Building a Great Zoo for People and Animals: Conversation with Jason Jacobs, Director of Reid Park Z

The Reid Park Zoo is one of the best medium sized zoos in the nation. Located on 24 lush acres in sunny Tucson, Arizona, its crown jewel is Expedition Tanzania, one of the best habitats for African elephants at any zoo. A familial herd roams four acres that brilliantly recreate the savannas and watering holes of Africa and several interpretive and educational features help visitors learn about these pachyderms and the need for their conservation. The zoo also has white rhinos, a pride of lions, giraffes, zebras, tigers, two species of bears, a wide variety of South American wildlife and brand new habitats for lemurs and meerkats. The zoo is headed by Jason Jacobs, who is one of the youngest zoo directors at a major zoo. Here is his story.

@ Jason Jacobs

Jacobs grew up in Miami and fell in love with animals through going to Zoo Miami, then known as the Miami Metro Zoo. “I always knew I wanted to work in zoos,” he said. “I was very fortunate to grow up around four miles away from Zoo Miami and that was my home away from home." During middle school, Jacobs attended a zoo science magnet school and got to know a lot of the zoo staff well. “Once I was in high school, I focused on volunteering at the zoo,” he remarked. “I got to do a lot of cool things like interact with sloth bears, clouded leopards and elephants and prepare skulls and pelts for biofacts. Those experiences made my life richer and gave me good hands on experience.”

@ Grayson Ponti

When Jacobs was in ninth grade, he “was assigned as an intern to Dr. Gordon Hubble, the zoo’s director of education. He had been director at the Cranden Park Zoo (the first zoo in Miami.) It was a great learning experience and I learned a lot about the different facets of the zoo.” When he was a volunteer, the zoo was devastated by Hurricane Andrew, which was “a couple of terrifying hours at my house.” “After that I really started volunteering in earnest,” remembered Jacobs. “The zoo looked totally different- the vegetation was gone. One of the educators named Damien Kong took me under his wing and he organized other teenagers to help fundraising to rebuild from Hurricane Andrew. I was there the day it reopened- we operated a tortoise pen that day.” He credits Zoo Miami, one of the best zoos in the nation, as helping him prepare to get into the zoo world. Many of the staff were even there for his high school graduation. Jacobs discussed how he tries to emulate his mentors throughout his career, such as Dave Towne, Jack Hanna and Greg Bockheim, because “I truly believe who you meet on your way up is who you’ll meet on your way down.”

@ Grayson Ponti

At age 18, Jacobs was hired to “run summer camps at the zoo and overnight educational programs.” This was a “great opportunity” for him to gain hands on experience. After a few years, Jacobs got another great opportunity to gain experience in the zoo world. “Disney’s Animal Kingdom was opening up and a brunch of keepers from Miami were going there,” he recalled. “I was in college and they encouraged me to apply for an internship.” Jacobs worked on the opening crew and had two jobs. The first was to work on Kilimanjaro Safaris, a ride that takes visitors into the savannas elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, rhinos and other African wildlife call home. “It’s a very realistic depiction of what a trip to Africa is like,” explained Jacobs. “Since then I have visited Africa several times. It’s a great experience- the landscaping, sights, sounds, animals. During my internship, I made an appointment to speak to Rick Barongi (who helped design the park) and he spent over an hour talking with me and giving me sage career advice. I’ll never forget that and that’s why I always try to help others who are passionate about zoos.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The buzz for the new park was quite big. “I’ll never forget being in my safari uniform a month before it opened at a local grocery store and tourists were like oh my gosh you work for the Animal Kingdom and asking for a picture with me,” Jacobs recalled. His second job for the new park was working “for Walt Disney television making a database of all the animal assets on Walt Disney Property” to be used for the show The Secrets of the Animal Kingdom. “It was a fun job and helped me learn a lot more about television,” Jacobs elaborated. He credits his internship at Animal Kingdom for expanding his insights on how zoos work and what is important. “Before being at Disney I was all about the animals,” Jacobs explained. “Disney taught me it’s also all about the guest experience. Animals are a big part of that but you also need clean restaurants, great food, gift shops and staff if you want to have a great zoo.”

@ Grayson Ponti

After going back to Miami and graduating from college, Jacobs was hired as education curator at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend Indiana. When he came, “the zoo needed some help” and for the first year and a half “there were a lot of changes and some chaos.” Jacobs explained that it came down to three key managers to help rebuild the zoo. “Greg Bockheim, the general curator, became zoo director, I was promoted to overlooking the actions of the nonprofit organization while helping out the director and the veterinarian, Dr. Jeremy Goodman, was promoted to help out the director too,” he said. Jacobs pointed out all three of them are now directors of medium sized zoos. “Greg Bockheim is now director of the Virginia Zoo and has done great things there,” he remarked. “Dr. Jeremy Goodman is now director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. He was director of the Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey for awhile and led their renaissance there.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

The three new leaders took their task to heart. “The three of us changed the face of that zoo,” Jacobs reflected. “We added new habitats such as the red pandas. We added new animals- takin, Amur leopard. We revitalized the zoo farm and brought in animals the kids could interact with and we added the train, which was a huge deal for South Bend.” Jacobs elaborated how “the three of us pitched in wherever we had to, had great community support and turned that zoo around. I not only oversaw education but a lot of the operations, fundraising, marketing and public relations.” He felt it was a great opportunity to improve the zoo and took pride in making the zoo “better for the community.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Jacobs next went to the Los Angeles Zoo, where he was director of marketing and public relations. “My great uncle was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Zoo so I grew up going there a lot,” he recalled. “I thought it was a long shot I’d get the job but then they flew me in for an in-person interview with Zoo Director John Lewis and Deputy Director Denise Verret and after spending the day interviewing with them, they offered me the job. I remember going out to the front of the zoo and my great uncle, who had become a docent, was so proud of me.” Jacobs wasn’t even thirty yet and credits his eight years at Los Angeles working for Lewis and Verret for teaching him the “business end of the zoo and how to be a true zoo administrator.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Jason’s time at the zoo coincided with the middle of a master plan aimed to revitalize the zoo. “During my first two years we didn’t have any new exhibits opening and the center of the zoo was all under construction,” he remembered. “I was tasked at making sure we held out attendance at 1.4 million annual visitors during construction. Denise Verret and I would constantly look at the daily attendance and revenue lines and figure out creative ways to spike attendance and take advantage of promotions and pop-culture events such as film releases and television shows to meet the zoo’s revenue goals. She and I would look at the studios’ movie release at two to three years out to determine potential tie-ins. I would then make contact with the studio and create a collaborative partnership with them. it was a business model that could only work within the media market of Los Angeles. For instance, in 2007 (the year Spider Man III came out,) we opened a temporary spider exhibit and partnered with Sony. During the middle of the press conference to open the exhibit we had the Green Goblin interrupt the media event. Spider Man came to the rescue and fought off the villain. We received national coverage for this event and Spider Man did interviews reminding visitors to see the new movie but if people wanted to learn about spiders, they should visit the Los Angeles Zoo.”

@ Jason Jacobs

Jacobs believes special events are vital to expanding the zoo’s audience and furthering their message of zoos. “You have your traditional zoo events but I always looked outside the box to find events to draw people who usually don’t come to a zoo,” Jacobs explained. “”At South Bend we had an event called Hogwild with Harley Davidson where they came with their motorbikes and we had a band and barbeque to coincide with opening of the warthog exhibit. While at Los Angeles, Lucasfilm agreed to have a Star Wars Day at the Los Angeles Zoo which not only let visitors meet Star Wars characters but also had educational graphics comparing Star Wars creatures to animals in the zoo. It was a real fun experience and a record setting attendance day. We started Brew at the Zoo and had a Comic-Con event at the Los Angeles Zoo where artists would draw comics. We had an event at Reid Park Zoo for Pokemon Go that set attendance records. It’s about making your zoo cater to as many audiences as possible to spread the mission.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

During Jacobs’s time at Los Angeles, several key habitats opened. A major focus of the master plan was building modern habitats for great apes at the zoo. With ones for chimpanzees and orangutans having already been built, gorillas were next in a lush naturalistic environment called Campo Gorilla Reserve. “Gorillas opened in 2007 and gorillas had been gone from the zoo for about seven years,” he said. “It was a big deal bringing them back and the community loved it. I was responsible for obtaining Nestle as the key presenting sponsor to open the habitat. They were tagged on media such as TV commercials, print advertisements and billboards. It was a great tie in with their fruit juice products and the vegetarian diet of the gorillas. In 2013, we were able to partner with Nintendo for a launch party of a Donkey Kong video game. We had our zoo enrichment team make faux-barrels which we will filled food for the gorillas. This received huge media attention.”

@ Tad Motoyama, Los Angeles Zoo

However, the biggest and most difficult of the master plan’s projects was Elephants of Asia, which would give the zoo’s male Asian elephant Billy a state-of-the-art home where he could live with other elephants. “Elephants of Asian was a huge project for the Los Angeles Zoo,” Jacobs recalled. “The challenging part of it was there was a group of zoo-detractors who did not want to see elephants in zoos and did not want it to open. As director of public relations, one of my tasks was to direct external and internal communications about the habitat, why it was being built and how the zoo took good care of its elephants.” He remembered how it was a busy time in his life and oftentimes he would have to stay after for meetings and strategy sessions. However, Elephants of Asia successfully opened in 2010 and provided a spacious, enriching home for Billy and two new females. “One of the fun parts is we had artists from four of the countries where Asian elephants come from paint sculptured elephants with artwork from those nations and they’re placed around the zoo,” Jacobs remarked.

@ Jason Jacobs

During Jason’s time at the Los Angeles Zoo, he made a unique relationship with one celebrity who loved the zoo. “One of my absolute thrills from L.A. was assisting Betty White with her book on zoos,” he explained. “She even thanks me in the acknowledgements. That’s one of the biggest compliments I can ever receive. She’s an absolute thrill to work with and no celebrity has done more to advocate for zoos.”

@ Jason Jacobs

White even became part of the advertising campaign for the zoo’s next major project, a reptile and amphibian house called the Living Amphibians Invertebrates and Reptiles (LAIR.) “I directed an advertising campaign for LAIR, which was great since we used Betty White and Slash for a great TV commercial about it,” said Jacobs. “There was also a real neat print campaign that featured about a third of LAIR’s residents with different environments. The AZA recognized that campaign with a significant achievement award.” Jacobs even had a giant Mexican horn lizard take over social media feed for a while to promote the opening of the exhibit. The LAIR, opened in 2012, is one of the best herpetariums at any zoo in America.

@ Los Angeles Zoo

As much as he loved the Los Angeles Zoo, Jason Jacobs was ready to try becoming a zoo director. Having a diverse skill set in zoos, he started applying for director jobs and was offered two Zoo Director jobs within the same week: one at the Honolulu Zoo and the other at the Reid Park Zoo. “I was offered the job at Reid Park Zoo and seeing the new elephant habitat really made me pick Tucson and I was fortunate enough to be offered director positions at two outstanding facilities,” Jacobs commented. “The Reid Park Zoo has huge visitation for a zoo of its size. Expedition Tanzania (the zoo’s state-of-the-art elephant habitat) was getting record-breaking attendance for the zoo and my job was to keep the surge going.” Expedition Tanzania immediately gave him a lot to feel proud of in the zoo. “The design of the habitat, herd of elephants we have, the amazing team working with them and the educators and volunteers all make Expedition Tanzania great,” he said. “People love the exhibit and the elephants.”

@ Jason Jacobs

Jacobs started directing the zoo in summer of 2013. In his second year, the zoo welcomed the birth of Nandi, the first African elephant ever born in Arizona. “One of the highlights of my life was seeing the mother bring her over to the other members of the herd,” Jacobs remarked. “The community still lovers her.” The zoo has also had great success working with giant anteaters and lesser anteaters known as tamanduas. “Our staff trains tamanduas as education ambassadors for other zoos,” Jacobs said. He also acknowledges he could not have such a great zoo without the staff. “You can have the best habitats, animals and supporters but if you don’t have the best people taking care of your zoo you can’t have a great zoo,” Jacobs said. “Our staff create amazing experiences for our guests. I’m also fortunate to have the support of the City of Tucson and the Reid Park Zoological Society. Both of those groups have helped make the zoo successful.”

@ Reid Park Zoo

Jacobs discussed some of the challenges of being a zoo director. “Being the final decision maker- you realize very quickly you rely on your staff since they’re the experts in their divisions within the operation,” he said. “It’s obviously a lot of work and a job you have to have the passion to be successful. You have to have a diverse skill set. You have to know about the animals, the guests, the finances and the operations. What I’ve learned is sometimes patience when you want to get something done is part of the difficult part. When times are good they’re great but you also have your bad days they can make you feel down. Even on my gloomy days I can walk around the zoo and see happy visitors enjoying the zoo and the experiences we provide for them. I sometimes walk around the zoo after it closes with the park all to myself- it’s like having my own secret garden.”

@ Jason Jacobs

During his four years at the zoo, Jacobs has continued the momentum from Expedition Tanzania with new habitats and guest amenities. Recently the zoo has transformed a former bear grotto into a beautiful habitat for lemurs and opened a new meerkat habitat, a new species for the zoo. The Reid Park Zoo has also added camel rides and a carousel, which are important because the “revenue goes straight towards supporting the mission of the zoo.” The zoo also broke ground on a new animal health center and will soon be opening a habitat for American alligators. “We’re constantly looking at what we can do to improve the zoo,” Jacobs said. “We have a number of future plans including a climate-controlled building for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, a new tiger habitat and bringing in either pygmy or river hippos. One of our goals is to have a stronger commitment to conservation. We want kids to learn and our educators do a great job facilitating our conservation messaging.”

@ Reid Park Zoo

“In the past we supported a bunch of different projects while now we’re going to focus on 2-3 projects and fund to a great amount. We support elephant conservation in Tarangarie National Park in Tanzania and giant anteater conservation in Brazil. Conservation is also building capacity to house populations of endangered species within zoological parks. I believe we’re there to help train the next generation of zoo professionals and my goal is to help them just as countless professionals have assisted me with my career.”

@ Jason Jacobs

#ReidParkZoo #LosAngelesZoo #PotawatomiZoo #DisneysAnimalKingdom #ZooMiami

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti