delaney Farms, which was over near sort of the Nile’s Park Ridge area off of Golf Road, not too far. So, I used to exercise his Saddlebreds for money.

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That started when I was very young again, in that Chicago Near North Side flat. We were still in a neighborhood where the ice man delivered ice for the ice boxes. And he delivered them in a wagon drawn by a horse. And my dad knew the ice man, and knew where he stabled his horses. And I’ll never forget the gentleman’s name because I, my dad would take me there too ’cause I was happy there and it was free, and the ice man would let me ride around on his horses. And ultimately, both the ice gentlemen named Mr. Rody, moved out towards Des Plaines and we then moved out towards Des Plaines, and then he introduced me, Mr. Rody, to other people who had horses and told them I loved horses and I love to ride, and so he wound up introducing me to Henry Silverman’s trainer and he had Delaney Farms, which was over near sort of the Nile’s Park Ridge area off of Golf Road, not too far. So, I used to exercise his Saddlebreds for money.

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But later you were doing some teaching in the Lincoln Park area?

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But later you were doing some teaching in the Lincoln Park area?

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Yes. Because I was exercising Saddlebreds, when I went to Loyola and entered Loyola, I had to meet with a counselor to look at my current credits, and I also had to convince the powers that be at Loyola that I could only take morning classes ’cause I had to work in the afternoons and evenings. Otherwise I couldn’t be there ’cause I had to put myself through school. And so, I met with this Jesuit priest about my class schedule and he said, “What do you want to do for physical education classes?” And I said, “Well, frankly, I try never to take any ’cause I don’t have the time.” And he said, “Well,” he said, “But what do you enjoy doing?” And I said, “Well, I ride horses.” And he said, “I would love to give horseback riding as a class at Loyola.” He said, “Would you do that?” And I kinda looked at him blankly and I said, “Well, what do you mean would I do that?” And he said, “Well, if we can arrange it, and we can find a stable, could you teach horseback riding and you’ll get your college credit?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I guess so.” So, we went down off of Cannon Street and there was this old stable in this three story building, and so three times a week I would teach horseback riding, which, and when I was waiting often between my last school class down at the Water Tower and out there, I’d just hang out in the lion house and stay warm and get to know the keeper staff. And eventually they said, “Well, if you need a job, you ought to try workin’ around here.” Well, I got a volunteer job. We’re gonna get back to that in a second. that’s how I wound up teaching horseback riding for Loyola. Now, you mentioned the kennel, that you were working in a kennel.

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Yes. Because I was exercising Saddlebreds, when I went to Loyola and entered Loyola, I had to meet with a counselor to look at my current credits, and I also had to convince the powers that be at Loyola that I could only take morning classes ’cause I had to work in the afternoons and evenings. Otherwise I couldn’t be there ’cause I had to put myself through school. And so, I met with this Jesuit priest about my class schedule and he said, “What do you want to do for physical education classes?” And I said, “Well, frankly, I try never to take any ’cause I don’t have the time.” And he said, “Well,” he said, “But what do you enjoy doing?” And I said, “Well, I ride horses.” And he said, “I would love to give horseback riding as a class at Loyola.” He said, “Would you do that?” And I kinda looked at him blankly and I said, “Well, what do you mean would I do that?” And he said, “Well, if we can arrange it, and we can find a stable, could you teach horseback riding and you’ll get your college credit?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I guess so.” So, we went down off of Cannon Street and there was this old stable in this three story building, and so three times a week I would teach horseback riding, which, and when I was waiting often between my last school class down at the Water Tower and out there, I’d just hang out in the lion house and stay warm and get to know the keeper staff. And eventually they said, “Well, if you need a job, you ought to try workin’ around here.” Well, I got a volunteer job. We’re gonna get back to that in a second. that’s how I wound up teaching horseback riding for Loyola. Now, you mentioned the kennel, that you were working in a kennel.

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Were you learning any life lessons at the kennel while you were working there that stood you in good stead?

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Were you learning any life lessons at the kennel while you were working there that stood you in good stead?

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I mean… I imagine the first life lesson that I learned, which didn’t seem to be much of a lesson at the time, but I guess it might’ve been, is that these animals are totally dependent on us. And so, doing a good job, making sure they’re properly cared for, noticing whether they’re sick, ’cause these were big breeding kennels, a big Doberman Pincher and Great Dane kennel in one case. And then in my later, last couple of years at the college, an Italian Greyhound and Whippet kennel. Well, I actually lived onsite. And you had to learn to look at those animals and see if they were all right, because they weren’t under feet like our pet dogs. These were kennel dogs and keeping them really clean and keeping, being aware of their temperaments, being aware of whether they looked a little off that day. So, I learned pretty quick.

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I mean… I imagine the first life lesson that I learned, which didn’t seem to be much of a lesson at the time, but I guess it might’ve been, is that these animals are totally dependent on us. And so, doing a good job, making sure they’re properly cared for, noticing whether they’re sick, ’cause these were big breeding kennels, a big Doberman Pincher and Great Dane kennel in one case. And then in my later, last couple of years at the college, an Italian Greyhound and Whippet kennel. Well, I actually lived onsite. And you had to learn to look at those animals and see if they were all right, because they weren’t under feet like our pet dogs. These were kennel dogs and keeping them really clean and keeping, being aware of their temperaments, being aware of whether they looked a little off that day. So, I learned pretty quick.

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So what kind of jobs did you have at the kennel?

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So what kind of jobs did you have at the kennel?

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Well, I was just some cleanup, feed ’em, clean ’em, and then eventually show them, go to the dog shows with them on the weekends, and either just assist or if they needed me to go in and handle the dog and show the dogs for ’em.

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Did that carry showing the dogs carry over and as you continued your life?

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Yeah, I stayed enjoying dog shows and still just finished showing my last groups of dogs a few years ago and said, “Okay, I think now I don’t need to do this anymore, but yeah.” you mentioned that you would hang out at the lion house at Lincoln Park Zoo and the staff is saying, “Hey, why don’t you get a job here?” How did you get a job at Lincoln Park Zoo?

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Well, there was young lady that I had come to know. I don’t even know where we met at this point. I can’t even remember, but we’d known each other a long time, and her name was Susie Reef. And Susie was at the zoo and Susie said to me, “Since you’re hangin’ out in the lion house, let’s see if we can’t get you in as a volunteer to start.” And so, she put in the word and I guess I passed inspection because I did have enough animal knowledge to be a useful volunteer, and I was willing to work the odd funny hours. And so, started out in the nursery and then eventually just kinda got bounced around wherever they needed me, but a lot of it was in the nursery because again, I was still going to school and I was trying to fit in my other paying jobs as well, because I needed the money (chuckles).

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Were there are a lot of volunteers at the zoo at the time?

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There were a handful and they were mostly older gals that were volunteering. And then there was the zoo attendants, like Pat that were working in the children’s zoo. And then I started, I liked reptiles. I think I liked reptiles ’cause the building was nice and warm anyway, and so, Eddie Armandarez would show me the reptiles and then I remember, as you spent a lot of time there with him when I wasn’t doing other things at the zoo.

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So, as you were traveling around to these various places they would put you, were you doing keeper jobs?

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I was doing miscellaneous keeper jobs, just kinda helping the keepers, carry the bucket, tilt the load, go check this, go look at that.

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And what kind of zoo did you find when you first got there?

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How would you describe it?

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Well, I mean, to me at that point in time, it was this big, wonderful place. It was older, the buildings were older, but they didn’t strike me at that point of being, knowing what we know today, they didn’t strike me as being inefficient or inappropriate in any way. Yeah, I thought some of the… Having come from the dog kennel side, the big cat cages just looked like giant dog kennels to me. But I thought as long as you could give some stimulation to the creatures, it was what there was and I didn’t think one way or the other about it as being a good experience for the visitor or the public or bad experience. I just thought that’s what a zoo was. And you’re a volunteer. How did you work into a, “We’ll pay you money?” Because I was willing to do some night shifts and things like that.

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And when they said, okay, but I didn’t get much money and I didn’t do it very often.

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So, you can- you a paying position for a part-time job?

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Oh, yeah, part-time ’cause again, I was in school the whole time I was there.

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So, you’re still doing the same type of work, but yet, but now being paid?

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Yes. Okay. And did you- It went on for a couple of years, but it was always part-time. And you mentioned that you also were working at the lighthouse with the signs. Was that part of your- Well, I wound up because it was in proximity. I would do anything that anybody asked me to do. And I mean, I volunteered to do the sign work, because somebody asked me if I knew how to use the machine and I said, no, I don’t, but if somebody would show me, I’ll do it. I loved the environment.

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I just was happy to be at the zoo, you know?

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And so if they told me, go out and rake the lawn or sweep the sidewalks, I said, “Fine, whatever.” How did this time at Lincoln Park Zoo, you said you were studying to be a mathematician, influence your career decision to work in zoos?

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Well, I was, I guess I’ve always been a very pragmatic person. I was studying to be a mathematician because I knew I could get a job. I didn’t ever think I could ever get a job in zoos, or I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be in zoos. I knew I wanted to work with animals. And I also knew I didn’t want to be a veterinarian because that was usually the career choice, “Oh, I wanna work with animals. I’ll be a vet.” Well, I knew I didn’t really wanna be a vet. I didn’t think I was cut out to be a vet. And I think that said to this day would be true ’cause I wouldn’t have been a very good vet, ’cause I got too emotionally involved in the patient and that would be counterproductive, but I didn’t know what else I could do in animals at that point.

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So, I always thought it would probably be a hobby at best, because again, I knew I had to put food on the table and support myself. So, my undergraduate degree, which was going to be in math was the way I thought I’d support myself. And then from there I could go, maybe I’d go into the park service. I didn’t know what I, I just knew had to have something with animals and nature.

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So, do you have any specific memories of Lincoln Park Zoo, the people, things maybe that were unique that you were allowed to do that you think fondly of?

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Well, I mean, a lot of the babies that I helped raise in the nursery gave me wonderful experiences, and bottle raising things and watching them grow up and having some satisfaction that I helped these little creatures grow and we’d have a lot of fun. I also remember thinking I’d been killed by Frank, the baby gorilla, ’cause he decked me one day in the nursery, right onto that terrazzo floor. And I thought I was dead and he thought I was dead. He thought he’d killed his mother. And he was screaming and I’m laid out on the floor and the public is looking at me and they’re thinking, “Is she really okay?” And I’m laying there thinking, “I have to get off this floor. I have to find out if I can even move.” And so, I’ve fond memories of a lot of the little critters that we raised, and then pranks we would play on each other, occasionally. Eddie was a good prankster and- Give me a prank you remember. Eddie froze a…

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We had a Cobra die. So, Eddie went through the misery of taking this Cobra and somehow freezing it into a striking position, and then he put it in the refrigerator and when you opened the refrigerator, you were met by a striking Cobra, which caused a lot of consternation among people when they open the refrigerator, to say the least (chuckles).

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Was Eddie one of, or who were your mentors?

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Eddie was definitely, took me under his wing. And ’cause he saw I actually really liked reptiles. I mean, I liked furry things, but I also really liked the reptiles. And so, and again, I was the only, I was there at odd hours of the day and night and I probably wasn’t there more than 10 hours in any week because of school schedules and this and that. So, but I always remember him most fondly. You mentioned that you had a little mishap in the nursery with Frank. He must have been, if he was a nursery, a smaller gorilla.

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How did that occur?

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Well, he and there was a young female that had come in, Debbie, but Frank was probably about two years old, so he was maybe 24 inches tall, but he’s just a little ball of muscle and he was out having playtime on the floor, and he had gotten into, discovered that if he climbed his little play chain up towards the ceiling, he could reach the light bulbs, and if he could reach the light bulbs, he could squish the light bulbs, and cause consternation to say the least. And so, he was on the floor and he was eyeing the light bulbs. He was looking up and looking at me and looking up, and I, without much thought sort of wagged my finger at him, reached out and I said, “Don’t you do that,” and he grabbed my wrist and he was below me, of course. He grabbed my wrist and flicked me over his shoulder. And I literally went flying through the air and landed on the terrazzo floor. And I thought for a second that I might’ve been dead, and then I thought I might’ve broken every bone in my body. And I remember amongst the volunteers in there that our job was to smile and show no blood because a lot of times these bottle babies would nip us and this and that and we were always to remain composed, even if we were being decapitated or chewed on by something. And so, I’m laying there, I’m thinking, “I’m not supposed to scream or yell, I’m not supposed to yell for help.

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I have to figure out how,” and he was screaming his head, and he was scared to death. He had suddenly in his mind murdered one of his mothers. So, I knew I had to sit up and so I finally sat up and comforted him. And meanwhile, I’m wiggling my toes and wiggling my legs to see if it’s all gonna work, and then I’m going to see if I can get up because I didn’t even have a radio on. It was sittin’ on the counter.

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So, I finally got up and crawled quietly, went over to the radio and said, “I think somebody better come over here and give me a hand for a minute.” Who was the director at the time?

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Was he a new director at the time?

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Yes, he was fairly new ’cause Marlin had just left for St. Louis.

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So you never worked for Marlin?

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No. No.

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Now you got your degree in mathematics, correct?

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Well, it wound up to be in computer science. That’s a whole different story, but I got my degree from Loyola, yeah. Undergraduate degree and then I left town. I actually didn’t even stay for the ceremony of walking down the aisle and getting the piece of paper. I said, “Mail it to me (chuckles).” Back up.

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How did you change?

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Why did you decide to change?

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I actually didn’t decide to change. As you’re aware and I assume still is, Loyola’s a Jesuit university, and at it had just become co-ed a few years before I entered it. And I took my first math classes there at that level of junior level. So, and it turned out that that class was being taught by the head of the math department who was a Jesuit priest. And I was always good in math, but I couldn’t pass a test of his. I just couldn’t pass one. And I kept getting Ds and virtually, nearly failing grades on tests and I could not figure out what was going on because my answers were correct. And so, I went into him and I said, “Father, I don’t understand why I’m getting these grades.

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My answers are accurate.” And he said to me, “Loyola has never graduated a woman math major, and you will not be the first, so I would suggest you change your major because in order to graduate as a math major from Loyola, you’re going to have to pass my classes and you’re not going to pass them.” So, I thought about that for a little while and thought to myself, “Well, I only have two alternatives here, three, I guess. I can quit college altogether, I can go find another college or I can change my major.” And so, I changed my major. And so, I went into computer science and at that point I just needed a major to get done, to get out. And so, I did computer science and education, which, ’cause again, I figured I could eat either way. So, you graduated.

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What was your next move?

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Well, my next move was the day of my last final exam, which was in the winter. I didn’t like school. I never liked school. I didn’t like high school and I didn’t particularly like college. They were just things that I had to do in order to be a productive member of society and to be able to work. So, I got out of high school in three years and I got out of college in three and a half years ’cause it took me an extra half year because of the major change. So, I was 19 and a half when I finished college and I was graduating in the middle in December, and it was doing what it always does in Chicago in December, it was snowing. So, I didn’t wait for the graduation ceremony when I had my last class and my last final and I knew it was done, the car was packed and I drove to California and I had enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Redlands in what would today be called, well, either conservation biology or something like that, but at the time it didn’t exist as a title.

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So, I basically enrolled in Loyola in what was a biology major, but I got really lucky and had a major professor that was a young herpetologist and we clicked really quickly. So, we created, I think I was the only person majoring in what I was majoring in in the whole university because we kind of handmade it for me and everything that might have to do with things that might be useful in conservation, whether it was taxonomy, animal behavior, ecology, and those sorts of things.

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How did you decide on California?

00:25:51 - 00:26:34

I had an aunt and uncle that had retired out to Southern California. And when I was in my, between my junior and my sophomore junior year of college, sort of, they gave me the money and flew me to California. If I couldn’t drive there, I had never been. So, I’d never been that far before. And when I got to Southern California and then they took me out, they wanted to know where I wanted to go and I said, “I wanna see the desert.” I’d never seen desert before except in movies. And I just loved the desert when I got out there and I said, “Okay, this is it. I’m pre-adapted to this environment. I love the environment.

00:26:34 - 00:27:23

I love the whole thing.” So, it made sense to me as soon as I graduated, I could finally get out of Chicago and the winter and the snow and the rain and go to California where it doesn’t snow and rain much. And so, I started planning for that in the last two years, year and a half, I was in Chicago. So, I found a university that would take me. And so, I basically drove out and went right back to school. The studies you’re doing seem more neutral. Right, because I figured now I had a degree already that I knew I could eat. I knew I could… I still knew I could even still be in a, I couldn’t be a certified public accountant or anything like that, but I can run the numbers.

00:27:23 - 00:27:54

So, I knew I could do that. I knew I could program computers and I knew I could teach. So I thought, now I can go get my degree in what I’m interested in. Even if I’ll never maybe be able to work in a field like that. So. So from 1967, through 1970, you had a wide variety of jobs, ranger, programmer, park ranger. Yeah. For Joshua Tree National Monument.

00:27:54 - 00:28:04

And naturalists traveling with junior high students for a month. Tell me about the junior high students.

00:28:04 - 00:28:06

How did that kinda start?

00:28:06 - 00:29:10

Well, I was, yeah, I was teaching junior high mathematics in Palm Springs and on summer, one of the other teachers and I decided to put together this field trip to take the kids out fossil hunting. And I mean, when I look back at it and I think about it periodically now, I mean, we would no more do that today, I mean, legally and every other which way, the responsibilities that we took on, I mean, we just rented some station wagons from Hertz, threw all these kids in it with a bunch of tents and went off and their parents let us do it. I mean, it was just shocking when I think about it and we brought ’em all back alive, which there was a couple of moments that we’d actually questioned whether we would, because we got into some bad storms and floods and ’cause we were in the middle of nowhere with these station wagons, but we were young and we did it, and it was fun.

00:29:10 - 00:29:12

of activities you were doing there?

00:29:12 - 00:29:47

We were fossil hunting. So, we were going to all the big fossil sites and at that point, I mean you could go out and dig around. I mean, a lot of these sites weren’t even protected and we’d go to various museums and we were camping the whole time. The whole time we camped. We had one kid break his arm and we’d take him in and have him, and his biggest concern was we were gonna make him go home and he didn’t wanna go home with his broken arm (laughs). So, it was pretty good.

00:29:47 - 00:29:52

while you were doing this about kids and maybe connecting them with nature?

00:29:54 - 00:30:56

That kids, if you got them out, after the first couple of days of sort of complaining that they didn’t have, of course the kids didn’t have then what we have now for kids anyway. I mean, mostly they would miss their TVs or goin’ to the movies because there was certainly weren’t computers and all that stuff. But once you got ’em out in there and got ’em into the swing of things, their whole requirement’s changed. I mean, the mugs that they were drinkin’ there didn’t have to be as perfectly cleaned as they were at home, and that they could actually put up a tent and enjoy it and this and that. So, they’re pretty malleable, even as junior high students. And of course these were kids whose parents cared enough to do this kind of thing for ’em as well. I mean, we didn’t do it for free. It wasn’t a lot of money, but probably was at that point for those parents.

00:30:56 - 00:31:03

You’re learning anything about keeping the attention span of a very young active group of students?

00:31:04 - 00:31:43

It didn’t seem to be particularly hard, and I’m not particularly the world’s greatest person when it comes to kids and this and that. It’s not that I, I just wanted a chance to get out and see all these things and to share it with the kids. But it just sounded like a fun thing to do. It wasn’t something where I’ve just was determined to take young people out and share the world with them. It was more, let’s go do this kind of fun thing. Tell me a little about the Joshua Tree National Monument.

00:31:45 - 00:31:46

How did you get that kind of a job?

00:31:46 - 00:31:47

What did you do?

00:31:47 - 00:33:06

(laughs) Well, I mean, that’s where I had wanted to work initially. I thought, I’ll be a park ranger. And so, I applied there and at that point in time, the various parks and monuments had their full-time staff, but during their busy seasons, they were allowed to hire locals as seasonal help. So, you didn’t have to go through any central agency in the park service. You didn’t have to apply in D.C. for a park service job if you wanted to be a seasonal employee. And so, I took, I said, “Okay, again, I have to eat, so I’ll do a seasonal employment.” And so I did weekends during the peak season and because I was teaching school during the week. So, I would drive out from my teaching job on Friday afternoon and where I was stationed at the park was about an hour and a half from where I was teaching school and living.

00:33:06 - 00:34:35

And they had a trailer just a little long, 25 foot long, eight foot wide old travel trailer that I lived in during the weekends at the southern entrance of Joshua Tree. They had two, three residences out there, stick-built residences for the permanent staff, and two rangers and a maintenance man, ’cause this was, there was nothing. We didn’t have telephones. We didn’t have electricity other than a generator to power all of this because we were sittin’ in the middle of nowhere in the desert. But, so I had the trailer on the weekends. So, I did a little bit of everything. I mean, basically I was hired as an interpreter, but I also did patrols and so between doing campfire talks at night and leading nature walks, and then doing patrols and it was, yeah, it was an interesting life and I met a lot of other rangers over time and I met mostly guys, young guys that were trying to get in full-time or who were permanent seasonals, and they just went to different parks at different times of the year. One guy would spend his summers at Denali and his winters that Oregon Pipe, and he just moved to wherever the park service sent him.

00:34:35 - 00:34:53

And so, I looked at that as a possibility of a career. So, I certainly enjoyed being out in nature. And I enjoyed showing people the flowers and the snakes and the lizards and all those kinds of things.

00:34:55 - 00:34:59

Were you learning things that would stand you in good stead later on in your career?

00:35:00 - 00:35:37

Certainly interpretive things about how to, what people that didn’t understand the environment, how to help them see the environment, and since it was desert environment and that’s what I was interested in. I think I, I certainly learned a lot of hands-on interpretation, which when I started designing Living Desert and its exhibits, I think helped me visualize what might be the best way to help people understand that environment or at least introduce that environment to people.

00:35:37 - 00:35:41

Can you give me a specific or an example of that?

00:35:41 - 00:35:58

Well, I mean, for most folks that would come at that point to the Monument, and then ultimately when they started coming to Living Desert they would arrive and they might not even want to go because it’s a desert and what could possibly be out there?

00:35:58 - 00:36:08

There’s nothing out there. And that what’s ever out there is either gonna poison you by being a rattlesnake or stab you by being a prickly plant.

00:36:08 - 00:36:10

I mean, other than that, what’s out there?

00:36:10 - 00:36:16

So, how could you have a whole monument or how could you have a zoo around a desert when there’s nothing out there?

00:36:16 - 00:37:17

And so, just waking people up to the knowledge that there’s a lot of stuff out there and that it’s really highly adapted to be out there, and trying out different things while I was in the park service in terms of interpreting that to people, and just seeing what worked the best in my eyes when I’d be trying to explain the environment or take people on a nature walk or whatever, I found that just making them stop and actually look, look straight down at their feet and start showing them that within 10 feet of where they’re standing, there’s 40 different species of little plants, but they gotta look at ’em. Like, they’re not gonna slap ’em in the face. They gotta get on their knees. They call ’em belly flowers for a reason, you’re on your belly to look at ’em. But and people would certainly go, “Oh my God.” So, things like that.

00:37:17 - 00:37:20

So, some of these techniques you were able to transfer over?

00:37:23 - 00:37:30

In the summer of 1970, you traveled 10,000 miles to study nature reserves?

00:37:30 - 00:38:27

Right. Well, by that point, I’d been hired by the Living Desert. That in itself was kind of an interesting piece of luck, although I always tell young people, you make your luck to a certain degree. You gotta have some luck, but you can’t stay at home waiting for luck to strike. You have to be out being there. And my dear friend, Susie Reef, had moved to Tucson after leaving Illinois and we had always stayed in contact and I used to go over and visit her. And she knew Bill Woodin, who was at that time, the founding director at Arizona Sonora. And so, we would go over there frequently and I loved that facility.

00:38:29 - 00:40:07

I thought it was everything a zoo could be in terms of interpretation. I mean, it was so far and so different and so far beyond what zoos were in my mind, that it was the catalyst for, there were two catalysts organizations and people that led me to build the kind of zoo that I wound up building. And one was the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum from its focus of just immersing you in the environment that they were trying to teach you about. And then one was Gerry Durrell who said, “Zoos need to be breeding endangered species.” And I took those two thoughts and eventually meshed them into Living Desert, but backing up, I was absolutely enamored with Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and what they were doing. And I got to know Bill Woodin well enough, and he offered me a job if I’d come there and be a graphics artist for them. And I said I would do that as soon as I finished my teaching contract and the folks that were looking for somebody to start a nature center in Palm Springs went over to see Bill Woodin and said to look at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. And the first thing they said to themselves at least was, “Well, we’ll never build anything like this. This is way too big,” but they still were out looking around at nature centers in their minds and they happened to ask Bill, he said they were looking for somebody.

00:40:07 - 00:40:26

And he said, “Well, it’s kind of odd because I’m bringing somebody here that lives there (chuckles). Why don’t you go back and talk to her?” And so, they came back and found me and talked to me about starting a nature center. And I didn’t know quite what to do about that at the moment.

00:40:26 - 00:40:34

And so, I drove over to Arizona and I sat on the floor of Bill Woodin’s house on his floor and I said, “What on earth should I do?

00:40:34 - 00:40:52

I don’t know anything about starting a facility from scratch.” And he said, “Well, I was a young herpetology student just out of college when I got the job at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum to help start it at scratch.” He said, “I didn’t know anything either. You’ll figure it out.” So, I went back and took the job.

00:40:53 - 00:40:58

So- They hired you as what?

00:40:58 - 00:41:33

The only employee and I was, my first title was Resident Naturalist because my first job was to help raise enough money to put a small building on the property that they had leased. And I was supposed to live there and interpret the property, just be like a park ranger out there. And so, but at that point, there was no buildings. There was nothing. It was just the acreage that they had leased, which was in the middle at that point of nowhere.

00:41:33 - 00:41:36

And this was called the Living Desert Project?

00:41:36 - 00:42:53

At that point it was called the Living Desert Reserve. The local individuals that had started this were very well connected in the little community of what was Palm Springs at the time. They actually went to the Disney family who had a home in Palm Springs, got permission from Disney to use the name, Living Desert, because of the movie. So, we actually have the legal right to use the words Living Desert as part of our title. And they had leased some land from the local water district because it was all flood plain at that time. And so, they had leased the land and they had a name and that was it. And it was in the middle of what, at that point was 18 miles outside of Palm Springs. And the founding founder, Mr. Boyd, owned a bunch of property in that same area, but not this particular property.

00:42:53 - 00:43:11

And so, but he liked this particular property and that’s why he was able to get it leased from the water district. He was very well connected and our water district is, in the desert your water district is probably your biggest public agency. And they have all the power, what they say goes. And so…

00:43:13 - 00:43:14

What year was this?

00:43:14 - 00:44:40

He had leased the property in 1968, I believe, but they were looking for somebody, they started looking for somebody to actually work there and put enough money together to hire somebody in 1969. So, I was being interviewed in the end of 1969, and I was hired in March of 1970. And that’s what led to the trip is I said, “Well, I would like to spend the next few months looking at facilities, looking at everything from national park facilities, to zoos, to nature centers, to natural history museums. I just wanna go out and see what’s out there. And so, they gave me $800 and said, “Don’t spend it all on the same time,” and I lived in my car and you can go a long way with $800 if you were living in your car at that point in time. And I visited and I kept notes and took photographs of… Never ventured any further east than Eastern Arizona. So, mostly it was Arizona and Utah and places like that that were more desert-y.

00:44:42 - 00:44:44

What were you discovering?

00:44:44 - 00:46:01

I was discovering that there were millions of ways to do interpretation, and that most of them seem to be useless to me. I would look at zoos and I’d see some terrible exhibits, and I’d go into the park center buildings and they had a lot of panel type exhibits and some of them, most of those weren’t very engaging and nature trail signage was all over the map, but here and there, I would run into people or exhibits or ideas that said, “Hm.” So, I’d take lots of pictures of those and to remind myself and lots of notes, which is, and I came home with lots of ideas of what to do. And so, and youth. If anybody had told me that 40 years later when I left that I still hadn’t done everything I thought I was gonna when I first started 40 years, I probably would’ve never started, but you don’t know that. That’s the joy of youth. You think you’re gonna do it, so you just set off and start doin’ it.

00:46:02 - 00:46:08

How did this trip shape your views on nature or zoos responsibilities?

00:46:10 - 00:46:44

I think, I don’t know if this trip per se didn’t shape the zoo’s responsibility part. That part, I think really just clicked in an instant again, when Gerry Durrell started writing his books about setting up first his little animal collection books, which were all hysterical and funny and this and that, and that’s all they were, was hysterical and funny.

00:46:44 - 00:47:19

But then when he started getting a little more serious, and I went, yeah, that’s what zoos ought to be doing is besides just having one of everything because I mean, we really did rank our institutions with, “I’ve got one of these, you don’t have one of those.” And Jim Dolan and I used to laugh as we got a little older that at that time a collection plan was if the director knew anything about animals and some of ’em did, many of ’em didn’t, but was do I like it and is it pretty?

00:47:19 - 00:47:46

That was the collection plan. And so, zoo director of zoos looked quite different one from the other depending on the director and whether he liked it, and wanted to put it in his collection. And I kept thinking there has to be a better reason, I mean, than just, “Oo, ah, I have one of these and nobody else has one.” And it all clicked when Gerry Durrell said, “Yeah, we don’t need one of everything.

00:47:46 - 00:47:54

We need to take care of the ones that need the help.” Did this trip cement your love for deserts?

00:47:54 - 00:47:55


00:47:55 - 00:47:56

How so?

00:47:57 - 00:49:01

I actually always felt like once I actually got physically on a desert in the junior year of college, it was like, that’s where I was supposed to be. It just, it was an environment that just spoke to me immediately that there wasn’t any, “Gee, I kinda like it,” it was like, this is it. I think if my aunt and uncle had lived in Tucson, that desert is extraordinary. And if they had lived there, that’s where I would have started, but they lived in Southern California, so I’d never seen the desert in Tucson at that point. I’d just seen Southern California desert, which is much harsher. It’s low Colorado Desert. It makes Tucson look like a jungle. And so, but it was desert and it’s still the vistas and the dry air and the warmth and being able to see, now I live in forest again, but in the desert, you can see nature, it’s all there.

00:49:01 - 00:49:16

There’s no trees in the way. And it just spoke to me immediately, immediately. And you mentioned that, I believe it was Mr. Boyd had purchased this land. Oh, he leased it.

00:49:16 - 00:49:16

He leased it?

00:49:16 - 00:49:17

Mm hm.

00:49:17 - 00:49:20

Why did he want to create the Living Desert?

00:49:21 - 00:50:12

He was an interesting man. He was from the East Coast, but he’d moved to California for health reasons when he was young. He was a banker, a land developer, and he also was interested in education and he became a regent with the University of California. And he too loved the desert in his own way. He didn’t know a lot about it, but he knew his land developer institutions tuition said the Coachella Valley where we were, it was gonna be buried in houses someday. And there ought to be a place where people could learn about the desert. And so, he envisioned creating a nature center. He also gave a big chunk of land that he had purchased to the University of California system for postgraduate research only.

00:50:12 - 00:50:54

And it’s still operating that way, in the same floodplain that our facility was in. So, he was a great believer in educating people, but he just loved it. He had his own reasons. Maybe it just spoke to him the same way it spoke to me. He never studied it. I mean, he knew a few of the plants upon sight and he knew a few of the animals, but he wanted to support research into the desert environment and he wanted a place to have people come and learn about the desert. So, in his vision, it was just gonna be a desert nature center. In my vision, when I saw it, I said to myself, this can be so much more, but I better not say anything because they’ll think I’m crazy.

00:50:55 - 00:52:15

So, I never, I just gave them their vision and then I just added a few things as we went along, and as long as I added them in a way that seemed to make sense to them and I got them paid for it was all right. So, the vision very slowly expanded without much resistance because I could make it happen and they kinda liked the results. Now he couldn’t do this alone. He must’ve had- And there were some other wealthy folks. The desert, you could not have done this project in Bakersfield, California, or some little town somewhere, but you could do it if you were cautious and careful in near Palm Springs, because for a few months out of every year, there was an inflow of money, moneyed folks. Now, 99% of them had no interest in spending any money, including donating any money in the desert because they didn’t live there. They lived here, they lived in Chicago, and they lived in San Francisco, or they lived in Seattle. That’s where most of the money folks would come from, or ultimately from Texas, they’d come in from Texas as well.

00:52:15 - 00:53:04

So, it wasn’t easy to raise money there, but there was money there and there was, Mr. Boyd had access to it because he was first mayor of the city of Palm Springs and so forth and so on. So, and he had a good reputation, and so his friends would follow along and chip in just as donors do today. If their buddy has given to somethin’, maybe they’ll give a little bit to it too. And I turned a lot of water into wine, but I was good at that ’cause that’s how I grew up. I had to turn a lot of water into wine because I had to, to live and feed myself and go to college. And there was no such thing as a loan. We never took a loan at Living Desert to do anything. I either had to have all the money in place or we didn’t do it.

00:53:05 - 00:53:08

Who were some of these other movers and shakers that your remember?

00:53:08 - 00:54:03

One of them, I still see. She’s 100 years old and she lives in Glencoe. Miriam Hoover of H. Earl Hoover of Hoover Vacuum. His son, Bud is still on our board. H. Earl had a winter home in the desert and he was on my first board and stayed on the board until he died. And then Miriam came on the board, and she stepped off the board about three years ago and now Bud’s on the board, and I just had lunch with Miriam for Easter at 100 years old. And she lives, yeah, she lives right on Green Bay Road in an ancient estate sittin’ out there. So, they were very active.

00:54:05 - 00:55:39

There were a couple of people associated with the University of California system in the Life Science Department that one of which had a lot of money himself, but he was also, he really was, he liked to think of himself as a field biologist. And so, he got involved. And so I had, because Mr. Boyd was a regent to the university, the local camp was to us was Riverside, which was about an hour and a half’s drive. So, all of the ecologists and herpetologists and botanists that were based on that campus teaching, and were using Mr. Boyd’s research center for post-graduate work, he convinced all of them to help out wherever they could with scientific knowledge or whatever I needed. And so, I could draw on the science, I could draw and Mr. Boyd’s friends and connections, and then I just went on the trail of going to every rotary club, every lions club, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with those guys and fundraising. And I would stand there ’cause I was young and committed to the project and tell ’em, they’d say, “Well, what are you going to do?” I’m saving the desert and they’d look around, there wasn’t a stick out there, there wasn’t a house for miles. And they’d kinda go, “From what?” But they’d humor me, give me a few bucks and we’d go to the next step. You mentioned when you started, there was this vision that Mr. Boyd had, but you had a secret vision that you didn’t wanna share.

00:55:39 - 00:55:40


00:55:40 - 00:55:42

What was that secret vision?

00:55:42 - 00:56:53

To create what we created ultimately, a desert conservation center where we taught people about the desert, the whole ecosystem. So there was kind of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum model, but instead of just modeling Sonoran Desert with plants and animals, I said, “Well, okay, that’s been done.” And to just modeled the Colorado Desert, the Coachella Valley, that’s a pretty limiting experience. There is not much out there compared to Sonora. So, I thought, “Okay, we’re gonna do deserts of the world,” and I was able to say that kind of out loud once we started doing interpretive things, because that kind of made sense to the board. Well, okay, so Mr. Boyd loved plants first, and nature trails. So, I just gave them what they wanted first ’cause it wasn’t, I didn’t have to do either or. I mean, I wanted to do the plants as well as the animals. And I wanted to do trails.

00:56:53 - 00:57:37

We had at that point 400 acres that they had leased. And so, I never had to refuse to do what they wanted to do. I could just incorporate what they wanted to do into my vision of what needed to get done anyway and just do what they wanted first, and then kind of slide the rest of it in as we went. So, I never used the word zoo. Even though I was already extremely active in the ACA we weren’t a member because my board didn’t consider us a zoo. So, I never actually, the institution never joined for many years (chuckles). Now, you told us about your first title there.

00:57:38 - 00:57:47

How did that evolve into president and CEO and what’s the difference?

00:57:47 - 00:58:41

There really wasn’t any. I mean, for the first two years there was just me. So, and so I’d just get up in the morning, look in the mirror and tell myself, “This is what you’re gonna do today and go out and do it.” But over time, as we did develop a staff, a few people at a time, one at a time, two at a time, eventually they decided that I could be the director. And I carried that title for a long, long time, and then somewhere along the line, I can’t even, frankly, at this point remember when, we changed to, I think a lot of the boards were changing and their directors were now called the presidents and their board members instead of being presidents were chairman, and so we just evolved to that. I never, it didn’t make much difference to me.

00:58:42 - 00:58:54

After you had done the, what I guess I’ll call the basics of what the board wanted with the trails and so forth, did you have any things that you knew you wanted to develop first?

00:58:55 - 01:00:49

Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I knew I needed to bring animals in because if we were gonna make money, the kids weren’t gonna come to see plants and hike. ‘Cause again, Colorado Desert’s pretty barren even at its best and so I said to the board, when we designed our very first building, I said, I’m gonna design some small animal units like you saw at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum for lizards and kangaroo rats and ground squirrels and snakes. And he said, “Oh, okay.” He said, “Okay.” And I said some desert tortoises and an exhibit outside the building and, “Oh, okay.” And then as part of those, right then back in 1972, I said, we’re also, I said, I wanna show people, begin to make people understand that these animals look the way they look, and these plants look the way they look because they’re living on a desert and they have to do, they have to evolve to live in that environment and whether you’re in a desert here in the Coachella Valley, or if you’re in a desert in the Sahara or in the Namib, your plant’s gonna have structurally very similar and an animal’s gonna have to structurally be very similar. And I said, “So, I’m gonna bring in a few of those.” “Well, okay.” And so, from the day we opened the first big animal exhibit in 1972, we had jerboas and kangaroo rats. And we had some euphorbia does that look like ocotillos, and they were shaped like ocotillos but they were euphorbia’s from Africa. And so, we started doing comparative and nobody really thought about it. I knew where I was going, ultimately, which is bigger and better every day, but it seemed to make sense.

01:00:49 - 01:00:59

I could explain it to the board that it’s why we’re gonna have this, these funny little animals that don’t live in our desert, but they live in another desert. “Well, okay.” Made sense.

01:01:00 - 01:01:05

Did you have a master plan that you had to show them or that you wanted to show them?

01:01:05 - 01:02:04

I had a master plan, I had two master plans. I had the master plan they saw, and then I had the master plan that underlaid that master plan that they didn’t get to see for about 12 years. In all honesty, they never saw it. The master plan they saw was exactly fit. It was a big piece of my puzzle. So, they saw the piece of the puzzle that made make sense to them, which was all the North American gardens, desert gardens and so forth and the trail systems, and a small animal building. We had evolved to the point where I thought they could eventually, although they didn’t know what the building was, they just saw this building on the plant and I used to say, “Don’t worry about it. We can’t afford that building anyway.” And then there was another master plan that this would sit on that I was aware of that I was headed towards and I just knew at some point I would tell them what the next phase was when I thought they might believe me.

01:02:05 - 01:02:09

Who was helping you develop the master plan or was this all your vision?

01:02:10 - 01:03:06

I guess it was me. I mean, it sounds rather pompous, but it was just me based on visiting zoos, visiting parks, and thinking about how I could teach people about the desert and how I could afford to build certain things, because again, I couldn’t build it unless I could fundraise for it and I had to pay for it. And so, trying to figure out inexpensive ways to do certain things that would still be professionally appropriate because I knew there wasn’t a lot of money. Were you going to the board and saying, “I need this type of money to do this on the plan that you’ve approved?” No, usually it was kinda the other way around. I would design something and then I’d figure out what it was gonna cost to the best of my ability.

01:03:06 - 01:03:15

And then I’d go talk to a couple of different board members about, do you think this is a good idea and would you help me fundraise for it?

01:03:15 - 01:04:44

And then once I got all the pieces in order, then we’d take it to the board and go, okay, on the master plan, this is the next thing, and Karen says it’s gonna cost us this, and we think we can get the money here and the board would go, “As long as you get the money, okay.” Give me an example. Coyote exhibit was probably the first… Well, yeah, it was the first large animal exhibit if you can imagine a coyote being a large animal, but in the desert, that’s a large animal. And I put it way across at the other end of the park and there was nothing in between except some nature trails. And some of the board members were like, “If you’re gonna put in a new exhibit for coyotes, why don’t you put it up close to the buildings?” ‘Cause in their minds it was, we had all this acreage but, and I said, “Well, no, coyotes need certain kind of behave, and they’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.” And people can walk out there to see ’em and… But I had to figure out how to build it and I never had a general contractor. I just decided that to this day, if I need to get it done, somehow I’ll get it done. And you can be an owner/builder.

01:04:44 - 01:05:52

To this day you can be an owner/builder in California. You don’t have to have a general contractor. And so, I just learned to be an owner/builder. And so we could build stuff that a lot of people couldn’t have afforded if they’d just done it the traditional way, which is go out, gets bids, have some general contractor come in and do it. I would call, if I needed a block wall built, I’d call the block wall guys and go, “Okay, how much is it gonna cost to do this wall?” And if I needed a building built, I had an architect that would work pro bono for us, and he would draw the drawings and then I would go to the electrician and be, “Okay, how much is the wire?” I just wound up being an owner/builder ’cause I could get things done cheaper. Again, well, turn the water into wine. Were you for this coyote exhibit, as an example, did you have the money in place before you did it or were you building it- No, I had to have the money in place. So, I had to come up with a design and I drew the designs and anything I could draw designs for as opposed to paying an architect, I would draw ’em.

01:05:52 - 01:06:19

So, I could draw walls and I could draw landscape features and I could, because there was no structure to that. It had a little house for the coyote so the architect was, the pro bono architect, John, would draw that and we’d get a permit stamp from that. And again, we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, the city said, okay, but all the rest of it, I would draw myself and then we would build to those drawings.

01:06:20 - 01:06:32

Did you have any, as you’re developing your master plan, was there any friction with the board or people who wanted to go in a different direction as you started to develop things?

01:06:32 - 01:06:57

There was hardly any friction about the plan. There was, because we had a lot of ground physically available to us and the community was just starting to grow around us, we had other organizations coming to us and asking our board can’t you lease us X amount of ground. We wanna put in a lawn bowling.

01:06:57 - 01:07:12

I mean, that was my favorite one is I had a group of fairly wealthy people who decided they loved the lawn bowling and there was no place to do lawn bowling in the area and so, and we had all these acres, couldn’t we give them a couple of acres to do lawn bowling?

01:07:12 - 01:07:16

And I’m going, “No.” And my board’s going, “Well, why not?

01:07:16 - 01:07:27

We have all this anchorage.” And so, I had a few incursions like that, that wanted to use the land for something else.

01:07:27 - 01:07:32

IMAX came and thought they might wanna put an IMAX and did we want an IMAX on our property?

01:07:32 - 01:07:57

And this is before, I mean, there was nobody out there at night. And I thought to myself, every IMAX I knew at that point was a money losing operation for somebody. So, I had those kinds of things, but ’cause I moved very slowly, and I tried not to offend ’em and I tried to give ’em what they wanted. And mostly I had to balance the budget every year and we had to make money every year, period.

01:07:57 - 01:07:59

What kind of budget did you start with?

01:07:59 - 01:08:53

My first budget was 10 grand, and please don’t spend it less than, in 12 months, ’cause you were gonna run out of money in 12 months and that included my salary. And when I think by the time when I first sat down and had my first lunch with Bill Conway and he was talking about having a budget of millions of dollars, and I think my budget then was 25 grand. And I just kind of looked at him thought, “Have I ever had a million dollars to run the place, I wouldn’t know what to do first,” but then it just grew every year by what we could make. Not by what we were given, but in terms of donations, but what I could generate through teaching classes and visitor, the ticket booth, and a little gift shop, I put a gift shop in right away.

01:08:54 - 01:09:00

So, your income was coming from a couple of sources through your four?

01:09:00 - 01:09:06

For operations, yeah. Memberships, gift shop, admissions, classes.

01:09:07 - 01:09:10

How were memberships received?

01:09:10 - 01:09:47

Pretty well. I mean, it was slow slogging. I mean, we started the first year we had 70 members or something like that and every year it would grow a little bit, but it was tight. It was really tight, which is why for our first couple of years, there was just me. And I learned how to drive tractors and use skill saws and routers and made signs using the old technique of the sign cutting equipment. Just did it all. I mean, we didn’t buy anything that I could make.

01:09:49 - 01:09:51

So, you were the only full-time employee?

01:09:51 - 01:10:32

For two years, yeah. Was it easy going from a small salary ’cause you obviously built the facility where you were dealing with six figures or more. Was it hard to do that or it just- It just evolves. It’s evolved. This is like growing up. I mean, every day you’re just a day older and you get a little older and you get more life experiences and it just happens. I mean, it was a very purposeful happening, but it was a happening. I mean, you just took each day and some days you went backwards and wondered why you were doing what you were doing and…

01:10:33 - 01:10:36

What kind of disappointments were there in these beginning times?

01:10:37 - 01:12:21

Oh, I think that it was often tiring of just worrying about where the next dollar was coming from. I mean, that was always there, because initially most of the people in the area didn’t have any real interest in what we were doing because it was just the desert after all, but we got very lucky several times in the history of Living Desert, the organization essentially was able to grow and thrive ultimately, or reasonably thrive out of what turned out to be pure luck. I mean, when we started, the only land Mr. Boyd could lease for us was where we are today. But at that point it was 18 miles away across basically nothing but empty desert to get there. And there was no reason to get there unless you were going there, and ’cause everything that was going on in that area was going on in Palm Springs. Palm Springs was the hub. And so, for the first few years it was really hard because it was a big drive just to go out there to see what, in most people’s minds was nothing. But then the population in the valley started to creep in our direction and a big land developer of shopping centers of all things decided to build a shopping center, the very first shopping center to serve the area because Palm Springs was a strip of fancy streets, of fancy shops, and golf courses.

01:12:22 - 01:12:28

And that’s what was Palm Springs, and so to have a shopping center, and where does he put the shopping center?

01:12:28 - 01:13:25

Two miles from my park. And I mean, I could, I mean, at one point it was a big, it took our attendance dropped because everybody went to the shopping center. That was the new entertainment, but I could not have paid anybody to do that for us. But suddenly he shifted the whole, instead of being on the edge of nowhere, we were now in the middle of, in the valley, grew around us. I couldn’t have paid for that. And if that hadn’t happened quite that way, it would have made… And he did it fairly early on in our existence, in the mid ’70s and so, in five or six years into it, all of a sudden it wasn’t that far to go to this crazy place in the sand out there called Living Desert. You mentioned there were other major events like this that helped the museum.

01:13:25 - 01:13:35

One was an act of nature. In 1976, the water district owned the land. The reason they own the land was that it was a flood plain.

01:13:35 - 01:13:38

Ah, a flood plain floods, right?

01:13:41 - 01:15:11

The general manager of the water district was born and raised in the Colorado Desert down, and so he actually loved the desert and he was interested in it. And so, he stayed, the part of the reason he leased the land to us initially was because he thought that this would be a good thing for the community, and the land was part of their flood control land. And so again, in his mind, like everybody else’s mind, I was just gonna do this little nature center and, okay. We had to have a couple of buildings so that we could take care of the place and charge him. So, my very first job there was to go out with him, the general manager of the water district, the God figure of our area, and site where we could put two buildings safely on this flood plain. And there were all these levies to control water and turn the water to protect the cities from all the, just like you see in the movies, floods, because we had ’em. So, we were walking along one of these levies on this leased land with, this gentleman’s name was Weeks, Lo Weeks, and I’m walking with him and I’m just this little young girl half scared to death ’cause I’m walking with the God figure of the Coachella Valley. And I said to him, “Mr. Weeks, we need to put two buildings here.” We decided on two, as opposed to one big one right next to each other.

01:15:11 - 01:16:27

And I said, “Where can we put them that they won’t float away in a big storm?” And I said, “Where is the water gonna go?” And he looked at me and he said, “Young lady, I’m an engineer of water. It’s been my career.” And he said, “And I can tell you this about water.” And he said, “Water goes any damn where it wants to.” (chuckles) And I went, “Okay, so where do we put the buildings?” So he said, “Okay, we’re gonna site the buildings here and they should be safe. They should be safe.” So, we built the buildings where he sited them on this levee sign. In 1970, we started construction ’71, finished ’em in early ’72. 1976 tropical storm Kathleen hit the Coachella Valley and we had nine inches of rain fall in 12 hours. And we had a huge flood. It would have washed the buildings away. Flood water was flowing, the buildings sat on a levee and between the levee was one side, one containment for the flood water, not contained like hold back, but channeled.

01:16:27 - 01:17:53

And the other side was an actual part of the topography. It was a big ridge of mountain that came down and there was the distance between them was, oh, probably 700 feet of ground where the water from 25 square miles of desert mountains was supposed to go between this levee and that mountain ridge. And it filled the space between the us and there were waves lapping over my head, visual waves of mud and debris, and the mud and debris started lapping against the sides of the buildings. And then all of a sudden it went down and it went down because it broke through the levy above me. And it went through the little community that had grown up around us and filled houses in some cases all the way to their ceilings with mud. Nobody was killed, it was amazing. I mean, people, it was the most amazing flash flood storm one would ever want to live through, but it wiped out a lot of what I had already built. When it broke, it did save my buildings.

01:17:53 - 01:18:44

It wiped out some of my original gardens, wiped out all my trail system. Wiped out everything clean. It actually wiped out a fair portion of a toe of the mountain that it literally ate into the toe of the mountain. And we had big horn sheep on that mountain at that time and it took the fence down that was holding them in. And so, I had to helicopter over some fencing before the water went down and we hung some fencing up. The sheep fortunately decided they’d rather just stay at home than try to leave. But because of that storm, the water district, I would, at that point, I was only limited to what I could do on that property to about three or five, three or four acres, right on the supposedly safe side of the levee where the buildings were and then nature trails. That’s all they could do.

01:18:48 - 01:19:36

And when that storm hit and destroyed a lot of the town and a lot of the houses they destroyed were extremely wealthy houses, this wasn’t some flood in some backwoods farmland somewhere, the water district knew it had to do something to not allow that to happen again, so they built this huge levee that suddenly took my 300 acres and fully protected all of that, and allowed me to then create the final master plan because now all of a sudden, instead of having about 20 acres to work with, I had 300 protected acres that I could have never. I mean, it was a bazillion dollar job that we would’ve never been able to do because the district wouldn’t have approved it anyway, but we could never have afforded it. And all of a sudden they had to do it because of this storm that ravaged the town.

01:19:37 - 01:19:38

That still protects it today?

01:19:38 - 01:19:42

Yeah. Still protects it today. Mm hm.

01:19:42 - 01:19:44

Is the land still leased?

01:19:44 - 01:20:25

Yeah. Well, the original 300. We picked up other pieces over time. So we have about 1,200 acres that we control. We also, we leased a full section from the city of Indian Wells. We’re in two cities with the city line runs right through the facility. I actually built a building in which was built in both cities and had both cities trying to permit us at the same time, which is why I have more gray hair and less hair than usual. But the one city, we got them to buy some land from the Southern Pacific Railroad, and then they leased it to us, a full section, and then the water district lease and then we picked up some land.

01:20:25 - 01:20:28

So, we have a contiguous 1,200 acres there.

01:20:28 - 01:20:30

And it’s all leased?

01:20:30 - 01:20:50

Well, we own 300 of it and the rest of it’s leased. Long-term, just like San Diego, Suisun lease land, it’s just leased. And you mentioned you had this plan, your plan, and that there were certain animals of the desert you wanted to bring in.

01:20:50 - 01:21:01

Can you tell us something about the first animal or animals that you acquired that were part of that group and how you were able to bring them in?

01:21:01 - 01:22:10

Sure. Desert antelope ’cause I always liked antelope. I established a great rapport with the folks down at San Diego and particularly Jimmy Dolan, who at that point was curator of collections in San Diego. And they had just finished building the animal park, the wild animal park, and they had a bunch of odd kinds of things down there. They had slender horn gazelles and they had Arabian Oryx and just all bunch of different gazelles. And Jimmy kept saying to me, “You ought to have this stuff, you ought to have this stuff.” And I said, “You don’t understand. I’m not sure my board’s ready for that yet.” And, but I thought, “Well, okay.” So, I started talking to a couple of board members about we had all this space and I mean, instead of putting lawn bowling, let’s do something else with it. And we could help as if this was a new idea that just popped into my head.

01:22:10 - 01:23:42

We could help work with this world famous San Diego Zoo and help conserve this little antelope from North Africa called a slender horn gazelle. And we got the space. We could just out near where we have our big horn sheep exhibit, which is our local desert big horn, we could put it, and it was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I said, “Well, we have jerboas and we have kangaroo rats, and we’ve got horn vipers in sidewinders, which are parallel evolution.” I thought, “Well, we can talk about desert antelope.” And, and there was, “Uh, uh,” and I said, “Well, can I invite Dr. Dolan,” Dr. Dolan, “To come down and talk to the board about this?” And Jimmy, as you may remember, could charm the pants off of anybody he ever met. So I said, “You come down.” I said, “You’ve been good and behaved well, James, but I need you to convince my board that this is a good idea.” And he came down and he came down as Dr. Dolan and didn’t he charm the pants off of the whole board and said that the world famous San Diego Zoo really wants to work with the world famous Living Desert on this project. And Jimmy, they bought it. And once I got my foot in, it was kind of like, well, we got the slender horn out there and then we did Arabian Oryx, and they found we could do that and they found the public kinda liked it.

01:23:42 - 01:23:56

Although a few people go, “Why do we have these strange animals that are not from our desert?” And we go, “Well, we’re saving an endangered species.” “Well…” Was your main focus dealing with San Diego and then you started to expand to others?

01:23:56 - 01:24:38

Well, I mean, I didn’t have to expand too much to others. I mean, we had a huge focus on botanicals because my founding board and Mr. Boyd really want, so we had a lot of garden focus. So, I was very involved in the botanical garden community in getting specimens from all over everywhere, because that’s, again, what the board felt most comfortable with. And I always gave them what they wanted first, as long as it wasn’t lawn bowling. And then, if they could humor me on what I wanted, but San Diego was a huge resource. I didn’t really have to go very far. I mean, pretty much I could develop my collections right off of what they were working on.

01:24:40 - 01:24:47

You mentioned plants, how hard was it to acquire exotic plants from different parts of the world?

01:24:47 - 01:26:00

Well, in California because we were in an agricultural area, there were a lot of legalities. So, a lot of material that we got, I would work with the various botanical gardens in California, where the material was already in the state, but we did and for a lot of our California gardens, we got permits to actually collect material and transplant it and build the gardens. But we took about four years to get permits, to bring plants up from Mexico to do our Baja gardens and our Sonoran gardens. And even some of those plants, I was able to work with botanical gardens and get seed stock from botanical gardens to start the gardens. So, it was always a challenge because we were just down, literally a few miles from us was the largest date. I mean, we were the date hub of North America for growing dates and a lot of truck farming and so forth. So, that department was always pretty careful. And still to this day, watches our plant material pretty carefully.

01:26:02 - 01:26:08

You had gotten the Boy Scouts involved with the Living Desert?

01:26:08 - 01:26:09

What was their job?

01:26:09 - 01:26:53

Well, they helped me build the first trails. They were the physical labor. They were out with shovels. I staked a trail system out and then they came out and Eagle Scouts came out with a bunch of younger Scouts and cut the trails and pitched the rocks and I had made all these steaks with numbers on them and the usual typical thing ahead of time so they came out and helped make little piles of concrete and stick ’em in the ground for me and so forth. So, we tried to keep the community involved any way we could, any way we could. Now, we had talked about your month-long trip, things that you learned on it for the Living Desert.

01:26:53 - 01:27:00

Did you start or think about then doing trips for the Living Desert would be involved with?

01:27:00 - 01:27:44

Well, we did a certain, yeah, right away. I mean, we did a lot of classes and we did a lot of local field trips. We did out to death valley and down to Baja whale-watching and we started doing trips right away because I really felt that that was a great way to get people involved. A lot of day trips, birding trips, hiking trips, wildflower trips during wildflower season, geology trips, because the valley is actually not a valley at all, it’s a fault trough. So, I mean, we would sit right on the San Andreas. So, there’s a lot of geology to look at. And so we did a lot of that. The park still does of course.

01:27:44 - 01:27:48

Who were you trying to reach in these trips?

01:27:48 - 01:28:54

I was just trying to build visitation. So, it wasn’t so much that, I mean, some of the bigger trips you ultimately might have gotten some of the donor types to go along. But for me, it was just creating a reason for people to want to become a member, to want to support the organization because I had to pay the light bill that way. I tried desperately to, I had to operate in the black every year or I had to cut if I thought I wasn’t gonna make the budget black at the end of the year, I had to start whacking at it before the end of the year got there. I couldn’t say, “Oops. We overspent by 10 bucks this year.” That was forbidden. So, anyway I could connect people to the park and birdwatching or field trips or whatever, we were gonna do it. One question that I was thinking about was you mentioned the botanical collection that you had to start with, or you were developing.

01:28:54 - 01:29:05

Would you say that it’s value so to speak, rivals or is comparable to the animal collection in the type of specimens you had to acquire?

01:29:06 - 01:29:55

Absolutely. The botanical collection, because the board again, felt most comfortable doing gardens first, we made a pretty serious effort in really doing a good job with specimen plants, well labeled, well-documented, and the second professional staff person I ever hired at Living Desert was a botanist horticulturalist position. I hired that position and I stayed curator of animals for many years after that, but I brought the plant position in first and we certainly have spent as much or more money on the plant collection from day one, as we ever did the animal collection.

01:29:55 - 01:30:05

And part of that vision also was this comparative between the plants of the desert and the plants of deserts around the world?

01:30:05 - 01:30:57

Correct, we started with that from day one and that was pretty accepted from day one by the board. They quickly understood that it did help people understand more about desert plants if they could see that plants might physically look alike from other deserts of the world, we didn’t start building whole gardens from other deserts of the world right away, but we did these little comparative gardens within the North American section of the park, ’cause they partitioned the park off into North America, Africa and Australia. The board knew the North American section right away, of course. And then it wasn’t until about an eight or nine years later that they began to understand that there might be more African and then ultimately some Australian.

01:30:58 - 01:31:12

So, it was easier for them to wrap their heads around different plants from different areas and comparisons as opposed to animals, or they got it equally?

01:31:14 - 01:32:50

Their concern with the animals is they thought that if we did an animal collection, if we became a zoo that, that they didn’t want to become a zoo because they all had the same vision of growing up with zoos that people had at that point in time, which is just a whole collection of animals that would take a lot of care and a lot of facilities and so forth and so on. So, they didn’t wanna be a zoo. And so they understood the plant part. For some reason, they thought plants were gonna be, they were easier or less expensive to take care of than animals, which was not necessarily the case, but it seemed safer to them than, and they let me know that without them realizing that they were letting me know, because I never asked ’em. I just kept my ear to the ground about, when I would talk about different possibilities quietly without any great sense of urgency. They would say things like, “Well, we’ll never do that. That sounds like a zoo and I’d go, “Okay. Yeah, sure.” And so, but we started with plants and we never ever backed away from that because I really think they’re essential to the story of deserts of the world to the whole ecosystem ’cause our park is designed to introduce people to desert to that environment, to what creates it, what can live on it, whether it’s a plant or an animal.

01:32:52 - 01:33:07

And so, you can do that job if you choose to just as well as plants as animals, but we’re trying to do the whole ecosystem, so we need both. And we’ve talked about various animals for comparative.

01:33:07 - 01:33:17

What was the first exotic non North American animal that you brought in and how did you sell that first one?

01:33:17 - 01:34:14

Well, the first one, the first non exotics were in the very first building we built, which was the little rodents. So, we had kangaroo rats and so I brought in jerboa and at that time they were pet shop animals, jerboas (laughs). So, it wasn’t even hard to get it. So, we brought in that, and then I got a horn viper from San Diego to compare with a sidewinder because they’re exactly identical snakes in terms of everything, their behaviors, everything is the same. And put those into the very first exhibit hall building that we had. And so it started right then. They started in the first year and they were surprised, but then it was like, well, yeah, that makes sense. And then we just continued on and I did the same with plants.

01:34:14 - 01:34:26

And again, initially it was like, hm. And then it was like, well fine. Yeah, okay. So, there was never any pushback until I started to get to the bigger stuff.

01:34:26 - 01:34:27

To the antelopes?

01:34:27 - 01:35:23

To the antelopes. I mean, that was gonna be a pretty groundbreaking decision. I mean, even because by then we had done some midsize North American things like coyotes and kit fox and big horn sheep as part of a research project that was fish and game came to us and said, “If you’ve got space, would you breed big horn sheep for us that we can use to study disease because it local population, big horn, were dying of blue tongue and they wanted a managed herd that they could do everything, test darts guns on and so we built, the university convinced Mr. Boyd that we should do this. And I, of course, certainly didn’t stand in the way. So, we built an enclosure which still stands today and still has big horn in it.

01:35:23 - 01:35:30

Just to follow up with that, the big horn, were they, since the government approached you, were they helping the funding?

01:35:31 - 01:36:18

No, no, of course not. But the university helped a little bit because they had a university researcher that was getting his PhD in big horn ecology. So, the university helped with some fence. Basically we just fenced off a big piece of the hillside. So, all we had to do was pay for a big horn proof tall fence. We didn’t have to build structure for them, we didn’t have to build night house, we didn’t have to build anything besides the cut fences into this hillside off and put a couple of small containment pens at the bottom. And that was it. So, it was just a whole lot of chain link.

01:36:20 - 01:36:25

You talked about trying to reach various audiences.

01:36:31 - 01:36:32

What was your marketing?

01:36:32 - 01:36:34

Did you have a marketing strategy?

01:36:35 - 01:37:26

You indicated trying to reach everybody. Marketing strategy was Karen on the grip and grin run every day. For years it seemed like I was in every rotary club and lion’s club and then, because we didn’t have much staff. For the first two years it was just me. And then there was me and a grounds person who sort of took care of the grounds. And then the next person I hired was a curator of education to really get to be more formalized in the classes and in the school groups and stuff like that. Then the next person I hired was a plant person. So, and that was it.

01:37:26 - 01:38:13

Those people didn’t have anybody under them. I mean, we had a staff of four or five people and we were already six years old because we just worked long hours. So, things like marketing, I did all the accounting. I’ll do all the bookkeeping. I finally had a secretary, I think by the time I was, I’d been there six years, I finally got a secretary to help type the letters and things. So, it was pretty hands-on everything we did. And so, the marketing was literally what I could do, keep us in the newspapers, go on the local television channel with some new creature or talk about some, there was so much construction.

01:38:13 - 01:38:23

There was a lot of arguments about destroying the desert ’cause most people didn’t see anything out there that they were gonna destroy when they cleared it ’cause there was nothing on it, right?

01:38:23 - 01:39:02

So, I would wind up on TV, but not in a big activist role because my board didn’t want us to be an activist organization. So, I painted us as a place where everybody could come and learn about the desert that the developers could come and learn if they wanted us to come and look at their property and tell ’em what’s on it and what, we would do that and not, we would work with ’em. So, we stayed out of until this day, we painted ourself as an organization that was there as an educational tool for everybody, not as an environmental activist organization per se.

01:39:02 - 01:39:04

You were well received by the press?

01:39:04 - 01:39:23

Yes. Yeah, they liked us. There wasn’t much talk about out in the desert in those days. So yeah, we had a baby big horn born. That was good for quite a bit, or kids coming to the park or whatever. I mean, you mentioned the baby big horn being born.

01:39:23 - 01:39:26

That was part of that government program?

01:39:26 - 01:39:26


01:39:26 - 01:39:28

How successful was that program?

01:39:28 - 01:40:05

Well, we raised, they got us initially a ram and three yews and like all good hoofstock, you put them together and you give ’em halfway reasonable food and containment and they’re gonna make little hoofstock. And so, every year we had big horn babies and most of those survived, some we had to, I bottle raised some. Used to take ’em home with me at night because I was it, I was animal staff so if I was bottled raising it, it went wherever I went, but it worked out well.

01:40:06 - 01:40:11

Is the government program still in operation?

01:40:11 - 01:41:25

No, no. They backed out of it many years ago and they actually, another organization was built down there that, called the Desert Big Horn Society and they built their own facilities for research purposes down the road. And at that point, our herd became an exhibit herd for fish and game, as opposed to a research herd and then after awhile, when all those animals finally died, then they finally just said, we could do what we want. So, because before we couldn’t, if we had too many babies, they wouldn’t let us move any babies to any other zoo or anything and I’d say, well, this enclosure can only hold so many animals. And I’d say, “Well, then why don’t you go do hysterectomies on the yews?” I said, “I have a have a better idea. Let’s just separate the male in a different enclosure.” I don’t have to go out and do hysterectomies on our girls. So, but no, so it’s finished, but the enclosure’s still out there and there’s still big horn in it. Now, as I think about the desert, it gets very hot during the day.

01:41:25 - 01:41:30

Did you think about doing evening programs or was it more conducive?

01:41:30 - 01:42:48

Actually, in our desert, the evenings in which anybody would ever want to come to the park time of day is just as hot as the day because the day just gets hotter and it doesn’t cool off. Sometimes it never cools off, but it doesn’t cool off out there until like two or three in the morning. So, the best time you’re gonna do programming to avoid the heat is early morning, not evening, evening is just still as hot, I mean. So, and then we also, because we were in a natural area doing nighttime program, we do it, but doing nighttime nature walks added the extra excitement of literally coming across rattlesnakes and things like that. So, we had to be a little more cautious, but we tried opening early because for the first few years we closed all summer long. We were only open nine months of the year because it was too hot and we had essentially, other than one little tiny exhibit hall, we had no indoor facilities for people to get out of it. So, we would close in the summer because our summers average 115 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, so. Visitors turned into little squishy ink blots on the sidewalk, which your insurance company prefers not to have happen in that kind of temperature.

01:42:48 - 01:43:13

So, you do evening programs- But not very many because it just wasn’t well received and it was still too hot. Now they do some, but we do camp outs at the zoo program. Just like, I saw some of our colleagues doing these camp in the zoo things and so about 15 years ago, we started doing them, too. And those worked out pretty well.

01:43:15 - 01:43:16

For families, children?

01:43:16 - 01:43:24

Families, children, whatever. Some are just kids, some are family. We have family ones, we have kids ones, we have adult ones.

01:43:24 - 01:43:25

Where people will camp out?

01:43:25 - 01:43:30

Camp out. I mean, we provide the tents. It was like a little safari camp ground.

01:43:31 - 01:43:33

And that proved to be successful?

01:43:33 - 01:43:34

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

01:43:34 - 01:43:35

Lotta money?

01:43:35 - 01:43:45

Yeah, and we couldn’t do anything that didn’t earn some money. (laughs) Couldn’t do that. Had to make a dollar anywhere you turned, so.

01:43:47 - 01:43:57

You mentioned that awhile back that the Boy Scouts produced trails for you and how successful have the trails been?

01:43:57 - 01:44:04

Are there exhibits as you walk around and see them, when you’re walking down the trails, do you need a guide?

01:44:04 - 01:44:05

How does that work?

01:44:05 - 01:45:15

They’re still there. I mean, was obviously additions. They’re a lot like trail system in a national park where there used to be a trail guide. You’d pick up and walk along and read by the numbers. Then we decided that that was just not productive over time. And so, we started replacing the numbers with actual exhibits describing that feature that you were seeing ’cause I mean, our trails are in natural Colorado Desert, our property, the 1,200 acres actually has an elevation change on the property of some 2,000 feet, right within the property. So, we could do wash bed, we could do a alluvial fan and we could do hillside on our trail system and just explaining the natural plant life, perhaps talking about some of the animals they might see in that area, talking about the geology of the area and so forth. And those trails are still out there and there, the longest one is six miles round trip and an elevation change of 1,500 feet.

01:45:15 - 01:45:22

And the shortest one is a quarter of a mile out into the wash and back. And they’re used a lot.

01:45:24 - 01:45:27

How easy was it to develop the Desert Oasis build?

01:45:28 - 01:46:00

Well, palm tree is actually fairly easy because the palm trees are shallow eroded by all intents and purposes. So, we were able to bring in mature palms and create a pond. And so, as soon as you have a pond and mature palms, then adding the few other things that would be growing in the oasis was pretty straightforward. It was actually one of the easy exhibits to do because you can bring in full-size trees.

01:46:01 - 01:46:03

And how was that received?

01:46:03 - 01:46:36

Great. I mean, people loved it because at that point again, there were no other buildings, so it was actually a fairly cool place and they got the point right away that once you could get into the shade, deep shade in the desert, even in the middle of the day, there was a tremendous difference in temperature. And so, I put the Oasis pretty far out in our botanical gardens to give people a place to cool off once they got through the first part of the gardens on a warm day that they could go at least get to the Oasis and cool down before they had to turn around and come back.

01:46:36 - 01:46:42

And were the exhibits different, more unusual than anything else in the facility?

01:46:42 - 01:47:34

Not really, we built our first walk-in aviary as part of the Oasis because I could bury that aviary in those tall trees quickly, as opposed to having this giant structure out there sticking up out of the air forever while I waited for the little desert trees to bury it. So, we put a walk-in aviary out there and that, and the Oasis together was very well received because they, and it was all native birds. We were the rehab organization for, I mean, everybody was, that’s what most of the public loved us for more than anything else initially was they could bring the bird with the broken wing and the baby bunny and the baby ground squirrel and the baby hummingbirds and we would take ’em and we do what we could for ’em. And if some of the non releasable songbirds and things wound up in the aviary.

01:47:35 - 01:47:39

And so, it wasn’t difficult to get birds for the exhibit?

01:47:39 - 01:47:51

They were essentially being brought to you or you were acquiring them besides- No, I mean, this aviary was all native species. So, all we had to do is just sit still ’cause eventually it would arrive from the public.

01:47:51 - 01:47:54

Was that your vision, to build the aviary and they will come or?

01:47:54 - 01:48:38

Essentially, yeah. Well, I knew they were coming anyway. It was just a place to finally put them because we had built a bunch of behind the scenes holding pens for these things. And I would, but it was nice to be able to actually, and I had a few small aviaries for birds of prey that were permanently damaged and I created a little red cross and hung it on the thing so that people would go, “Why have you got this all in this little tiny box?” And well, because it can’t fly, and it has to have ways to get around. And so, to this day, all of our native birds for the most part are rehabbed birds, no reason not to have rehabbed birds, so.

01:48:39 - 01:48:44

Were certain species more successful of the birds in the aviary than others?

01:48:44 - 01:49:20

Well, we weren’t trying to breed. So, they were primarily just making sure that everybody got along in the aviary breeding was not on the agenda. So, in terms of successful people like to see certain ones more. And obviously the bigger brighter ones were always more of a hit ’cause people could see ’em, and there aren’t many big, bright birds in the Coachella Valley native. I can tell you, there are a lot of little brown things, so. Now, other desert animals, you have the small burrowing animals.

01:49:20 - 01:49:21

What were you trying to do?

01:49:21 - 01:49:27

Or what approach did you take to kinda give that visitor a positive or complete experience with them?

01:49:28 - 01:50:32

Well, we would build things like we built an exhibit, we built in a weather station that was, so that people would say it was hot. Well, they could get down on the weather station and actually see how hot it was and see rain gauges. But we also built at the weather station an exhibit that had, at that time they were cables. Today they’d probably do all wireless, but they were cables and we had cables in the grounds, physically in the ground at various temperatures and then they came up to the exhibit and the exhibit was of a ground squirrel borrow. It was with no animal, and it’s just drawings. And on the surface, we had a probe that sat there that told the visitor what the temperature was on the surface of the ground right now in the park. And then what the surface temperature was in these little guys burrowed down there and from what was in the ground in the park and things like that really clicked with people. It was like, oh, that’s why they have to go underground because look at that (chuckles).

01:50:32 - 01:50:40

Look at that temperature difference. Just simple stuff. I mean, it had to be simple because I didn’t have a lot of money to buy a lot of technology.

01:50:42 - 01:50:45

You developed an animal care center?

01:50:45 - 01:52:14

We developed first a small hospital building big to deal with all the rehab animals. Because, and by that point, when we built the hospital building, we had not many exotic, I mean, at all, but we had the sheep and we had coyotes and we had our kit foxes and but mostly it was rehab. And so, it was a little tiny building with a public window in it, even then in 1978. And we had local vets that volunteered to come in and help with stuff. And that building served us until I was able to build the Trinity Wildlife Hospital was one of the last big job, projects I did, which is a big, beautiful, giant hospital, fully viewable by the public, the whole thing. It’s open all the time. Everything’s behind glass. And fortunately, I got a veterinarian who loves it, who, he’s our TV guy, but he doesn’t mind working on anything in front of the public and he’s happy to talk to him about it all day long.

01:52:15 - 01:52:24

And we were really lucky that way, but the hospital, people come in and they’re just shocked. They’re shocked at two things.

01:52:24 - 01:52:45

The thing about hospitals and zoos, I’m digressing, that was the most valuable thing about our hospital was the fact that almost to a person, the first question we would get when somebody would walk into the hospital was, “Does every zoo have a hospital?

01:52:46 - 01:53:59

I’ve never seen a hospital in a zoo.” And I go, “Yes, Ma’am. Any professional zoo has got to have a hospital.” “Oh!” I think the public still to this day thinks all we do is keep these animals and throw them a bale hay once in awhile, because our hospitals have always been on the backside of the zoo. And I couldn’t afford to build a hospital on the backside of the zoo because no donor would have given me a hospital that nobody could have seen. So, I had to put it on the front and I couldn’t put it on the front and not open it and let people see what we do. And it was one of the biggest positives for the zoo business and for Living Desert, that we had this beautiful hospital dedicated towards taking care of the animals in our care. None of the rest of the zoo guys and gals, including myself, had ever thought about the fact that our visitor never thought about the fact that we had such a thing, that we actually cared that much to have a hospital. And it was just, it was like a shocking revelation to me because I’d completely missed that point the whole time. I just assumed people thought and knew that somehow we did our best to care for all these animals that we had.

01:53:59 - 01:54:26

They had no idea. One guy said to me, “I’d rather come here than our local hospital. It’s cleaner and better.” Now, let’s digress. The hospital, you said every aspect of the hospital is open to the public and yet people don’t mind it but- I mean, obviously it’s a corridor viewing situation. You can’t walk into the surgery room, but they’re in the surgery room, essentially. The windows are as big as the windows here.

01:54:26 - 01:54:29

So, when surgery’s being done people could view it if they happen to be there?

01:54:29 - 01:54:30


01:54:30 - 01:54:33

Pathologies being done they can happen to view it if they’re there?

01:54:33 - 01:55:28

Mm hm. They can talk to the vet, puts a headset on, unless he’s really buried in a serious thing, then he can talk to the tech and there’s cameras, and because sometimes all you can see of what’s goin’ on is the backside of the vet. So, we have cameras mounted and he’s got a screen in front of him that shows what the public are seeing besides where, they also have camera screens so that he can zoom in. And if he’s in the way of the animal on the table, he can still make sure that the camera’s pointed because he’s got a little monitor in front of him that shows him what the public can see. So, he’ll move the camera or the tech will move the camera by looking at the monitor they’re looking at so that the public has a really good view. If he’s halfway down some animal’s throat doin’ a tooth extraction or somethin’, I mean, the public’s in there doin’ it. We’ve had people faint (chuckles). Too much blood or something.

01:55:28 - 01:55:30

Boom, over they go (chuckles).

01:55:31 - 01:55:36

Would I be correct that this is unique among North American zoos?

01:55:37 - 01:55:47

A lot of people are beginning to do it now, but yeah, it was. But I had to. See, it was a matter of, for me, I had to build…

01:55:49 - 01:55:57

First to make the donors happy, I had to build the best animal hospital imaginable in their minds because why would they donate to a dinky little thing?

01:55:57 - 01:57:16

I had to put it on the public side, and if I was gonna put it on the public side, what was the point of just havin’ this big building with a sign on the door that said, “Animal Hospital?” That wasn’t gonna make the donor happy either. So, I had to invite the public in and I thought, “Let’s invite ’em in.” And we even have research room where we have little lab coats and stethoscopes and things like that and the kids can, there’s a room for them to go play. And then, because thankfully our animals, even our rehab animals aren’t having surgeries and fixing broken legs and necks every five minutes, we have three kiosks that we built, had specially built and we videotaped procedures. And we have five procedures per kiosk. Each one’s about 10 minutes long. And so, if there’s nothing going on in the hospital, I’ve seen whole classes of students as teachers sit ’em on the floor and they push the button and they’ll watch a tooth extraction on a leopard or they’ll watch for 10 minute video. And then they’ll push the next button and maybe it’s treating bumble foot in a golden eagle. And the next one is a health exam on a rattlesnake.

01:57:16 - 01:57:52

And so, even if there’s nothing going on in the hospital, they can see different things and there’s a total of 15 of them available and they supposedly update ’em, still are updating them periodically so they’re not the same 15 every time the kids come. And so, and then they have their own little lab that they can go and pretend to be a doctor. When you were talking about the animal care center, is the zoo today and you seem to be the go-to center for animal rehab, native animal rehab.

01:57:52 - 01:57:54

Is that still the case today?

01:57:54 - 01:58:58

For the most part. A young lady who had been a volunteer with us many years ago started and fell in love with doing rehab, particularly doing raptor rehab as a volunteer, set up her own nonprofit, ultimately, which we encouraged her to do, we were really glad to help. And so, she runs a very large wild bird center rehab facility for raptors primarily. And so, we’ll ship a lot of stuff directly to her, or even tell people if they call us, just take it there. But when it comes to small mammals still and so forth, we’re still it. And we always, because that was a way of connecting to the community. You have to be relevant to the community you’re in and a lot of my colleagues would go, “Oh, we don’t do rehab because you can introduce all these parasites and all blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I went, “If I didn’t do rehab, my community’d wonder what the heck I’m there for.” So, we did it from day one. We just made sure we had ways to do it.

01:58:58 - 01:59:09

We had ways in the hospital to segregate the rehab animals that came in, they had their own quarantine, their own wards. So, we did it.

01:59:09 - 01:59:13

How’d you get the word out to people that you were this rehab center?

01:59:13 - 01:59:26

They just automatically thought we would be. They never thought that we weren’t going to be a rehab center. I mean, there wasn’t any need to put the word out. It was like, there’s this place over there that talks about the desert and has desert animals. So, that’s where we have to bring stuff.

01:59:26 - 01:59:32

I mean, we never said, “Oh, by the way, we’ll do this.” It was like, oh my God, what’s gonna come today?

01:59:32 - 02:00:39

Because it was pretty much a daily occurrence and I’d even go out on calls, people. I had one guy had a rattlesnake in his pool down the road and he was afraid to go outside ’cause it was in his pool. And so he called me up and he said, “There’s a rattlesnake in my pool. Can you come and get it out of my pool?” “Okay.” I drove over and got the rattle, and it was funny ’cause I got there and then I was out with my snake hook and he says, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m going out to get the rattlesnake. Isn’t that what you called me for?” He said, “You’re gonna go out there?” I’m like, “Well, either (laughs) I drove all the way over here because you wanted the rattlesnake out of your pool, so I have to go out to your pool, don’t I?” And I had the same thing with the church down the street. There was a big rattlesnake coiled up on their doorstep, on the front of the church one Sunday morning and services could not begin. So, I drove down the church and removed the rattlesnake. So, did you had a policy then, maybe still do, we accept it all?” In theory, we still accept it all.

02:00:39 - 02:01:39

But we try to, most of it still is birds. That’s the biggest thing, and so those mostly now go to the Raptor Center. We used to try not to accept big mammals. We live in a fairly varied habitat and we’ve even had people bring us live wild deer that they’ve hit on the road. And mostly those, if they’re that bad off, we would tend to euthanize. But yeah, we still accept it, and we try to, if possible, if it’s a good enough story, we can make hay out of it. We accepted a injured bobcat, road hit bobcat that somebody had drove three hours to bring to us from the Colorado River. And we got that animal healed up and we drove it back the three hours and the media followed us, and it was the big release of the bobcat whose life we saved.

02:01:39 - 02:01:52

I mean, it’s great PR. I would never, I don’t know whether they’ll ever continue, hope they’ll continue doing it ’cause I would never stop while I was there, that’s for sure. We have to be relevant.

02:01:53 - 02:02:06

You were talking about the animal care center in the hospital that you built, having the ability for people to view things, did you make it available for people to view births of animals?

02:02:06 - 02:02:57

Or was that just, you never knew when it would happen?” Yeah, we didn’t know. I mean, if it happened in front of the public, it happened. Obviously we weren’t bringing animals into the hospital for them to birth. So, but if we thought we had a situation just like in any zoo, if you thought you had a new birth and you needed to keep things a little quieter, then you just wouldn’t let the public down that path that day for the day. I mean, we were no different than anybody else that way, because obviously the health and wellbeing of the animals at all times was more important than the public. But our vet felt that if he, like I said, if he thought he was doing some surgery or some procedure, which he really had to complete, he had the ability to just not, Kevin is wonderful. He just would turn off the fact that those people were out there. It made no difference to him.

02:02:57 - 02:03:50

He was just doing his job. And sometimes the tech would even be too busy, and the public could get that, but we always kept, it was one of my volunteer stations to get volunteers. So, there was always a volunteer in the hospital because they would take people around when nothing was going on and say, this room is this and this room is that. And so, the volunteers would, the vet might say, “Hey,” and the volunteer would say, “Look, this is a dicey operation. The doctor isn’t gonna be able to talk to you right now,” and people were 100% understanding of that. And we had, I mean people, the vet would keep, unless it was an emergency that popped up, he’d would know what he was gonna do ’cause the keeper staff knew what they were gonna do for like routine exams. “He brings something yet?” So, he would schedule those for the week and people would call the park.

02:03:50 - 02:03:52

“What’s he workin’ on today?

02:03:52 - 02:04:13

I wanna bring my friends over and see this. What’s he workin’ on today?” And it was a question we’d answer at the desk when people would drive over because he was workin’ on, they wanted to know what time he was workin’ on it and what it was gonna be. Well, that’s the chicken and egg story. Now, the question is when you built it, was this that there, and you had this vision and said, “Here’s what we’re gonna do.

02:04:13 - 02:04:24

You gotta be happy about it,” or did you build it and then when the vet you hired, you said, “This is what part of your job is while you’re down here?

02:04:24 - 02:05:11

of your job. Yep. Yeah, we did not have a full-time staff that until we built the hospital. And so when we were searching for a vet, we said to him, “We’re gonna give you one of the most beautiful hospitals that you can imagine.” I mean, it had every bell and whistle known to man at that time, it may not have been the biggest one in the universe, although it was 20,000 square feet. But it had every bell and whistle ’cause the donors, that’s what the donors wanted and that’s obviously what I wanted, but I said, “You’re gonna have to.” And he said he would and he did, and he does and he’s great. He just is great. He’s still great at it all these years later.

02:05:11 - 02:05:21

Do you have a medical, professional people, medical team, that you involve in things that go on at the zoo or is it mostly the veterinary staff?

02:05:22 - 02:06:35

If he needs assistance from either other vets, and we also for awhile, but he’s just, he passed away recently, we had a Eisenhower Medical Center is a big human medical center in our area, and there was a Dr. Lawrence, Lawrence Cohn, who was a physician who specialized in both infectious diseases and he also specialized in cancer. But Dr. Cohn was, besides physically being a doctor and seeing patients, he was also, he was like a Renaissance doctor. He read everything, he’d researched. He was one of the original people to come up with the AIDS cocktail. And he just, he had a mind that was always curious and he loved animals, too. And so, if we had to do something with an animal, particularly before we had our big hospital, he’d say, “All right, I’ll meet you over at Eisenhower. Bring it and we’ll run it through the human CAT scan,” and stuff like that. And he was proud of those moments.

02:06:35 - 02:06:37

He would tell his colleagues, “You know what I used to do?

02:06:37 - 02:07:12

At night when nobody was around, we’d bring stuff from Living Desert.” (laughs) And we had more fun, but he was a great resource for us and other human doctors would occasionally look at things for us and local vets. And when Kevin would need a day off, we’d have coverage from local vets. So you hired the first veterinarian, but you mentioned a zoo education curator, that was the first staff. That was the first staff besides me.

02:07:12 - 02:07:27

What kind of vision or programs were you charging this first person to develop and were you looking to target children or any audience, or what was that initial push that you wanted?

02:07:27 - 02:08:32

Actually, was that I knew it was a gal and she loved the desert as much as I did, although she was a art history major from Stanford and a mother of three daughters. Her husband had passed away. She was young, but she loved the desert, she loved being outside, she loved sharing the desert, hiking, birding. And she was I say, well educated from Stanford. And so I said to her, and she had been a docent at the local natural history/art museum in Palm Springs. So, and she enjoyed teaching people about the desert and about art and everything else. And she didn’t need to work. She was financially secure, but her whole family always worked, even though they didn’t need to work.

02:08:32 - 02:10:00

So, I said to her one day, “I need a curator of education at Living Desert, somebody to help me explain the desert to people and develop a program for kids and adults and everything else, would you like to do that?” And she thought it would be great fun to do, and I just turned her loose to do it. I’m a great believer of hiring people I think will do the job, letting them show me they can do the job, and if they continue to show me they do the job, I just leave them alone and let them do it. I don’t have the energy or time to micromanage anybody. If I have to I’ll fire ’em and get somebody else I don’t have to micromanage. And that was always the way I was, and because she didn’t come to the job as a professional educator with a certain set of boxes, she came to the job as somebody that loves the desert, was well-educated herself and very articulate, was a mother of three young daughters, pretty well connected in the community because of her social standing. She just followed her instincts and they were really good instincts. And so, our programs were fairly traditional, but they weren’t developed using all the educational buzzwords. They were designed to get kids, obviously, school kids, but also adult programs, adults and kid programs together.

02:10:00 - 02:10:18

But whatever she thought she would be good and useful as a mother herself and trying to teach her own daughter, she just brought all of that to the table. And so, I got really lucky and I just turned her loose and she was there for 25 years building that program.

02:10:20 - 02:10:23

She was successful in getting the community engaged?

02:10:23 - 02:10:56

Completely. Yeah. Were people starting to call Living Desert a zoo or was this a word that you- Not yet. No, and we didn’t call it a zoo. We called it Living Desert. We started out Living Desert Reserve. Then I lopped the word reserve off because I said it sounds like it’s just a bunch of land with a fence around it and we’re not. So, the board finally agreed to that and we just dropped the word reserve from, although it was hard to get rid of.

02:10:56 - 02:11:27

People still refer to it as the Reserve and so forth, but the bottom line is we just became the Living Desert. We weren’t the Living Desert Zoo. We were just the Living Desert for a very, very long time before because again, there was some sort of, in some people’s minds, almost a stigma that we didn’t wanna be a zoo. We weren’t a zoo. So it was like, all right, if it makes you feel better that we’re not a zoo, we’re not a zoo. By that point, we were members of ACA. I said, we have to be members. This is a professional organization for facilities that keep animals and we keep animals.

02:11:27 - 02:12:06

And so, we need to do this. We were also a member of the AABGA, the American Association of Botanical Gardens. And I said, “No, we have to be.” And I was a great believer in professional memberships and these kinds of organizations, because we were so far in the middle of nowhere that if we didn’t have any kind of professional contact, it’s the only way we were gonna get it is through being part of professional organizations and I encouraged my staff to join and to go to meetings. I always found money for them to go to meetings. As soon as I had professional staff, I expected them to go to meetings and I expected them to get involved in professional organizations.

02:12:10 - 02:12:26

In your master plan, did the Living Desert start to shift in approach to conservation, or was it always part of what you were doing when you talked about the breeding and management of endangered species?

02:12:26 - 02:12:37

It was always part. I mean, even when, initially we didn’t have anything besides plants on the ground. I mean, in my mind there were the endangered species part would eventually come.

02:12:39 - 02:12:46

And you mentioned on joining the American Zoo Association, how did that come about?

02:12:48 - 02:14:19

Well, I actually joined as an associate member in 1968, before there was a Living Desert, and I went to meetings ’cause you could go to meetings and the meetings were tiny, but you could go to the annual meeting. My first annual meeting that I went to was in ’67. ’68 meeting was in LA. That was really handy. So I was going to meetings and I was getting involved with ACA right away before there was a Living Desert and then when I got hired to be Living Desert’s director, Ron Blakely had just been hired at Wichita to design a zoo the same year, 1970. And so, Ron and I were, and I knew Ron from here. So, and I had kept in touch with him by going to the zoo meetings and occasionally coming back to Chicago and he and I were sitting in an ACA meeting in 1970, talking about the fact that we were arguing which one of us had the smallest collection because I had a couple of kangaroo rats and a kit fox and he had some ducks out in Wichita and that was it. But we were two zoo directors with essentially no animals.

02:14:21 - 02:14:34

And so, I got involved with ACA right away before I actually was at Living Desert, and one of my requirements when they hired me was that they would pay my way to an ACA conference every year.

02:14:35 - 02:14:36

Living Desert?

02:14:36 - 02:15:14

Living Desert and- And at some point you approached your board, you wanted the zoo to become a associate. Associated with ACA. Yep. And they received that- Fine. I mean, I never just dropped something on ’em. I mean, I tried to educate ’em and they knew I was going to these meetings and I said, they’re the organization that ultimately when they started doing accreditation, we got accredited pretty early on for a zoo of our size. And I said, we have to do these things. This is the professional way to do things, and so.

02:15:15 - 02:15:25

But calling us a zoo, that didn’t start to happen until probably 20 years down the road before I started allowing the word to be used.

02:15:26 - 02:15:34

When you were a member of ACA, as opposed to an associate member professionally involved, you must’ve been one of the few women in the profession?

02:15:34 - 02:16:22

I was one of the few women that wasn’t in the education field. There were quite a few educators, there were a couple of vets, but most of the gals, I mean, there were only two or 300 people at these meetings, so there were a few wives. I mean, out of that two or 300 people, probably 50 or 60 of ’em were dealers, animal dealers. And if you look at the old newsletters, we had let the dealers list what they had for sale too, in the newsletters. And so, but in terms of the director, at that moment I was the only director, of course. Like I said, I had three kangaroo rats and a pile of sand, but I was a zoo director.

02:16:22 - 02:16:25

How were you received by your male counterparts?

02:16:27 - 02:18:19

Well, it’s hard to know from their real perspective. From my perspective, I consciously made a decision that seemed to be perfectly rational to me at the time which is if I really wanted to be, I really wanted to build Living Desert and I really wanted to make it something special. And this group of people, the AZA, the AZPA at that time, were people that I could look up to and I wanted to be accepted by them and I thought, frankly, the only way I ever knew how to be accepted or do anything was just to be as good as I could be at what I did. And it didn’t take too long for them to realize that I was really there for a serious reason. I wasn’t just there to party for the night or anything else. And I volunteered and took on a lot of stuff that somebody needed to step up for and I was perfectly happy to step up and do it. And then I just, again, one of those moments of luck came along in which the ACA was struggling with being a part of the National Parks and Recreation Association and weren’t very happy with that. And part of what they weren’t happy about was that they kinda, their newsletter was, they had had their own newsletter, then it got swallowed up into the National Parks and Rec’s newsletter, which wound up having just a few pages in this newsletter and the zoo directors are saying, “We’re not playground managers and we’re not this, and this is a profession.” And I agreed it was a profession.

02:18:19 - 02:20:12

And so when we decided, when they voted in 1971 to separate from the National Parks and Rec’s, they needed somebody to do their newsletter and I was perfectly capable of doing that from a variety of reasons of vast historical things I had done in my professional career and laying out and publishing newsletters was something I could do easily. I had the skill set to do from prior jobs I’d had working my way through school and I didn’t even hesitate for a second. I just said to ’em in the board meeting that I’ll do the newsletter and they said, “Fine, Karen’ll do the newsletter.” And I did it. And so, backing up to your question, after the first couple of years of my being around meetings and doing things, I was just Karen. I wasn’t Karen the woman, and I never wanted to be Karen the woman. I just wanted to be Karen, Karen, the zoo director, Karen doin’ her job for the Association, just Karen. And it was not hard to do that, for me anyway. I mean, I just did it and I have always felt very strongly and that over time I’ll go forward a little bit, as more and more ladies came into the profession, some of them would came to me and said, “We were amazed that you did what you did, and you’re a role model for women,” and I actually got fairly angry with them about that because I said, “No, I hope I’m not a role model for women.” And they said, “Well, why would that be?” And I said, “I just wanna be a role model for what it is to be a good director.

02:20:12 - 02:20:27

It doesn’t make any difference that I’m a woman. You just have to be good at what you do. Just do it.” And then they, Betsy Dresser decided to start a woman in zoo biology.

02:20:27 - 02:20:29

Remember those days?

02:20:29 - 02:20:31

And the first person she came to is me.

02:20:31 - 02:20:37

She said, “We want you to be our founder,” and I went, “I refuse to join.” And she said, “Why?

02:20:37 - 02:20:45

You’ve gotta mentor women.” I said, “No, no, no. I’ll mentor any zoo professional. If they think I have something to offer ’em, I’ll tell ’em.

02:20:45 - 02:20:51

I said, “But why do you want to have, why do you want it?

02:20:51 - 02:20:55

You wanna be equal. You wanna just be part of the team.

02:20:55 - 02:21:05

So, why do you create an organization that says I’m different?” I said, I remember saying this directly to her, I said, “Is there an organization in zoos for blonde people?

02:21:06 - 02:21:47

I’m a blonde in the zoo business. I’m a green-eyed person and this is the organization for green-eyed people in the zoo business.” I said, “Isn’t it that nonsense?” “Well, yeah.” I said, “Well, to me it’s as much nonsense to have a woman in the zoo business organization.” Just be good at what you do, because that’s what you really want. You just want to be treated with the same… And I said, and that’s how I’ve gone about my business and I guess I’m treated with the same respect as anybody else in the business, because I’m just Karen. I’m just a person doin’ a job as best I know how to do it. And I never, ever… I didn’t hit people over the head. I didn’t hit the guys over the head with it.

02:21:47 - 02:22:02

I just did my job and I tried to be a really good director, I tried to be fun, just like them, go out and have a good time. And I was quickly accepted to the point where sometimes they’d forget I was even in the room as a woman, and that was perfectly fine with me.

02:22:03 - 02:22:16

Did you get others zoo directors, or who were some of your, did you have mentors and other zoo directors that you as a young director would go to and they would mentor you?

02:22:16 - 02:23:37

Sure, I mean, Bill Woodin at Arizona Sonora from day one said, “Go do it, try it.” Chuck Bieler had just wound up as director at San Diego and was feeling his way through. And Bill of course, would always be willing to pontificate to anybody at the time. And, but I sure listened, like everybody. George took me under his wing because we knew each other a little bit from Chicago and I had wound up being more of a herber at the time and of course he was into his frogs. And so, and Merv Larson, when Bill Woodin left the museum and Merv stepped up, Merv was an incredible exhibits designer, and Merv and I would talk about exhibits and lay out exhibits and design exhibits just for the fun of it for his facility and stuff that never even got built, but we would sit around all night long and design crazy exhibit ideas. So, there were people like that.

02:23:37 - 02:23:48

Well, speaking of exhibits, and you had this master plan in your secret master plan, we’ll call it, how did you want the Living Desert to be laid out?

02:23:48 - 02:23:51

Was it in these deserts or what were you driving at?

02:23:51 - 02:24:50

it was by continental desert. So, we started with North America because that was number one easiest, cheapest, and didn’t scare anybody. And then the next desert we moved to once the cat was out of the bag, literally, was we moved to the African desert because I figured first, everybody, Africa sounds pretty exotic. African plants are pretty exotic, African desert animal species, many of ’em are endangered. They’re kind of big, they’re more charismatic, so let’s do Africa. That’ll be easier than Australia because Australia has very few large barking creatures. (all laughing) Whereas Africa has all these big mammals, and Australia has in the great scheme of things, very few big mammals. So, we broke it into continents and I still hadn’t started Australia when I left 40 years later, but there’s still space for it.

02:24:50 - 02:25:46

It’s still sitting there. So it’s those three major- Yeah. We decided not to try to do like cold deserts, like Siberia or things like that were just too hot and too hard on the creatures, and I mean in theory, not fog deserts like Patagonia and things like that would have again, we’re just too dry. So, just three big biomes. I figure we can do African deserts, both North Africa and South African, and then ultimately Australian desert plus North American. Now, you have 1,000 acres approximately in the Living Desert that remain in their natural state. What was the vision of people experiencing the same area or what were the- Yeah, they- No, no, they were there, like I said, there’s about eight miles of hiking trails out there. So, and those trails are still there and still used.

02:25:46 - 02:26:23

We, in order to meet ACA standards, we didn’t fence the whole two square miles of land because the cost, so the trail system is you enter the main park through the zoo park, and then you walk to the edge of the zoo park at one side and you go out through the gates and there’s the end go on to the rest of our property into the trails and then you come back in at night and we closed the property off so that we are contained and meet the requirements of containment without having to fence all two square miles.

02:26:24 - 02:26:36

And in that, we’ll call that natural area, have you done as part of the, have you done surveys so you know what animal life is there, approximately what plant life is there?

02:26:36 - 02:27:16

Sure. So forth. Yeah, absolutely, we know what’s out there for sure. And the trails and exhibits were designed to help people see the stuff that’s out there whether there’s, because it’s not just a flat trail system. It goes from wash bed all the way up to 1,500 feet on rock hill side, we have all these different little communities and we can second guess when people are out walking, what they’re likely to see. In the rocky parts, they’re likely to see some chuckwallas and some kinds of lizards there and if they’re down in the flats, they’re likely to see Jack rabbits down in the wash bed and so forth, so.

02:27:16 - 02:27:18

And they can go off on their own to do this?

02:27:18 - 02:27:20

Yeah, yeah.

02:27:21 - 02:27:45

And we finally wound up putting some call boxes in, electronic call boxes, and one of the jobs at night to this day is that we can’t, the last guy, the security cannot, if there’s a car in the parking lot that doesn’t belong to one of us, they have to go out there and try to find these people because- I was gonna ask, did anybody ever get lost?

02:27:45 - 02:28:35

I’ve had ’em get lost. We had one lady die of a heart attack out there and at the very end of the highest part of the trail, and had a, I mean, by the time we got the helicopter rescue in she passed away. I had the joy of having to drive out there in my truck, I couldn’t drive to where she died because she died way up on the trail head, but I drove to where her husband came back down and then I drove him back in. He was in shock, but he wasn’t angry about anything. He said she was, I mean, it’s a beautiful trail, it’s a lovely trail on its, she was just doin’ what she loved to do and it was just… But they were three miles out in the middle of, I mean, they could see everything around them miles away, but there was no way they could get back.

02:28:36 - 02:28:38

And when you did the surveys and things, did you bring the university?

02:28:38 - 02:29:24

Is that part of- Yeah, they helped with the original view although, I mean, I was enough of a desert biologist myself, I could pretty much know what was out there, but sometimes the university, because they had their research center just up in the same alluvial plain, but it wasn’t open to the public, but they used to come down and occasionally use some of our grounds for some of their work, particularly if they were working on species that moved up and down the flood plain. So, as it’s progressing, the Living Desert in 1980, you would develop a lot of the staff. There were exhibits that you had wanted to put in that were there.

02:29:24 - 02:29:30

What was the status as you were moving ahead at that time?

02:29:30 - 02:30:41

we had most of the North American gardens, not all of them, but most of them, and we had a small animal building built, specifically to house, as opposed to just a few, what was in the main exhibition hall, we had a specific small animal building. Again, it was 90% North American right there from our own valley, but then comparative and really that building still functions in that purpose. And we built our education center as a multipurpose building, right at the sort of beginning of 1980, early 1980s. And we had our botanical garden center and greenhouses built by then. So, it was a fairly well-rounded facility, but after about 10, 11 years small, but well-rounded. You had talked about being relevant to the community. You started a community recycling center.

02:30:43 - 02:30:50

What was the idea behind that project and how did you get the community to be involved in that?

02:30:52 - 02:31:58

Well, our education courier, Sue, thought it was hard at that point. There wasn’t recycling drop-off places back then, but we thought if we’ve put this out by our parking lot and people even could, ’cause we had our own parking lot encompassed to us, so we could do what we wanted in our parking lot. So, we put in a recycling center and just encouraged people if they wanted to, they could bring any metal objects in this dumpster and glass objects in that dumpster. And it was more successful than I would have imagined it was going to be given that people literally had to put the stuff in their car and drive it to us, but they did and then the local disposal people would come periodically to take the individual dumpsters off to where they were. It was free. They would call the Cans for Critters. And so, we’d get paid a little bit of money from the recycling center for what they took.

02:31:58 - 02:31:59

Again, everything had to make money?

02:31:59 - 02:32:03

It had to make money. That was, yep.

02:32:04 - 02:32:16

How did you start to develop the conservation and preservation projects you were involved with with your view of wanting to breed endangered species?

02:32:17 - 02:34:45

Well, again, for the most part that was, the ability to the luck, if you will, that there I was sitting two hours away from San Diego and had all the money and had an interest in desert species, not everything they had was desert, but they had enough of them that I could ride their coattails of their programs, and Jim Dolan was, if anything a guy that loved, that would put critters with any other facility he could put critters with to help build a program. I mean that, so again, it was luck. I mean, if it had been some of the more traditional zoo guys at the time down the road, may not have been anywhere near as easy to get involved in serious work and working in endangered species and the magnitude that we were able to because I had Jim Dolan in San Diego down the road. And in turn, I tried to do what I could do to support them in what they did and what I wound up being able to do to sort of give back to San Diego was they had a very archaic by anybody’s standards, including their own I think, computerized system for keeping records and things at San Diego and it was proprietary to them. And that was at the time when we were just starting to do computerized studbooks and I was on the first board of what became ISIS and so forth, because he got me stick to the old history of Karen, Karen was this computer programmer person that had a degree in it. And most of my colleagues, including Bill Conway, hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with one of those things and didn’t wanna know, but I did and I understood it and I worked with Ulli Seal and a couple of other guys and we created, it would eventually, it was the first computerized database program and started computerizing studbooks that everybody else had been managing on pieces of paper. I, on the other hand at Living Desert had all these computers because computers were cheaper to buy than staff. And I understood that you could make them, you only needed one staff person and then you had a computer that could do all these other things that you didn’t need three staff people manually doing something, you needed one staff person and a computer.

02:34:46 - 02:36:26

And so, we computerized very early on compared to all of our colleagues because I understood them and I put my way through graduate school programming ’em for professors and as soon as there was such a thing that I thought we could buy, we bought some of the original personal computers ever made were sitting in my office at Living Desert in my little tiny place ’cause I knew the value. So, my point of this is that when we started computerizing studbook San Diego is managing a lot of studbooks all by hand. And I said to Jimmy, “Look, let’s get these things computerized.” And he’s says, “Well, I can’t because our systems here don’t run that stuff.” And I said, “I’ll do ’em. You give me the data and I’ll take ’em all home.” And so, I put the Arabian Oryx studbook into computers. I put slender horn gazelles into computers, Morris gazelles, Cuvier’s gazelles, you name it and pretty soon, even though these studbooks were held in the name of San Diego, I was doing all the manual labor and we just worked together and I said, “This is something I can give back to San Diego and support San Diego, and so Jimmy said well, “You and I will be the co SSP coordinators for Oryx.” And I said, “Okay, whatever.” So, I was able to fortunate, lucky, because I have to be lucky sometimes as well as good. I was lucky that there was a Jim Dolan who believed in getting these animals in and doing something with ’em and I could help him do something with ’em, so. You mentioned Arabian Oryx.

02:36:26 - 02:36:33

What hand did Living Desert have in returning Arabian Oryx to Oman?

02:36:33 - 02:36:35

How did the project begin?

02:36:35 - 02:36:37

What were the results?

02:36:37 - 02:36:42

What did you learn about returning animals to the natural habitat?

02:36:42 - 02:36:46

How did that start to influence things at your zoo in Living Desert?

02:36:47 - 02:38:50

Well, I mean, we came into the Arabian Oryx re-introduction program, I knew it was going on because I was, at that point had already computerized the studbook. And so, we were looking at animals from reproductively as to who could go back, what animals were overrepresented in our populations and so forth. And so, but animals had already started to be shipped back. San Diego was the staging ground for most of the North American animals that were going there because they had all the equipment, the manpower, the money to do all the testing and so forth and so on. After there had been several animals going back, including some that had wound up coming out of our herd at Living Desert, Jim, there was a special meeting of Arabian Oryx holders in Oman and primarily they were, it was San Diego, but it was also some of the other countries from that area, Jordan in particular, and being held in Oman, and I was to go out and actually see the animals in the field. And so, I was invited to be able to go along on that. And that was for me, just the most fabulous experience to be out in Oman and the edge of the Empty Quarter and seeing Oryx in the wild and realizing that it’s possible to do this for some species at least, and hoofstock definitely. And we had some animals go back there.

02:38:51 - 02:39:35

I was involved in selection only because I was the stud bookkeeper and I was one of the folks that knew how to run the software at that time to do in breeding coefficients and all that sort of stuff and so, but it was certainly an exciting time in my personal life to be part of something as big as that. Now, in order to do some of these things, it takes money. You had indicated that you were in the early days where I’m talking to anybody who you could talk to and your board helped a little. Today, you have a long range planning committee that you developed.

02:39:38 - 02:39:43

What was your role after this committee was put together?

02:39:43 - 02:40:33

Well, we put it together pretty early, actually. Once they, I would say we wound up with a long range planning committee in the early ’80s. And I hand selected the best I could, board members that I thought would be most open. And I had at that point, I had a couple of board members I thought might understand it. They weren’t wildlife biologists, they weren’t conservationists per se, but they were youngish and they had vision and this and that. And so, I created this committee, got them on it. And then we did field trips. We actually went looking at botanical gardens and zoos, and I took ’em all the way over to Tucson, to Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and we went down to Sea World.

02:40:33 - 02:42:03

I mean, we went just all kinds of places and I didn’t, I just let them, I didn’t make it like, “You’re coming here to see this.” I just, we’re just going and we’d be walking around and we’d just start looking at things and I’d go, and notice how many restrooms they’ve got around here, and we just kind of talk about things just, it was almost like we were just visitors to the zoo without a real purpose ’cause I didn’t want ’em to feel like I was gonna feed them something that then I was expecting them to regurgitate. I just wanted them to really start thinking about what we were doing, and that was pretty well received by that group, and then we built the first visual master plan of the whole place within that group sprinkled holy water on it because they were sort of part of it. I have a saying that I use to today on boards that I sit on and boards that I work for and which is, I try desperately if I have an idea to not expose the idea very much until I have everybody on the train. I want everybody on the train when it leaves the station, ’cause you don’t wanna leave anybody behind and then they’re feeling bad or they’re trying to catch up. So, it’s best you do a lot of setting of seeds and a lot of sprinkling and can watering before expect anything to grow. And at best, you get everybody on the train before you start to move it somewhere. And it takes a lot of time at that end, but it saves a lot of time at the other end, awful lot of time.

02:42:04 - 02:42:13

Now, speaking of people on the train, how is the development portion of Living Desert handled today?

02:42:13 - 02:43:12

Is it still a one person operation or do you have a team that was- There was a team by the time I left. We were very much because of my nature, and I tried to hire people that fit that mold and if they didn’t fit the mold, they got fired, very soft sell. We didn’t ask people for money, we gave people opportunities to give. And there’s a huge difference in your approach. And most of the local charities, like most local charities are more breaking arms and twisting arms and I used to say, half the development people I would see in other organization, not initially there weren’t other zoos, but local hospitals, all those, half of them were, I call them used car salesman. Today they’re raising money for pencils, tomorrow that’s Chevrolet’s, the next day it’s Pontiac’s. And there’s no emotion to that, and then therefore they’re not very good. It doesn’t happen.

02:43:12 - 02:43:44

So, if you can get your development staff to really care about the institution, they don’t even have to beat development people. They just have to be people who care about their jobs and care about what we do and are willing to talk to people about it and follow through. And that works really well and still does to today. So, all my curators, I told ’em all, you’re all in the development department, my vets in the development department. And so, I can go to somebody and say, “Hey, Kevin, that’s the vet.

02:43:44 - 02:43:58

Kevin needs one of these.” “Oh, okay, Kevin needs one of these.” “Can you help?” “Yeah, we can help with that.” And how important were local politicians in helping them build this vision?

02:43:59 - 02:45:04

Not very, because again, we were always totally private, so we didn’t get any money from local politicians. And we were in two cities. That caused all kinds of problems because the cities hated each other, and therefore they occasionally would use us as a ping pong ball. And one city made us indicate everywhere a trail of visitor path crossed from one city. The next I had to have a city sign (laughs) inside the park. “You are now entering Indian Wells,” because our actual physical entrance to the park was in the other city and so everybody associated us with the city of Palm Desert because our street address was Palm Desert. But as Indian Wells was happy to tell anybody who would listen, three fourths of the park was in their city, but they never got any visibility and so, it was always entertaining working with the cities, but they had no financial interest in us other than whatever fees they could extract for permits and so forth and so on.

02:45:04 - 02:45:11

And this was mandated, the signing, just as a quick follow-up, this was mandated by the Indian Wells?

02:45:11 - 02:45:44

Yeah. You didn’t have much choice in it. I didn’t have much choice in it. So, I said, well, we’re gonna put signs in that fit our style of signage. So, the three or four main paths I had these signs, “A Tale of Two Cities,” was the sign. And people’d go, “What?” And then I would, “Due to loving support, we have two cities that just love us so much and this is where they meet.” Mm hm, I was really pleased. Gave ’em what they wanted. Gave ’em what they wanted.

02:45:44 - 02:45:47

Tell us about the Eagle Canyon project.

02:45:47 - 02:45:53

Was it a milestone for Living Desert, where’d you get the idea?

02:45:54 - 02:45:56

Who designed it?

02:45:56 - 02:45:58

How’d you get the money?

02:45:58 - 02:46:00

How was it received?

02:46:00 - 02:48:18

It was certainly a milestone project for us ’cause it was the first big zoological project that we undertook, that was really for us of huge magnitude because until then we had the big horn on the hill. We had a couple of fenced enclosures for gazelles and Oryx and we had our little small animal building and some coyotes and that was it. And so, the basic design concept was mine from the fact of where I wanted to put it in the park, which was at that point as far away from the entrance to the park, as you could get, because I thought it would do two things. It would give me a chance to build a restroom out there and an inside area to get people out of the heat so that they finally, when they walked all the way down there, they had a potty to go to and they could get into some air conditioning before they had to walk all the way back through that heat. It was laid out primarily in my mind from visions I’d created from looking at institutions in a lot of riches, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum’s layout of just fitting the thing into the habitat because it was designed however, to do comparative evolution. We did fennec and kit fox, we did caracal and bobcat as well as others, and then we had to have place for, I wanted Mexican wolves because it was an endangered species. Merv Larson by that point had not only left the museum, but had also left the Larson Company as well, and sold the Larson Company and he was down in Mexico, and I drug him out of Mexico. He was still consulting for the Larson Company at that point and I drug him up from Mexico and I said, “Come on Merv.” And we designed the basic thing on a couple of pieces of envelope from what I wanted and the terrain, and I really had to have architectural designs.

02:48:19 - 02:48:51

And so, and we built it. It was two and a half million dollar budget. And it had to come in for that, and I had to raise the money ahead of time and get it all raised. And I got it all raised, and we built it. And like all exhibit projects it had its moments, but it was built and we built it on time and in budget and it was really well received, really well received.

02:48:53 - 02:48:58

Did you have certain donors who stepped forward that you offered the opportunity or was it a hard sell?

02:48:58 - 02:49:01

I mean, where’d you get the money from?

02:49:01 - 02:50:05

No. Well, it’s always tough to get the money, but I had this little booklet that I had made that I always kept current called the “Wish Book.” And it was just a three ring binder with some pretty pictures. Many of ’em hand drawn since they were wishes. I couldn’t even show photographs of it with prices of what the things would cost, and the “Wish Book” started with a bench for 100 bucks or whatever it was. And different projects is the further you went into the “Wish Book,” it was just this chintzy little notebook with drawings in it, but the further you went, the more expensive the project got. And then we always had things we wanted, a new little aviary for this, a pond for that. Now, at the end of the “Wish Book” was Eagle Canyon and we had broken it into saleable chunks. I got that idea from art galleries where you had the big building that had a name, and then you had the flare and it had a name and the bathroom had a name.

02:50:05 - 02:50:51

Everything’s got a name. Okay, I can do that. So, we divided the thing up into all these little chunks, all the way down to even the sidewalk. We had done steps to education and for the education sidewalk to pay for the sidewalk, so we sold squares of sidewalk with a name in it. Instead of a brick, we cut sidewalks and hung, put names in ’em. So, he had steps. So, we had everything from $500 contributions to the million dollar naming opportunity. And if I had sold all the things that I was going to sell and named them all, it would have paid for the project plus an additional 10% that we hung on for him to build an endowment slowly but surely.

02:50:52 - 02:52:28

So, I had this older couple had come in to see me because they had sent me a $25,000 check out of the blue with no restrictions on it, and I had rung them up and said, “Wow, thank you. Wow, that’s a lot of money,” which it was in my opinion. “What do you want us to do with it?” “Well, we’ll come and talk with you one day soon.” I said, “Okay.” So, they came in and to meet them and they would look like Ma and Pa Kettle in all honesty. And I thought, “Well, okay.” But I gave him the “Wish Book,” and I know they got $25,000. So, we’re going through the “Wish Book” and they’re going through the “Wish Book,” and they get all the way to the end and they get to Eagle Canyon and for their million dollar gift, they got to name it Eagle Canyon and they got the mountain lion exhibit as well. Those are the two things they would get. And I remember they were sitting just like you across from me are and they said, he turned to his wife when he got to the very end and he said, “Well, tell us more about this thing.” And they’re pointing at the Eagle Canyon naming, and I’m kind of like, well, but I take everybody seriously, so I’m explaining to ’em that it’s gonna be this huge new exhibit and it’s gonna have mountain lions, it’s gonna have all these animals and it’s gonna be spectacular and blah, blah, blah. And I remember he looked at his wife and he said, “Ma, what do you think?” And she said, “Well, if you want to.” And he says, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.” He says, “Okay, we’ll do it.” And I’m blinking and I’m trying to process what they’re telling me.

02:52:29 - 02:53:39

And before I can go even open my mouth, he says to his wife, “Do you have your checkbook?” And she said, “Yeah.” Then she reaches down in her purse and she pulls out a checkbook like you and I pull out a checkbook. And he says, “Well, write her the check.” He says, “What, we owe you $975,000?” And I went, “Yeah,” ’cause they’d already giving me 25. He says, “Yeah, Ma, write the check.” She wrote a check for, on her checkbook for $975,000 and handed it to me and I almost lost it because I thought I’m gonna be really brilliant and smart. And I said to him, “Are you sure you wanna do that because we can take it different ways. Maybe there are certain tax advantages.” And he looked at me and he said, “Are you insinuating I don’t know what I’m doing with my money?” And I went, “No, Sir, no.” “Take the check.” “Yes, Sir.” He walked out and I stood there with that check for a long time, staring at it ’cause it was like, fell out of the sky. So, once I had the lead gift, pshh.

02:53:39 - 02:53:41

Did they continue to support the display?

02:53:41 - 02:54:01

Mm hm. And they, part of all the construction, he’d go out and he’d look at me. To this day I have no idea where they got their money. Everybody would always smile and say, “Oh yeah, it’s their money,” but everybody would smile. So, I have no idea wherever it came from, but to meet him, they just looked like Ma and Pa Kettle.

02:54:06 - 02:54:13

As part of what you were doing with the facility, you were doing research at the Living Desert?

02:54:13 - 02:54:51

Is that- We made facilities available. We never had our own research staff. We would make facilities available for visiting researchers and if somebody could prove a legitimate requirement for material from us, we certainly would provide it. We’d do everything we could, but we didn’t have the funding. I never chose to have the funding to hire permanent in-house research staff. And we just said, we’ve got all these facilities. We even had spare offices if somebody wanted that had a project, legitimate project, and needed to work out of our place for a week or a month or whatever, we could give ’em office space.

02:54:51 - 02:54:52

That continues today?

02:54:52 - 02:54:54

As far as I know, yeah.

02:54:55 - 02:54:58

Did you embrace enrichment programs?

02:54:58 - 02:54:59

Yes we did.

02:54:59 - 02:55:01


02:55:01 - 02:56:30

I smile because I loved them and hated them. I used to complain bitterly to anybody that would listen to frankly, very little avail that we would spend, in some cases now millions of dollars creating naturalistic exhibits into which we would throw bowling balls and other things. And I said, “If you have enough brains to create a naturalistic exhibit, why cannot you create naturalistic enrichment?” Why do I have to walk by my enclosures filled with ripped up cardboard boxes by mountain lions and other rather ridiculous enrichment things?” I never won that argument particularly well to this day, but on the other hand, it is critical to the welfare of the animals that we provide as much stimulation as we can and I just never felt that my staff took my challenge and I’d even told em, I said, “If you can show me enrichment, even it costs three times what you wanna do, I’ll pay for it so that I don’t have to walk through exhibits that I’ve spent a bazillion dollars on sight lines and everything else to convince the public that this is nature to then find a bunch of ripped up cardboard boxes or milk cartons or whatever the hell is hanging in the middle of it. So, but yeah, we embraced it because it was necessary for the animals. So, I wasn’t gonna stop it just because I didn’t like the look of it. You had a Grevy zebra born.

02:56:30 - 02:56:33

Was there anything special about that birth?

02:56:34 - 02:56:43

Not that, I mean, we had several born over the years. We had a very tough male zebra called Fenton who was an animal not to be reckoned with, but.

02:56:43 - 02:56:45

What does tough mean?

02:56:45 - 02:56:58

He’d just as soon eat you as look at you, and on more than one occasion, he could give people a heart attack ’cause you’d wonder if he was really gonna stop at the fence when he decided to charge including myself one day, but…

02:57:03 - 02:57:14

As you were building, you added an endangered species of a gazelle, you added a picnic area, children’s play park, what was the idea about these additions?

02:57:14 - 02:58:29

Again, a reason to, is the community grew up around us. Now, all of a sudden we had kids and we had schools because my first community was wealthy people in country clubs who had second homes. That was the community in the ’70s and ’80s, and then the school kids were for the most part whose parents were in the service industry to service all these other people. Then as people, we started getting more doctors and lawyers and had a true community, then suddenly we really needed to provide for typical families more like most of us had to do. And so I was, and again, I’m always reaching for audience because we depended on memberships, we depended on that gate. So anything we could do to be of service to the community so that they in turn would support us through memberships, we did. I mean, we had a picnic area from day one, but it was just a plain little picnic area. But we started building as soon as we really started having schools and parents who would bring kids to a facility like ours, we started having facilities that would attract them.

02:58:29 - 02:58:31


02:58:31 - 02:58:36

How effective do you think the exhibits have been in raising public awareness about endangered species?

02:58:36 - 02:58:38

Is there a way to gauge it?

02:58:40 - 02:58:48

We never really used a lot of energy on that. We probably should have, but we didn’t to be honest with you.

02:58:49 - 02:59:20

We felt like, my bottom line from the day one from when I started there and when I was even at the national park as a ranger was if the visitor left with the reality of nothing more than, “Oh my gosh, there really is stuff on a desert,” then we probably have done our job because our environment is still to this day such a maligned environment of why conserve it?

02:59:20 - 02:59:21


02:59:21 - 03:00:12

I just listened two weeks ago to a CNN program called Anthony Bourdain’s and he was in Vegas. And he does these rather thoughtful programs on parts of the world generally centered around the food, but and which in this program, they’re talking about the fact that they’re doing water conservation in Vegas right now and where Vegas ends is the desert, which is this un-hospitable place that nobody cares. That’s what they literally said it on TV two weeks ago. So, the average visitor to our environment is still being fed the information that it’s just a vast, nasty wasteland desert.

03:00:13 - 03:00:16

Why preserve it, why protect it, why even care about it?

03:00:16 - 03:00:48

To this day, they’re still doing that. So, for me to have focused specifically on, somebody leaves that they really care about Arabian Oryx, I just, I want the broader concept that they at least would understand that in the world’s deserts there is life and it’s interesting, fascinating, and some of it’s in trouble. And I think we accomplished that pretty routinely because that was the general consensus of virtually every visitor is, “Oh my God, there’s so much here. I had no idea.

03:00:48 - 03:00:49

This stuff is all on a desert?

03:00:49 - 03:01:05

Oh my goodness, so much.” And that was the bottom line for us and that we can say we accomplish. In 2008 as president of WAZA, the World Zoo Association, you called on the public to assist in helping save the world’s amphibians.

03:01:05 - 03:01:12

How supportive were zoos and aquariums with this initiative and what’d you learn from this experience?

03:01:12 - 03:02:09

Well, I was part of the start of that. I mean, by 2008, I had finished my role in WAZA, but I think a lot of the zoos stepped up. As we talked about it, all of us, of all the life forms, I mean, they’re both hard and easy. They’re easy because they’re small and you can have viable large populations in little tiny places. It doesn’t require bazillions of dollars. Hard because they’re amphibians and you’re struggling against a real problem. But I think the reception in the world’s zoos was actually pretty well received and carried forward by Gordon and then of course, Jeff Bonner was involved at that time as well. So I mean, people far better than me at creating international programs and shepherding them forward.

03:02:09 - 03:02:33

I just happened to be in WAZA at that moment in time when that hit, and glad to be part of the start of it, but can’t take any kinda credit for it. They say that zoos have to keep growing and changing and attracting people for some, to bring people back to a place that they know.

03:02:34 - 03:02:41

What was the vision or how were you thinking about that with the Living Desert?

03:02:41 - 03:04:26

Well, because we were in the situation where we were not an old zoo that might need to tear something down in general, though, we did a little bit of tearing down periodically, of course, but we still had so much of our master plan to do and still did and still do today that we could keep innovating and expanding our offerings to our public without having to kind of go back and retrofit. I mean, we were going to, some things now are old, but fortunately they’re standing the test of time pretty well. And we have so many new things to do, like all of Australia, and we have a section that’s been designed for several years that on a new entrance facility, which includes a whole new gift shop complex and a meeting building and events building and lions and so forth. So anyway, there’s a lot that we can do with land that has never been touched yet by us. That’s part of our master plan, so we should be able to, if they choose to continue to raise money and follow along in the master plan, we should be able to continue to give the visitor a reason to return. And of course, we have a lot of tourism, which is, and that still makes up the bulk of our visitors are people who identify themselves as tourists to the area. So, we’re a fresh experience to them, many cases, period, because they’ve never been, and they can only play golf so many times (chuckles). When you mentioned Australia, I remember taking a camel ride in Australia.

03:04:26 - 03:04:37

How effective have camel rides been for you and is that changing the dynamics of the Living Desert or part of moving through the vision?

03:04:38 - 03:05:37

Actually, they started camel rides just as I was leaving. I didn’t disagree with the concept, frankly, because I think I am of the old school. I have no problem naming an animal because you have to connect people and they don’t connect with animal 2276. They connect with Reno, the mountain lion, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I think if you start turning Reno into a cartoon character, that’s another story, but we have to connect people. We have to be pragmatic, I guess. And I’ll, and if you’re gonna connect people with wildlife or people with wild places then you have to connect them at a visceral reaction, not just a cerebral. And if it takes sitting on the top of a camel to make people care about camels or care about desert, then let’s go for it.

03:05:40 - 03:05:41

It’s been well received?

03:05:41 - 03:06:07

I think so, I think so. Like I said, I was not doing it while I was there, so I don’t know for sure, but I believe it has or they wouldn’t be bringing it back. I mean, we did butterfly garden while I was there, which was extremely well-received. I mean, I was frankly surprised when they decided they took it down and again, I don’t challenge what they do, but I was surprised because that was such a simple thing and so well received.

03:06:07 - 03:06:10

Was that a permanent exhibit at the time?

03:06:10 - 03:06:32

at the time, yeah, mm hm. I mean, because we closed in the summer, it was never open in the summer anyway but, and then we put hum hummingbirds into it. Peterson Minsky got us hummingbirds and it was, and that just added another, I mean, it was just one of the most, because again, people wanna touch and stuff, people wanna really experience it.

03:06:33 - 03:06:41

How did your style of being a director evolve and change or did it, and what was it?

03:06:45 - 03:08:58

I suppose it did evolve as I matured, but at the same time, I think the basic principle was always the same, which is I just, I knew I was fortunate to have been somehow or other had been in the right place at the right time to be given this opportunity, which was to be a director, to start a facility. And for me, what that meant was doing the best I knew how to do at all times, and to learn as much as I could learn about whatever I needed to learn about to do the best job, whether it was to learn about how to build a building, how to be a contractor, or learn about the science of small population genetics, to manage studbooks. And so, I always approached everything from the standpoint of if I didn’t know how to do it, but I thought I’d better learn, then I’d just tried to figure out a way to learn and to go ask. I was never afraid to ask somebody. I thought knew how to do something better than I did, how they did it. And I also, because it was a little staff, my management approach was always the same which was, try to find the best people I could hire, hope they knew more about what I was hiring them to do than I did as opposed to the reverse. I saw a lot of people who wouldn’t hire anybody that they thought might know more than them, and I felt that was rather counterproductive because if I hired a botanist or horticulturalists to do my gardens, and if he couldn’t grow plants better than I could, we were gonna be in a world of hurt. I might know more about how to, maybe most of the staff that I hired initially and how to do animal care, so I kept that for myself, but I tried to hire the very best people I could and once they convinced me by watching them do their job for awhile that they really were doin’ it, I just leave ’em alone to do it.

03:08:58 - 03:09:26

And I was that way to the day I left Living Desert. If you did your job really well, and I was happy with the result, you might never see me and the less you saw of me, the happier I was with you. They always knew I was there if they had a question, but if they found me following ’em around very much, they knew there was trouble because I didn’t have the time to do their job and my job. And I expected them to do their job better than I could do their job.

03:09:27 - 03:09:33

Relationship with your staff, how did you start to develop their training and upgrading?

03:09:37 - 03:10:51

I did everything I could to make sure that they had money to go to professional meetings. So, I mean, my first garden, my first curator of education, Sue, started going right away to ACA annual meetings to find out there were people out there that, and I encouraged her to go to local organizations, drive down to San Diego, drive over to LA, visit with their curators. The same with any of my people at a management level, any of the curatorial, I encouraged them. I encouraged them to get involved in professional organizations. When I hired botanical garden horticulturalists, instead of me going to the Southern California Association of Gardens Meetings, I’d sent them to go out, learn and bring back ideas, so forth and so on. And so, I encouraged ’em anyway I could. And if they showed no interest in that, then they probably didn’t last very long with me either because I expected them. Just because we were this little tiny facility in the middle of nowhere, it didn’t mean that we couldn’t keep up with the fields that we had chosen to be in.

03:10:51 - 03:10:54

And if they didn’t wanna do that, then I didn’t want ’em around.

03:10:57 - 03:11:02

What were some of your more frustrating times as leader of the Living Desert?

03:11:02 - 03:12:05

Well, I think the same frustration anybody feels in that kind of a job which is that there’s always more to do than you have money to do it, always. It’s endless. It never stops. The day it stops you’re probably not doing your job right. So, at some level, though, that gets exhausting because you know that you’ve got, the next thing you’ve got to do, or even just a bad year, you’re not even trying to do anything new, it’s just a bad year, bad weather, too many rainy days on the wrong days and you know you’re in trouble and it’s just, it’s the same battle. I always used to say, it’s just pushing the elephant up the hill. Sometimes is not always the same elephant, it’s not always the same hill, but there’s always this elephant you have to push up a hill. And particularly in, I mean, I think more people are aware of the financial burdens of keeping a facility afloat now than they were when I first started because most of this is when I first started, the guys were handed their budgets by the parks.

03:12:05 - 03:12:57

“Here, spend it.” And it may not be what they want, but they knew they were gonna get it. I never knew I could even get what I had because I had to go out every day and make sure that the tills were ringin’. There was nobody that said at the beginning of every year, “Here, Karen, here’s $1,000,000 to run your facility this year. If you want more go find it.” I didn’t know if that first dollar was gonna come in reality. So, that over time wears you out, particularly if you’re trying to grow and not even stay even. You’re trying to add new facilities with new staff, which means new overhead and still keep the dollars rolling in. So, and I believed in the fact that we needed to pay our own way, that we needed a serious budget and we needed to follow it. So, I was fully invested in that.

03:12:57 - 03:13:33

Nobody had to argue their point with me ’cause I grew up in that situation from the day I was a little kid. There was no money and if I wanted to do something, I had to go work and get the money and do it. It made sense to me. So, we didn’t fight, my board and I barely ever, never fought about money because I never said to them, “Listen, we have to spend this, even though we don’t have it.” Those words would’ve never come out of my mouth ’cause I don’t believe ’em. So, but that was the grind for 40 years. That was the toughest part. You chaired the ACA’s Ethics Committee.

03:13:34 - 03:13:36

Why did you choose to work on this committee?

03:13:40 - 03:15:14

Because they asked me to (laughs). I mean, I like to think of myself as an ethical person. And I think the Oregon, at that point when I was on it and a little bit before, the ethics of what you could do in a zoo were changing from the old guard where I put together for the Ethics Committee what I called the case law book, because they had all these ethics charges had come before them. Nobody ever could see in one place ’cause they obviously weren’t out there for the public, but I went through them all, each case, what it was about and what was decided so that the current Ethics Committee would have some case law, if you will. And it was amazing on the early cases that one zoo director was charging another zoo director with sending him a whole trunk load of bad chicken or something like that to feed his animal. I mean, just crazy stuff and it was solved by him having to send the other guy some chickens. I mean, it was just silly things when you look at it, but I just felt like if we weren’t gonna take ourselves serious as a profession, I felt very serious about what I was doing and there were still guys in the business then that were just, they were municipal zoo directors with the city bend, they kind of really did belong in the Parks and Rec Department and it was time that we conduct ourselves.

03:15:15 - 03:15:17

Well, was I on some crusade?

03:15:17 - 03:15:41

No, but when the opportunity came along and I wasn’t on any other committee at that point in time, I said, “Sure, I’ll serve on the Ethics Committee. I’d be glad to do that and help write some…” We were reworking some of the ethics rules at that time and I had done all this case law stuff. So, it was just a way I thought I could contribute. I wasn’t on some mission to save us from ourselves, but.

03:15:42 - 03:15:50

With ACA, do you think, did ACA evolve into something that you had envisioned it?

03:15:51 - 03:17:01

Obviously you run the inner workings of it. It evolved, in a way, I guess it needed to, it wasn’t 100% what I might’ve envisioned at the time, but I might’ve been wrong, actually. I mean, I felt like after awhile we were getting too involved in what ought to be institutional decision-making. I was on the fence about things like SSPs and you have to, if you have these animals, you have, I was on the fence about that because I firmly believed in these breeding programs where everybody contributes and pays attention. I got that. But I also understood about collection planning and that sometimes you had to do what was good for your collection too, ’cause you had to keep your zoo alive. And so, there were places that as the organization got bigger, that I felt it got too bureaucratic, but then I’m not good at bureaucratic kinds of operations. Never have been.

03:17:01 - 03:17:36

Recognized that in myself very early on. So, but can I argue that maybe it got too bureaucratic or it went to the wrong, I don’t know. For me, I’m at some level, an old time zoo director that believes in the park and the animals first and serving your own public first and then, but having a national organization to help educate you to the best new practices and what’s going on and help cover your butt when the crazies keep comin’ with legislation. I get all that.

03:17:36 - 03:17:38

Do I feel sometimes they get too intrusive?

03:17:40 - 03:17:49

I think I was feeling some of that, but not enough to start raging or creating new organizations like some of my colleagues attempted to do either.

03:17:52 - 03:17:59

You talked about reproduction in animals, how did you get involved in the Serengeti cat?

03:18:00 - 03:18:01

What is it?

03:18:04 - 03:18:07

Is this a personal thing with you or how did that evolve?

03:18:08 - 03:18:58

Definitely a personal thing with me. I’ve always been interested in genetics and certainly in small populations and genetics, which led me to a lot of the work I did with the endangered species and studbooks and things. I’d always been interested in studbooks, I’d always been interested in domestic animals, I’d bred a few dogs and showed dogs and things like that. I actually never was particularly interested in breeding domestic cats. I’d never even thought about it until I saw this program being started to breed Asian leopard cats to domestics. And I thought that was kind of interesting to me because there actually is, they’re a different genus even than domestic cats.

03:18:58 - 03:19:00

So, I thought how the heck does this work?

03:19:00 - 03:20:12

So, I just got fascinated by the fact that it was happening. And so, that led me into getting some and playing with it and just playing with the genes of cat genes and trying to create, which in turn led me to meet a lady that was hybridizing servals and domestic cats. And while I understood what she was doing and found it fascinating, I also felt like the product of that wasn’t anything I wasn’t convinced should be in the general public’s hands ’cause they can be quite different, but I always liked servals. I liked the tall leggy dogs, other than now I have Doxens but I always had Sighthounds and Scottish Deer Hounds. I had dogs with long legs, and so I liked servals. And we had ’em at the zoo. I liked ’em. So I thought, “Well, I could create a little domestic size cat that’s kind of built like a serval, kinda has some of the attributes that I find I like in servals with big ears and spots and, but totally domestic.

03:20:12 - 03:21:24

So, I just got up one morning, said, “Okay, I’m gonna just do some stock selection and see if I can’t,” and in the cat fancy unlike like the dog fancy, the International Cat Association, if you follow their guidelines and it’s very, I mean, there’s a whole ‘nother world out there. They have very strict guidelines on if you wake up one morning and decide you’re gonna create your own breed of cat and you wanna be taken halfway serious about it, or more than halfway serious, you have to follow these guidelines and it takes years to follow these guidelines as it should. And I thought this is gonna take forever. I said, “Well, I’m gonna be around forever, okay.” So, I just started creating my own breed of cat following their guidelines and now it’s an accepted breed and it’s showable and they’re still not what I envisioned because it’s working with genes and you’re painting with genes, you’re creating with genes, and so every litter comes out and you get not quite what you want, but you get a little closer, and it’s the genetics of it and trying to make it happen. If I can select healthy, pleasant individuals who carry the right phenotype to do what I wanna do and keep puttin’ it together.

03:21:25 - 03:21:27

And what does the Serengeti cat look like?

03:21:29 - 03:22:26

In ideal circumstances, which it doesn’t quite get there yet, it looks like a miniature serval. It’s a very leggy cat, but it’s domestic cat size as opposed to serval size. It has big ears, spots. It’s coat color hasn’t been achievable yet in the sense of the yellow and black, which is a very, that’s a wild gene, which I have not been able to capture. We’ve captured some genes from the leopard cat. I actually work with a Stanford researcher on coat color and pattern. He’s a PhD doing research on coat color and pattern in cats because they find the coat color and pattern in animals relate to, in human medicine, obesity and other issues. And so, he’s paid by the big drug companies to understand coat color and patterning in cats.

03:22:26 - 03:22:55

And so, he and I spent a lot of time wandering around the countryside just cheek swabbing cats with odd patterns and phenotyping them and genotyping them. Any rate, so they look like a little serval ideally, that’s where I’m going with them. Long legs, square body, big ears. I put a bigger eye on the proportionally than a serval eye because the public likes big eyes on cats and have a really sweet temperament.

03:22:55 - 03:22:56

Have any at home?

03:22:56 - 03:23:07

Yeah, yeah. I have a breeding program from home, sure. Many directors have said that they do rounds.

03:23:07 - 03:23:17

How involved were you in the day-to-day activities, hands-on when you became director and were doing it, did you do rounds on a regular basis?

03:23:19 - 03:24:06

Not the last 15 years I was there. Terry did rounds, my assistant director. She was hands-on, expected her to be hands-on, but I did not. The last 15 years I was there, I pretty much was 100% the head development person. I didn’t have even a senior development person. I was it towards the last couple of years, and I was still doing quite a bit of the accounting and then development work. And so, Terry would do rounds. I mean, I would go out once in awhile and they’d, but it was almost like when Bill would go out once in awhile, it was like, “Oh my God, she’s on the grounds.

03:24:08 - 03:24:23

Run for the hill, she’s on the grounds (laughs).” ‘Cause I’d get angry when I’d find the tennis ball, all the torn up boxes in the exhibits and so I’d go back in my hole, again.

03:24:26 - 03:24:33

What would you say were some of the more successful strategies for getting the community to the zoo that really worked?

03:24:37 - 03:25:56

Actually, probably, rehab. In other words, taking in local wildlife because that was a community service that made people feel so good that we did it, that you couldn’t have paid for the positive PR on that. I think because we were a small community and didn’t have initially a lot for kids to do because it was designed as a community, it was built primarily for wealthy, retired people initially, just having a place where people in programs for kids, which is why the first person I hired as a professional was the education person as opposed to a garden person or an animal person. It’s ’cause I knew I needed to help start bringing kids in ’cause I knew if I could bring the kids, the parents and the grandparents would follow. So, just trying to be of use to the community, not just expecting community to be happy we were there, but trying to be of use to them. I mean, we did holiday programming for every kinda holiday to begin with long before, we brought Wild Lights out there. People didn’t even know what I was talking about. We brought Wild Lights out there ’cause it made sense to me coming from here, everybody decorated their houses.

03:25:56 - 03:26:19

When I tried to explain that to my board, a few of ’em from the Midwest went, “Well, yeah, but there’s no snow.” I said, “They’re not gonna care, it’s nighttime.” And just those kind of events put us on the map far more than whether we brought in a zebra or something. I mean, they were happy we brought ina zebra, but it was just doing things for the community.

03:26:20 - 03:26:28

How would you say fundraising has or hasn’t changed in a director’s involvement?

03:26:29 - 03:27:54

I don’t think it’ll ever change. I think when it come to the big funds, if you really wanna get the job done and particularly if you’re really trying to create a long-term relationship with a donor, the director has got to be there. I mean, it may not neither at the first day, because you might not know that donor is gonna be a big donor long time but at some point in time, I firmly believe that if you’re looking for major support, that doesn’t mean that donor gets access to you the first day they walk in the door. They kinda, a little bit earned it. But, and so maybe the bigger institutions, it takes longer for ’em to work their way to the director doing the donor. But at some point the director is still, I mean, is the person that I believe your big donors wanna interact with. And a little institution like mine, many of ’em got interaction with me from day one because I was the whole development department. And so they, so, and I said my staff, every one of them has development people, but the director is definitely, development is not somebody else’s job at the zoo.

03:27:54 - 03:28:18

It’s everybody’s job. It’s the keeper’s job, it’s the toilet cleaners job, it’s everybody’s job. And they have to feel like that, and I certainly had certain staff members who would say to me, that’s not my job. And I’d go, well, yeah, it is. And if you don’t change your attitude, you won’t have a job here. So you don’t have to worry about it not being your job, because it won’t be, you won’t be here.

03:28:22 - 03:28:24

What made you a good director?

03:28:24 - 03:28:38

I don’t know if I was one (laughs). That’s the first question (laughs). Well, they say time is currency of greatness. You have obviously been there a significant amount of time. So, you must’ve been doing something correct.

03:28:38 - 03:28:39

What do you think it was?

03:28:42 - 03:29:46

I think ideally it was that I never, I thought of myself as director only when I had to make a decision that affected everybody. Other than that, I was just a member of a team. I had my job in the team, they had their jobs in the team. I tried to hire people as I’ve said several times that knew more about what they were doing in my institution in terms of how to do it right and best than I did. I expected them to operate as much as a whole bunch of people who had never met each other before until they came to work could work together as a team and I was just a team member. They knew that as long as they did it in any kind of civilized manner, they could tell me I was wrong. They could even yell at me if they thought I was really wrong, as long as it was professionally quality yelling, as opposed to verbal abuse. And that was fine.

03:29:46 - 03:30:46

I was willing to listen to any opinion, as long as it was presented to me and occasionally I had changed my mind. They could convince me I was wrong, or they could convince me that the way they wanted to do it was better than the way I wanted to do it because I was totally fluid about how something got done, as long as it got done right and properly and if somebody said that going from X to Y was better than going from X to Z, fine. So, I was a team member. I looked at myself as a working member of the team because I was always working. I mean, I wasn’t waving my finger pointing at people going, “You do this and you do that.” Indeed, if I had to do much of that, they had to leave because I really didn’t wanna follow them around and point. I wanted to walk in and go, “God, that’s gorgeous. You did a great job.” And so, that’s the kind of director I was, whether it was good or bad, I knew it worked for me.

03:30:47 - 03:30:53

What skill set does the zoo director need today as compared to when you started?

03:30:57 - 03:31:15

(Karen sighs) Well, I think they needed the same skillset then as now, but I think more of them recognize that they need the skillset, at least I pounded into Terry’s head, my assistant director before she went on, that you’ve gotta understand the books. You have to understand the numbers.

03:31:16 - 03:31:24

If you don’t really understand your finances and if you don’t really understand what you’re spending and where the money’s going, how are you gonna manage it?

03:31:25 - 03:32:41

And he who understands the numbers has the power in the organization. If you really understand them, not just BS’ing people, if you can really look your board in the eye and say, “I know this exhibit is gonna cost this and bring it in for that. I know that if I bring this number of visitors in, they’re gonna bring in this kind of money because I have financial proof to show it,” you can get a lot more accomplished. And if on the other hand, you’re sitting around waiting for your finance officer to tell you whether you made money or whether something was worth doing, without really understanding it. So, I think more zoo directors to this day need a whole lot more education that way, and their facilities would be better off for it. I was lucky because I was a numbers person. I always understood the numbers. But other than that, I think that we all, it would be best for our zoos to this day, I still feel it’d be best if people who have come to the zoo with a true mission of conservation and conservation education as their goal to keep their eye focused on that goal, to help their board weigh that the end product from business, they always say, “You need to run your zoo like a business.” Yes, you do.

03:32:42 - 03:33:36

But part of our bottom line is whether we have achieved the education and the conservation of certain species. Doesn’t mean you get to run your zoo in the hole doing it, but I think when they bring in too many business people that don’t know how to value or to weigh the conservation and education mission part as part of the final product when they’re looking at the end of the year as to whether they’ve met their goals, that things can get pretty out of whack in a hurry. So, and the bigger the zoo’s get, the more money involved, the more the temptation is to put business people in charge and so forth and so on. And sometimes the value of our mission can get lost in the business of the zoo.

03:33:38 - 03:33:49

What kind of small or medium-sized in the zoo today to be involved in wildlife conservation, either nationally or internationally?

03:33:52 - 03:34:49

Anything they want. I mean, I never looked at it other than I didn’t have much money at all, and no facilities has been with it, but basically I never looked at it like I can’t be involved unless I have. There’s a way to get involved. I mean, you can, in theory, if your zoo is so small and so broke that you can’t house animals and you can’t this or that, you still might be able to convince somebody to let you be assistant studbook keeper and do the paperwork. I mean, there’s ways to be involved. If you just want to just use the energy, think it through and figure out a way that your institution, no matter what size it is, can be involved in, at any level you want to be. I mean, again, I was doing the ACA newsletter and my zoo wasn’t even built at that point. I was building my first buildings and I had no animals, and I was a staff of one.

03:34:49 - 03:35:20

So, there’s no excuse not to be involved if you want to be, and your size of your zoo and your funding doesn’t stop you from not being involved. It will stop you from breeding elephants and rhinos, yeah. But there’s millions of ways to be involved, to get involved and to build that involvement as you have the time, manpower and funds from your facility to do more and more and more. It doesn’t take a lot of involvement as we spoke earlier to get involved with frogs.

03:35:21 - 03:35:23

How much space does that take?

03:35:23 - 03:35:33

I mean, so there’s no excuse. I used to give a lot of papers to small zoos about that when I was, there’s just no excuse not to get involved. None.

03:35:33 - 03:35:36

What do you feel should be the approach to conservation?

03:35:38 - 03:36:16

(Karen sighs) That’s hard to answer because like most of us in conservation, I think many days we feel like we’re losing just looking around and seeing the global warming and seeing populations and you just wonder is this just, some days I say to myself, it’s really great that I did what I did for a living, because I felt I was doing something I loved and I felt like it was useful as opposed to making widgets.

03:36:16 - 03:36:22

Did I really feel like in the great end of things that I helped save the universe?

03:36:22 - 03:37:20

I don’t think that’s been accomplished, but on the other hand I wouldn’t want to have gone through life saying to myself, “Nothing I can do is going to stop this, so I’m not gonna do anything.” So, all I can say to anybody in the conservation field, whether it’s zoos or field conservation or whatever, is follow your passion, do as much as you can do, because at least at the end of the day, you can look in the mirror and say I tried. So, whatever it is, and I say that to any institution. Each institution’s got its own staff with their own interests and their own resources and just take whatever piece works for your institution and go for it and don’t try to look so far in the future and say to yourself what might be sadly obvious, that no matter what we do, we’re headed for trouble here because I wasn’t prepared to sit and do nothing and most of the guys and gals that have been in our profession aren’t willing to sit and do nothing, so let’s do what we can do.

03:37:21 - 03:37:29

Considering the financial resources available to many small and medium sizes, what should be the focus of the collection?

03:37:29 - 03:37:32

Should it be a regional North American collection?

03:37:32 - 03:37:35

Should it be endangered species only?

03:37:36 - 03:39:34

More typical collections have a little of both from around the world. (sighs) Again, I think it’s really what makes sense for your resources and in the community you’re in. If you’re far away from any quote, “Major zoo,” and you have a local public that would have to drive five or six hours to take your kids to a zoo, then if you have the resources, maybe you are a little tiny but general zoo to give your public a view of a few broad things. If you’re in an environment which is harsh and impossible, then maybe you better try to stretch those dollars by managing a collection that you don’t have to struggle too much with the local environment, physical environment you’re living in. If you’re in a really cold area, then stay with a group of animals that can tolerate that just so your overhead isn’t too high, and look around for what your community needs, because you’re gonna depend on them for funding to a certain degree. If you can do the job of making your community happy, keeping the animals healthy and do it with endangered species, then by all means do it, but sometimes either you can’t keep those species or they make no sense to your community or to your collection and I wouldn’t just keep it because it’s an endangered species, even though it just makes no sense either if you’re trying to build an organization that your community can support. So, really it’s very specific to the community you’re in as to what you should do. Zoos in many cases today are afraid to confront animal welfare rights groups that are anti zoo.

03:39:35 - 03:39:42

We have people in top positions in their field seem to be in line with those non biologists, what they have to say.

03:39:42 - 03:39:50

Can you give us your thoughts on how best to deal with these groups and did you have to deal with these groups and what was your approach?

03:39:52 - 03:40:41

We had to deal with them a little bit. Not as much as, because we’re so much more low profile. We weren’t a big target and we didn’t have the big charismatic, mega vertebrates that the animal rights groups tend to focus on. we didn’t have elephants and we didn’t have a lot of this stuff. We didn’t grade apes. And so, we didn’t attract, people weren’t willing to picket my fences because I wasn’t taking care of the lizards properly kind of thing. We also had, because we were, we only had animals that could deal with our climate. We didn’t have, and we had fair-sized enclosures, not giant ones but fair-sized, enough in general, but we had people complain still, but in general we didn’t wind up attracting much of that.

03:40:41 - 03:42:26

And of course, we didn’t call ourselves a zoo. And I guess in some respects, that was actually helpful because we weren’t a zoo in some people’s minds. Okay. All of that said, I think not only for the world of zoos, but because I’m also in the world, I have the other card of Karen that’s always also been in the world of purebred animals, dogs and cats, the move to get rid of purebred dogs and cats is even greater than the move to get rid of zoos. And if we all don’t, if those of us, and those folks have spent a lot of money and time developing materials, which make them look sane to the average donor and average supporter. And they get support from people who are convinced that those people are doing the right thing, but they’ll make the connection that if these animal rights organizations got their wish that they couldn’t have their Doxen and they can’t have Fluffy the cat, let alone that they can’t have their zoo. So, somehow all of us, zoos and domestic pet owner types, purebred pet owner types, ought to be doing, actually could possibly try to get together to do the pushback that needs to be done on these organizations. And we’re going to have to do huge pushback.

03:42:26 - 03:43:16

How we’d ever do that, I don’t know. I think about it a lot. I watch CNN where lately in the last year or two, they’ve been doing expose’s on charities that aren’t charities, that don’t do what they say they’re gonna do. And I have actually written two letters, completely unsuccessfully so far to try to get CNN to focus on PETA, because PETA doesn’t and neither does HSUS when it comes to the domestic side. Neither one of those organizations have the agenda that they present to the public that they collect these bazillions of dollars on. Their agendas are not what is presented to the public. And I wish, and their money doesn’t go towards their presented agenda. And I wish I had known.

03:43:16 - 03:44:34

I’m trying to get CNN to focus on that. That would help us all zoos and dog and cat owners, because I think it we’ve never been successful in confronting it. I think we all take it serious, but then we get on with our lives and go, “Well, maybe they’ll go away and they won’t pick on my zoo today.” And as an individual pet breeder, sometimes I say to myself, “Well, I’m gettin’ old, I’m gonna quit breeding anyway so I guess it’ll be the next generation’s problem if they may not having dogs or cats as pets if this keeps going,” because that’s the ultimate agenda is to not only don’t they want to stay at purebreds, they really just don’t want us to have any. So, I’m rather morbidly pessimistic about our ability to fight this ’cause I don’t think we take it seriously enough, or we don’t seem to be able to build up enough energy as a unit to fight it. Sometimes I’ve heard the complaint, which the directors that there are few good curators in the community today.

03:44:34 - 03:44:44

Do you think there is a problem and how do you feel curator should be trained today or what do you feel is expected of that part of the profession?

03:44:47 - 03:46:06

Well, I’m probably not good enough to judge that because I’ve been out of the business for a few years, but even in the last years that I was running Living Desert, we had the curatorial staff we wanted pretty much in place. And so, I wasn’t out searching for more. I did hear those kinds of conversations from my colleagues. And so, I gather that there, that does feel like there’s an issue, but I also just wonder sometimes how much of it is just the thing that happens to all of us as we get older, which is there were all these good folks when I was growing up, the new generation doesn’t know anything. So, I’m not completely convinced perhaps, that it’s as big an issue as I was kind of hearing about while I was still working. I mean, the zoos are always limited. There’s only a limited number of zoos. So there’s only a limited number of individuals who have already acted as a curator somewhere else to judge their curatorial skills.

03:46:06 - 03:46:45

Yeah, so you gotta give the new kids a chance and maybe there’s some really good ones out there. I think there’s maybe a tendency to think that curating a collection is somehow harder now than it was before and it might be because you’re expected to know more about the individual genetics of each individual animal and husbandry practices are certainly much better than they used to be, but I just feel like they’re probably young people coming up then can learn this stuff just like we did when we were young.

03:46:47 - 03:46:54

What direction should the zoo education be going for, conservation education, research?

03:46:57 - 03:46:57

Zoo education.

03:46:57 - 03:47:00

Zoo education for the zoo professionals or for public?

03:47:00 - 03:47:54

Public. Okay. I guess all of the above. And I think there’s ways to do that in a variety of offerings so that because any one thing isn’t going to accomplish all those things and isn’t gonna interest one individual. I think you have to connect to people wherever their connection button is. I mean, in some ways it was great that my board pushed me as hard into plants as they did it as early as they did, because there are people that really just love the gardens and care about gardens. And then they start caring about gardening ’cause we teach classes in zero scape gardening for out there and so we connect that way, and there are people that love to hike. Well, we’ve got six months.

03:47:54 - 03:48:47

So, you connect, as broad as you can develop programming for, you should probably develop it because that just gives you more ways to connect to individuals ’cause each individual that comes into the park or you’re trying to get into the park, might come in for a slightly, obviously somewhat related reason but if you can provide that, then if you want to, if you’re providing the guys that come in to look at the plants, lots of plants to look at and education about plants, and they’re likely to look at the animals while they’re there too and maybe they’ll get interested in the critters and vice versa. A lot of people that come obviously to see the animals and go away and one of the first things they say to me is, “The plants are beautiful. The grounds are gorgeous.” And that was probably the last thing on their minds when they walked in the door to begin with.

03:48:49 - 03:49:04

And so, I think it behooves us to look at our visitor as not just a visitor but they’re just as diverse as all of us and how many ways can we reach ’em?

03:49:04 - 03:49:07

I’m a new zoo director, a neophyte.

03:49:07 - 03:49:11

What can you tell me about the importance of marketing zoos?

03:49:11 - 03:49:17

Some of the most important aspects of marketing would you like to impart to me?

03:49:20 - 03:50:22

I think again, the first thing would be to market your institution any way you can to your local people to get them in the door. Because until they’ve been in the door, you’re still this abstract thing. And so, and it’s critical for support. It’s gonna be critical for your day to day operational support, if your municipal or whatever, governmental, you gotta prove that people are coming through the gates. If you’re private, you gotta get people coming through the gates because otherwise you’re not gonna get money to support the operation, let alone build anything. So, anyway you look at it, getting people into the grounds is critical. On the other hand, you have to kind of look at your own community I would say, as to what they’re expecting from the zoo.

03:50:24 - 03:50:35

One of the things that I never did because I didn’t have a local community until it was too late to do it was literally asked my community, what do you want from us?

03:50:39 - 03:51:29

We started kind of asking that later on once we already had things, but initially I just said, well, I’m gonna put this out here ’cause I was, again, I was young. I figured if I built something wonderful, they’d come anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to ask your community what they want. You’d better be prepared to hear what they want, but you have to service the community. It doesn’t mean if they wake up, they start telling you they want playgrounds and water slides that you really have to give them that. Although, some of our colleagues have somewhat successfully. So, and if you’re not connected to your community, which is essentially your donors or your supporters ultimately then, so marketing’s critical, probably more, in some ways it’s the step before fundraising.

03:51:30 - 03:51:34

When you finally got around to asking your community what’d they tell you?

03:51:36 - 03:52:03

Safe place to bring the grandkids, a place to bring the grandkids. ‘Cause again, in my community they were all old and retired for the most part. So, they weren’t as worried about bringin’ their kids initially. Now, of course it’s kids, but at that time it was, “I’ll give you money to build this exhibit so I can bring my grandkids.” So, it was a safe place to bring the grandkids where the grandkids had a good time. So, it was about the kids, even though they were senior adults and it was kids.

03:52:03 - 03:52:05

Where do you see zoos going these days?

03:52:07 - 03:52:11

Where will zoos be, and what do you think they’ll be doin’ in 20 years?

03:52:14 - 03:54:23

(Karen exhales) I hope that they’ll be continuing to work together on what I hope will be more successful programs for integrating zoos and field work. I think that issue is probably the hardest one to resolve with your community, your at-home community and your donor community is that they’re willing to support all your programs in your zoos. They’re willing to help with your endangered species breeding programs in your zoos. They’re willing to, but when you tell ’em you wanna spend $100,000 in the desert, in the Sahara, in our case, that’s much harder to sell. So, and I don’t see that it’s gonna get a whole lot easier to sell, but we have to work. I think zoos in the future are gonna need to work harder at making that connection for their donors and really doing the work because that relevancy is gonna become very important, particularly as long as we continue to face and don’t seem to have any really good answers for the animal rights people who wanna shut us down, who see no value to what we do at all period. And so, just doing more of what we do and not expanding our true relevancy is asking for the battle to continue and the uphill battle to stay relevant as anything but entertainment for our local. And if the animal rights people win, then we’re not considered entertaining any longer.

03:54:23 - 03:55:06

So, then we might as well shut our doors. So, trying to do more, find ways that I never really found. I mean, not that I was any good at it, but of really getting my donors and my supporters excited about connecting us to the field. I could do a little bit of it ’cause I had a local field and was like, but trying to find money to help do serious stuff in the range countries of where our animals might come from was always somebody else’s job. But I don’t have any answers as to how to accomplish that.

03:55:07 - 03:55:16

Are the endangered species programs a real asset to zoos and to global animal protection or programs?

03:55:17 - 03:55:24

If so, but are there any changes that you think need to be implemented to make them better, improvement?

03:55:27 - 03:56:56

(Karen sighs) I think they’re an asset. I really do, obviously it was one of the reasons why I thought zoos were relevant as opposed to just a place to come and gawk at the strangest thing you could find to put on exhibit. So, I do think there’s a relevancy there, even if it is sadly, it may be nothing more than to continue to demonstrate to people that we’re the world’s disappearing because of changes we’re making to the globe and even all of our endangered species programs were not able to halt that problem for many of these species. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying until our last breath, as far as I’m concerned, because once it’s gone, it’s gone that famous statement. You can’t recreate it. And I’m such a strong believer that there’s just no way on earth that children and even adults can get the sense of the animals that we share this planet with without seeing them and smelling them. No television is gonna do that. No iPad’s gonna do that, but there just isn’t.

03:56:57 - 03:58:06

And so, if there’s any hope for people trying to save little bits of this planet over time, it’s only gonna be because they’ve somehow made an emotional connection to an animal and you don’t make that emotional, you might get interested by watching a TV program, but there’s just nothing like the real deal, there just isn’t. We see that in our zoos every day that we’re there, every one of us. When you see an adult melt when you take ’em back and show ’em a baby giraffe it comes out, a little tongue comes out. I don’t care how hard core they are. They just kind of go, “Oh my God, that’s a giraffe.” You can’t get that off of TV. You can’t. And that was probably, so I said to myself, I wanna connect people to those animals, to save these animals for future generations and the health of our planet. And if I’m gonna do it with animals, I might as well do it with endangered animals, because then at least I’m trying to do two things at once.

03:58:06 - 03:58:17

I’m exciting people about the animals that they need to save, and I’m trying to help save to the best of my ability. I may not win, but I’m trying to save some stuff that’s really in trouble right now.

03:58:18 - 03:58:22

And I can’t look at, can I really win?

03:58:22 - 03:58:27

Because if I look at can I really win, I might get pretty pessimistic and go, what’s the point?

03:58:28 - 03:58:34

But I’m not willing to do that and I think most of us in this business are not willing to do that. Not willing to give up.

03:58:36 - 03:58:42

If you were in charge of the ACA, what would you like to see them doing and addressing?

03:58:49 - 03:59:00

Well, see, I may be too realistic to answer that question (laughs). ‘Cause what I’d like them to be doing is probably not doable.

03:59:00 - 03:59:05

So, then I have to think back to, okay, what could they possibly do that they actually might be able to do?

03:59:07 - 03:59:49

But I mean, the reality is I think they could spend less time at some levels trying to help zoo directors and curators micromanage their collection, and probably a whole lot more time yet and I’m not suggesting they’re not doing any, or they’re not, but a whole lot more time convincing in the ACA and convincing the United States government and all other governmental agencies we have to deal with that were, and animal rights people and so forth, just dealing with all the issues of are we relevant in this day and age?

03:59:50 - 04:01:03

Because collectively it’s our only probable chance, at least making some dents in the money and time and effort that’s being spent in trying to make us be irrelevant in the eyes of the public. So, if they didn’t do anything else but that, I think that would be the best way they could serve our profession. WAZA was not as easy to do because we had a bazillion countries with a bazillion different levels of what’s acceptable and what’s not, but some of the same issues, but I’d taken all the money that ACA put together to fight organizations like PETA and so forth and so on, and at a really serious level, because if they’re successful and get us all shut down, kids aren’t gonna see elephants and giraffes, and that just drives me nuts. Speaking of elephants while we’re- I never wanted them, I’ve never had them. I’ve never wanted to have them. Well, let me ask you a question regarding elephants.

04:01:04 - 04:01:11

What is your view if you have one, regarding the topic, hot topic, of zoos maintaining elephants in their collections?

04:01:14 - 04:01:56

I’m a believer in maintaining elephants. I never wanted to maintain them because first of all, they scared the hell out of me. And secondly, I mean, there really aren’t any desert elephants. There are some that cross the Kalahari back and forth across the Kalahari, but I chose to ignore them as potential candidates for my collection and Terry and I always said, we never wanted to manage an animal’s whose foot was bigger than our heads (laughs). Another collection decision, but (laughs) any rate, I think we can manage elephants in reasonable size enclosures.

04:01:56 - 04:01:57

What’s reasonable size?

04:01:57 - 04:03:00

I don’t know, a couple of acres, two or three acres. I really think we can and I think there are animals who need to move around as much as elephants do in a natural situation that we manage reasonably well. I actually would be far more concerned about whether we can actually, if I was willing to consider not managing something in captivity, it would be things like killer whales and stuff like that. Big free ranging mammals like that, that really do require a lot of space and I’m not convinced that we can do those well. On the other hand, nobody ever cared about Shamu until all of our aquariums taught them about how fabulous these animals are. So, I mean, we were a victim of our own success. We explained to people these incredible animals and how smart they are and then we had to put ’em, given the nature of their size and physical abilities of us in tiny boxes. That may not be defensible.

04:03:00 - 04:03:06

Elephants, I actually think because you can manage them and enrich them, I think you could probably do fine.

04:03:10 - 04:03:17

To what extent do you continue to be active in the zoological field or the conservation field?

04:03:18 - 04:04:51

Well, the only thing I’m doing right now is staying active with the Sahara Conservation Fund started about eight or nine years ago with a group of zoos and scientists that were interested in the Sahara Desert. We became a 501(c)(3) in 2007. And we work in field conservation in North Africa, primarily in Najera and Chad. And so, obviously it’s a good fit for me. It’s desert. It is field conservation and we’re creating, we’re doing everything from surveys to helping nations in that part of the world, create survey and then gazette and create parks and manage parks for conservation, and also look at places for reintroduction of antelope, addax, scimitar horned oryx, things like that. So, I’m not out in the field chasing oryx around, but I’m on the board and I stay very active because at the moment, for the last four years, I’ve managed all their money for them, done all the bookkeeping and accounting and book balancing and bill paying and budgeting. You’ve worked many years in the field.

04:04:54 - 04:04:59

Do you have something you can tell me if it’s one or two things, your proudest accomplishment?

About Karen Sausman

Karen Sausman
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The Living Desert: Palm Desert, California

President Emerita

Although Karen’s degree is in computer science, she started her animal career working with horses in the Chicago area. She was able to land a volunteer job at the Lincoln Park Zoo working in the zoo nursery, which eventually lead to part-time keeper work. She loved the desert and migrated to California doing a variety of jobs including a stint as a ranger at Joshua Tree National Monument.

A new project in Palm Springs called the Living Desert Reserve was being started and Karen was hired, in 1970, as the first employee with the title resident naturalist. She traveled 10,000 miles studying zoo exhibits and nature reserves in Arizona and Utah. Eventually her title changed to director of the facility. Her interest in small populations and genetics led her to develop the Serengeti cat, which is a recognized breed with the International Cat Association. She continues to be active in conservation and is now working with the Sahara Conservation Fund.

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