April 22nd 2023 | Director

Palmer “Satch” Krantz

Satch Krantz is unique in the zoo profession. His entire career of over 40 years was spent working at one zoological park.

00:00:00 - 00:00:12

My name is Palmer Eric Krantz III. Nickname Satch that I’ve had my entire life. Born January 27th, 1950 in Columbia, South Carolina.

00:00:14 - 00:00:15

Who were your parents?

00:00:15 - 00:00:17

What did they do, your mom and dad?

00:00:18 - 00:01:22

I’m an only child, first off, and my parents were both blue collar folks. Actually my mother did not work at all. She was a housewife until I was in the seventh grade. My father was a printer at the local newspaper, the state newspaper, and he worked with his father in the newspaper, who was a Linotype operator. This was when the folks used to actually type out the copy on lead bars that were then laid out, which my father did, and run through the printer. My mother, as I said, did not work until I was in the seventh grade, and she worked at a local laundry and dry cleaners as a, behind the counter. They were both of modest means. My mother came from a little town in the lower part of South Carolina called Harleyville.

00:01:23 - 00:01:55

It had then 600 people, and it has today 600 residents. Very small little town. My father was actually born in Charleston, but moved to Columbia when he was three years old. So he spent his entire life in Columbia. He had a relatively long retirement. He outlived my mother by a few years. My mother was… She had some health issues.

00:01:55 - 00:02:11

She was a, what’s called a brittle diabetic. She was, my mother was the first person in the state of South Carolina to wear an insulin pump, which today is quite common for diabetics, but she had the first one, and diabetes was not kind to her.

00:02:13 - 00:02:16

Could you tell us a little about your childhood growing up?

00:02:16 - 00:02:18

Were animals a part of your life?

00:02:19 - 00:03:16

Yes. Primarily having to do with dogs, but we lived in a kind of a newish, lower middle class neighborhood. When we moved into our home when I was five years old, the streets were not paved where I lived, and we lived, oh, probably about 100 yards from a creek, part of the watershed. And I spent all my time outdoors, all the time outdoors in that creek, tadpoles, frogs, some fish. Watching them, observing. And I love to read. My father, to my- I never saw my father read a book. He was what you might call intellectually incurious.

00:03:16 - 00:04:29

My mother, on the other hand, was a voracious reader, and I guess I developed a love of reading from her, and I love to read natural history books. As far back as I can remember, I was, you know, I could tell you how fast a cheetah could run and the difference between an African and an Asian elephant. I could do that when I was eight or nine years old. I had a first cousin who was much older than me, who was also an only child, who when I was probably about 12 or 13 years old graduated. He graduated from veterinary school and opened a little single-man practice in Columbia, and I started working for him when I was 14. I worked every weekend, every holiday, every summer for four years as what today would be called a veterinary technician. At the time, there was no such thing in terms of licensing and, you know, education. And I really wanted to follow in his footsteps.

00:04:29 - 00:05:30

I wanted to be a veterinarian, but that just wasn’t to be, having a lot to do with the fact that there is no veterinary school in South Carolina. But I was the first person in my, on my mother’s side to attend college and graduate. And I think I had, I think there were 28 first cousins, and only two of us graduated from college. I was fairly close to my mother’s family. I was not close to my father’s family. They weren’t a very warm and friendly group of folks. I attended Clemson University with the hopes and thoughts and dreams of being a veterinarian. But at the time, the state of South Carolina had no veterinary school, still doesn’t, but it had a contract with the University of Georgia to accept 10 students a year from the state.

00:05:30 - 00:05:55

And in the entire time, the four years that I’ve spent at Clemson, they never accepted more than eight, and almost every one of them had a 4.0 GPA. And I didn’t. I had a lot of fun in college. (laughs) And so my junior year I switched majors from pre-veterinary medicine to zoology and loved every class that I ever took. It was a great experience.

00:05:58 - 00:06:04

During this time when you were in college, did any teacher have an effect on your life?

00:06:04 - 00:07:10

Absolutely. First semester of my junior year when I switched, I took, I signed up for a course in ornithology and taught by a professor who had only been at Clemson for a year, and he was probably no more than four years older than me. His name was and still is Sidney Gauthreaux. He was a Cajun from Louisiana, G-A-U-T-H-R-E-A-U-X. He had a profound impact on my life. He was actually in my wedding, and we have remained in contact now for 50 years. He was an incredible ornithologist and pioneered the use of radar in studying bird migration. And at one point, I remember the Audubon Society, the magazine had an article on birdwatching and named the three best birdwatchers in America, and he was one of the three.

00:07:10 - 00:07:24

And my love of birdwatching started with him in kind of a funny way but. No, he had a- And then I took another course from him in ethology or animal behavior and just loved both of those courses immensely.

00:07:26 - 00:07:36

When you were growing up or when you were in college, what zoos did you see growing up, and did they have an impression on you?

00:07:36 - 00:08:35

I never visited a zoo until I walked through the gates of Riverbanks Zoo, which was under construction on January 3rd, 1973. I’d never been to a zoo. Never dreamed of working in a zoo. It was not on my radar. I actually was very interested in going to graduate school and studying ornithology. And I have to give a little history here of how this all came about, but Columbia, South Carolina at the time, and we’re talking now, we’re in back in the early 1960s, was a very uninspired place. It was the state capital but had nothing to brag about. No real, other than a few city parks.

00:08:37 - 00:09:38

That was about it. And a group of gentlemen, I think there were no more than five or six, sometime around 1963 or ‘4, I would have been in the seventh and eighth grade, had a dream of building a children’s zoo in Columbia. And their… The way they saw the project, it was going to be nursery rhyme-themed with domestic and native wildlife, Little Bo Peep, sheep, and that sort of thing. And they tried to raise the money privately, and it failed. And the only thing that came out of that effort that ultimately led to what became Riverbanks Zoo, they managed to… And these men were all actually very influential in town, and they managed to get a lease. That’s not true.

00:09:38 - 00:10:58

They did ultimately get a lease, but initially they got ownership of 17 acres of land from the local utility company. Very poor land, by the way. And they raised about 40 or 50,000 dollars. But they eventually, after a couple of years, just said, “This isn’t gonna work,” and they gave up. That would have been around 1965-’66. In 1966, the state legislature in South Carolina created a commission called the Tricentennial Commission. In 1967, South Carolina celebrated its 300th birthday, and they charged the three metropolitan areas of the state, Charleston on the coast, Columbia in the midlands, and Greenville in the upstate, with each developing some sort of what they call permanent monument to the anniversary. And Charleston appropriately was assigned the first century, 1667.

00:10:59 - 00:12:01

Columbia got the second century, and then Greenville got the third century. Columbia could not decide what to do, what to build. And they had a number of projects they explored. None of them seemed to resonate. And these men, these gentlemen tried to take advantage of that and say, “Well, you know, we had this idea of a zoo. Maybe you should build a zoo.” Well, the zoo really didn’t have anything to do with the second century in the state, but a little, what I will call a little spark was ignited. And the city ultimately decided on historic preservation of three very historic houses in town, and that became the monument. But that little spark finally created a flame.

00:12:04 - 00:13:31

And in 1969, when I would have been a freshman in college, the state of South Carolina created something called the Rich-Lex Riverbanks Parks Special Purpose District. The Rich-Lex are abbreviations for Richland County and Lexington County. Now the two counties are divided by a river, and those two counties, even to this very day, don’t really get along very well. But anyway, so that was the Rich-Lex part. The Special Purpose District part also was kind of interesting, and this goes back really to the Civil War, when the legislature lost a lot of authority and municipalities lost a lot of authority during Reconstruction. And as the state’s constitution was rewritten and redrafted, the legislature was given the authority to create mini governments, M-I-N-I, mini little governments called special purpose districts. And they created, believe it or not, 465 little mini governments around the state, each with a special purpose. That’s the name.

00:13:33 - 00:15:05

90-plus percent of them serve two purposes, either fire protection in rural areas or water and sewer districts in rural areas, with a smattering of other kind of unique things like airports, a couple of hospitals. So the legislature, the delegation from Richland and Lexington County took advantage of that law, which, by the way, in 1973 was deemed unconstitutional, and there have been then- We were the last one created. So they created this district and said, “Go forth and build a zoo,” with no real definition of what that meant or anything. Created a commission of seven people, two from one county, Richland, two from Lexington, two from the city, and an at-large member. So as this is going on, I’m going through college, totally unaware that this is going on, so far off my radar. I’m in Clemson, two-and-a-half-hour car drive away. After my sophomore year, I never came home. But anyway, on a very fateful day in the early spring of my junior year, I came home, probably to get laundry done.

00:15:05 - 00:16:13

But anyway I woke up the next morning in my parents’ home, and the newspaper was there. And I picked up the paper, and on like the third or fourth page of the paper was a little article about two inches long about how the zoo in Columbia was coming along and that there was some movement on the site. I thought, well, now this is interesting, you know, and I talked to my father, I guess, and I said, “What’s this all about?” “Well, you know, they’ve decided they’re gonna build a zoo.” “Where is it?” “Well, it’s just down the road.” It’s two miles from my house. So I had nothing to do. So I get in my car. And this is an absolutely dead-true story. I got in my car and said, “I’ll go down, I want to go see this.” So I drive down the interstate, two exits, take the exit, and the second exit, and I’m looking out. This is a bluff, and I’m looking out.

00:16:13 - 00:17:02

there’s a railroad track and a pine and- A railroad track, a transmission, a set of high power transmission lines, and a pine forest. That’s the zoo. That’s what I see. So I drove over the railroad track over a dirt road and under the power lines, cars going back and forth like this. And I go into this pine forest where the road kind of peters out. I’m in the process of turning my car around to go back home, and there’s a man standing in the road. And he came, told me to roll the window down, and he said, “What are you doing here?” And I told him. His name was John Mehrtens, and he had been hired to be the first director, the director of the zoo.

00:17:04 - 00:17:54

And he told me basically I was trespassing and turn myself around and go, and for some unknown reason, we just, he started telling me about the zoo, his dream for the zoo. Well, as the conversation went on, you know, I told him that I was majoring in zoology at Clemson, and he didn’t seem to care a whole lot about that. But then I happened to tell him that I had worked as a veterinary technician, and in fact, I continued to work for my cousin off and on. When I was in college, I’d come home some weekends when he needed help. I was also working for a veterinarian in Greenville. Well, as soon as I told him that, the conversation really changed, because he said that when he built the zoo, he was gonna, he wasn’t gonna have a full-time veterinarian.

00:17:54 - 00:18:02

He didn’t think zoos needed full-time veterinarians, but he needed a veterinary technician, and would I be interested in the job?

00:18:04 - 00:19:02

I said, “Sure,” but I could’ve cared less, you know. So I left. Forgot all about it. So about four or five months later, I go to the campus mailbox and open it up, and there was this green envelope, and in the up, addressed to me, and in the upper left hand corner, it said, “Riverbanks Park Commission, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I didn’t even know what that was. So I opened up the envelope, and there’s a letter from John Mehrtens offering me a job as the supervisor of the animal hospital and commissary. And again, I was almost at the end of my junior year, I guess, in college.

00:19:03 - 00:19:08

And honestly, I had to think a minute about why was I getting this letter?

00:19:08 - 00:20:04

And then I remembered that several months before, you know, I had gone. I thought, “Well, this is just very strange.” I didn’t answer the letter, but a few weeks later, I went home, got in my car, drove back down, and now there was construction going up. A lot of the pine forest was gone, and you could see bulldozers and Track-Os running around, and there was a little office trailer. So I go over and with the letter in my hand, and I walk in and there’s a lot of people in there, construction workers. There was some architect, who I later learned were architects. Very loud kind of environment. There’s a lady sitting at a desk, and I went over to her and showed her this letter, and I said, “Well, I’d like to talk to this Mr. Mehrtens.” She said, “Well, that’s impossible, you know. He’s a very busy man.

00:20:04 - 00:20:28

You don’t have an appointment, and you’re just gonna have to come back.” And I said, “Well, I can’t do that. I’m going back to school, you know.” So she said, “Well, sit over there, just wait.” Well, about 30 minutes later, the door opens and here he comes out, and he’s got several men with him and he’s all disheveled, and you could tell he was angry.

00:20:28 - 00:20:47

And she says, “This kid over here wants to talk to you about this letter.” And he said, “Well, come on in here.” So we go in and sit down in his office, and he again reiterates the fact that he needs this technician, and he says, “When can you start?

00:20:47 - 00:21:45

I need you to start.” I said, “Well, I have another year of school.” And he said, “Well, I need you to start before then.” And I’m thinking, “There’s no zoo out there, you know. You don’t have any animals.” And he says, “Well, I’m gonna go ahead and tell you that you’re probably gonna be needed in about six months. So I’m gonna ask that you… You can continue with your education, but I’m gonna need you to come here every weekend and work with the animal collection.” I had no idea what he’s talking about. And when I left his office, he introduced me to the woman as his wife, Doris Mehrtens. She was his secretary. So months and months go by. I go back down during about halfway in my senior year, and now the zoo is starting to come up out of the ground.

00:21:45 - 00:22:59

And I go back into the office, which is now a building and now the office that I ultimately worked in for 43 years. And again he tells me that the animals are gonna be arriving anytime now, and you need to be ready, you know, for that phone call to come down here and just take care of these animals. I never got the phone call. So, I started asking my professors, “You know what, should I work in a zoo?” I mean, and it was very mixed. Half of them said, “No, don’t do it,” and the other half said, “Hey, a job’s a job, you know. Try it out and see if you like it.” So I graduated. I graduated in the summer of ’72. Cleared out my dorm room, drove down to Columbia, and the next day went out to the zoo, and I said, “I’m here.” And he said, “Well, good, we don’t have any animals, and I can’t employ you right now.” So I guess he saw the expression on my face.

00:22:59 - 00:23:50

I’m not sure what, but anyway, he had been involved, John Mehrtens was a… He was a reptile guy. His entire career had been reptiles. And so he had been involved in the very first sea turtle sort of conservation project in South Carolina on a little island called Fripp Island. And he said, “Well, I can get you a job down there. You make $20 a week cash, (laughs) but you get room and board.” So for about two months, I got up every morning. Myself and another young man got up before sunrise, went out on the beach looking for hatchling sea turtles, which we would gather up, and we put them in these big tanks. And we raised them until they got about dinner, not dinner plate, salad plate size.

00:23:50 - 00:24:53

And then we turned them over to DNR, who put them on a ship, a boat, and took them out to the Gulf Stream and released them. That was called headstarting, and that was abandoned soon after as being ridiculously labor-intensive for saving only a few turtles. But anyway, it was a great time. So finally, I come back and he says, “Okay, January 3rd’s today.” So January 3rd, 1973, I walked through a chain link gate into the first zoo I’d ever been to. And there were no animals, but they did start to arrive about four months later, maybe April or May. A few things came in, but nothing sexy, no tigers, lions, and bears. Mostly small stuff. And during that time, I had nothing to do.

00:24:53 - 00:25:33

So I worked in the horticulture department, planting trees and shrubs and clearing brush and doing this stuff out in the zoo site. There were only two departments at the time. There was the horticulture department and the art department, and those were the only two groups of employees. And you were assigned- Oh, excuse me, maintenance. There were three of us. So you were assigned. Mehrtens arbitrarily assigned, and he was hiring keepers, by the way. And so the people who were hired as keepers, like me being hired as a hospital supervisor, were arbitrarily assigned to work horticulture, maintenance, or the art department.

00:25:34 - 00:26:08

I was assigned horticulture, which I did for about four or five months. Had a ball. My salary was $6,750 a year. That was my first salary. And I had an apartment. Life was good. And one day I was out in the zoo working with the horticulture department. And this would have been around August, I guess, August or September, and word comes out that Mehrtens needs to see me.

00:26:08 - 00:27:32

And I had had very little contact with him because I was working in horticulture. The contact I had had with him was not always pleasant. He was not a good manager of people. But I reported to his office and he said, first words out of his mouth, he said, “Do you have a passport?” I said, “No, I don’t have a passport.” “Well, you need to get a passport.” “Why do I need a passport?” “Well, you’re going to Germany and bring back a pair of Siberian tigers. These are gonna be the first major animals for the zoo, and I’ve managed to secure two of the finest Siberian tigers in the world for the zoo, and you’re gonna go get them.” I’ve never seen a tiger, (laughs) you know. “Sure, I’ll go.” So I get a passport, and the next thing I know, I’m on an airplane and fly to Germany and end up in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, which is where the Ruhe family had a… It was an interesting, there was a city zoo, the Gelsenkirchen Zoo, but the zoo was really owned by the Ruhe family, famous German animal dealers, and that’s where they kept their inventory. (laughs) So you might be a member or a resident of Gelsenkirchen and go to the zoo one day and see a tiger and two days later it’s gone. ’cause he’s sold it to a zoo somewhere in the world.

00:27:36 - 00:28:56

That trip, which I think about all the time, was a very life-changing experience. And when I say life-changing, not because of the experience of taking care of two tigers, but by what had transpired with Mehrtens and animal dealers before, during, and after the trip. He actually had been conned by the Ruhe family because he knew nothing about mammals or birds. His entire zoo career had been in reptiles, mostly turtles. He was, loved turtles. He was a very accomplished reptile keeper and curator. But the short version of that story is that I was taken by the zoo director to see our two tigers, and by the grace of God, I took pictures of them with a brand new camera that I had bought for my Germany and crossing the Atlantic adventure. The next morning, I got to the zoo and they said, “Well, we’ve already crated the tigers.

00:28:56 - 00:29:53

They’re on their way to the ship, and we made arrangements for you to take a train to Bremen, Germany to meet the tigers and get on the ship,” which is what I did. So I get up on this ship and I asked- I had, one of the officers was my liaison. He spoke perfect English, and he used to be my caretaker, so to speak. And I said, “Well, I want to see the tigers and how they’re lashed down and all this stuff.” So he takes me and I look, and I realize instantly these are not the same two tigers that I’d seen just the day before. They look nothing like them. But I crossed the North Atlantic with two tigers and fed them every day. First time I’d ever seen a tiger, first time I’d ever fed a tiger. It was a great experience.

00:29:53 - 00:31:06

And the ship docked in Miami, and Mehrtens was waiting with his wife and Bill Chase, and who was a Miami animal dealer. And we drove the two tigers to Bill Chase’s compound in Miami, which was like this massive zoo. And we loaded up a truck with, and I’ll have to try to remember. We had the two tigers, we had a pair of Amur leopards, we had a group of hamadryas baboons, we had wallabies, we had African porcupines, a hippopotamus, and other things. Me seeing them all for the first time in my life, and we drove 600 miles back to Columbia. And when I got there, I told him what had happened, and he, that the tigers had been switched. He refused to believe it. And I said, “Well, I’ve got this film being developed at the drugstore, so let’s look.” And clearly in the photographs that I took there were two different animals.

00:31:07 - 00:32:14

He refused to believe it. But the significance of that story and the significance of that incident was that I stood up to him and told him, “Sorry, you’re wrong, and you kind of got took.” (laughs) And I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but he just kind of took me under his wing, so to speak. And within days of that happening, he made me mammal curator (laughs) of Riverbanks Zoo. Curator of mammals, and I’d never seen any of these animals before. And within about… And so let’s see, that would have been in the fall of ’73. The zoo opened in April of ’74, and about a month before the zoo opened, he made me general curator. So I went from hospital supervisor to mammal curator to general curator in about 18 months in a zoo, the first zoo I’d ever worked in and first exotic animals I’d ever seen.

00:32:16 - 00:32:20

Fascinating. Now, you…

00:32:21 - 00:32:28

So these were the, until you became director, your last title was general curator, or did you continue to move up?

00:32:28 - 00:33:51

No, I was general curator. That would have been sometime in, like I said, that would have been right around the time the zoo opened in April of ’74. Things, the zoo went south very quickly. Going all the way back, all the way back to that group of gentlemen who wanted to build a children’s zoo. They promised the local political leadership that all zoos were self-supporting, and that if they would just build it, give them the money to build the zoo, that enough people would come and pay admission and buy soft drinks and popcorn and hot dogs that it would pay for the operation of the zoo. So that bill that created the special purpose district spelled out, or gave, I guess I would say, you should say, the commission bonding authority that they could raise the money through selling general obligation bonds to build the zoo. There was not one sentence in that bill relating to operating funds. So the two counties and the city had been supplementing the zoo’s operating budget before it opened because there was no revenue.

00:33:51 - 00:34:45

There was no zoo, there was no revenue. So they would sort of… Mehrtens would on a piece of paper kind of figure out what he thought he needed to pay these people working in horticulture, in the maintenance department, and pay the electric bill. Then divide it by three, and each of those would give the money with a complete understanding that the day the zoo opened, that went away. Well, the zoo opened at 10 o’clock on April 25th, 1974. And as I’ve told people, the first people who walked through the gate plunged it into a deficit, a big deficit. And for the first year of its existence, there was actually some serious doubt that it would ever succeed. It was so far in debt.

00:34:47 - 00:35:30

And thankfully our local utility company, at the time called South Carolina Electric and Gas, allowed us to not pay the bill. The city allowed us to not pay for water and sewer. But they had to pay salaries. So those three governments, the two counties and the city, would give the zoo some money. But there was no history of an operating budget. You didn’t know how many people were gonna come. You didn’t know what kind of revenue you were gonna generate. So at the end of the fiscal year, even though they’d had a little bit of supplemental income, there was this huge deficit, and it just kept building and building.

00:35:32 - 00:35:57

And Mehrtens by that time had burned a lot of bridges with the community, with local political leaders, and with his own, with the Zoo Commission. And… Well, let me go back to your trip with getting the tigers.

00:35:57 - 00:36:00

What lessons did you take away from that?

00:36:00 - 00:36:56

Well, (laughs) first of all, I learned there was a big world out there. I think the only place I’d ever been prior to that was the state of Florida. My father didn’t like to travel, and so as a kid growing up, the only place he would go, take me on vacation as a child was Jacksonville, Florida. He loved Jacksonville, Florida, go figure, I don’t know, I guess I did attend my roommate’s wedding in New York City, which was the first time I’d been to New York City and the first time I’ve ever flown on an airplane. I was 22. And I learned this great big world out there and different cultures, different people. It was an education experience in itself. I also learned that people aren’t to be trusted, and that’s a terrible thing to admit and it probably…

00:36:57 - 00:37:47

I should go back to college and go back to my professor, Sid Gauthreaux. He had parlayed… There was a little- Clemson campus was a big campus, but he had managed to parlay an old building, a little brick building right smack dab in the middle of the campus. And he somehow, it was two stories. There was some storage rooms downstairs, but he had the entire second floor was his laboratory and office. And I was not the only student who was attracted to him and his work. So this became like a hangout place for me for a year and a half. We’d go up there and drink coffee and talk about politics and talk about the birds and talk about.

00:37:47 - 00:39:06

And I learned to be a cynic in that room, (laughs) and I’ve been a cynic all my life. And that trip sort of cemented the fact that, you know, this man who had held himself out, John Mehrtens, as a world’s expert and authority on everything having to do with animals and zoos didn’t know what he was doing and that there were some pretty unscrupulous people at that time who were animal dealers, and they were in it for a buck. They weren’t in it for the animals. So it was a learning experience. So that experience, probably that whole thing from flying over, coming back on the ship, driving with all the animals up from Columbia probably took two weeks. But I thought about that trip every day for months later and dissected every little bit of it. And first of all, Mehrtens refused to talk about it after I showed him some pretty, you know, overwhelming evidence that he had been taken. The other thing that was interesting that I learned later, there was absolutely no need to bring those tigers back on a ship.

00:39:06 - 00:39:26

They could have easily been flown. That was the way they were being moved at the time. But again, I think it showed he didn’t know. He thought that’s what he was supposed to do so. And I’m sure the dealers took a nice cut of whatever the fee was to cross the North Atlantic with two live tigers and a kid.

00:39:26 - 00:39:34

Now at the same time, were you able, were you tasked with getting other animals or traveling?

00:39:34 - 00:39:44

Or were other people in your staff- Were other people in the staff that were working for him and the zoo tasked with getting additional animals overseas?

00:39:44 - 00:40:46

Absolutely not. Mehrtens ran- At that time, from the spring-summer of ’73 until ’76, April of ’76 when he was actually fired, he had 100% control of the animal collection. He purchased the animals. He developed the diets for the animals, which is a whole another story. He wrote out the daily work routines. And, you know, I had the title of mammal curator, but my only real job was to manage the keepers. Anything having to do with the care of the animals, he wrote it out. “This is how you’ll do this and when you’ll do it.” And so, no, he had 100% control of developing that animal collection.

00:40:46 - 00:40:48

You talked about the diets.

00:40:48 - 00:40:50

What were you, what was the story of the diets?

00:40:50 - 00:41:58

Well, let’s talk about the diets and one other thing that he had in common. For some reason that only he would have known or knew, he had a really interesting habit when he obtained animals, mammals, mammals, of getting one male and two females. Didn’t matter the biology of the animals, the behavior of the animals. One male, two females. That created challenges. But the diets. (laughs) The diets actually were part of his undoing. A member of County Council managed, and to this day I don’t know how, got hold of one of the diet cards that Mehrtens had typed out by his wife Doris for the saki monkeys. And the diet cards were probably on five-inch by seven-inch cards.

00:41:59 - 00:42:55

And the saki monkey’s daily diet had 19 different fruits and vegetables in it. And he would not allow, and by then we had a actual, we had a commissary supervisor, retired army sergeant. And he could not buy… You know, restaurants, for example, will buy blemished vegetables and fruits and cut them up, prepare them, and cook them, and nobody knows that the apple was bruised or whatever. He couldn’t buy those. They had to be grocery store quality. And he was having, you know, Columbia, South Carolina back then, we didn’t have a lot of avocados and mangoes and things today that are coming. He had those on this diet card, and it was amazing, fresh blueberries, and everything had to be diced up.

00:42:55 - 00:43:54

And we had stainless steel. I have this mental picture right now. We had these stainless steel feeding pans, and the mangoes were in one little pile and the blueberries were in a pile and the celery was in a pile. So he was, I guess the first, and we’re kind of right now glossing over how I became director but- We’ll get there. But when I became director, the zoo was in serious debt and was, dare I use the term, seen as a white elephant. It was just editorials in the paper calling for it to be closed and all that sort of stuff. And the first thing that I did, and by then, I had experience. I cut the diets, I cut them back.

00:43:56 - 00:44:57

And it was over 10 years later when the animal collection was two or three times bigger and more sophisticated than it was when I became director before we ever spent that much money on animal food budget in a year. That’s how crazy it had become in terms, and I don’t know why he did that. I don’t know whether he- I just don’t know why he did these things. And when pressure, he… When pressure started coming from the local political leaders and the Zoo Commission, you gotta control spending, he doubled down, he’d spend more. The diets would become more complex. He would buy equipment that we didn’t need. It was just, it was an act of defiance that ultimately resulted in his termination.

00:44:57 - 00:44:58

How did he treat the staff?

00:44:58 - 00:46:07

Terrible. He never. (laughs) He had a reputation. Let me, so here I am. I’m the mammal curator with no experience. So he would, say, contact or be in touch with the Lincoln Park Zoo, and he would agree to purchase, again, this was 1973, some saki monkeys from the Lincoln Park Zoo. So he would work with the zoo director and make these arrangements, and then it would be up to me to get them from Chicago to Columbia by working with the curator at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Well, so I was in contact with zoo curators all over the country ’cause we were building the collection from scratch. And two things began to emerge from those discussions, and that is, one, a lot of curators didn’t know who he was.

00:46:09 - 00:46:58

And understand he had us believing that he was one of the most famous zoo directors in the country, if not in the world. Or that his reputation was less than sterling in the zoos that he had worked in prior to Riverbanks as a reptile curator. And he had this reputation as a very demonic, dictatorial leader, firing people right and left. I don’t think he ever fired anybody. I know he didn’t fire people when he was in Columbia, but he drove them to quit. He made their life. If he decided that Joe Smith was not a good employee, he made Joe Smith’s life miserable until he quit. That was how he dealt with personnel issues.

00:46:59 - 00:47:04

So, can you, can you…

00:47:08 - 00:47:14

How was the staff, the zoo staff originally then?

00:47:14 - 00:47:16

You were the general, you were the curator of mammals.

00:47:16 - 00:47:21

Was there a curator of birds and reptiles and other support things?

00:47:21 - 00:48:16

There was just one other curator. There was a curator of birds. Actually, Dennis Decoursey who worked here at Brookfield after he left Riverbanks. And there again is an interesting look into Mehrtens’ personality. He had a strange habit of meeting people at AAZPA meetings, either regionals or national meetings, usually casual, and offered them a job on the spot. And Dennis Decoursey, a great guy, had been a bird, was a bird keeper at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and Mehrtens met him in the bar at a conference and said, “I want you to be my bird curator.” And so Dennis was the bird curator. I was the mammal curator. And I was mammal curator for only a few months, and then I was a general curator.

00:48:16 - 00:48:34

I became Dennis’ boss. We still did not have a full-time veterinarian. We didn’t have a full-time veterinarian until two or three years after I became director. We had a local small animal practitioner who was the veterinarian of record.

00:48:36 - 00:48:44

Did your personality help you in running the zoo and these people that you were tasked with managing?

00:48:44 - 00:49:40

That’s a great question. I think so. I mean, I… After being with Mehrtens for about a year, I guess organically (laughs) I began to act and manage completely differently than he did. He said A, I thought B. So the staff, the keepers that I was managing I think began to trust me even though I had no experience and gravitate towards me. They also knew that I had their back. I took up for them sometimes in very dramatic ways in Mehrtens’ office when he decided he didn’t like somebody who was actually a pretty good employee.

00:49:41 - 00:50:09

So I know… I don’t know, that’s a great question. I think… I think the staff was anxious to have somebody who was a cheerleader for them and who had their back, and that that was me, mainly due to the position that he had put me in. You talked about your time with animal dealers in Europe and then in the United States.

00:50:11 - 00:50:21

Did the zoo and did you continue as the zoo was building and even when you later became the head of the zoo to deal with animal dealers?

00:50:21 - 00:50:22

Can you relate how?

00:50:22 - 00:50:28

And what place at that time do you think animal dealers held within the profession?

00:50:28 - 00:51:07

Well, when I attended my first AAZPA national meeting, which I think was in 1974. It was either ’73 or ’74. I do know it was in Baltimore. The entire… The entire conference… Let me be sure. So you had a conference, you had a schedule, you had papers and sessions to go see. But everything outside of that revolved around the animal dealers.

00:51:10 - 00:52:13

They had a lot of money. They threw the money around. They had hospitality suites. They took their zoo director clients to expensive, fancy restaurants, and they were a major force within the profession. There were three who dominated the zoo business in terms of providing animals. One in New York, one in Miami, and one in Michigan, in Detroit. And they had a lot of say-so about what went on. But fortunately, for me anyway, within a few short years, their influence waned.

00:52:17 - 00:52:47

And by the time I became, I won’t say by the time I became director, but certainly two to three years after that, we were not using animal dealers anymore. Maybe occasionally, maybe occasionally for birds, but we weren’t using dealers. Okay, so we’ve talked about there was a director who you worked under.

00:52:47 - 00:52:55

So let’s talk about how did you go that final step and become zoo director?

00:52:55 - 00:52:58

Did they do a national search to replace this first director?

00:53:00 - 00:53:06

How did you ascend to becoming director at Riverbanks?

00:53:09 - 00:54:03

So… I guess around February or March of 1973, Mehrtens was almost totally alienated from the commission that he worked for. The year before, they had… He and his wife had an incredibly complex relationship. They really fed off of each other’s egos and whatever. They said she can’t work here anymore. And the impact of that on him was amazing. He basically quit coming to the zoo.

00:54:03 - 00:55:00

He just, this thing that he had been consumed with, and he was consumed with building his zoo, as he called it, almost overnight, he lost interest. It was like a dog with a ball that would chase the ball all over, then one day didn’t want to chase the ball anymore. He started coming to work around 10:30 in the morning. He would work for an hour, maybe hour and a half. He’d go home for two hours. He’d come back, work for another hour, and then leave for the day. He never left the office. He would only occasionally go out in the zoo, and when he did, he would send out these memos that, you know, this is wrong and fix this and this is terrible, but he never followed up on any of it.

00:55:00 - 00:55:50

It was just, you know, tiger didn’t have, he had a roar but he didn’t have any teeth. And it was just a bizarre several months. And during that time, myself, the gentleman whose title was business manager, and the maintenance supervisor who really was the construction manager, ’cause the zoo was still, it wasn’t finished. It was still under construction a year after it opened. The three of us would get together. If there was some major issue going in the zoo that needed to be addressed, the three of us would get together and come up with a solution and just hope that. We didn’t tell Mehrtens. We just did it and just hoped that he wouldn’t fire us if he found out we were doing this behind his back.

00:55:50 - 00:57:03

It was a terrible, terrible time. And so, like I said, February, March, the rumors were just flying rampant that he was not gonna make it, and sure enough, I got a call one day. Actually I got a call at home at night from the gentleman who was the chairman of the commission. And he said that the commission for the first time in its existence was gonna meet with some of its employees. And we met at a restaurant, and there were five of us who had individual meetings over the course of a week with the commission. And they were asking us about Mehrtens and what was going on at the zoo and his management style and all. I mean, the handwriting was on the wall. And on a Monday in April, they had a meeting and said they wanted, told him he was done and that they wanted his resignation.

00:57:04 - 00:57:45

That they would give him a very nice exit package, financial. They would have a dinner in his honor. There would be gifts, key to the city, all this stuff. Just please go away. He left that meeting and drove to a friend of his whose wife was a reporter for the paper. And he told him what had happened, and the next morning there was an article on the front page of the paper where he refused to, saying, “I will not resign. They want my resignation, I won’t do it. These people don’t know what they’re talking about.” That was Tuesday.

00:57:45 - 00:58:48

On Wednesday, they fired him and said, as a lot of boards have done and people have done, which is, we know is dead wrong, “All right, this is Wednesday, but five o’clock Friday, you’re out of here.” So he had basically two days of wreaking havoc on the zoo grounds with employees. And this was, there was a headline on the paper that I still have that says, “Is the Zoo Dead?” And he claimed, oh, he… (laughs) He could bend the truth. He said that the day he walked out of the zoo, the zoo would be in 16 USDA violations. Well, another reporter called the USDA and said, “Give me a list of these violations,” and they said there’s no such thing, you know. So that got reported that he lied. I mean, it was just terrible. It was awful. So Friday morning, that Friday, so he’s out of there at five o’clock, and I’d been avoiding him, you know.

00:58:48 - 00:59:37

We’d all been avoiding him. And he was in his office with personal friends trying to broker deals to keep this job, which he had no, he for the last year or months he had had zero interest in doing. Now all of a sudden, “I want my job.” We had radios by then. And I get a call on the radio he wanted to see me. So I, and he and I had a fairly good relationship. I might have been the only member of the staff that had a decent relationship with him. So I go into his office. He said, “Let’s go for a walk.” And we walked on the perimeter road down into a very far corner of the zoo, lot of woods, and there was a tree that had fallen down, and this is so vividly etched in my mind.

00:59:37 - 01:00:33

And we sat on this, I sat down on the tree and he just paced back and forth, told me the history of his life and all this kind of personal things. And then finally he said, “You know, I’m gonna keep my job.” He said, “I’m outta here I know at five o’clock. I’m gonna leave, but trust me, within 30 days I’m gonna be back. And I’m gonna have the commission abolished and I’ll be it. I won’t be answerable to anybody.” Which, you know, at the time I was 26 years old. I didn’t know, you know. And he said, “I’ve been thinking.” He said, “I think they’re gonna want you to, you know, watch after the animals.” We didn’t have a director of operations. I mean, it was, thinking back, it was just, you know, the zoo just opened in the morning, and it kind of happened, you know.

01:00:33 - 01:01:55

And he said, “I figure you got three choices.” He said, “If you want to-” He said, “I want-” He had had a meeting in his apartment with me and about 10 others on Wednesday night, the day they told him he was fired. And he told us all, we were all, it was a very odd mix of people. Some were senior managers like me, others were keepers. He said, “I want the entire staff to quit, to resign on Friday afternoon.” So that had happened on Wednesday. Now it was Friday and he says, “Somebody’s gonna have to take care of these animals, and he said, “You’re the only one that knows how to do that.” So he said, “If you want to stay,” he said, “I’ll respect that.” He said, “But if you say anything negative about me,” he said, “you’ll never work in the zoo business again.” And then number two, he said, “But that’s not what I want you to do. I want you to quit, I want you to resign.” And he walked away. It’s the last time I ever, last words I ever spoke with him. So that afternoon, around four o’clock, the chairman of the commission came out to the zoo.

01:01:55 - 01:02:44

There were reporters out there. There were TV crews. It was awful. And he sought me out and he said, “I want you, the maintenance supervisor, maintenance and construction supervisor, and the business manager to be co-directors of the zoo until we hire somebody.” I said okay, knowing that the business manager would really be the one kind of calling these shots ’cause I didn’t know anything about finance. I was a zoology major. That was Friday. So Saturday morning, everybody reported to work even though Mehrtens told the press that there’d be a general strike. But nobody, there was no strike.

01:02:44 - 01:03:39

Everybody worked, we had a great day, it was a nice day. They had a lot of people in the zoo. Sunday, we had a nice day. Monday, you know, my head’s spinning like a top. And Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from the chairman of the commission and he said. He had a marketing and advertising agency. He said, “I want you to come see me.” And I drove to his office, and he said, “We’re gonna abandon this three co-equal.” He said, “We want you to be the sole acting director.” And I guess he read the expression on my face, and he pushed across a piece of paper. And it was a, it was like two paragraphs, and it was signed by every employee in the zoo, almost every employee.

01:03:39 - 01:04:33

And it basically said, “We the undersigned do not think that having three people run the zoo is a good idea. And therefore, you know, we like Satch, and we think he can handle this, and we all signed it.” And they did it. And I found out later that that morning, that Tuesday morning, the zoo senior elephant keeper, who was a brilliant guy, called this meeting, surreptitious meeting. I didn’t know anything about it. And they had this meeting at break, it was break time when they had the meeting. Drafted up, Mitch Yarbrough was his name. He drafted, he was a great writer, and they signed it, and I became the acting director. So that was late April ’76.

01:04:38 - 01:05:15

Mehrtens did not go quietly into the good night, and he just kept writing letters to the editor. He would give speeches at civic clubs and other places where the media would cover. And he was making all these incredible… He turned on me and said I’d stabbed him in the back, and, you know, without me, without him, I was nothing. It was just awful. It was personal, it was terrible. I was 26 years old, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. So the Zoo Commission did a brilliant thing.

01:05:15 - 01:05:22

They called Bob Wagner, who at the time was the executive director of the AAZPA and said, “What do we do?

01:05:22 - 01:06:43

We got this guy that’s running amuck, and, you know, we’re trying to put the zoo back on financial footing, and we don’t know what to do.” And he said, “I got an idea for you.” He said, “You need to call this guy out in San Diego named Charlie Schroeder, Dr. Charles Schroeder. He just retired as the director of the San Diego Zoo. World famous, highly respected zoo director. You need to hire him to be your, to consult with you.” And they did, they did. And they reached an agreement where he came to Columbia with his wife for about six weeks. And in those six weeks, I learned more about being a zoo director than I’ve ever learned in my life. It was an amazing experience. So you remember, from January of ’73 until April of ’76, I was supervisor of the hospital, mammal curator, general curator, and now I’m the acting director (laughs) with not a clue what I was doing.

01:06:43 - 01:07:10

All I was trying to do was keep the animals alive and fed. And this is the oddest thing to say. I don’t even know how we were opening the zoo in the morning. It just sort of happened. You know, there was no… There was no customer service department, no guest relations department. They just, I guess the business manager. ‘Cause it was completely off my radar.

01:07:10 - 01:08:28

I was 101% focused on the animal collection. So now I’m the acting director, and still I’m focused on the animal collection. And Mehrtens unfortunately decided that he was not gonna go quietly, and he began attacking the Zoo Commission mostly and then me for his undoing. And remember, he and I had actually gotten along relatively well, which is amazing when you think about it, but now he turned on me pretty pretty viciously. So the zoo, even though he was gone, the controversy surrounding his termination and the future of the zoo was still front page news. So this went on for about a month, I guess. And the Zoo Commission finally, I guess, realized that this 26-year-old kid wasn’t gonna solve all of this. So they contacted the AAZPA and Bob Wagner, the executive director, and asked for advice, and Bob gave them some great advice.

01:08:28 - 01:10:09

Dr. Charles Schroeder, who had been the longtime director of the San Diego Zoo and who had dreamed of and built the San Diego Wild Animal Park and before that had worked as veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo. I mean, he was just, he was a very, if you want to use the term Dean of the Zoo Directors. He was not only well-known and respected in this country, but also internationally. He had just retired and had, I guess, let Bob Wagner know or somebody know that he still thought he had something to offer, and if zoos needed some help, he’d be glad to help. And I think, if my memory serves me correctly, I think he worked as a consultant in Calgary, and they ended up, through his work, hiring Peter Carson. And I think and I’m not sure that he may have done the same thing in Los Angeles, and he may have hired or helped hire Warren Thomas in a relatively short period of time. Riverbanks, which by the way, was open as Columbia Zoological Park, it changed its name, that’s another story, was his third client. But also at the time that they hired him, he was in negotiations with, I cannot remember the name, a zoo architecture firm that was also doing some management consulting.

01:10:12 - 01:11:26

Zoo something out of the Midwest. Anyway, he wasn’t really employed by them, but when he was hired by the Zoo Commission, he was in discussions with them about becoming a consultant. Anyway, so I get a call that they’ve hired this man. I knew who he was, and I mean, I was, I’m sure I was at some conferences where he attended and was not anywhere close to going up to him ’cause I was so intimidated, even though he was over a foot shorter than me. (laughs) So on the given day, and I don’t remember what day it was, but the commission chairman picked him up at the airport and drove him to the zoo. And I remember vividly standing just inside the entrance when the commission chairman, a gentleman by the name of Don Barton, walks in with Dr. Charles Schroeder. And I looked down ’cause his top of his head came up about here on me. And we exchanged pleasantries, the three of us, and then the chairman left. So here I’m standing with Charles Schroeder.

01:11:26 - 01:12:31

And, oh, by the way, he’s now the acting director, and you’re the general curator again. So now I’m demoted. After about, I don’t know, two weeks, I’m no longer the acting director. So once Don Barton walked away, Dr. Schroeder asked me the most profound question that I think says so much about John Mehrtens. He said, “Who’s John Mehrtens?” Now, here was a man who knew the zoo profession forwards, backwards, inside out. He’d never heard of him. And I told him, gave him a, you know, sort of a Reader’s Digest version of his history and how things were, and he said, “Okay, we’ll deal with that later.” He said, “Take me on a tour of the zoo.” The first exhibit we had was a flamingo exhibit, just like at the time the San Diego Zoo’s first exhibit was a flamingo exhibit. Although for some odd reason, again, this goes back to Mehrtens, there was a three-and-a-half-foot tall concrete wall surrounding the flamingo exhibit.

01:12:33 - 01:13:20

So our tour of the zoo had lasted maybe 40 seconds, and he says, “Why is that wall there?” I said, “I don’t know. I didn’t have anything to do with putting the wall. That was Mehrtens.” “Tear it down.” “Oh, okay, (laughs) sure.” So we start going around the zoo, and it seems like every three or four minutes, “Change that, move that, paint that, turn that over here, do this.” And I’m writing this stuff down. Well, about halfway through the tour, I quit writing. I ain’t never gonna remember this stuff, you know. Stupid me. So we go back up to the office, and this says a lot about him. I had, even though Mehrtens hadn’t been gone very long, I had actually moved into his office.

01:13:22 - 01:14:08

Not because of an ego or feeling like I deserve, but we needed space. And I said to people, “Look, I’ll move into that office, but they’re gonna hire a director, and, you know, don’t read anything into this.” But I hadn’t moved anything personally. It still had some of Mehrtens’ stuff in it. So we go in there and we go in the building. I said, “And Dr. Schroeder, this was Mehrtens’ office. I’ve been using it. This will be your office.” And somebody had moved into my office as general curator. I said to myself, “I don’t know where I’m going,” but I said to him, “I’ll find another office.” “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” So I said, “Well, here’s the chair.” “No, no, no, you sit in that chair.” So I sit down in what was Mehrtens’ chair, and he occupies a little corner.

01:14:09 - 01:14:35

And for six weeks, that was his office. We shared a desk. I later found out that when he was director at San Diego, he had the door taken off his office. He couldn’t shut it. He didn’t believe in closed doors. And so the next morning I come in. He was there. We explained, exchanged pleasantries.

01:14:35 - 01:15:55

He said, “I’ve got some work to do here in the office.” I said, “Good, I gotta go out and check on a few animals or something.” I come back and he hands me a piece of paper, and there was everything he had said the day before, with timelines. (laughs) And I said, “Dr. Schroeder.” I said, “You know that wall around the flamingo exhibit?” I said, “That wall is 10 inches thick. It’s concrete, steel reinforced.” “I don’t care, tear it down, it’s ugly. Okay, so I set about trying to take care of some of these tasks. And one morning, he’d been there about two weeks. I pulled in the parking lot, and one of the maintenance guys was standing in the parking lot waiting on me. And he said, “Satch, you need to go out to flamingo exhibit right away.” So I go running out there, and here is Dr. Schroeder. And the gentleman who had been initially appointed as one of the three acting, he was a maintenance and construction supervisor, a guy by the name of Dow Mayness, and Dow was a retired army command sergeant major. Six foot six, 240 pounds, and not an ounce of fat on him.

01:15:55 - 01:16:34

He was a man’s man. And he’s standing there with this sheepish look on his face and a sledgehammer. And there’s a big chunk missing out of the top of this wall, and Dr. Schroeder’s standing there. And I walked up, I’m taking all this in, and I looked down and you could see this thick three-quarter-inch rebar, you know, exposed. And he said, “I guess you were right,” and he walked off. That wall is still there, although it’s now a Komodo dragon exhibit. And that chunk of the wall, I would never let them repair it. It’s still there from that morning where he did that.

01:16:34 - 01:17:29

He was just an amazing man. So for six weeks, he set about… Well, the second day he was there, there was a small article in the paper, and it was about Mehrtens, and he had spoken to the Humane Society in Columbia the day before and said horrible things about the zoo and horrible things about me. And Dr. Schroeder said to me, he said, “Do you have his phone number?” And I said, there are no cell phones obviously, and I said, “Well, I got his home phone number.” He said, “Call him.” (laughs) So I called, Mehrtens answered the phone. Now this is the only time I’ve talked to him since that day sitting on the fallen tree down in the woods. Somebody was talking and I handed the phone to Schroeder. And Schroeder says… I think he actually called him Mr. Mehrtens.

01:17:30 - 01:18:10

He said, “This is Charles Schroeder.” He said, “You’re not gonna talk about this zoo again.” He said to him, he said, “If you want to continue in this profession, this is it. You’re done talking about Riverbanks Zoo. You need to leave.” And he did, never said another word. August, he was gone. It was ama- I mean, he had that kind of power and Mehrtens knew it. So now he puts an ad in the old AAZPA magazine. Executive director, Riverbanks Zoo, yada yada, yada. Contact Dr. Charles Schroeder, yada, yada, yada.

01:18:11 - 01:18:50

And he had a little, took a piece of 8 by 10 paper, and he put it on landscape and he wrote little grids on it, and he had the names of the people who applied in there, experience and all. He had this little chart. And I stayed out of it. You know, I just assumed he was gonna hire somebody good. And they… He, there was no they. He brought two people to Columbia. One was the director of a large zoo in the Midwest, and the other was a general curator of a large zoo in the west, out west.

01:18:51 - 01:20:11

And he interviewed them both. The gentleman from, the curator, the general curator said he couldn’t live in the South and he withdrew. And Dr. Schroeder actually offered the job to the gentleman who was also a veterinarian like Dr. Schroeder and was the director of a large Midwestern zoo. And when they got into the salary negotiations, the guy said, “I can’t work for that,” and he withdrew. This was probably July maybe when this was all going on. And so one day Dr. Schroeder asked me if I had a resume. I said, “No, you know, I’ve only worked here.” (laughs) He said, “Well, I need a resume.” And I said, “Well, why do you need that?” He said, “I think you should apply for this job.” And I said, “Oh, Dr. Schroeder, you know, I’m not.” “No, I want you to apply.” So I had to find somebody, and it was a neighbor’s wife, to type the resume ’cause I didn’t want any of the- Mehrtens had three secretaries. (laughs) Three.

01:20:11 - 01:21:13

I never had one, he had three. I didn’t want them to type up the resume ’cause I didn’t want, A, I didn’t want them to know I was doing it, and B, I didn’t want to be embarrassed when I didn’t get the job. So I had this lady type up what was probably the most incompetent resume that had ever been written for a job. And he said, “Now I need three references.” And I referenced Doctor, I mean, yeah, Dr. Gauthreaux from Clemson, my cousin who was a veterinarian. And the third reference, I thought about it a long time, and I put the Riverbanks Park Commission, and I gave it to him. And sometime about 10 days later, they offered, they gave me the job. So now you are the director officially of the Riverbanks Zoo, never having worked in another zoo in your entire career. What did the- And you had a senior staff, other people.

01:21:13 - 01:21:14

Sort of, yes.

01:21:14 - 01:21:16

Who was your senior staff then?

01:21:16 - 01:22:00

Well, actually the only true senior staff member was the business manager. Dennis Decoursey was no longer working at the zoo. And a head bird keeper, the head bird keeper was the acting bird curator. There was a, Dow was the maintenance supervisor, and he left soon after. And he said, to his credit, he said, “You know, Mehrtens hired me. I worked for him. You need your own person.” I mean, I really respected him for that. So I had an acting maint- I mean, there was virtually, I’m not kidding, there was virtually no senior staff.

01:22:03 - 01:23:12

Clearly spending had to be brought under control. So I got with the business manager and we went over the budget, and based on my experience up to that point, I knew… There was clear we had two issues. We had a bloated staff, and our food budget was off the scale high. Mehrtens, for example, did not believe in feeding any of the ZuPreem or any of the scientifically based diets. He fed all the carnivores raw horse meat, which was creating its own problems. So I set about redoing all the diets, and I, you know, 10 years later, I thought back about that and said, you know, that was really stupid because had the animals, some of the animals died, I would have been clearly responsible because I didn’t know what the hell they ate. I mean, well, I did by then.

01:23:12 - 01:24:06

But I got on the phone with other people and said, “Look, let me tell you what we’re feeding saki monkeys.” And they’d laugh, you know, you gotta be kidding me, you know. So I slashed the food budget probably three-fourths with no impact on animal health or on animal collection. We had an art department that had 14 people in it. Now this, at the time, was a small zoo with a budget of just over a million dollars. And the reason the art department was so large is that leading up to opening, they designed and fabricated all the graphics, all the signage. They did all this work. Well, now we didn’t need that anymore. So they had begun to leave.

01:24:06 - 01:24:49

And I’m trying to think there was any, oh gosh, I can’t remember. It’s not that important, but a good number of the staff within the year of my becoming director had gone, had moved on. They just, their jobs weren’t needed anymore, mainly because they had been tasked with helping to get the zoo open. So between the animal food budget and reducing the staff, I looked like a financial genius. And really it was just common sense, you know. So, well, diets were common sense. The staff reduction just happened. I had very little to do.

01:24:49 - 01:25:47

I didn’t terminate anybody. I didn’t eliminate any positions. But that was probably the first time that I had any contact with politicians because I appeared before them to show them how much we had reduced the budget and that we were trying to be fiscally responsible and good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. And it really, it was like bursting a bubble. The pressure that we were getting just went away. However, (laughs) that immediate pressure went away, but the message was you can’t continue to operate this way. There’s gotta be a solution to this funding. That, well, there’s gotta be a solution to this lack of funding.

01:25:47 - 01:25:55

You’re not making enough money to pay salaries, feed the animals, do all that you, keep the lights on. You’re not making enough money.

01:25:55 - 01:25:57

Where’s that money, where’s the balance gonna come from?

01:25:57 - 01:26:43

We’ve been giving you this money voluntarily, but we’re not gonna keep doing this. And this was the two counties and the city. One of the two counties, Lexington County, had historically been- Remember this is the South. This county had historically been, it was literally the oth- It wasn’t the other side of the railroad tracks. It was the other side of the river. It was a blue collar. Had two little small municipalities where most of the blue collar workers who lived and worked, or who worked in Columbia lived there, and they’d cross the river every day and do their blue collar jobs and then they’d go back. 90% of the county at that time was rural farms.

01:26:45 - 01:27:46

And they were the ones putting the most pressure on the zoo, saying, “This isn’t what we do. We don’t fund zoos. You gotta fix this.” Fortunately for us, there was a major shift in state government, where power transferred from the state legislature to local governments. Prior to the early 1970s in South Carolina, local governments, mayors had virtually no power. It all rested in the state legislature. Again, that, here we are in 2023, but I’m telling you this goes back to Reconstruction after the Civil War. So they changed that form of government and the term that they used was home rule. We’re gonna now take this responsibility and shift it to the people who live and work in the community.

01:27:46 - 01:28:51

We’re gonna have county councils and city councils, and we’re gonna have mayors, and they’re gonna do the work of the people. That rural county, Lexington County, held its first election right about the time Mehrtens was fired. And they elected, by single member districts, four young guys who all lived in those two urban areas. And they were very interesting. They were conservative. They didn’t like taxes. But they were honest and they were fair, and they wanted to do the right thing. So they had a referendum, and the question on the ballot, although not quite as blunt, is probably about 90% accurate.

01:28:51 - 01:29:43

The election, the wording on the ballot was, “Do you wish to be taxed to support Riverbanks Zoo?” And it passed by the narrowest of margins. So these four guys took it upon themselves to have a meeting with their counterparts in Richland County. And with the mayor, we were in the mayor’s office. I was there. Members of the Zoo Commission were there. And I was probably 20 years younger, no, 30 years, no, 10 to 15 years younger than the next youngest person in the room. Probably 30 years younger than most of the people in the room, and with the least amount of experience in business of anybody in the room. So I just sat in the corner and kept my mouth shut.

01:29:45 - 01:30:47

And they agreed, this is how we’re gonna fund the zoo, and we’re gonna make it a millage agency. We’re gonna assess local property taxes to fund the zoo’s operating budget. And as I tell people, this was now three years after I’d been director. So for three years I lived with this deficit. And I mean, our business manager, George Davis, and I literally would sit down every month and decide what bills to pay. And as I tell people, when the clock struck midnight on June 30th, 1980, we went from having a deficit that we had lived with for six years to having a surplus. And that was the true beginning of Riverbanks Zoo. Now, staff was happy that you’re the director now.

01:30:47 - 01:30:50

I would like to think so.

01:30:50 - 01:30:55

Were you forming your own philosophy about zoo management now?

01:30:55 - 01:31:32

No, I was forming a staff. Even though… All right, not even though. Because I had no managerial, no managerial experience, I was a bad manager. I was, you know, my role model, if you want to call it that, was John Mehrtens. So I was pretty dictatorial. I was, you know, “Do this, do that, don’t do this.” And I was working seven days a week, 10 hours a day. I’d just gotten married.

01:31:32 - 01:32:08

I mean, the zoo was my life. My wife and I got married on a Saturday, and I was at work Monday morning. I was a workaholic because I felt responsible. I felt totally responsible for the zoo. And I just knew I couldn’t keep doing that. So in a relatively short period of time, I hired an education curator. I hired the zoo’s first, I called, her position was called public relations coordinator, but she was really marketing and PR.

01:32:11 - 01:32:13

I hired, what else?

01:32:13 - 01:33:08

Education curator. So that all took place over about an 18-month to 2-year period of time that I went from being chief cook and bottle washer to now I had people who knew more about what they were doing than I did. And that… That sort of helped me. That gave me the opportunity to kind of sit back and look at, okay, I’d never been to a zoo. I didn’t want to work in a zoo. Now I’m a zoo director. I guess I’m into this thing. (laughs) You know, up until that point, when John Mehrtens was fired in April, I actually had gone to the post office and gotten a federal job application.

01:33:08 - 01:33:52

My best friend in high school had died of a cocaine overdose, and I wanted, decided I was gonna be a DEA agent. So I’d gone to the post office and was in the process of filling out an application to work for the DEA when they fired Mehrtens. You know, that’s how fragile my relationship was to the zoo up until being named the acting director. So now here I am. I’ve been director for four years. I got some staff. I’m starting to trust that they know more than I do about a lot of things. And I guess it was not long after that.

01:33:53 - 01:35:11

Well, let me back up. So I became director in the fall of ’76, which was the first year that the AAZPA had a management school in Wheeling, West Virginia. And the management school, the philosophy behind the establishment of the AAZPA Management School was to teach business skills to zoo professionals, directors and curators who had no background in business, and I was a poster child for that. So I couldn’t enroll in that first year because I think it was already over or was- No, that was in February. For whatever, I may be off a little bit, but I was definitely in the second class. And that was another career-altering experience because it was kind of interesting in that I was at the school, and I’m guessing the class was half directors and half curators. My buddies were all curators because I’d been a curator up to that point. I knew some of them.

01:35:11 - 01:35:45

Some of them I didn’t know at all. But then I got to meet some zoo directors. And, you know, you’re locked up in Wheeling, West Virginia, and there ain’t a whole lot to do, you know, after five o’clock, after you get out of class than sit around and talk. And I became friends with a couple of folks that became lifelong colleagues. But the school was interesting. I was telling somebody just the other day. I remember two of my classes. One was, the guy, I think his name was Joe Bissonnette.

01:35:45 - 01:36:31

He was the president or director of the Pittsburgh Zoo Society. And he taught a class on, his class was on revenue. And we had a class where we learned that you had to pop popcorn all day so that people smelled it and would buy more, and you had to oversalt it so they’d buy soft drinks. That was a class. Another class was a guy came in and demonstrated how to use a cash register. That was a class. So the classes were kind of interesting. However, the class that I learned the most from and used what I learned for years was a gentleman whose name I have long since forgotten, but at the time, he was the human resource manager for the San Diego Zoo.

01:36:31 - 01:37:10

I think he was actually an attorney talking about human resources, and I soaked that in like a sponge. That guy was, he was fabulous. But now I knew some directors and people that I would call on the phone and just shoot the breeze with, which was kind of a zoo director’s disease. And Elvie Turner, who was the director of the Fort Worth Zoo, George Felton from the Baton Rouge Zoo, I can’t remember off the top of my head others. And then I began, okay, now you’ve got this thing. It looks like you’re gonna be here for a while.

01:37:12 - 01:37:13

What happens now?

01:37:14 - 01:38:16

So I can’t say… I can’t honestly say that at that still early point in my life and career, I had formed a lot of opinions about zoos. I knew I didn’t want to deal with animal dealers. I had been burned too many times. So I started pulling back from that. And Dr. Schroeder taught me a lot about that too. He also taught me the value of forming relationships with other zoo folks and how that could lead to animals that you would never have a chance to get any other way. So still kind of an animal-focused person, but I attended management school, which was a really good experience.

01:38:17 - 01:39:24

And at some point along that way, again, we’re still in the maybe 1980-’81-’82, I’m not sure, every year and still to this day, the AZBA, A, (laughs) AAZPA, now AZA, the incoming chair puts out a call for service if you would like to volunteer. And I sent a letter and said, “I’d like to volunteer. I’ll do whatever,” and I was appointed to the membership committee. That had a very major impact on me and my future in the profession because at the time, the professional fellow designation was taken very seriously. And becoming a professional fellow was not handed out readily. You had to have experience. You had to have all this background. And George Felton, who at the time was the director of the Baton Rouge Zoo, was the chairman of the membership committee, and he kind of put me in charge of the professional fellow classification.

01:39:24 - 01:40:05

So I got to talk on the phone to all these people who were budding directors, budding curators. I got to talk to their staff, not their staff, but to their supervisors. And just, I was networking. I was just, I guess that’s the word I would use. I was… From ’80 to ’82-’83, I was really starting to network. And so by volunteering for the membership committee, I kind of got my name out there. I guess some people kind of thought I was doing an okay job with that, and I got appointed to the accreditation commission in its very early days.

01:40:05 - 01:41:11

And that was another significant moment in my career, because now you… And I think accreditation at the time that I served, yeah, in fact, I know it was. The first term or two years, whatever, accreditation was voluntary, I became chairman of the accreditation commission the year that the board made it mandatory. And so we had a number of zoos that had never applied for accreditation who weren’t gonna make it, knew they weren’t gonna make it. And now I was the guy calling the shots and having the meetings and conducting the meetings and literally tossing people, zoos out of the association. Very serious position to be in. And they then nominated me for the board, and I lost. I was the…

01:41:12 - 01:42:01

They elected three directors, and I got the fourth number of votes. And I don’t remember to this day, but one of the three who was elected ahead of me left the profession soon after, and they moved me up to the board. So I had my fir- I actually served three times on the board. Most people think it’s two. They forgot that I had that lit- In fact, that person who left left like a year and a half into his term, so I was only on the board for a year and a half. Well, we’re gonna talk more about your presidencies and AZA in a minute. I want to get back to you as director of the zoo. And you had mentioned it briefly, but you were director of the zoo for a very long time.

01:42:01 - 01:42:03

Can you describe your management style?

01:42:03 - 01:42:05

Did it change?

01:42:05 - 01:42:09

And how would your staff describe your management style?

01:42:10 - 01:43:25

Great question. So the first few years, I was a terrible manager. I guess I’d been director… Well, while I was still let’s just say a not very good manager, (laughs) I managed to get a bond issue passed and double the size of the zoo. And the zoo went from being a beloved part of the community to a real force in the community in terms of its value as not just as a tourist attraction but a financial force. And I was still adding staff during that time. And I guess I had an epiphany (laughs) one day and that I was stressed and I was always frazzled. I never took a vacation.

01:43:26 - 01:44:04

And one day I just said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t, this is not good for me. It’s not good for the zoo.” And almost overnight, which is probably more like a year or so, I changed, and I completely changed. I began to… I gave the staff responsibility, you know. I didn’t micro- I was a micromanager. I stopped doing that. I had a marketing director.

01:44:04 - 01:44:47

I had a PR director. I had, and I’m using titles that were used back then. I had a, finally we had a guest relations manager. It just, things just started to change. The zoo’s attendance went from about 450,000 to 900,000 in a year and stayed there. We hired marketing firms. I mean, we were becoming, dare I say, a real zoo, a major force. By then, I had served a term as president of the AZA.

01:44:50 - 01:45:29

And my whole life sort of changed. I became more… I guess I just was more at peace. I had two children by then. They became more of a focus in my life. And I think I became a pretty good manager. And I’d like to think that my staff thought that I was doing a pretty good job, with the zoo kept growing. I encouraged the staff to become involved in the community, to become involved in the AZA.

01:45:32 - 01:46:40

I don’t know what else to say. I just, it was like half of my career was this not very nice guy, and the second half of my career, I think I was pretty good at what I did. Can you tell me about the- You talked about you’re building exhibits, you’re doing things more, you got more money. Tell me about some of the exhibits that you championed and maybe the highs and lows of each and why you did. Well, before I do that, let me just say that the original zoo, the zoo that John Mehrtens built single-handedly, I doubt, I can assure you, of course, there haven’t been many zoos built from scratch in the last 30 or 40 years. Riverbanks being one. I can assure you that none of those others were built with less oversight by anyone other than the zoo director than Riverbanks and John Mehrtens. He only had architects because he needed drawings.

01:46:42 - 01:47:48

He did not have a single consultant. I learned over the years that he had virtually no experience in mammals and birds, but yet he built these exhibits. And all of them, almost every one of them had major design flaws in them. So, from that time in becoming director in ’76 until probably ’85, let’s say, over that 10-year period, I spent rebuilding the original zoo. We had some animal escapes due to some design flaws. We had… The centerpiece of the zoo when Mehrtens built it, oddly, well, two odds, oddly enough was a birdhouse, and I say oddly because even though he did have extensive background and was very good as a herpetologist, he didn’t build a reptile house. There were no reptiles in the zoo.

01:47:50 - 01:48:27

But the bird house was the centerpiece. It was an icon. It was huge. It was 30,000 square feet. And to this day, again, everything in that original zoo was built in an oriental motif and was painted red and black, from the administration building to the snack bars to the bird house to the gift shop. You would have thought you were in China. The main gate to the zoo was a Chinese gate they have. Have no idea why Mehrtens did that.

01:48:28 - 01:49:36

But this bird house that was touted as maybe the best bird house ever built and touted by Mehrtens that way, and a lot of people felt that way ’cause they had an incredible collection, he had it built out of wood, and it started to rot before the zoo ever opened. And (laughs) he had gone to Europe before he ever became director of Riverbanks Zoo. And I know, I don’t know what zoo, but he was in a German zoo. He used to tell me this story. He was in a German zoo, and they were experimenting with using light as a barrier for birds. And he went into this building, and they had built a series of cages. And the room was very dark, but the cages were very well lit. And the birds, at least it was felt like, would not fly out of their lighted exhibits into the dark.

01:49:36 - 01:50:39

Well, he just, he became obsessed with that concept. So when he designed the bird house, and he had a team of two local architects, and he would say, “This is what I want you to do.” There was never any, “Hey, have you thought?” No, that didn’t happen. He said, “This is what you will do.” He built it round, and he had these large exhibits around the interior. There was a swamp, there was a canyon, there was a rainforest. And he used this concept. He had bright lights in the exhibits, but the hallway were dark. Well, there was a problem. (laughs) The birds over there in the rainforest could see the birds over there in the desert, and they just flew back and forth all day long. So for years, the keepers would come in every morning with nets and catch the birds in the canyon and put them in the rainforest and then catch the birds in the desert and put them.

01:50:39 - 01:51:06

It was just a mess. The building was rotting. It was awful. And that’s just one example of flaws that were throughout. Because he didn’t know. He didn’t know any better. And he wouldn’t listen to anybody. Now I don’t think another zoo person set foot on that site till after the zoo opened.

01:51:06 - 01:51:42

He wouldn’t, he didn’t want them to come. He didn’t want any zoo directors to come. So I spent 10 years basically fixing that. But within that 10 years, my first project was an education building. And I hired the same architects. They were good guys. I hired them, but I did something very different. We went around the country and went- In fact, we came to Brookfield and looked at some zoos that were just building education centers.

01:51:42 - 01:52:23

This was in the early ’80s. And we designed the building that we still use to this day. It needs work, but anyway, it was a good building for a long time. And the significance of that is that I had never been involved. When the zoo was constructed, I had nothing to do with it, zero. So now this was my first (laughs) thing to build. And I didn’t want to make those mistakes. I was paranoid about, you know, not leaving a problem for somebody to fix.

01:52:23 - 01:53:13

So I immersed myself in the construction. And I loved it. I just loved it. And that had a profound impact on me. It was, hey, you could dream of something, and then it gets built. There it is, you did it, you know. I had a lot of help, but I did it. So, that was around the time that Jones and Jones, the Seattle architecture firm, did the incredible first major immersive exhibits at Washington Park Zoo in Seattle, Woodland Park Zoo, excuse me, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

01:53:15 - 01:54:00

And the gorilla exhibit in particular, it was showing that you didn’t need. You could have moats, but then you could have landscaping. And I was just and I saw it, I saw it. I went and saw it, and I was just, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And I got a bond issue passed. Now when I say I got a bond issue passed, that’s no small task, getting people to tax themselves. But the good news was, the way the zoo was created, I didn’t need a public referendum. I just needed a simple majority of votes on the two county councils.

01:54:00 - 01:54:43

So I needed six votes here, and I needed five votes here. I needed 11 people to raise their hand, and I could get untold millions of dollars. And I did all of the lobbying for that. Let me go back. The Zoo Commission had been through holy hell with Mehrtens building the zoo, his termination, and they took a real backseat. I think after I’d been director for four or five years, they probably decided, “Eh, this kid might know what he’s doing.” And even though I really wanted their involvement, unlike Mehrtens who kept them at an arm’s length, I wanted them involved, but they didn’t. They just said, “You do it. You know what’s best,” you know.

01:54:44 - 01:55:03

And I said, “I want to do a bond issue. I want to expand the zoo.” And I told them what I thought would work, and I developed that with the staff. We needed reptiles. Every day, people came, “Where are the snakes, where are the snakes, where are the snakes?” We got asked that question every day from 1974 to 1989.

01:55:03 - 01:55:06

Where are the snakes, where are the snakes?

01:55:06 - 01:55:56

We had horrible guest amenities. We had two little tiny snack bars and an 800-square-foot gift shop. And the food that we served out of that was horrible. And that was my single biggest complaint. I hated Monday mornings because I’d have a stack of pink slips from the weekend switchboard operator, calling people back to complain about either the long lines or the bad food that they had been served. So I was tired of that. So I said, “Look, we need to, we got some issues here we need to solve.” They said, “Okay, go forth and do it.” So I start lobbying these members of county, first time ever. I mean, I got, I learned a lot through that process and got a bond issue passed.

01:55:56 - 01:57:05

And I hired the firm of CLR that was an offshoot of Jones and Jones. At the time, they were called Coe Lee, Jon Coe and Gary Lee. And with the staff, we sat down at a table for several sessions over a period of a few months and came up with the concept of a reptile exhibit and small aquarium. We actually initially said, “We’ll build a little aquarium over here and a reptile house over here,” and then we said, “Eh, we’ll build one building that has both.” We built a very nice restaurant, sit-down restaurant in the middle of the zoo. And I built, or we, I shouldn’t say I. We built a children’s farm. And we started construction probably sometime in 1987. We opened the farm first.

01:57:05 - 01:58:00

Oh, we built a new entrance. I actually relocated the entrance. Our ticket, we had two little ticket windows, and lines would form, you know, half a block long trying to get in the zoo ’cause we only had two ticket windows. Plus the entrance that was in the original zoo was at one extreme end of the zoo. So if you parked on a busy day at one end of the parking lot, you had to walk the entire length of the parking lot to get to the entrance and then go through the zoo, and at the end of the day, you had to walk all the way back to your car. So we relocated the entrance to the middle of the zoo, built a brand new, huge gift shop, six ticket windows. So all of that opened from 1980… Late ’87 until November of ’89 when we opened the reptile house, which we had branded as the ARC, Aquarium Reptile Complex.

01:58:01 - 01:58:44

And I was, I just loved it. I loved the construction. I loved the meetings with the architects. I loved the design process. And they were all huge hits. So in 1986, we had 460,000 visitors. In calendar year 1990, we had 1,012,000 visitors. So we almost tripled attendance.

01:58:44 - 01:58:47

All right, you indicated, you said, I learned things from lobbying.

01:58:47 - 01:58:49

What did you learn?

01:58:49 - 01:58:51


01:58:51 - 01:59:55

Oh boy, I learned a lot. Mainly not to trust a politician. I think I learned what everybody’s learned who’s lobbied any elected official, either from the president of the United States down to a local city council. They’re a different breed of people. When I became director and even before that, the men, and they were all men, who served in our local government, city council, county councils, were what I today would call true public servants. They ran for office because they thought they could make a difference in the community. They almost every time did the right thing. By the mid-’80s, those people were long gone, (laughs) and this new breed of politician were very different.

01:59:57 - 02:00:44

We had a huge anti-property tax movement. I think it swept the whole country, started in California. And those people who were elected, they had a group called We the People. They ran a lot of people for local office, and a lot of them got elected on the platform we’ll never raise taxes. And all I could think of, well, that’s it for the zoo, you know. No more operating funds, no more bond issues. But I kept talking to them and talking to them and talking to them and spoonfeeding them information and making them understand that sometimes you gotta spend some money to make money. But I wasn’t the only one doing that.

02:00:44 - 02:01:43

There were other, you know, nonprofits and other agencies within the Midlands, we call the middle of South Carolina the Midlands, who were having to teach these people that, you know, when you call 911 and you need an ambulance, it’s gotta show up, you know. And so they were learning, fortunately, and we were teaching that you just can’t stop raising taxes, you know, if your community is gonna grow, if your citizens are gonna be safe, if they’re gonna have good roads to drive on and all those other things. They reluctantly raised taxes. And I like to think that I played some small part in that education process even apart from the zoo by just meeting with these people. And not all of them were that way. We had some good folks. We started having women get elected. Most of them were great.

02:01:43 - 02:02:42

They were more in line of the true public servant than some of these yahoos that didn’t want to raise taxes, and I dealt with that until the day I retired. Thankfully, I had no involvement. I say no, virtually no involvement in state government. State legislature had nothing to do with the zoo. And as I say that, I have to note that the three local governing bodies, the two counties and the city who appointed the Zoo Commission, they had no responsibility in the zoo. And it was a brilliant move on the part of somebody when they created the Zoo Commission in 1969. Because they had two appointees from each of the two counties and two from the city and one at large. So there’s seven members of the commission.

02:02:42 - 02:03:38

So let’s say the mayor said, “I want to paint the elephants purple.” He only had two votes on the Zoo Commission, so that would never happen. So when they, it took them a while to realize. It took, when I say they, when somebody got elected to one of those councils and had a thought, “Oh, the zoo, I want to get right there,” they realized, “Wait a minute. I only have two votes out of seven. I can’t, you know, influence over two votes.” I had the greatest job in the world. I mean, as the director of a publicly owned and operated zoo, I- Sorry, we. We ran it almost like a nonprofit. I followed all the state laws, I followed all the assigs, I did all the right things legally, but I ran the zoo more as a independent nonprofit with minimal governmental oversight.

02:03:39 - 02:05:01

Now during your time, your extended time of 43 years at the zoo at the helm, what was your relationship to animal rights groups and humane society groups over the years, and develop a philosophy about dealing with them and… I can summarize that in two words. The South. (laughs) For most of my career, there was virtually no animal rights movement in South Carolina. Anybody who, any individual or any organization who proposed any kind of animal rights, and we’re making a distinction now between welfare and rights, but who made any kind of, be it the zoo, be it farming, be it pets, be it what, they were either completely ignored or just brushed off to the side. It was a non-issue. I never let my guard down. I never took that for granted. I tried to form relationships.

02:05:04 - 02:05:56

You know, I don’t think there was ever. Never say never. I’m not aware of a PETA chapter in South Carolina. We had a very weak HSUS. I thought we had a very weak HSUS presence, but I learned the hard way that we didn’t. I don’t know what year this was. It would have been in the early ’90s, I guess, when HSUS was beginning to take a stand on marine mammals. And they did a smart thing.

02:05:56 - 02:07:24

They looked at states that had no marine mammal exhibits, aquariums, whatever and that had weak, dare I say easily influenced state legislatures, and they picked South Carolina. So they got a bill introduced into the state legislature that to ban the exhibition of marine mammals in South Carolina. When that first happened, I laughed, but I learned very quickly that it was gonna happen. And there was a large hearing in the state. It was in the Senate Judiciary Committee, I think. And I had two good friends on that committee. (laughs) And Anheuser-Busch took the lead in trying to stop the law from being passed because at the time they owned Sea World. They hired the former lieutenant governor as their chief lobbyist. We brought in several aquarium directors, John Prescott, I remember, from New England Aquarium, and had a hearing.

02:07:24 - 02:08:18

HSUS brought in their experts, and lo and behold, it passed. So to this day, (laughs) you can’t exhibit marine mammals in South Carolina, which was kind of interesting when the last thing I built was a $17 million sea lion exhibit. And I had to go back and work with the legislature and get sea lions amended out of that law. And I was able to build the sea lion exhibit. So they’re there. They have a presence. They’ve never been after the zoo. It was just, I’m fortunate I never had to deal in any major way with animal rights activists or even animal welfare, although I was a big proponent.

02:08:18 - 02:08:35

I like to think I was a big proponent always of animal welfare. I always tried to put the welfare of the animals first. You had a… As your tenure at the zoo, you had a profession, you had a professional staff. Yes, yes.

02:08:35 - 02:08:41

And how important was professional growth for your staff to you?

02:08:41 - 02:09:35

I actively encouraged our animal staff, from curators down to keepers, to become involved in the AZA, studbook keepers, TAG chairs, TAG committees. I just felt it was very important for them, for the zoo, for our place within this profession, the professional association. And they all prospered from that. They all grew from that professionally. So let’s talk about AZA for a moment. You are saying that you were elected to a number of positions, and then you became the president. I did. I did.

02:09:35 - 02:09:45

And what revelations opened your eyes when you were now the president of the association?

02:09:51 - 02:10:11

There was a lot going on that first time, and not just the year that I served as president, but the terms that I served on the board. I remember taking a vote, raising my hand to form the WCMC.

02:10:13 - 02:10:14

Which is?

02:10:14 - 02:11:08

The Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee. That name has since changed. I’m not even sure what it’s called to this day, but it was the first effort on- It was a recognition and effort by the AZA that if we did not manage the animals scientifically within our collections, we were in trouble. And that committee became the cornerstone of the AZA’s conservation efforts. I was there when it was born. I was part of that discussion. I was very involved in the early days of ISIS, International Species Information System, now called… Is it Zoo ARKS or…

02:11:10 - 02:12:02

Zoo ARKS, I’m not sure what the name is. Clearly it could no longer be called ISIS after what happened in the Middle East. That was not in AZA. That was a totally independent international nonprofit. That was a very real learning experience for all of us because of the international component, differing philosophies. There was a lot of controversy surrounding that, and I was intimately involved in a lot of those discussions. So a lot of things that were impactful, major impact on the association, happened during that first term that I served on the board and served as president. I was president-elect.

02:12:06 - 02:12:53

The association was growing by leaps and bounds. The professional staff, the association’s professional staff was growing. But we were mired in Wheeling, West Virginia. That was the historical home of the AZA. And that had to do simply with where the, and I may say it wrong, the National Recreation and Parks Association was headquartered. The AZA was a part of that, and in ’73, I think, declared its independence. Gary Clarke was a major player in that. And they maintained an office in Wheeling, West Virginia, which, you know, I have a lot of friends in West Virginia, but that ain’t the place to be for a national association.

02:12:53 - 02:14:30

So there was a lot of discussion about moving the office, which was, had full support of the board, but not support of the senior executive staff, all of whom were entrenched in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I was sworn in as vice president the year that Ron Forman was sworn in as president. Ron Forman, about two weeks after he was sworn in as president, decided that he was gonna get married and go around the world on his honeymoon and said, “Satch, you’re in charge, see you later,” and left the country, no communication. Our then executive director, Bob Wagner, who had been adamant about staying in Wheeling, West Virginia, was finally told at that meeting where we were all sworn into these new positions, “We hear you, we respect you, but we’re moving this association to Washington, DC now.” Ron Forman leaves. I’m sitting at my desk minding my own business. The phone rings, it’s Bob Wagner. And in the background I hear sirens and horns honking and, you know, not West Virginia sounds. And he said, I’m in…

02:14:33 - 02:15:36

Not Silver Spring, one of the other suburbs of Washington. “Just want to let you know I bought a building.” “Hello? (laughs) What? You did what?” “I bought a building.” “You bought a building.” “Yes, I took several hundred thousand dollars that the AZA had. I bought a building.” “Who went with you to look for it?” “I went by myself, I bought it.” He literally got in his car, drove to Washington, DC that morning, and bought a building. And when Ron Forman got back, I cussed him out for leaving me to deal with this mess. So as that year went on and then I became the president, which we now call chair, we moved a lot of staff to Washington. That was a big deal. I was glad to be a part of that. That was your first presidency.

02:15:36 - 02:15:57

That was my first presidency. Interestingly, for a year or two, Wagner stayed in Wheeling. And we had a staff in Washington, we had a small staff in Wheeling, and ultimately moved everything to Washington. Now it’s in Silver Spring and it’s done quite well.

02:15:57 - 02:16:05

And who, when you left the presidency for the first time, who was the next president?

02:16:05 - 02:16:06

Charlie Hessel.

02:16:06 - 02:16:11

And did you give Charlie Hessel any advice?

02:16:12 - 02:17:02

I’m sure I did. (laughs) One thing is I’m not going around the world on a honeymoon. No, we were a really cohesive group. When I think back on it, and I don’t have the sequences right, but for about a five-year period, our presidents, in addition to me, were Charlie, Ron Forman, Warren Iliff, Steve Taylor, Steve McCusker. I mean, we had some great presidents during that time, and I was proud to be part of that. We were a good, and we all… I think we thought as one, we managed as one. You know, we tried to help guide the association with one mind. We talked to each other.

02:17:02 - 02:17:11

Even after we rotated off the board, we still kept in touch and tried to follow up on things that might have started while we were there.

02:17:12 - 02:17:21

You had indicated, just to change shift a bit, but you’d indicated when you were at the zoo and you’re building, did you have a master plan?

02:17:23 - 02:17:26

No, I didn’t believe in master plans.

02:17:26 - 02:17:30


02:17:30 - 02:19:15

My philosophy with that was based upon the fact that I was a public institution in a relatively small southern city with no history of philanthropy, which meant that I had to rely on bond issues for capital money, which meant that I had to rely on elected officials who changed every year. So rather than develop a master plan, and I strongly contemplating a master plan, I developed my own little way of doing that. So let’s go back to that first bond issue with the farm, the restaurant, the new entrance, the reptile house. We, primarily the CLR Coe Lee staff, they taught me a very valuable thing that I continued to use throughout the zoo, and they described it in a very simple and very understandable term. Columbia, South Carolina has been called the screen door to hell (laughs) because of the heat and humidity. Our summers are brutal. Upper 90 temperature, a lot of 100 degree temperatures, and very high humidity. Our winters are relatively mild, but it can get, we can get cold.

02:19:15 - 02:19:57

Not Chicago cold, but we can get cold. So they described to me or explained I guess a way of looking at our site. And our site was very small. It was just a little over 30 acres at the time, but intensely developed, to look at the zoo like a shopping mall. And you have four anchors in your shopping mall. You have, you know, your Sears, which no longer exists, and you have your big department stores. And then you have the fill-in stores, the smaller stores in between, and then you have your food court in the middle. Well, that’s how we developed Riverbanks.

02:19:57 - 02:20:57

We put major exhibits in the four corners, or the four points of what is actually a large oval. And those exhibits are all air-conditioned and large. So on a very hot day, a visitor can come to the zoo and stay in air-conditioning most of their visit if they want to. So that was the first thing, you know, this sort of shopping mall concept with the major anchors. And then the second thing, and this became my way of looking at things was, so we developed a plan for the reptile house and those things. And so, two years after they all opened, I studied the zoo intently for two years and how people were reacting.

02:20:57 - 02:21:04

Not, oh, do I love this reptile house, but how am I getting there, and where am I gonna have lunch and where are the bathrooms?

02:21:04 - 02:21:51

And I became very obsessed with that sort, in a positive way with that concept, and it was totally new to me. CLR taught me a lot about how people visit the zoo. So what I did after maybe 18 months or two years at the most, I had CLR come back in, and I said, “Okay, here’s what I’ve learned. What do we do next?” And so we developed these little mini plans. About a year after we did one, we developed the next one. Rather than say we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this, and in 25 years. I didn’t, that didn’t work for me. I did this, and based on how that, how the public reacted to that, we did this.

02:21:52 - 02:22:04

And then seven or eight years later, we did this. So that became my philosophy for the zoo. We were talking about master planning and the zoo.

02:22:06 - 02:22:07

Can you tell me something?

02:22:07 - 02:22:11

They say sometimes the zoo is a zoological garden.

02:22:11 - 02:22:17

Can you tell me something about botanical garden and the horticulture and how the zoo was involved in that?

02:22:17 - 02:23:02

Yes. In addition to being involved in the AZA, I also was a member of the World Zoo and Aquarium Association, WAZA. Ultimately became chair of that board as well, which was not a lot of fun. But I went to a WASA conference. I want to say Antwerp, but I’m not sure. Another kind of seminal moment for me because the zoo… I really wish I could remember the zoo, but it’s not important. It was one of the European zoos.

02:23:02 - 02:23:52

Was in the middle of this massive city, tall buildings all around. And you walk in, and a small zoo, few acres, and you’re in an oasis. And they did something I had never seen before, which was vertical horticulture. They had planted walls, and it was just the most amazing thing, and the horticulture was incredible. So when I came back, I think this was around 1980. Oh, I don’t know, this might have been long. It was in the ’80s, mid to late ’80s. I created a curator of horticulture position and interviewed some really good folks.

02:23:52 - 02:24:42

But this one young man walked into my office. He had just like two weeks before graduated from Clemson University, of which I am also a graduate, in horticulture, and he had done an internship at Disney. And I thought, “Well, this kid, he doesn’t, he’d never been to a zoo like me. What does he know anything about zoo horticulture?” But he blew my socks off, and he had a little slide carousel. He had a slideshow of what he had done, and it was amazing, and I hired him, boom. He transformed Riverbanks Zoo. And I mean, he did it on his own. All I did was write the checks, but he cut out.

02:24:42 - 02:26:08

We had all these long, wide sidewalks with steel handrails, and he convinced me to cut down the steel handrails, cut curves in the sidewalk, put in more natural material like split-rail fences and things, and planted it stem to stern. And within about two years, I was getting more letters from visitors about our horticulture than I was anything else. Now, the interesting thing, I also got letters from people saying that I needed to be fired for letting the zoo go and planting all those weeds. They just didn’t, some people didn’t get it right away. They wanted the hedges and the nice little rows of tulips in the spring, and they didn’t want these grasses and vines growing everywhere. But it just, it transformed our zoo and became the impetus for a major shift in our mission. So I have to go back again to when the zoo was started and the two counties agreed or were charged with funding it. And from day one, part of the zoo was supposed to be in both counties.

02:26:08 - 02:26:57

Well, we’re not called Riverbanks Zoo for anything. We’re on the banks of a very big river with no bridge, no way to get over there, back then. Plus Mehrtens spent all of the money on the zoo in its location and wouldn’t spend any money across the river. So when the zoo opened, it was all in Richland County and the city. There was nothing in this other county, and to boot, some of those legislators from that county had been instrumental in getting the zoo off the ground. They were not happy. So fast forward, I’m now director and I’ve hired Jim. The zoo is going great, the horticulture’s looking great.

02:26:59 - 02:27:37

And I’ve got this bond issue. We built the reptile house. All that was looking good. And now I want to do another bond issue. (laughs) I want to make some more additions to the zoo. And I went over to that county and to lobby and try to garner the five votes that I needed. And I was basically told, you know, “Okay, we’ll do this, but don’t you ever set foot in this door again until you build something in our county.” And I mean, they were quite clear and quite adamant about it.

02:27:38 - 02:27:46

So I got the staff together and the Zoo Commission, and what are we gonna do?

02:27:46 - 02:29:10

You know, I don’t, there’s no bridge, there’s no way to get there. And the zoo is located on the south bank of the river, and it’s relatively flat land. The property that- And we had property over there. The local utility that had given those little acreage of land back in the ’60s actually extended and gave us a lease on 170 acres of land, of which 70 was across the river. Well, the north bank of the river is a steep hillside with giant granite boulders on it. And I didn’t want to build any part of the zoo over there because of concerns about emergencies, animal emergencies, animal escapes, you know, and being so remote from the zoo proper and the hospital and everything. So, somebody, not me, remembered, well, you know, if you go back and read that legislation in 1969, it says that the Riverbanks Park Commission shall be charged, and I’m kind of paraphrasing, but charged with the responsibility of building a zoo and garden on its property. Hmm. (laughs) So heck, let’s build a garden.

02:29:10 - 02:30:13

Let’s build a botanical garden. So we hired one of the country’s preeminent botanical garden firms out of Pittsburgh, and they designed a master plan for the garden, the initial phase. And I went back to the county and I said, “Okay, I’m ready. I need six million bucks.” It was a unanimous vote, and I had them $6 million in a couple of weeks. And we built a formal botanical garden with a visitor center and a wall garden, a children’s garden. And we were fortunate that two years or a year after it opened, HGTV published a book on the 50 best botanical gardens in the United States, and it was named one. And we’ve since expanded it a couple of times. So you just never know where these things are gonna come from, but that was one that Mehrtens.

02:30:13 - 02:30:36

It was kind of a bad decision that he made that ended up being a good decision in that had we built picnic tables or whatever we would have built on that property 40 years or 50 years ago, that probably all that would’ve ever been there. Now we got this great, has its own parking lot, its own entrance. It’s a great facility. Hosts a lot of weddings and cocktail parties.

02:30:39 - 02:30:49

Let me digress a bit from your zoo to a number of questions that are essentially what’s your opinion?

02:30:51 - 02:31:03

And the first one is, how important do you think it is for zoo directors to make rounds of their zoo, and did you do that?

02:31:05 - 02:31:20

I have a friend named Mike Zulat, who used to make fun of me because he would call for whatever reason to talk, and I would say, “Look, I gotta go on rounds.” He thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard in his life.

02:31:20 - 02:31:21

What zoo director goes on rounds?

02:31:23 - 02:31:58

I did it every day till the day I retired. The day I retired, I went on rounds. And for me, unlike our, some of our German colleagues who when they go on rounds, they go on rounds. They go on all the backups. I went on the public side. I did it every day. And I thought and I still think to this day it was the most important thing that I did because I saw things that nobody else saw. And that frustrated me because I tried to train my staff.

02:31:58 - 02:32:33

I said, “Come with me. Let me show you what I see.” And I would say, “Okay, this, this, this.” “Well, how did you see that?” And I guess it’s this innate thing that I had and others have. But when I left that last day, I went on rounds, but I did what presidents do. I left a note on my desk for the, whoever took my place. And I said, here are the, whatever the number was, things that I think are important, and number one was go on rounds. Walk through the zoo every day. Doesn’t take long. Not a big zoo.

02:32:34 - 02:32:52

You can do it first thing in the morning. You can do it after lunch, which is when I normally do it. You can do it at the end of the day. But do it. Make sure the staff sees you. Speak, it gives you an opportunity to interact with the staff. I think it’s a big part of being a zoo director.

02:32:54 - 02:32:56

What do you think made you a good zoo director?

02:32:56 - 02:33:44

Hmm, I don’t know. I have a very inquisitive mind. I read a lot. I observe, I traveled all over the world. Every time I went somewhere, especially to another zoo, I tried to find as many things as I could to bring back home and implement at Riverbanks. The last 10 or 15 years of my career, I became a listener. I became more inclusive with my staff. I let them, I hired good people.

02:33:44 - 02:35:01

I hired the best people I could given the restraints that I had, which were salary. But I hired the very best people I could, and I let them do their job. I also kept my board, which we called a commission. I was a good communicator, and by that, I don’t mean my communication, my verbal communication, but I sent them, especially when we all got computers and email, there was never anything that happened in the zoo from politics, from animals to visitors, good or bad, that I didn’t communicate with them. They could never say that they weren’t informed. And that was a lesson learned from John Mehrtens who informed nobody of anything. So I was a good communicator. I didn’t always, in speaking of being a good communicator, I didn’t always let my staff know what I was thinking because I was usually thinking of five or six things at one time, (laughs) and it was hard for me to remember what I thought of 10 o’clock this morning, but now I’m thinking about something else.

02:35:04 - 02:35:50

And while I’m being criticizing myself, I have a very short attention span. And so I have staff meetings and they’re all sitting around the table and they’re giving reports, and then there’s silence. And I look and they’re all looking at me. And somebody will say, “You know, we’re talking over here.” (laughs) You know, I said, I don’t know, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” but I could zone out. Or I’d be in a meeting with three or four staff and realize that they’re getting up, and I said, “Where are you going?” “Well, you quit listening 10 minutes ago so we’re leaving.” That’s just, that’s me. I mean, that’s what I am, that’s what I was, and maybe that’s what I’ll always be. But I just tried to- I can’t answer that question. I don’t know what, you know.

02:35:50 - 02:36:08

If I was a baseball player in the Hall of Fame, I could tell you what my statistics were. I can’t do that. It’s just, it’s a… You’re a work in progress, you know, and you just, every day you come to work, you try to be a little bit better than you were the day before. That’s the best answer I’ve got.

02:36:09 - 02:36:16

Well, talking about that, what skillset does a zoo director need today as compared to when you started?

02:36:16 - 02:37:22

Phew. Well, when I started, and let’s, so I started in ’73. Let’s go back maybe 10 years before I started. So 10 years before I started through about five or six or so years after I started, 90% of the zoo directors only knew how to do, were only asked to do one thing, and that’s manage the animal collection. This was back when most zoos were publicly owned and operated. Somebody, you know, downtown took care of payroll and helped you manage your budget, hired people for you. You just take care of the animals. And I guess early in my directorship say, in the ’80-’81-’82, all of that sort of, all that started to go away.

02:37:23 - 02:38:14

And, you know, a lot of the privatization efforts started. Zoos started following the model of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a large society in San Diego, and shifted from public management to private nonprofit management. That changed skillsets for zoo directors incredibly, and, you know, we became, although I did not go through that, I know my colleagues who did and who succeeded became great communicators, great fundraisers. May or may not have had all the skills that, let’s call them the old school folks had with their knowledge of animals. But they ran great zoos because they were great leaders.

02:38:17 - 02:38:29

Can you tell me what can a small or a medium-sized municipal zoo do today to be involved in wildlife conservation nationally or internationally?

02:38:30 - 02:39:23

Well, conservation is an expensive sport. Many years ago, we used to brag. We being Riverbanks used to brag to ourselves and to our colleagues that, you know, we donated a thousand dollars to painted dog conservation in Botswana. Now they sneeze at a thousand dollars. It’s expensive. You have to have… First and foremost, you have to have a commitment. If you want to play in international conservation, you have to be committed to it, and you have to know, by being committed, you have to know that you’re committing a lot of your resources to that endeavor.

02:39:25 - 02:40:21

At Riverbanks, we tried. We tried to fund some projects. We never fully funded a single project, or I should say we never fully funded a project on our own. But we sent money. We sent money to a number of projects. And I never felt good about that because I just didn’t think that the money we were sending probably was more of an irritant to the people receiving it to have to take the money, deposit it in a bank, convert it into the currency of the country they were working. Probably by the end of the day, it was a wash because the funds were so small. But we took a, we ultimately took an approach that we were gonna be, that our goal or our role, I should say, was more in local.

02:40:22 - 02:41:08

So our, we had a, and still do have a very good reptile department. And we funded some really good studies, and we participated in some really good studies. We funded a great project on eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. We did some work with gopher tortoises. I mean, we did a number of great projects that I’m proud of, and some of those are still going. But, you know, I decided, I decided long ago that we were never gonna be WCS in New York or somebody like that. We just couldn’t. We didn’t have the resources.

02:41:09 - 02:41:20

Well, considering the financial resources that you’ve discussed available to many small or medium-sized zoos, what should be the focus of the collection?

02:41:20 - 02:41:22

Regional, North American?

02:41:23 - 02:41:25

Dangerous species?

02:41:26 - 02:41:27

A mix of both?

02:41:32 - 02:43:41

It’s kind of a sore topic with me. (laughs) If I can bare my soul, I left the profession a little concerned, and I still am. I don’t think… I don’t think we, and in this regard, I’m speaking of the AZA, did all that we could and should have done to preserve the diversity of our collections. Some of that was beyond our control, some of it, I think, was self-inflicted, and I think some of it was a little shortsighted. I saw something happen, and it was a slow, and I’ll use that old term. It was a very slow train wreck. Over my career, I saw zoo directors go from being intimately involved in the management of their collections to, in a lot of cases, zero involvement in the management of their collections. And that had to do with the fact that as we became more and more aware of the importance of science, we began to transition our curators away from the traditional curator, what I call brown thumb curators, men and women who grew up in the profession, started as keepers, head keeper, assistant curators, curators, and we started hiring PhDs with no experience and said, “Manage our collections.” Now a lot of my colleagues do not agree with me. (laughs) Some do, but a lot don’t.

02:43:41 - 02:44:58

I just think that, as directors, we kind of took our eye off the ball. And so you wake up one morning and when you say, you know, or your curator comes in and says, you know, “We’ve got to, old Rocky, our male lion who’s 16 years old is probably gonna have to be euthanized. And by the way, I don’t know if we can get a male lion, or if we do, it’s gonna take three or four years.” And directors were like, “What?” You know, that’s crazy. And it happened a lot, happened with a lot. And I’m out of the profession. I don’t know how things are going now, but when you talk about what should the focus of that collection be, I don’t know that in the future you’re gonna have a lot of say-so in it. It’s gonna be what’s available. So I use this term called the homogenization of zoos, where maybe 10, 15, 20 years from now, you go to the San- Maybe not San Diego, but you go to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, you go to Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans, you go to Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, and you see the same animals.

02:44:58 - 02:45:31

Same animals. Now whether the average visitor picks up on that or not or whether the average visitor cares, I don’t know, but I think it’s gonna be a sad day for zoos. Zoos, in many cases today, are afraid to confront animal welfare rights groups that are anti-zoo. We even have people in top positions in our field who seem to be in line with non-biologists, what they have to say.

02:45:31 - 02:45:35

Could you give us your thoughts on how best to deal with these groups?

02:45:35 - 02:46:37

I guess that, you know, part of the answer was in the question. It depends on the director. If the director is aligned, for lack of a better term, with those anti-zoo folks and organizations, I don’t know there’s a lot you can do. But I think, like anything, it starts with dialogue, that you have to be able to talk to people and sit down, and some of these folks on both sides refuse to do that. But hopefully there are enough people that live in the middle, both from the zoo perspective and the animal rights perspective, that at least you come to some sort of understanding. And I’ve seen, I saw that happen. You know, we worked really, really hard when I was on the board the first time. We met with a number of animal welfare and a couple of animal rights organizations.

02:46:37 - 02:47:37

So we actually, I actually did it at Riverbanks. I had invited some prominent zoo directors as well as heads of some animal rights organizations or more probably closely aligned with welfare than right. And we asked them to do one thing, and that was when they are doing their press releases, when they’re giving speeches, when they’re doing TV interviews, to make a distinction between roadside zoos and AZA-accredited zoos. Some did that. Some didn’t and never will. I think zoos… I was… I should not have been surprised by this, but when this whole “Tiger King” documentary came out, you know, I’m retired.

02:47:37 - 02:47:40

I live in a retirement resort community.

02:47:40 - 02:47:49

A lot of very successful, well-informed people, who I view as successful and well-informed, “Do you know that guy?

02:47:49 - 02:48:31

Satch, you know?” And I was taken aback, and I said, “Why would you think I would know him?” “Well, he says he owns a zoo. You have to know him. You were in the zoo business.” And that just makes me realize that we still have a long way to go to make a distinction between these private, horribly run/maintained roadside zoos and some of the best zoos in this country. The average person somehow, somehow thinks we’re all together. Has a hard time understanding.

02:48:32 - 02:48:37

I told him, I said, “I hope the guy rots in jail.” And they, you know, “Really?

02:48:37 - 02:49:07

You know, he’s one of you. You know, he’s the Tiger King.” I don’t know. But you gotta just keep talking to them. That’s all you can do. You gotta keep talking. And, you know, when I was a zoo director, I was always, I had to laugh. At least two or three times a year, I would be out in a department store or restaurant, and somebody, “Oh, Satch, you’re the director of the zoo, yeah. I love zoos.

02:49:07 - 02:49:53

You know, I belong to the zoo, I belong to PETA.” And, you know, well, wait a minute, hold on, you know. “Do you understand that they want to close?” “Really? Really?” It just shows you how ill-informed people are about not just zoos, but animals and nature. We need to do a better job, and when I say we, I mean everybody that cares about the natural world needs to do a better job of informing people about what we’re all about. A complaint sometimes heard from zoo directors is there are too few good curators in our community.

02:49:53 - 02:50:00

What’s the problem, and how should curators be trained today to do what is expected of them?

02:50:04 - 02:50:55

I’d say in the 5 to 10 years before I retired and even in the five or so years since I have retired, the biggest complaint that I hear from other directors is, “Oh my God, my mammal curator, my bird curator, or my director of animal collections is retiring or has taken a job. Where am I going to find somebody to replace him or her?” And you can see and hear the terror in their eyes because it’s so difficult to find somebody. And, you know, part of it, I had a curator who I always felt would have been an excellent zoo director.

02:50:58 - 02:51:04

And I went to him several times over the years and said, “Why don’t you?

02:51:04 - 02:52:26

You know, there’s an opening over here. You know, why don’t you?” And he always gave me the same answer. He said, “I wouldn’t do what you do for anything in the world.” So it’s just the profession in that regard has changed so much. We want, as the universal we, we want a curator who knows everything there is to know about all these kinds of animals and what they eat and how to manage them. But we want them to have a PhD, you know, and those things are not always mutually beneficial. It’s a tough one. It’s a tough question, But I think AZA has a role to play in that and, you know, and I think they have tried that maybe with management school, but there needs to be a way to get these really good keepers to move up to become really good curators. And I think we also have to find a way to integrate the husbandry and the zoo culture philosophy with the PhDs.

02:52:26 - 02:52:38

I don’t think we’ve done a good job of that. There are some communication issues there and some cultural issues there, but we gotta find a way to make that all work.

02:52:41 - 02:52:53

What changes have you seen during your years in the zoo field regarding visitor attitudes and administration at the national level?

02:53:08 - 02:53:51

I personally observed at Riverbanks, and this was, this is sort of a two-headed monster, I guess. For most zoo directors, money is always an issue. Always an issue. You gotta paint the inside of the cat and bear enclosures. Well, we’re not gonna do that because we gotta replace the boardwalk down at the farm. And I mean, you’re balancing all of these issues ’cause you don’t have the money. So this sort of, with Riverbanks, is, and I’m gonna get to the answer to your question in a minute. I’m gonna take me a minute to get there.

02:53:51 - 02:54:55

But this happened organically with me. One of my heroes in the profession was a guy named Earl Wells, who was the director of, I think, one of the best little zoos in the world in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Earl was a guy who was way ahead of his time. And when I first got to know him and saw and heard the things he was doing, I thought, “Man, this guy, I don’t know, he’s not one of us. You know, he’s more of a circus kind of guy, you know.” And he was doing things 20 years before other zoos started to not only do them, but embrace them in ways of generating revenue. And I remember, you know, reading that he had put a carousel in his zoo, and he called it an endangered species carousel. So instead of horses on the carousel, he had endangered animals. And I thought that was the neatest thing I ever heard, and I actually…

02:54:55 - 02:55:51

He had just retired, and I got on a plane and flew to Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is not something you do every day.. And I saw this thing and I loved it. And so I came back and I told my board. I said, “I know you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I think we oughta build one of these carousels.” So we had the second one. Earl built the first one, we built the second one. And my staff was not happy about it at all. But once the money started flowing in and I was able to paint the lion backups and repair the boardwalk at the farm, they said, “Oh, this isn’t too bad.” So we began to add other, what at the time we called fee-based attractions. And, you know, I’m not ashamed to admit some of them were not really zoo-oriented.

02:55:51 - 02:56:29

We had climbing walls and zip lines. And every one of them made money, a lot of money. And the guests, back to your question, the guests embraced that. They embraced it. I had a gentleman tell me one time. I ran into him somewhere, and he said that he’d taken his grandchildren to the zoo. And he hadn’t been to the zoo in 15 years, and he was blown away. “I had no idea, this is the greatest thing.

02:56:29 - 02:57:08

This is in in our community, I can’t believe it.” And there’s been some research on this. I’ve read a lot of papers, but people now are looking for experiences. Not just to visit to the zoo, but I want an experience when I visit the zoo. I want to be able to do things. I want to stay six or seven hours at the zoo, invest my family’s time and money and that kind of. So I’ve seen that happen. I think it’s good. I have yet to see something that really hasn’t worked somewhere.

02:57:08 - 02:57:19

And we’ve got some zoos that have embraced that in a far bigger way than I did. But I think it’s been good. I think it’s been good.

02:57:21 - 02:57:28

What issues caused you the most concern during your career, and how do you see the future regarding these same concerns?

02:57:29 - 02:58:11

Oh, that’s easy, money. I don’t think any zoo, whether it’s small, medium, or large, ever has enough money to do what it needs to do to provide its animals and its guests with the best possible experience. You’ve always juggling those balls. You got 10 balls in the air at one time. So finances, to me, it would be at the top of the list. Keeping the zoo relevant. Keeping the zoo fresh in people’s minds. Keeping people like this gentleman I had to refer to bringing their grandchildren to the zoo.

02:58:11 - 02:58:29

You’ve gotta keep doing those things to keep the zoo a part of people’s lives. And that means you’ve gotta change. You’ve gotta evolve. And evolution in the way I’m referring to, it costs money. So it always comes back to the mighty dollar.

02:58:32 - 02:58:36

What issues would you like to see zoos address in the future?

02:58:38 - 02:59:35

Issues, I’m not sure what issues, but I would like to see something that I spoke to earlier. I would like to see greater separation in the minds of the public between AZA-accredited institutions and private or roadside zoos. I would like to see zoos, and I think we are doing this to some extent, but really hammer home the investment that zoos collectively are making in conservation in the wild. When I tell people how much money AZA institutions spend in the wild, they’re dumbfounded. And I think that’s a message you cannot get out enough. You have to constantly inform people that we’re not just about the animals in our zoos. We’re working very hard to keep animals in the wild.

02:59:41 - 02:59:49

Can one build a zoo with an airtight insulation against interference from political or otherwise?

02:59:49 - 03:00:09

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you can build anything, anything without outside or undue influence. In 2010, AZA zoos and private breeders were essentially banned from participating in species survival plans.

03:00:10 - 03:00:12

Did that hurt or help zoos?

03:00:15 - 03:01:36

That’s a great question. Through my involvement in the board of the AZA, I was intimately involved in those discussions for a number of years. And it was frustrating to me to attend a board meeting and have a committee report, and you would have just incredibly divergent opinions on the value of private ownership and private collections to zoos. I don’t know that I ever… I don’t know that I ever knew the answer to that, but I can tell you that, just my own observation, my own experience over the years is that the collections in zoos have not gotten any broader or wider, even though we have now an avenue for some of these private folks to become involved. So I guess just based on that casual observation, you would have to think that their impact has been minimal. In 2010, AZA decided that banning private participation. We did that one.

03:01:37 - 03:01:38

No, it was a mistake.

03:01:38 - 03:01:40

How can the situation be changed?

03:01:40 - 03:01:42

Is it a good idea to change it back?

03:01:48 - 03:03:00

Banning private participation. The main issue with private participation was always the quality of those private facilities, the ethical standards of those facilities. When you’ve got an organization, or let’s just say a business operating outside of the way we as accredited institutions operate, number one and number two, you have no control over how those institutions or those businesses operate. It’s tough, it’s tough. And I, you know, I can remember some very, very dramatic examples of private collectors and the way they approached their animals and managed their animals that were appalling to not just me, but other members of the board or other zoo directors. So that’s a tough one. That’s a really tough one.

03:03:03 - 03:03:12

Is education doing any good, particularly in boosting the image of zoos among the public in the face of the anti-zoo groups?

03:03:15 - 03:04:02

No. (laughs) PETA, for example, has for years had very formal, very well-funded, very slick programs for school children. AZA has never had, and I’m saying nationwide programs. Very subtle, very subtle, but funded teaching children that animals are equal to us and have the same rights that we have and that zoos are bad and that circuses are bad and all these other things are bad. We don’t, we’ve talked about it. We’ve talked it to death, but AZA just doesn’t have the money to take that on on a national level.

03:04:06 - 03:04:11

What do you think can be done to make the visitor connection programs more meaningful?

03:04:16 - 03:05:01

I went through this sort of evolution in my career. For the first 20 years of my 40-year career, I would not allow the house names of our animals to be published. So if we did a press release, we never referred to an animal by its house name. We never referred to Jojo the lion. It was a male lion. And then I began to read that maybe that wasn’t quite right, and so we began to allow those names to be used. People reacted. I mean, you could see the reaction from people.

03:05:01 - 03:05:39

You know, “How is Jojo doing?” As opposed to, “Wasn’t there a story about a lion or something?” They connected with that. That name was a connection. I also have seen amazing things done with program animals, amazing things done, and now… And I’m not smart enough to figure that one out. We’ve got zoos pushing back on it. We’ve got zoo staff pushing back on it. But, you know, if you can pet an aardvark, which I’ve done, I mean, it’s a magical thing. You know, we have giraffe feeding at Riverbanks Zoo.

03:05:39 - 03:06:04

I have had people tell me it was a highlight of their life. So that one-on-one, that touch is so important, but yet we fear it for a number of reasons. And again, I’m not smart enough to say what the answer is and how you accomplish both things at one time, but we need to keep working on that one.

03:06:05 - 03:06:16

What direction do you think zoo education should be going in as it relates to the basic tenets of conservation, education, and research?

03:06:16 - 03:07:04

I don’t know. You know, I employed a number of education curators over the years. And it always, I found it interesting. Somebody would leave, take another position in another zoo, and for the last two or three years, our education department had been going in this direction and doing these things. You bring in a new person, they abandon every bit of it, start off at ano- That happened several times in my career. And I thought, well, if they can’t agree (laughs) on how to do it, I know I can’t agree on how to do it. But I don’t know, it just, this is a silly oversimplified thing for me to say, but it just seems like we haven’t hit on that one thing that works. You know, it’s not a static graphic, it’s not classroom teaching.

03:07:04 - 03:07:25

I don’t know what it is, but, you know, children love animals. Let’s face it, they love animals, and their parents like for them to be engaged with animals. And I just don’t think we’ve hit upon the way to satisfy those needs by young people and their parents.

03:07:27 - 03:07:38

Do you have any advice for the neophyte zoo director about the importance of marketing zoos, and what do you think are the most important aspects of marketing?

03:07:38 - 03:08:59

Well, if you are a neophyte zoo director and you are not totally committed to marketing, you won’t last long. We were spending 10% of our budget on marketing, and at times I wished it was 30 or 40%. I don’t think you can spend enough money telling your story to your audience. You know, there’s been so many studies done, and people will say, “You know, I’m not sure about zoos, but boy, I love our zoo. Our zoo is great.” Or, “You know, I read in a paper where a zoo had to euthanize a favorite- Our zoo wouldn’t do that.” So people have this feeling that their zoo is above any other zoo that exists. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But you gotta keep telling your story. You’ve gotta keep making your audience know that you’re doing the very best you can for your animals.

03:08:59 - 03:09:20

That’s what they want to know. They don’t want to know about the carousel. They don’t want to know about anything, but you’re taking care of your animals. And that’s gotta be the center for, I think, of a lot of our marketing efforts, is animal care and animal welfare. We’ve talked about education.

03:09:20 - 03:09:28

How can a zoo improve their connection with kids and teenagers to heighten their zeal and awareness about the natural world?

03:09:28 - 03:10:16

Tough nut to crack. Teenagers are a different species. You know, over the years we had Explorer Scout troops at the zoo for teenagers and some other programs geared to teenagers. We took them on field trips, overnight trips to places. And while I think the kids loved it and most of, all of them benefited from it, they didn’t stick with it because there was always something new to do. There was always a new thing, a new video game, a new, a computer thing. This, you know, it’s just… They have very short attention span, these teenagers.

03:10:16 - 03:11:21

And unless you’ve- But on the other extreme, on the other end, you’ve got kids who are committed to it and will do anything and everything to stay connected. And I had kids over the years who I was so impressed with, who started coming to the zoo as little kids and just stuck with it, and ultimately, you know, went to college and majored in one of the life sciences. I had a child, I’ll never forget this, years ago. The father was a local architect. And I saw him somewhere and he said, “Do you know what a cuscus is?” I said, “Yeah, I know what a cuscus.” He said, “My son is obsessed.” And I said, “How in the world did that happen?” And he said, “It was in a book.” And we had cuscus. And so I got the child out, and, you know, this kid just became huge zoo fan and his father, huge zoo support. But it didn’t start with the zoo. It started with this kid and a book so.

03:11:23 - 03:11:25

So how do you want kids to feel about the zoo?

03:11:25 - 03:11:42

I want them to love it. I want them to know and feel that a visit to the zoo is a great experience. It’s a great place to bring a date. It’s a great place to come on Saturday afternoon and be just an integral part of their life.

03:11:47 - 03:11:52

Should zoos be doing anything to help governments protect land masses?

03:11:54 - 03:12:17

I don’t know. That’s what I would almost call mission drift. That’s not our thing. That’s a much bigger piece of the world than our little part in it. I think our resources can, when it comes to conservation and preservation, can probably be spent somewhere else.

03:12:20 - 03:12:21

What issues would you like?

03:12:21 - 03:12:22

We talked about AZA.

03:12:22 - 03:12:27

What issues would you like AZA to be addressing now?

03:12:32 - 03:13:20

Animal collections, sustainability, diversity in animal collections. I just think that needs to be the primary focus of the AZA right now. It really does, or we’re gonna wake up one day and not have any animals. You know, when I started, we had this incredible bird house, and even though it had flaws, we had an amazing collection of birds. In many respects, that’s gone. That’s gone. Birds are not available anymore. And of course a lot of that has to do with international laws and treaties and, you know, some of which are certainly valid and are warranted.

03:13:20 - 03:13:30

But, you know, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every time that those things just put greater pressure on our collections.

03:13:33 - 03:13:40

How does the AZA of today compare with the AAZPA when you started?

03:13:40 - 03:14:30

Oh, it’s no comparison. It was, for lack of a better term, when I started, it was a mom and pop operation. We had an executive director, and he had three employees in Wheeling, West Virginia. And today it has a huge staff, professional staff managing accreditation and membership. And when I became a director, almost every function of the AZA or AAZPA was done by volunteers. A committee of zoo people ran accreditation. A committee of zoo people ran membership. Today, they’re professional staff that are doing those things and doing them quite well.

03:14:30 - 03:14:48

So it truly has gone from being a very small mom and pop operation to a pretty, I think, effective and sleek professional association. You served twice as president of the Zoo Association.

03:14:48 - 03:14:54

What changes did you see from the first time as president to your second year of service?

03:14:56 - 03:15:47

Well, for one thing, the universe, the zoo universe, zoo and aquarium universe in my first go around was small. Everybody knew everybody. Most of us as directors shared similar backgrounds. We were all animal people. By the time I served a second term, we had a quite a few non-traditional zoo directors, some who were directors of substantial organizations who were completely uninvolved in the AZA, whereas that would have been unheard of, you know, 30 years ago. You had to be involved. Some saw it as something that the staff does. My job as the director is to raise money.

03:15:49 - 03:16:17

So my staff is gonna go to the conference. Some of that’s good. Some of that’s not so good. But that to me would be the main thing. Just the involvement by the chief op or chief executive and operating officers of some of the major zoos are less involved today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. There are now two professional zoo associations.

03:16:19 - 03:16:21

Is there room for both?

03:16:21 - 03:17:25

Well, I guess from a legal standpoint, anybody has a right to do anything as long as they follow the law. So if you want to have 10 zoo associations, you can have 10 zoo associations. I find it troubling that this newer association not only has as some, not only has some members who could never qualify for membership within the AZA, are impacting laws in states. And I’m just talking specifically about private ownership of exotic animals that are irresponsible and dangerous. And yet the state legislators in many cases are giving them equal billing with the AZA, and I just, I find that very sad and very angry.

03:17:28 - 03:17:34

If you could go back in time, what, if anything, would you have done different?

03:17:37 - 03:18:51

I probably would not have driven my car down the road to those railroad tracks. (laughs) You know, zoos are very interesting organizations. I don’t… Maybe some museums or the museum profession could sort of, kind of be remotely compared to zoos, but zoos are unique. One of the things we used to have in our education department, I don’t know how close this is to being true, and this would always get a rise not out of the children, but the teachers and their parents when we told them that there were more NASA astronauts than there were directors of major zoos in the United States. It’s a niche profession with interesting people that work in it. Animal people, as we call them, usually have their own little way about looking at the world, and managing animal people is, can be a real challenge.

03:18:51 - 03:18:54

So would I change anything?

03:18:54 - 03:19:31

I don’t know that it would have been possible, impossible, or possible, excuse me, to do anything differently. ‘Cause I was reacting like a lot of zoo directors, especially in the ’70s and ’80s to outside changes and outside forces. It was hard to pick a direction and stick with it ’cause so much was going on outside that, and within, and within. You just had to be very adaptive. Very adaptive. There’s no way you could be rigid and succeed. Well, you mentioned zoo directors, people and how unique they are.

03:19:33 - 03:19:42

Do we need, or do we have any charismatic and committed heroes to help shift public opinion for conservation?

03:19:42 - 03:19:46

Examples like Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, et cetera.

03:19:46 - 03:19:48

Within the zoo profession?

03:19:55 - 03:20:43

Sadly none come to mind. I think the closest we got to that, and this would be a very controversial statement on my part, would be Jack Hanna. People loved Jack Hanna. And it didn’t matter whether he knew the difference between a reticulated giraffe and a Masai giraffe. He just resonated, his personality, his enthusiasm, and people believed him. Sure, he could have been more erudite. He could have been more influential. But nobody has really come close to that other than Marlin Perkins.

03:20:43 - 03:20:55

And I mean, you’re talking about two people over a period of 60 or 70 years that had that kind of connection with the public on a national level.

03:21:00 - 03:21:06

Why did zoos not implement a major elephant national breeding program?

03:21:11 - 03:22:59

I think there are a number of reasons for that, and I think actually now, and again, I’ve been out of the profession for five years, but I think we’re kind of moving in that direction. I go back to the whole debate, argument, whatever you want to call it, over protected contact and free contact. I embraced it immediately. (laughs) As soon as I could implement protected contact at Riverbanks Zoo, I did it. And I had colleagues who were smarter than me, (laughs) who in many ways were better zoo directors than I ever would be, who wouldn’t embrace it. And at the end of the day, when I really questioned them and drilled down on it, they were being told what to do by their elephant keepers. And I think in the early days of what I’m gonna call the elephant crisis, when we finally realized that given the current, or what has been the current rate of reproduction versus the challenges of importing animals from the wild, that, hey, we’re looking at extinction of elephants in zoos if we don’t do something. In those first critical years, I think there was a lot of decision-makers who were being influenced by their keepers as opposed to what was best for the species and the profession. I think we’ve gotten past that now.

03:23:01 - 03:23:29

I think you’re going to see… I don’t know. You might not see 10 zoos 20 years from now that have elephants. And they might not even be in the zoo. They might be on a breeding facility 20 miles outside of town. I don’t know where that’s going. That’s gonna be… The days of going to your local city zoo and seeing elephants is probably over.

03:23:31 - 03:23:35

They’re going to be managed to extinction, those smaller institutions.

03:23:38 - 03:23:44

How successful have zoos been in achieving the reintroduction of species back into the wild?

03:23:47 - 03:23:53

What are some of their stories, and was Riverbanks involved in this?

03:23:55 - 03:24:40

Probably one of the first efforts that really succeeded we were involved in, so were a lot of other zoos, and that was reintroducing the golden lion tamarin back in Brazil. That program was one of the early programs that really succeeded. Scimitar-horned oryx, Przewalski’s horses, California condors. But that’s just a handful. That’s just a handful. Reintroducing has so many challenges, not the least of which is in some cases there’s no place to introduce them to. There’s been so much habitat destruction. Animals are being forced into smaller and smaller areas.

03:24:43 - 03:25:31

It’s a real challenge. It’s a real challenge. And it takes a lot of money, a lot of effort. You have to have host countries, host governments committed to making it happen. That has not always been the case. One of the programs that we were intimately involved in with the Lincoln Park Zoo was the Bali myna. We spent, we being Riverbanks spent a lot of money on that program. And as fast as we were reintroducing those animals back in Indonesia, they were being caught and ending up in bird cages in the offices of generals and other influential people in the Indonesian government.

03:25:31 - 03:25:45

It was so frustrating, so frustrating. These things have to be taken on a case by case basis. Well, you mentioned it.

03:25:45 - 03:25:52

Is there a wild out there, or have the majority of wild spaces been turned into managed wild zoos?

03:26:03 - 03:27:35

A little bit of both. I tell people that, to my knowledge, I don’t think there is a black rhinoceros in Africa that’s wild. They’re all being followed 24/7 by rangers armed with infrared, night vision binoculars, and rifles too, or they’d be dead within 24 hours from poaching. And the pressure on those parks, and again, I’m talking about East Africa and to some extent Southern Africa. People need to eat. And when they see land being preserved for animals for rich white Europeans and Americans to come pay many thousands of dollars to see and yet they’re struggling to feed their own children because they don’t have the land or the resources to grow crops because it’s being preserved for elephants and giraffes, that pressure’s only gonna increase. In my lifetime, that issue is never gonna be resolved. Fortunately, we have some areas that are still, quote unquote, wild, whatever that means, but they’re getting smaller.

03:27:37 - 03:27:43

The Adopt-a-Park concept seems like a natural for zoos to assist the wild.

03:27:43 - 03:27:47

Why have zoos not picked up on the challenge in more numbers?

03:27:47 - 03:27:50

Financial? Is it still viable?

03:27:50 - 03:28:29

I think it’s a great idea. I wish zoos could do more of it, but again, it comes down to resources. And, you know, if you’re struggling to, if you’re struggling to maintain your zoo or to, you know, build new exhibits or pay competitive salaries to your employees, to then adopt a reserve in Gaborone or wherever it might be in the world, that’s tough to do. It’s tough to do. And, you know, I said this earlier.

03:28:29 - 03:28:31

Is that really the mission of the zoo?

03:28:31 - 03:28:34

And that’s way above my pay grade.

03:28:34 - 03:28:54

But is it our job, so to speak, to ensure that countries halfway around the world that we have no control over manage their wild places and wild resources in a responsible manner?

03:28:54 - 03:29:30

I don’t, I can’t wrap my head around that as someone who was director of a medium-sized zoo, that I could ever have that kind of impact. Doesn’t mean, I guess I should be honest and say it doesn’t mean you don’t try, you don’t look for those opportunities, but they’re… To have a real impact, a real impact, those opportunities are few and far between. Many zoos seem to be giving lip service to using money for conservation purposes.

03:29:30 - 03:29:36

Is the conservation issue so big that it’s an unreasonable request to ask for zoos?

03:29:38 - 03:30:13

I would hate to think that any zoo is paying lip service to it. I really would. You know, I was proud of the few little things we did. I always wanted to do more. I never thought we were gonna change the world. I never thought we were going to keep a species from becoming extinct, and when I say we, I’m talking about Riverbanks. Collectively, we may have some impact. But, you know, we have a knowledge base that no one else on Earth has, and that’s small population biology.

03:30:13 - 03:30:27

We’re experts at it. And I would like to think that there are organizations and there are countries around the world who, if not now, will soon take advantage of the resources that we have.

03:30:30 - 03:30:46

When the zoo spends multimillion dollars on a gorilla or an elephant or a tiger exhibit and critics ask why this money is not used to help the animals in the wild, you say what?

03:30:47 - 03:32:13

I thought you were going in a different direction there. (laughs) I have been challenged, and I think every zoo director has been challenged. “You spent $17 million on five sea lions?” which is basically the last major exhibit I did. And you get asked that question and you go, “Well, that might have been kind of stupid.” (laughs) But it was great for the zoo and people love it, and now they’re learning about sea lions. The amount of money that zoos, and I’m talking about AZA-accredited zoos. The amount of money that we spend every year on, using that term, major exhibits is a drop in the bucket to what needs to be spent and hopefully in some places is being spent on conservation in the wild. So I don’t think you go down that road. I don’t see those things being exclusive. What can or should US zoos and aquariums do to affordably help upgrade developing countries with their zoos, where sometimes zoos are not a profession, but a job filled for working folks.

03:32:15 - 03:33:14

That’s not a role for the AZA. That’s a role for WAZA, the World Zoo and, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. And they have been… They have been trying to do that for 30 years. And I don’t know that they’ve made a lot of inroads in that endeavor. And the sad part is, just like the Tiger King or whatever his name was, it only takes one bad apple, one bad zoo to have one bad occurrence to taint the entire profession, even though we have nothing in common with some of those places. And there are some really bad zoos in this world. And I just really think that’s much more of a role for WAZA than it is for AZA.

03:33:18 - 03:33:30

Because you mentioned WAZA, very quickly, the World Zoo Association and Aquariums, you said you were president, and you said it was not so much fun.

03:33:30 - 03:33:34

What’d you mean by that?

03:33:34 - 03:35:00

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed my membership, and I thoroughly enjoyed the people, the colleagues that I met. Really good friends from all over the world. Smart people. But I was encouraged, when I was chair of the AZA the first time, I created the long-range planning committee, looking at the future of the AZA. Well, a lot of our colleagues, a lot of my colleagues felt like WAZA needed to do the same thing. They were very short-term-focused. So my involvement, my appointment or election, I guess, initially to the WAZA board was an initiative of a number of American zoo directors saying, “You need to put this guy on there.” And I moved up through the chairs, and every year that went by as I moved further and further up, I realized, and this is a terrible thing to admit but… They moved very slowly, those Europeans.

03:35:00 - 03:35:43

And it’s particular the Germans, who were very influential in WAZA back then. And change came very slowly, and I’m not a slow person. And, you know, I would talk about, “Hey, we need to do this, we need to do that. You know, let’s change the bylaws and allow this to happen.” “No, no, we can’t do that. You don’t understand. In 1953, Director Dr. So and so of the such and such zoo in Germany-” I said, “I don’t care about him in 1950. I want it now.” It was just frustrating. Just the pace of change was very slow.

03:35:43 - 03:36:31

That’s all it was. Great people, I loved them all, but it was sometimes it was like beating your head against the wall. You know, and WAZA was really a club. It was zoo directors only. It started out as IUDZG, the International Directors. I-U, the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens. And I might have been in the last class who was admitted who had to give a paper before the membership on an aspect of zoos and be challenged. That was how you got in.

03:36:31 - 03:37:05

And they actually, there was a rule. It was never written anywhere, but it was a hard and fast rule that only so many American zoo directors could be involved. It was very much a Europe/Germany-focused organization. I’m glad to say it’s not that way anymore. A lot of, it’s changed a lot, but getting from that original point to where they are today was arduous. You’ve talked about elephants.

03:37:05 - 03:37:12

Given your experience, what’s your view regarding zoos maintaining elephants and how it should be done correctly?

03:37:14 - 03:38:01

I think we all know that. I mean, the first thing is space. Second thing is appropriate herd structure, allowing males to stay with their mothers and aunts and siblings for 9 to 12 years. It’s just that to do it right, to do it right requires a tremendous amount of space. We know that now. You cannot ignore that. And I go back. I tell, when I talk to people, lay folks, you know, I said, when gorillas came into this country in the ’50s, they were kept in bathrooms.

03:38:01 - 03:38:48

They were kept in cages with sterile tiles, sterile floor. And we thought our zoo directors and curators back then thought that these were such delicate animals that they had to be kept in these pristine, sterile conditions, and it was the absolute wrong thing to do. Today, the gorilla population in this country is one of the most stable populations that we have among all the charismatic animals. Elephants are the same. We, as a profession, as zoos, we learned to take care of elephants from circuses. Circuses had elephants before we did. So that became how you kept elephants. That’s not how you keep elephants.

03:38:48 - 03:39:30

We know that now. And the same with gorillas. Those shifts in management, those shifts in how we maintained those animals almost exclusively occurred to the research that was being done in the wild. And that’s what we’ve learned with elephants, how they communicate, the herd structures. So I hope we have elephants. I hope we have them. I hope every child gets to see an elephant in this country. But it’s gonna take a lot of work, some philosophical changes, and new ways of maintaining them.

03:39:30 - 03:40:04

And as I said, it’s gonna be very difficult for all, but maybe none, to keep elephants the way they should be kept, and that’s on many, many acres with facilities for bulls and cows. But they’re magnificent creatures and probably speak more to the animal world and the animal spirit than any other thing on Earth, I think.

03:40:06 - 03:40:09

Do you have an opinion about sister zoo relationships?

03:40:11 - 03:41:16

We had a sister zoo relationship with a zoo in Japan. I don’t know that any of those relationships have really endured. They were very popular 25-30 years ago, but I don’t have much of an opinion on that. I don’t know how many- I don’t even know how many zoos or if zoos today still have sister zoo relationships. We had an informal relationship. It wasn’t with a zoo but trying to, trying to teach veterinarians, zoo vets, zoo veterinarians in Central and South America. Training them, bringing them into Columbia, South Carolina, having them, putting them up in a apartment. And it was hard.

03:41:16 - 03:41:41

It was really hard. What motivated them was very different. Their education was very different. But I thought it was well worth it. I thought it was well worth it. But we haven’t done that in a long time. There are some zoos that are private zoos. They have private ownership.

03:41:41 - 03:41:48

Yep. potentially a lot of money. Yep. They have endangered species. Yep.

03:41:49 - 03:41:56

Do you have an opinion about private zoos and their longevity versus we’ll call the public municipal zoos?

03:41:58 - 03:42:05

Can I throw in versus public municipal zoos and private nonprofit zoos?

03:42:09 - 03:43:40

There are… And I have apologize, I’ve lost track of the number of AZA-accredited zoos, not zoos and aquariums, but zoos, but I’m gonna guess it’s 190 to 200. Private zoos in the manner in which you described them make up a very small percentage of that. Some of them are managed extremely well and have done amazing things. But if they are private institutions that exhibit animals and rely on revenue from exhibiting those animals, there are times that at the end of the day they’re gonna have to make a decision about how long they’re open to the public, meaning from dawn to dusk or at night, or do things that we as smaller nonprofit, municipally-owned zoos either can’t do or wouldn’t do or shouldn’t do. But, you know, I don’t think, that’s not one of my top 10 issues. But they do have a lot of money, and some of them have incredible influence. Well, we talked about different species.

03:43:40 - 03:43:48

How difficult, when you were at AZA, was the Species Survival Plan to implement for zoos and aquariums?

03:43:48 - 03:43:49

Did everyone buy into this program?

03:43:49 - 03:45:04

It was like pulling teeth. (laughs) You know, I gave a presentation one time at a zoo directors conference on SSPs and how they had, how effective they were or how they had involved. And the first slide that I had was that famous Pogo cartoon slide of “We have met the enemy and it is us.” In the very early days, there was a lot of resistance. I mean, a lot of resistance from big zoos, some big zoos, medium zoos, small zoos, everybody. You know, I’m not letting some curator in, you know, St. Louis tell me what to do with my tigers. I think all of that’s gone now, I think. You know, I think people now understand completely the wisdom and the benefit of collective management. But in the beginning, some of it was comical, some of it was frustrating. But that didn’t last long.

03:45:04 - 03:45:16

Once people saw what was happening and the benefit of it and not wanting to be left outside the room while everybody else was playing inside, that took care of that problem.

03:45:18 - 03:45:24

What was one of the most important pieces of advice you received that stayed with you throughout your career?

03:45:26 - 03:46:44

I’m not sure I overtly received the advice, but I certainly learned it, and that’s don’t lie. I learned that from the best, a person who had a very difficult time telling the truth about anything. And I just saw the devastating impact that had on people, on morale, on everything. So, you know, I tried hard, hard for 40 years to always tell people the truth, always be upfront. And that covers a wide range. You know, nobody likes to fire somebody, and I remember early in my career dreading having to fire somebody. And then it dawned on me after going through that a few times, that not only was the zoo better off if I had to terminate an individual, the individual usually was a lot better off afterwards. So you’d learn those kinds of important things as you go along.

03:46:44 - 03:47:22

Nobody can tell you that firing somebody can be good for them, but you learn it, you see it. I fired a guy early in my career. He had a big position at the zoo, and I just, I had to let him go. And his wife was furious. I had heard through the- I mean, she apparently called me every name in the book. 10 years later, I ran into them in a social setting somewhere, and she says the best thing that ever happened to their family. So you learn those things. You know, they’re not easy at the time, but you gotta be smart enough to learn from them.

03:47:23 - 03:47:31

Are there programs or exhibits that you would have implemented during your tenure that didn’t happen?

03:47:32 - 03:48:18

You know, we built in 2001. We never had great apes at the zoo, and I always wanted great apes, and in particular I wanted gorillas. And so finally we were able to do that. I got the funding, got the gorillas. That more or less fulfilled my dream list of animals to have. We had koalas. We were only the second zoo since I think 1980, other than San Diego, to import koalas from Australia. That was an experience.

03:48:19 - 03:48:54

So we had a lot of really cool animals, if I could use that very non-scientific term. So, no, you know, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Of course, you always have a list. I mean, we were talking the other day about insect zoos. I think insect zoos are amazing. I would have liked to have done that at some point so. But in terms of the big charismatic animals, I was able to get them, have them all.

03:48:56 - 03:49:00

Well, what did you learn from your importation of koalas?

03:49:00 - 03:49:53

Ugh. Lessons. Well, this came about as these things often do in a completely unanticipated way. Our state, South Carolina, is very conservative, and we have had a long, long, long list of Republican governors. But, I guess now 15-20 years ago, by a fluke of circumstances, we elected a democratic governor, a really neat guy. And he forged a relationship with his counterpart, the premier of Queensland, Australia. So a premier in Australia is equivalent to a governor in the United States. And so they forged, talking about sister zoos, they forged a sister state relationship.

03:49:53 - 03:51:19

And they launched this at a big cocktail party and a press thing in our botanical garden. And I was there just as an invited guest because it was at the zoo, so they had to invite me. So I’m standing there drinking a glass of wine and watching all this go on, and this governor’s chief of staff walks up to me and he says, “We’re gonna get koalas.” I said, “No, we’re not. We’re not gonna get koala.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, number one, that gentleman over there, as dedicated as he is as the premier of Queensland, has no authority to bring, to get koalas to Riverbanks Zoo. That is a federal responsibility in Australia.” And I went into all the things about food and all of the challenges, and three years later, we had koalas. (laughs) It was just, it was a rollercoaster ride. Sure enough, he was not able to do what he said he was gonna do, but he was committed at that point. So he convinced a zoo in Japan that had koalas to send them to Riverbanks until he was finally able, finally able to get us some koalas from Australia. And we still have them.

03:51:19 - 03:51:36

They breed like rabbits. People think they’re gonna love them till they see them. (laughs) They don’t move. But they brought a lot of attention to the zoo, but it was something that in a million years I never dreamed that we would have.

03:51:36 - 03:51:41

And people always ask me, “What is the most expensive animal you feed in the zoo?

03:51:41 - 03:52:09

What is it to maintain?” And I say, “Well, it weighs about 12 pounds. and it costs about $80,000 a year to feed.” And I ask people, “Guess what it is.” Well, it’s gotta be that. (mumbles gibberish) “No, it’s koalas.” It blows their mind, that, you know. ‘Cause we’re flying in eucalyptus from Miami on Tuesday and Phoenix on either Thursday or Friday Federal Express ’cause they gotta eat it the day it was- I mean, it’s just crazy.

03:52:10 - 03:52:18

So there’s one of those things where, is that use of our resources worth it?

03:52:20 - 03:52:33

I think it is. It bought us a lot of attention and continues to. Anytime there’s a new baby, there’s a ton of attention, and people flock to the zoo to see the baby koalas.

03:52:33 - 03:52:36

Would you say that’s your proudest accomplishment, or do you have another one?

03:52:38 - 03:53:20

Proudest accomplishment. Well, my proudest accomplishment are my two boys. But if you’re talking about the zoo, gorillas was a great. That was a wonderful day for me. I remember when they arrived from Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. I was out in the zoo and I was… I can remember where I was standing when they called on the radio and said, “They’re pulling in the gate now.” And I got on the radio and I said, “Gorillas are now living in Riverbanks Zoo.” That was a great day. Great animals too.

03:53:21 - 03:53:30

Are there any zoos in the world, ’cause you’ve traveled, that you particularly admire, and why, and where are they?

03:53:31 - 03:54:16

No, sure. I like small zoos that do neat things and also some bigger zoos. I love the little zoo in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I love the Toledo Zoo. I think the Toledo Zoo is a gem. The zoo in Jersey, the island Jersey, Gerald Durrell Zoo is a great zoo. Not a lot of blockbuster multimillion dollar exhibits, but really interesting animals exhibited in creative but not expensive ways. So those are the kind of things that I’m attracted to.

03:54:19 - 03:54:22

You’ve had a number of mentors.

03:54:23 - 03:54:27

What are some of the things that they taught you that stand out?

03:54:28 - 03:55:31

Oh, I don’t know, everyone was different. I mean, I have so many people that I’m thankful to have had a relationship with. And really different people too. When I say different, I mean different education and background and sophistication. George Felton, great guy, director of the Baton Rouge Zoo. I don’t know that George had a college degree, and he was just a good old boy and he… I remember the first time I ever visited the zoo, I went into the office and I said, you know, “I’m here to see George.” And they said, “Oh, he’s mowing the eland exhibit.” And I said, “What?” They took me out, and here’s George on a riding lawnmower in a herd of eland cutting the grass, and the eland are just munching away. George was just a good, down-to-earth person, and that was very early in my career, very, very early in my career, who was a great sounding board ’cause he’d tell you exactly what was on his mind.

03:55:31 - 03:56:07

Sometimes I didn’t agree with him, but he would tell you. On the other end of that spectrum was Clayton Frye, somebody who I just loved. Was able to travel with him to Africa, to Costa Rica, lot of WAZA conferences international. He knew everybody, everybody knew him. Had incredible knowledge about animals. And I just miss him. I miss him every day. He was just a great guy.

03:56:09 - 03:56:39

Warren Iliff, who (laughs) was another very interesting character, but I learned a lot from Warren. He was, Warren was… Started in the career as the head of the Friends of the National Zoo in Washington, then became director of the Portland Zoo, the Dallas Zoo, and then the Aquarium of the Pacific in Southern California, and just a really neat guy. Great people person, good fundraiser, and I loved talking to him so.

03:56:41 - 03:56:51

Would you recommend the zoo/aquarium field to a young person with a sincere interest in wildlife and conservation today?

03:56:51 - 03:57:22

Sure, absolutely. I’m gonna say a very grossly oversimplified thing. It’s fun. You meet great people. You get to work with incredible animals. You’re connected to the natural world in a very unique way. I just, I think it’s a great profession, and I would certainly encourage young people to take a very strong look at it. There are issues in the profession.

03:57:22 - 03:57:31

Does euthanizing of endangered species surplus genetic material still pose a political problem for zoos and aquariums?

03:57:31 - 03:58:10

Absolutely, people don’t understand it, and I understand that people don’t understand it. You can’t say on the one hand that this is a highly endangered animal and we’re spending all of our resource trying to keep this species alive, and, oh, by the way, we’re gonna kill this one ’cause we don’t have any space for it. People can’t wrap their head around that. And I understand it. It’s not good. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I understand it, and if it were accepted by the public, I would have no trouble doing it. But we’re a long way away from that being accepted or acceptable to the average person.

03:58:12 - 03:58:22

Are you concerned about zoos and aquariums staying viable and pertinent in the next 25 years, and what direction will help them stay relevant?

03:58:22 - 03:59:00

25 years, I think certainly so. We’re still seeing a lot of money spent on new exhibits, better exhibits, better housing and conditions for animals. So yeah, I really do, and especially in urban environments, people need to have that connection to wildlife. You know, we talked about all the challenges associated with elephants, but for a child to see an elephant in up close and personal is a very magical thing, and I hope that never goes away.

03:59:03 - 03:59:10

What was the most difficult concept for zoos to understand and implement regarding the relationship to conservation?

03:59:16 - 03:59:51

I think that one of the biggest challenges and one that still exists is that a lot of folks who work in the wild, in nature, in conservation look down their noses at the zoo profession. Even though, in some instances, zoos are providing funding, major funding for their projects. We’ve got to do something to foster a better relationship between those two groups of people.

03:59:56 - 04:00:05

Has the selection criteria to decide what animal species become part of the survival program met with what you envisioned?

04:00:09 - 04:00:43

I think so. In the early days, of course, it was a handful of animals, and next thing you know, you wake up one morning and there are hundreds of them, some of which at the time didn’t make a lot of sense (laughs) because there weren’t many of them. But, you know, I’ve been away from the profession now for a while. I honestly don’t know what all is being done in that regard. I’d like to think that, you know, the animals that need the most help are getting the most help.

04:00:48 - 04:00:58

Can you remember what were some of your more frustrating or challenging times as director that stand out to you?

04:00:58 - 04:02:13

There were a lot of them. (laughs) Just pick a card. had to do with money. You know, I think, like a lot of chief executives, having encountered instances where you have a member of your staff who let you down, somebody that you’ve relied on who you thought was being a good, not just a good employee, but making a difference in your organization and you come to find out later is doing the opposite. I had that happen a couple of times. I found it very frustrating, very, very off-putting. But it happens. They’re people and people do- Not everybody thinks the same way. You know, every time I did a major capital improvement, and when I say major, I’m talking $10-20 million, you get to a point in the project and your CFO comes and says, “I don’t think we have enough money to finish it.” You end up doing it.

04:02:13 - 04:02:22

You end up finishing it, but getting from that point to that finish is nerve-racking and frustrating and angering and scary, you know.

04:02:22 - 04:02:29

Is this gonna cost me my job, that I’ve committed to do this thing and I’m being told I don’t have the resources to finish it?

04:02:29 - 04:02:41

But you do. You find a way, more out of fear than anything else. Sometimes people say, at the zoo, the animals should earn their keep.

04:02:41 - 04:02:43

Do animals have to earn their keep?

04:02:43 - 04:03:02

No, I don’t believe that for a second, no, no. I don’t go down that rabbit hole. You’ve talked about the profession.

04:03:02 - 04:03:08

What do you know about this profession that you devoted so many years of your life to?

04:03:10 - 04:04:18

Hmm, that’s a great question. Every time throughout my career that I thought I had it figured out, I realized I wasn’t close. And when I say that, I’m talking about a lot of things. That the CEO of any major company would probably think they got a good handle on their business and realize that there are forces working against you or that you have no control over that impact you. I don’t… I just know that day in and day out, there are some really, really wonderful people working in this profession. It’s amazing how inclusive we can be. Somebody comes in as a director or a curator, and they come to their first conference and they don’t know anybody, and five days later, they leave with 25 great friends.

04:04:18 - 04:04:30

And it’s been that, it was that way for 40 years for me. You just meet really great people who are almost singularly focused on one thing, and that’s the animals that they take care of.

04:04:32 - 04:04:35

How would you like to be remembered?

04:04:35 - 04:04:36

Your legacy?

04:04:37 - 04:05:38

He tried. (laughs) He tried. I don’t know. Nobody is gonna probably remember what I went through in those first five years, but, you know, I was… Green behind the ears doesn’t even begin to describe how little I knew about zoos. And the challenges that I was handed just three years later, and at the age of 25 was able to take those challenges and take that inexperience and parlay it into a success. At least I think it is a success today. And that I learned. I was able to listen and learn along the way and change and adapt and…

04:05:42 - 04:05:45

That’s it. What would you, talk about animals.

04:05:45 - 04:05:49

What would you say were the keys to maintaining your visitors’ attention?

04:05:49 - 04:06:27

Hmm. (laughs) A lot of things. The animals had to be awake. They had to move, in most cases. They had to appear to be happy, whatever that means. You know, if animals were… You know, there’s nothing better in the zoo than breeding lions. You know, people will stand there for hours and watch two lions breed, which they do for hours.

04:06:30 - 04:07:15

But the worst thing were sleeping animals or no animals, and that was one of the things that drove me, would at times drive me absolutely insane. And we were talking earlier about doing rounds. I walk out in the zoo, and the maintenance department has closed this exhibit and curator has taken this animal off exhibit, and you go over here and they’re painting over here, so we had to make- Come on, people, you know. Talk to each other. You can’t close down half the zoo. People are paying good, hard-earned money to come in here. You got, they have, the guest has to feel that they’ve had a well-rounded experience and seen a lot of different animals.

04:07:17 - 04:07:24

Should all newly constructed exhibits incorporate a conservation conclusion?

04:07:24 - 04:07:31

I think so, where possible. It’s easier with some than others, but yes, I think that’s important. We tried to do it.

04:07:33 - 04:07:39

What was the most significant change in the care of animals under your leadership and why?

04:07:41 - 04:08:39

(Satch sighs) That’s a great question. I don’t know if I know the answer to it. I think three things. I was, I entered the profession at a time when veterinary medicine, exotic animal medicine was in its infancy. When I left the profession four years ago, it was an integral part of our daily existence, how the animals were managed. Veterinary care and the opinions of the veterinary staff were very, taken very seriously. Enrichment, didn’t even know what that word meant the first 10 years that I was a zoo director. When I left, it was an integral part of the operation of the zoo.

04:08:41 - 04:08:53

So there were a number of things like that that were profession-wide that were very different 40 years after I started working.

04:08:57 - 04:09:00

How should zoos deal with surplus animals?

04:09:02 - 04:10:19

Well, I was a zoo director for 40 years, and I never figured that out. Only once in my 40 years did we euthanize a surplus animal, and we did that out of safety concerns for the staff. It was a bottle-raised hippopotamus that we tried for 10 years to surplus to a good place, with no takers. And he had become so aggressive that I had to make the decision, and I made it, to put him down. We would hold on to animals. You know, it was my belief, if we produced a surplus animal through whatever, for whatever reason, we had an obligation to maintain that animal in the best possible circumstance we could until we could find a good home for it. That wasn’t always easy. That was not always easy to do.

04:10:21 - 04:10:40

But we did. It was a commitment that we made. So I think, I’d like to think the keeper staff always knew that a curator or a veterinarian or myself was not gonna walk in one day and say, “Look, we gotta put that animal down. We’ve had it too long.” I’d never do that.

04:10:43 - 04:10:47

Did you have much feedback after that decision?

04:10:47 - 04:10:48

On the hippo?

04:10:53 - 04:11:29

As you would imagine, the keepers who were taking care of it were thrilled (laughs) because they knew and I knew that it was only a matter of time before he seriously hurt or killed one of them. Some of the other keeper staff weren’t so happy about it, but they weren’t in with that animal every day and saw what he was capable of doing and what he wanted to do, which was to kill people.

04:11:31 - 04:11:55

It has been said that many newer, younger zoo and aquarium professionals are computer curators, with little knowledge of the precepts of Heini Hediger, Lee Crandall, William Conway, or knowledge of the “International Zoo Yearbook.” How important for the future of zoos is it to keep this link with the past?

04:11:58 - 04:13:02

You know, as you were asking that question, what I started thinking about is that you could have asked that about any other profession, car manufacturers, chair manufac- I mean, things change, things evolve. I think for somebody of my generation, those individuals and things like the “International Zoo Yearbook,” I mean, they were… You did not not buy “International Zoo Yearbook.” I mean, you had to have it. You had to have one in the zoo library, you had to have one in your own personal library. You read Crandall’s book, all that. Those, I don’t think those things are relevant today. I really don’t, as much as, you know, it saddens me to say that they’re not relevant. I think they’re relevant obviously from a historical perspective.

04:13:02 - 04:13:16

But in terms of a new curator or a new keeper doing his or her job, I don’t really think they’re that relevant. Let me challenge you just a bit on that. Get your opinion. Heini Hediger.

04:13:16 - 04:13:21

And the precepts of zoo biology, you don’t think are relevant today?

04:13:22 - 04:13:42

I think the concepts of zoo biology are relevant. I don’t know that Heini Hediger, as an individual to my, as a 26-year-old senior keeper, knowing that he…

04:13:43 - 04:13:44

What am I trying to say?

04:13:44 - 04:14:00

Sure, the concepts are relevant, especially if they are still fresh, if they’re still relevant today in managing animals. But to say to a young man, “You gotta learn,” or a young woman, “You have to learn all about Heini Hediger,” I don’t know that that’s that important.

04:14:05 - 04:14:11

In the community, with your zoo, how did you get the community to embrace the zoo?

04:14:11 - 04:14:13

What were your strategies?

04:14:16 - 04:15:02

I was, am, was a native of Columbia. I was born there, I grew up there, and except for four years of college, I lived my entire working life there. Columbia is a interesting place. It is sandwiched between some really progressive cities. Charleston is two hours southeast. Charlotte is an hour and a half north. Greenville up in the foothills. And those were growing up all very…

04:15:03 - 04:15:51

Well, maybe not so much Greenville, but certainly Charleston and Charlotte. And even you could go to Atlanta four hours away by car. People went to those places on the weekends. Nobody came to Columbia from Charleston. Nobody came to Columbia from Charlotte. But we went there ’cause they had museums and history and an ocean and a mountain, and little old Columbia had nothing. We had no natural, no prominent natural resource. It was a city that had struggled, as a lot of southern capital cities during the Civil War were devastated after the war.

04:15:53 - 04:16:42

Took a long time to recover. You know, I’m not a Civil War buff. I think it was a horrible, horrible thing that happened in this country. But you would be amazed that as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, and maybe even today if I had to be honest, there are people who still fight the Civil War. Then along comes the zoo, and an interesting thing happened. It took me a while to figure it out. Like me, there was no culture of visiting a zoo by people who were born and raised in Columbia. Now we had people who moved to Columbia from Chicago or wherever, and they went to Lincoln Park, went to Brookfield.

04:16:42 - 04:16:43

Came to Columbia, where’s the zoo?

04:16:43 - 04:17:56

Well, they don’t have a zoo. So in spite of all of the things that I said about John Mehrtens, the zoo that he built, in the broadest sense, was a really good zoo. And then we began to expand and improve, and an interesting thing happened. People who lived in Columbia, who may have gone on a business trip to St. Louis or went on vacation to, name a place, Miami, said, “You know, we need to go to their zoo because, you know, we love our zoo. Certainly this city zoo must be- It’s a big city. Their zoo must be a lot better.” And they found out, whoa, wait a minute, (laughs) our zoo is just as good or in some cases better. And there was, suddenly there was pride. Hey, we’ve got something now that people from Charleston, they are coming to Columbia to see the zoo.

04:17:56 - 04:18:51

Nothing else, just the zoo. People were driving from Charlotte to see the zoo. There’s no zoo in Charlotte. And we really took advantage of that, and that became part of marketing for us and was an integral part in the success. We started the Riverbanks Society. So we are a publicly owned and operated zoo, but Mehrtens was terrified of having a nonprofit organization that he couldn’t control. So there was no zoo society. So a year after he left, I started the zoo society.

04:18:52 - 04:19:09

And it was really interesting. We had an initial kickoff, and we signed up, I think it was 200. We sold 200 memberships. And a while later, a few weeks later, we were sitting around.

04:19:09 - 04:19:11

How can we get more people?

04:19:11 - 04:19:15

You know, if we can just get a membership application into hands.

04:19:15 - 04:19:16

Do we hand them out at the gate?

04:19:16 - 04:19:19

I mean, what, how do we do that?

04:19:19 - 04:19:52

So we hit on this idea. We went to the city and said, “You send a water bill out to everybody who lives here every month. Can you put a zoo membership application?” Well, nobody’s ever asked that. We don’t know if we can do that or not. They did it. 3,000 people join in a month. When I retired, we had 42,000 household memberships. And I think there are, COVID put a dent in that, but I think it’s since even bigger now.

04:19:52 - 04:20:25

So people love that zoo. They love their zoo, and they support it with memberships. We’re finally starting to get some good philanthropy in town. Still don’t have any… There are no corporate headquarters at Columbia, but we’re, and not a lot of individual wealth, but that’s starting to change slowly and it’s starting to pay off.

04:20:25 - 04:20:30

During your tenure, were there any surprise donations?

04:20:31 - 04:21:11

Yes. (laughs) Wasn’t a big one but it was a surprise. The first thing I built or we built was the education center. We needed to raise… We needed to raise a million dollars. And it was tough, tough. And we raised about half a million dollars right away and then realized we had exhausted the easy money. So we fought and we scratched, and I begged and I pleaded, and we raised about another 3 or 400,000. So the goal was in sight.

04:21:12 - 04:22:01

We had the plans ready to go, everything. All I needed was this last 100-150 grand. So one day, out of the clear blue sky, I get a call from an attorney. He said, “Hey, I want to let you know one of my clients passed away, and she left the zoo $100,000.” So this was 1981. It was a lot of money in 1981. So we’re there, we did it, we’re building it. We named the auditorium after her, and we have the dedication. I was there in the lobby and having wine in our new education center, and this guy walks up to me and he said, “My name is whatever.” He said, “I’m the attorney for Mrs. Hawk.” Her name was Hawk, H-A-W-K.

04:22:01 - 04:23:12

And he said, “I want to thank you for naming the auditorium after her.” And I said, “Oh, it’s just wonderful.” I said, “Tell me, you know, tell me about Ms. Hawk. What did she know about the zoo?” He said, “She’d never been here.” I said, “What?” He said, “To be honest, she wasn’t a very nice person. She didn’t have a lot of friends.” And she, when she passed- She was doing her will. She was very ill, was doing her will. And he said, “She was in my office, and she had $100,000 left over.” And said, “You know, what do you want to do with this?” She said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, what about the art museum?” “No, I don’t like the art museum.” “What about whatever?” “No, I don’t like that.” And he said, “Well, what about the zoo?” She went, “Oh, all right.” (laughs) And so she died and we got 100 grand. And that was actually the first what we back then called a major gift that we got. No, I got a few pleasant surprises over the years from attorneys calling about money that was left to the zoo. People, some I knew, some I didn’t.

04:23:14 - 04:23:21

Talking about the zoo and getting the word out, did you have a good relationship with the press, and how did you nurture that?

04:23:22 - 04:24:11

I had a great relationship with the press, and that actually started with the termination of John Mehrtens. He had no relationship with the press. He was very disdainful of the press. And I don’t know, I guess just innately I knew that I needed to foster some kind of a relationship. And I started telling the truth. And I became what they called a good interview because whether it was print media or TV, you know, media, they knew that I would tell them the truth and I would do it in an entertaining way.

04:24:11 - 04:24:18

And, you know, how can you not talk about a baby koala or whatever and not be warm and fuzzy?

04:24:18 - 04:25:30

So the best comment that I ever got, in the last, before our paper was… Well, we had a family-owned newspaper, and it was bought by one of the biggies, and then they sold it to McClatchy. And every time it was sold, the reporting staff got smaller and smaller. And we had had a reporter who had covered the zoo for about 15 years, and he was a very professional reporter. And I knew there was no such thing as off the record, and he, even though we had a good relationship, he would ask me a tough question. And he unfortunately got RIFed. And his last day, he called me and he said, “I just want to tell you.” He said, “You’re the most honest and straightforward person that I ever had to interview, government employee that I ever interviewed.” And he said, “I just wanted you to know that.” That made me, I’ll tell you I walked on cloud nine for a long time. I thought I was.

04:25:30 - 04:25:37

I thought I had been that way, but to have him actually tell me was pretty fun and gratifying.

04:25:39 - 04:25:42

Did you ever plan special events for them to cover?

04:25:43 - 04:25:45

The press?

04:25:45 - 04:25:47

Oh, yeah, every…

04:25:47 - 04:25:51

You mean like new exhibits and baby animals types?

04:25:51 - 04:26:00

Oh yeah, all the time, yeah. My last question, Satch, is on the press.

04:26:01 - 04:26:11

How do you think new technologies assist in promoting the zoo, the Twitter, the Facebook, remote cameras to draw attention to wildlife?

04:26:12 - 04:27:17

I have a two-part answer to that. (laughs) The Facebooks and the Twitters, I despise. Social media, I think is a horrible thing. And we fought it with our employees constantly. And it was a generational thing. You know, in those last few years that I worked, 2015, ’16, ’17, by then, we had keepers who had had a cell phone in their pocket most of their life and could not even remotely understand why them posting a video of a newborn tiger or a koala was a bad thing. “Well, look what I did. I got, you know, a thousand view.” Well, we weren’t ready to release that for this reason and this reason and this reason. And it just, it became a constant battle.

04:27:18 - 04:27:59

But those other things that you mentioned are all good. When we had the koalas and we had our first baby, we had a camera and a website devoted to it, and we were getting emails from all over the world every day. And some of them were a little- “You know it hasn’t moved in an hour. I think you should check it.” Well, it hasn’t moved in three hours, but that’s okay. But people were engaged. They loved it and the baby. So some of that stuff is great. Some of it is not so great and can be very frustrating.

04:28:02 - 04:28:24

Well, thank you very much for spending the time with us and giving us- Sure. It won’t take but six or seven minutes. Ask me about my second term as president of AZA. (interviewer laughs) Satch, you’ve been president of AZA two times.

04:28:25 - 04:28:28

Can you tell me about your second term as president?

04:28:29 - 04:29:23

Second term had an interesting beginning. I was sworn in in September, and four months later, Christmas is there. And the entire AZA staff had taken off Christmas day, except for Steve Feldman, who at the time was the AZA’s public relations person, and being of the Jewish faith was not interested in having that day off. So he was in his office. And about, I think it was about 6:00 or 7:00 PM. My two boys were home. Christmas day, they were just having a great time. The phone rings.

04:29:24 - 04:30:58

And it was a member of the AZA staff. And he said, “I’m not sure what is happening here, but apparently a tiger has escaped in the San Francisco Zoo and killed somebody, a visitor.” I was standing up, (laughs) and I sat down. I kind of plopped down and broke the screen on my wife’s laptop. And sure enough, as we all know, that had indeed happened. Tiger had escaped, killed a young man and injured another, and was subsequently, the tiger, shot and killed by the San Francisco Police. And the next morning, I did my one and only interview on the “Today Show.” Because there was nobody around to do it but me. And interviewed by Ann Curry, and she tried to eat me a little bit, but I stood my ground. But it was a bad day, bad night, bad week, bad month, and I guess to this day, the only visitor, you know, in modern times that’s been killed by a zoo animal.

04:30:58 - 04:31:13

So had a great time as president, but it sure didn’t start out that way. Well, Satch, thank you very much for taking time to talk with the Zoo & Aquarium Video Archive. I enjoyed it. Thoroughly, thank you for asking me, I’m honored.

About Palmer “Satch” Krantz

Palmer “Satch” Krantz
Download Curricula Vitae


Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, Columbia, South Carolina


Satch served the zoo and aquarium profession as chairman of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for two terms. His public service also included a term as chairman of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). He was instrumental in the development of the Riverbanks Zoo, holding many management positions until he took over as director in 1976.

Related Interviews

View All of Our Interviews

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Zoo & Aquarium Video Archive or those acting under their authority.