Little did I know when I accepted a job at Lee Richardson Zoo as education coordinator and secretary in 1984 what it would lead to, the amazing experiences I would have, and that I would still be here 30 years later! Fresh out of college and armed with a degree in wildlife biology, a job at the bison range lured me to Garden City in 1980. Since then I have called this community my home. The zoo has become my home away from home (often at all hours of the day and night), as well as an integral part of life for the family I raised here. There is no such thing as normal hours when you work at a zoo, as living creatures need 24/7 care. It was common for my children to help me during off hours to bottle feed pronghorn fawns or an orphaned llama, or transport a new animal from another zoo on our vacation trips. My husband frequently accompanied me, in rain, snow or gale-force winds, when an alarm or the police called in the middle of the night with one concern or another.
Boring is another word not in our zoo vocabulary. On the contrary, every day is an adventure. Some are fun, others are incredibly stressful. We are the origin of the expression, "This place is a zoo." You never know what to expect, and even if you do, you can bet that the best-laid plans will be dashed by the unexpected, challenging your sanity. The day's agenda is often sidetracked or totally abandoned when the unexpected happens. A call on the radio announces the imminent birth of a six-foot-tall giraffe (and you can't NOT respond in person to that!), or a phone call comes in from a concerned citizen, on a really windy day, about a tall, pink bird wandering around on the west side of town. Then there was the evening call notifying us that the 18-wheeler hauling our two, new African elephants had a flat tire on a remote highway in Oklahoma. How do you change an inside tire with two elephants on board? Where else can you witness the look of wonder on the face of a 5-year-old when he touches a giant millipede or boa constrictor for the first time, converse in "chirps" with a cougar, scratch a rhino behind the ears or see a chinchilla rolling past your office in an exercise ball (naturally depositing tiny presents along the way)?
The zoo is about the beauty, complexity and sometimes the harshness of nature. Sharing my passion for wildlife and wild places with others, making them aware of how amazing nature can be and how important a healthy environment is to humankind, and instilling a sense of wonder and curiosity in others made every day both challenging and fun. The zoo is also about the cycle of life and death. The delight over the arrival of a healthy new baby or new species is eventually dampened by the loss or departure of a longtime favorite.
The zoo has changed a lot since I started, thanks to the vision and efforts of past leadership and staff, and an amazingly supportive community. Gaining our AZA accreditation for the first time in 1986, and working hard to maintain that level of professionalism and achievement ever since has helped Lee Richardson Zoo thrive and improve. We got our first computer for keeping animal records in 1987. We now have close to two dozen computers and can't imagine doing our jobs without such technology.
The Finnup Center for Conservation Education is a great facility that has enabled us to teach and inspire people of all ages about our natural world, and engage students in core subjects like math and reading while making learning fun and meaningful. Our staff reached an impressive 40,000 individuals in 2013 alone. The Finnup Center, funded in 1995 by a million-dollar gift from the Finnup Foundation, and then expanded further in 2010, houses classrooms, state-of-the-art meeting rooms used by groups across Kansas, a distance learning studio to broadcast virtual field trips nationwide and beyond, and fun interactive exhibits for visiting families and students. Engaging animal exhibits like Wild Asia, Kansas Waters and Cat Canyon allow visitors to get up close and personal with otters, red pandas, jaguars, siamangs, leopards, Bactrian camels and other unique creatures.
Improvements in exhibits, roads, sidewalks, safety procedures, visitor amenities, new species, educational offerings, unique events, landscaping and more are the legacy of a cooperative effort between zoo staff, the Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo, dedicated volunteers, Garden City and its many departments, employees, Commissioners and City Managers, board members, many generous donors and a great rapport with six other accredited Kansas zoos. Regulations, operating permits, accreditation requirements, husbandry and exhibition techniques, keeper training and safety procedures have changed drastically as well, necessitating a concentrated effort to track and successfully address these important requirements and challenges.
As I retire, I am especially grateful to my amazing staff for their talents, dedication and passion. Their commitment to the animals, to our guests and to the zoo is unparalleled. Their jobs are peppered with long days, late nights, working holidays, working outside in crazy Kansas weather, and emotional ups and downs of life at the zoo as we care for some very endearing furred and feathered friends. Whether they work in the animal, maintenance, education or administrative division, or in membership, guest services or fundraising, and regardless of whether their job has them working more with animals or people, they make our wonderful zoo what it is: an amazing educational, recreational, conservation and tourism resource for Garden City and southwest Kansas. As I depart, Deputy Director Kristi Newland will take the reigns as interim director until the selection process for a new director is complete. Under Kristi's leadership, I know Lee Richardson Zoo is in excellent hands. Progress will continue, and our many plans for future improvements will be pursued to make the zoo even better for our animal residents and visitors. The zoo, its staff and volunteers and all those in the community who support it will always hold a special place in my heart. My husband and I plan to stay in Garden City and I look forward to enjoying Lee Richardson Zoo from the guest side of the fence for a change. Thanks, Garden City and southwest Kansas, for your support!