The Sedgwick County Zoo will be transitioning to new leadership in 2017: Mark Reed, the longtime executive director, has just retired from his 37-year career at the zoo.
Reed recently shared some of his memories with KMUW’s Deborah Shaar for this sound portrait.
I first came [to the Sedgwick County Zoo] on August 16, 1979, and I can still remember going down to the county [office] and filling out all of the paperwork and coming back to work here.
I can remember it was hot. It was August, and none of the trees were probably more than eight feet tall. There was no shade anywhere. It was still flat except for the hills that had been built in the berms, and that was done deliberately so when people came to the zoo, [they] would be in their own little world. You couldn’t see the city of Wichita.
The office had the dart gun and all the capture equipment that goes with the dart gun, and I looked at that and didn’t realize that all of sudden, I was in charge of darting the animals if there was a medical issue with the tranquilizer drugs and everything because the zoo didn’t have a full-time veterinarian. I remember going home that night and getting a hold of the general curator, and we set up a target and we actually practiced shooting should we ever need it.
Thirty-seven and half years later, we have three full-time veterinarians, we have a fabulous hospital and quarantine facility, vet techs and keepers to go with it, so it’s come a long way here.
I can still remember that first week when I actually became the director and went around with the assistant county manager at that time, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve got almost an open canvas—you’ve got the best job in the world.” We had all these dreams.
In 2004, we opened the Downing Gorilla Forest, and in 2007, we opened the Cessna Penguin Cove, which drew a lot of people. Then the all-time record was the tiger exhibit in 2009—we had 654,000 people here for that opening. And I have a feeling that this elephant exhibit will set new records in attendance in 2016, no question in my mind. We are on track to hit 700,000 visitors for the first time.
When I became director, I felt it was important that we keep elephants in larger groups and that we needed to do something about the overall exhibit down there.
That whole process [building the new elephant exhibit and receiving the permits to import six elephants from Africa] was probably the ultimate for me, professionally and career-wise, and an achievement I knew I could never equal, let alone try to beat. But it was 28 months of the most incredible stress and most incredible highs I’ve ever had.
I’m proud of the fact that it’s very innovative and one of the largest elephant exhibits in the world. I just think it’s really cool and I see a lot of people like me who get misty-eyed thinking about it and looking at those elephants running around and playing.
My wife commented that it was probably one of the most emotional times in her life to realize that our dream had finally come true—that we had brought elephants here.
I’m leaving enough money for the new director to revisit the master plan. We set aside money for a strategic plan for the board, the staff and the director to look at the future directions of the zoo and where it should go.
Well, you know there are all sorts of things on the master plan that just haven’t been quite gotten to or finished yet. There’s actually another half of the Amphibian-Reptile building that would have large snakes, crocodiles and Komodo dragons. But the thing we need the most, in my opinion, and I think it’s universally shared by most of the staff and board members, is that we need a new entry complex. What we have was built for 250,000 [visitors], and we’ve come a long ways from that.
I have a few animals that I’ll really miss here, no question about it. I want to come back and watch the elephants grow up and see the first baby elephants. My favorites have always been black rhinos, and I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the next babies. We have a new male, and we are fixing up the yard right now to a bigger yard for them to run around in.
I just say I’ve been very fortunate. It’s been the best job in the world, and I enjoyed coming to work every day. Most of the people I know here have felt the same, and I think that makes it special. A lot of memories are built out here, and I continue to think that this town will continue to support the zoo and make it grow even better in the future.
The Sedgwick County Zoological Society is conducting a national search for Reed’s replacement and expects to have a new director hired by March 1.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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