Trekking Tigers in Virginia Beach: A Conversation with Greg Bockheim, Director of the Virginia Zoo

Located on 53 beautiful acres in Norfolk and receiving about half a million visitors every year, the Virginia Zoo is one of the best medium-sized zoos in the nation. Much of the credit towards this goes to Greg Bockheim, who has been the zoo’s director since 2006. Building off great community support, his leadership has fostered a zoo that has top-notch animal care, a great guest experience and plenty of expansive “animal-friendly” habitats. Perhaps Bockheim’s greatest achievement was opening the Trail of the Tiger, a 5.5-acre recreation of Asia that takes guests into the realms of tigers, orangutans and Asian bears. The zoo’s reputation and tenure have been boosted significantly with him at the helm. Here is his story.

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Greg Bockheim’s experience with animals began at a young age as he collected exotic parrots as a kid. “I was primarily into birds since 10 years old,” he said. “I actually had a license to buy them out of quarantine when I was 13.” However, Bockheim was clear he did not maintain birds as pets and was much more interested in “observing their behavior, especially pair behavior.” Soon his psittacine collection was quite large and he was successful breeding many species. When he applied to work at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, “the animal supervisors couldn’t believe I had this large bird collection and visited my home to verify.”

@ Greg Bockheim

Bockheim was hired as a seasonal keeper in the zoo’s children’s zoo in 1985 and “thought it was the best job in the world.” Like many small zoos back then, John Ball Zoo was a city operated facility and many of the animal care staff were more interested in the good city befits rather than having a strong passion of wildlife or animal expertise. For Bockheim was exciting to be a teenager among those hard-nosed city workers. “I was kind of the punk to harass,“ he said. When he came, the zoo’s director was Chuck Wikenhauser, who has been director of the Milwaukee County Zoo since 1990. Then the director was John Lewis, now director of the Los Angeles Zoo. “I learned a lot from the people dedicated to animals and making John Ball Zoo a great place,” Bockheim reflected.

@ Greg Bockheim

Studying at Michigan State University, Bockheim was accepted to study gorillas at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust in the UK, which was “fantastic.” “When I came back I could not sit still,” he remembered. “I had always wanted to live to Australia so I just up and moved there not knowing anyone, but I had arranged connections at various parks and zoos prior to my arrival in Sydney.” The Taronga has long had an international reputation and has a strong emphasis on conservation, education and preservation. At Taronga, Bockheim worked as a keeper in a very large carnivore department that included not only more well known large carnivores like lions, tigers, jaguars and brown bears but also several canids and small cat species, from Asian dhole, new guinea wild dogs and African painted dogs to jaguarundi and binturong. “We had an exciting young team,” he reflected. “Just as exciting as the zoo collection was the numerous bird species that could be found on zoo grounds- kookaburras, greater sulphur, slender-billed and rose-breasted cockatoos, many of them nesting on the grounds. There were cockatoos and lorikeets everywhere." Bockheim also found the experience profound as it was his “first introduction to working closely with the departments of public relations and marketing."

@ Taronga Zoo

@ Taronga Zoo

Much progress was happening at the zoo while he was there. “The small cats area was renovated into a large snow leopard habitat,” Bockheim recalled. “An elephant seal habitat had just opened as had a sea lion wave pool. The zoo’s aquarium was quite unique and was home to some amazing species that were really loved by visitors.” One of his favorite parts of the experience was the staff. “The staff was very connected to each other- we all had morning tea together every day at a large events pavilion at the top of the zoo, where we had a laugh,” Bockheim remarked. “It was very memorable. It was a very social zoo. People from most departments were really engaged in each other, many meeting at the neighborhood pub on pay day.”

@ Taronga Zoo

@ Greg Bockheim

After spending two years in Australia, Bockheim came back to the U.S. in 1990 and completed a dual degree in advertising and public relations. “Because of my time at Taronga Zoo I felt there was the untold story of the lives and experiences of zookeepers and animals,” he explained. “I noticed that when people found out where you worked they really wanted to hear about your job and the animals. In those days it seemed to be a missing link- a time when PR and marketing departments were small or even non-existent, when it was not part of a zookeeper’s job to thoroughly engage with the visitors and zoos did not communication as much information as we do today. I wanted to talk about what we did in our zoo.” After working full time at the John Ball Zoo again for a year, Bockheim interned at Zoo Atlanta in the public relations/marketing department.

@ Zoo Atlanta

Zoo Atlanta had become one of the fastest-rising and most respected zoos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Much of the credit to this goes to the zoo’s director Terry Maple, who Bockheim remembers as a “very engaging person." I liked Terry Maple and his assistant Holly a lot," he said. "Terry was knowledgable and his personality attracted a lot of good people.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

“Gail Eaton was the public relations director at the time and she was an outstanding mentor,” Bockheim remarked. “There were a lot of stories to tell and important people in and out of the field to talk with. I remember interviewing Newt Gingrich in front of Willie B’s exhibit. We discussed Willie B. including getting a gym shoe named after him. At Zoo Atlanta I improved my writing skills, my ability to tell the zoo’s story and learned about event planning and networking through community media markets. I put in full time hours as an intern while waiting tables at night in the Underground.” Zoo Atlanta had an incredible staff while Bockheim was there including the zoo’s education director Beth Stevens, who later would become director of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “I clearly remember Beth Steven’s contagious energy and brilliance,” he said. “She arranged lunchtime talks for the staff bringing animal subject experts and scientists to discuss their work. Little did I know that Beth and I would meet again when we both worked at Animal Kingdom. Zoo Atlanta’s staff were some of the most dedication that I have ever met and it was very special to be part of a thriving marketing department."

@ Zoo Atlanta

After spending some time working in promotions at a London based agency, Bockheim spent three years working at the Birmingham Zoo. “I was a relief keeper there, working in all of the animal care areas,” he said. “I was able to work with animals I never thought I would ever work with- elephants, rhinos, hippos and even cobras.” Because of this remarkable opportunity and because Birmingham is a very fund college town, living and working in Alabama has left Bockheim with fond memories of his time there.

@ Birmingham Zoo

After a brief six month stint as bird lead at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, he joined Disney and became part of the opening team of a new park called Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. “I was part of the bird department at Disney,” Bockheim said. “Early on most of my job included new birds into the collection and quarantine, assisting in their medical procedures and then introducing them to their various habitats. Working with the highly experienced staff and veterinary team was very exciting. From a professional growing standpoint, my time at Disney was one of the most important times in my career. Being part of the Disney culture, helping to open a new park and working with highly experienced and knowledgeable staff is a career highlight.”

@ Greg Bockheim

Disney’s Animal Kingdom broke new ground in terms of its approach and it was an acquired taste for some zoo people. “Your working goals at Disney had to include animals and people,” Bockheim explained. “Along with your manager’s input, each cast member developed a professional development plan- this included what you were going to do for the business, the park guests, your coworkers and the animals in your care. Many of these components were not necessarily requirements for all staff when working at other zoos. Staff was given the full opportunity to design and implement their own destiny with the organization in collaboration with their Disney teammates.

@ Grayson Ponti

The park was also new to the guests. “Animal Kingdom guests were introduced perhaps to the most immersive animal and habitat experience created,” Bockheim said. “The mix of trails at the park entrance really made them realize, just like in the forest, they would have to be alert and search for animals. The density of the vegetation is amazing. The shows are fantastic, my favorite being a Bug’s Life. As the animal collection matured and bred baby animals stole the show.” During his three years at Animal Kingdom, “we built the avian reproduction center behind the scenes. I loved being part of the landscape and bird introduction team for this project. Many remarkable bird species have been raised there.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Wanting to get closer to his family in the Midwest, Bockheim became general curator of the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana. “The Potawatomi Zoo is a big part of family entertainment in South Bend,” he reflected. “The zoo board was very involved and was often on the zoo grounds helping in some way and when the zoo director position came opened they encouraged me to apply for the position and supported my promotion.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Along with veterinarian Jeremy Goodman (now director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo) and education and marketing director Jason Jacobs (now director of the Reid Park Zoo), newly appointedGreg Bockheim turned the zoo around during his nearly five years as director. “The animal collection at the time was not made up of as many cold tolerant species as it could be and we needed more species that could live well there,” he recalled. Bockheim brought in popular species such as Amur leopards, red pandas and takin who could thrive better in this northern place. “Having worked at Disney, you realize and learn how important your visitors are as well as team building with the staff,” explained Bockheim. “We started very visitor centric events including a concert series, member nights and the zoo director’s behind the scenes tour every Thursday night. For the staff we began a series of team building exercises. It was a lot of work but the donor cultivation, community inclusion and media relations we established had a significant impact on the zoo’s success.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

@ Potawatomi Zoo

In 2006, Bockheim moved to the Virginia Zoo to be director there. “I wasn’t familiar with the Virginia Zoo at that time,” he said. “A friend and AZA colleague worked here for eight years and after she moved said that she missed the Virginia Zoo and Norfolk every day of her life and suggested that I apply for the vacant zoo director’s position.” When he arrived, Bockheim remembers the zoo felt very much “an open palate with fantastic gardens, green open spaces and dedicated staff. At the time there was a beautiful Okavango Delta area of African habitats, an older reptile building and several large hoofstock yards.” Fortunately, Bockheim, with, “exceptional support from the Mayor of Norfolk, the zoo board and community support, we were able to put together a dynamic master plan and moved forward.”

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

Opened in 2002, the Okavango Delta features giraffes, zebras, meerkats and bongos among other animals in environments that replicate an African savanna. Its crown jewel is the exceptional lion habitat, which beautifully recreates the kopjes (rock formations) that dot the plains of East Africa. The Okavango Delta is viewed from a meandering boardwalk trail and the habitats are “savanna green.” The area was designed by Ace Torre, who has designed all of the zoo’s habitats and buildings in recent years.

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

While the area predates Bockheim’s arrival, he did make some major changes to the animals who live in the region. Originally the area had African elephants who lived in a one acre habitat but as the AZA began to mandate larger herd sizes for the pachyderms the zoo had to think about what to do. “Like many zoos our options were to acquire a third elephant or send them somewhere else,” Bockheim said. “Half of the zoo grounds is bordered by the Lafayette River so we had little room for expansion. After looking at different options, the zoo decided to send their two female African elephants to Zoo Miami and renovate the habitat to accommodate rhinos. At Miami the elephants joined two other elephants in a nice facility and year-round warm climate.” While Bockheim feels the zoo made the right decision, he acknowledged that “it was pretty tough since elephants are such a popular animal.” The former elephant habitat has recently welcomed a pair of female white rhinoceroses from the Singapore Zoo and will soon be joined by an imported male. Other changes to the Okavango Delta have been the addition of cheetah, red river hog and Aldabra tortoise habitats and the addition of Ankole cattle to the zebra herd.

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

Besides the Okavango Delta, the other major asset Bockheim saw were the gardens. “We have tropical-like growing conditions in coastal Virginia and a long history of exceptional botanical display,” he said. “With this comes many community based gardening groups that are highly engaged with each other and the zoo. The horticulture aspect of the Virginia zoo could qualify us as a botanical garden.” When Bockheim came in, the “first thing” he did was build a red panda habitat. "These open air style habitats had worked very well for the pandas at the Taronga Zoo and the Potawatomi Zoo," he said. "Our red pandas habitats have become some of the most popular with zoo visitors and staff. We then installed a zoo train and began a three year capital campaign to raise funds to build Asia. We began renovation of the zoo farm and building our animal wellness campus soon after.”

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

One of the biggest achievements of Greg Bockheim’s time at the Virginia Zoo is the opening of the Animal Wellness Campus, which opened in 2014. “The focus of the campus is to show how our food is grown, to expose visitors to animal medicine and to promote good nutrition,” he said. “Outdoor activity, good nutrition and medical checkups are good for animals and good for you.” The Animal Wellness Campus is approached by walking through a fruit orchard and then through raised vegetable gardens. Floor to ceiling windows allow visitors to view into the treatment and surgery rooms, a doctor’s scrub room and then into an expansive animal diet kitchen. Smaller, more geometrical windows offer access into an apartment for veterinary interns, a laboratory, an enrichment room and the dishwashing bay.

@ Greg Bockheim

Inside the building small windows from the main hallway allow tour groups to look into specially designed holding and quarantine rooms for birds, reptiles, aquatic animals, terrestrial animals, apes and carnivores. The out campus also includes an enrichment playground for human kids- the play area includes large enrichment items that are most often given to large animals like carnivores, pachyderms and apes. There is a large deck space with seating, a stage for animal, medical and nutrition programs, a large pond featuring a carnivorous plant garden and a giant kaleidoscope that prompts visitors to spin a very large planter of flowers and look at the moving pattern through the eye pieces.

@ Greg Bockheim

The second largest project in the zoo’s history was Trail of the Tiger, an $18.5 million complex that opened in 2011 and doubled the zoo’s variety of large animals. Like the Okavango Delta, a raised boardwalk meanders through eight animal habitats and the complex recreates the environment of tropical Asia. “Tiger Trail has exceptional theming with layered levels of viewing,” Bockheim said. “Our attendance increased by 28% when the area first opened. All of the large animal habitats in Asia have large waterfalls that add to the motion, activity and sound of the area.” Not only did it bring a fantastic tiger habitat to the zoo but it also brought orangutans, sun and moon bears, Malayan tapirs, binturongs, siamangs, gibbons, giant hornbills and Asian small-clawed otters. The area also features a second red panda habitat.

@ Greg Bockheim

@ Virginia Zoo

“We designed our orangutan habitat similarly to the San Diego Zoo’s,” Bockheim said. “like most of our habitats the orangutan habitat has no visual barriers between you and the animals and they can be seen from multiple vantage points. The habitat also features the zoo’s third splash area, one where the orangutans press a button which activates a shower over zoo visitors.” A large cave with stalagmite seating offers a unique view into both the tiger and orangutan habitats.

@ Virginia Zoo

In the Trail of the Tiger, two very rare species of bear- the Asiatic black bear (also known as the moon bear) and the sun bear (the world’s smallest bear) can be seen in two species focused habitats. The moon bears live in the space that used to house tigers before the new tiger habitat was built. “The moon bears are so active that they became the most popular animals in Asia with visitors and staff alike so we may keep them for as long as possible,” Bockheim commented. “The sun bear habitat is very green with trees, bamboo and a rolling hill. Knowing these species have the ability to dig up habitats it is amazing how lush their home remains.”

@ Greg Bockheim

@ Virginia Zoo

One of the most unusual and least well-known animals in Trail of the Tiger is the binturong, one of only two carnivores in the world with a prehensile tail and also known as the bearcat. These elusive small animals live in the forests of Southeast Asia. “Our binturong habitat was designed the same as our red panda habitat,” explained Bockheim. “The binturongs can climb into mature oak trees and can be very elusive but we added eye level open den boxes that the animals really like. So for 90% of the time the animals are right in view- feeling as though they are within arm’s reach of visitors.” Two years ago the zoo added a cassowary habitat at the Trail of the Tiger, the second at the zoo. The zoo has had success breeding these birds.

@ Virginia Zoo

Of course, the cornerstone animals of Trail of the Tiger are the namesake Malayan tigers. They live in a fantastic habitat recreating the tropical forests of Southeast Asia with plenty of water for them to swim. “Our tigers swim more than our otters,” said Bockheim. “ The Oakland Zoo’s tiger habitat helped inspire it as did Disney’s spacious habitat for the cats. There are half grown trees, rolling hills and intimate windows that view in the tiger habitat. An underwater viewing window lets guests see them swim. Male and female tigers are rotated on exhibit to maintain their reproductive status. When cubs are present tiger activity seems to be nearly constant.”

@ Virginia Zoo

Several exciting projects are coming up at the Virginia Zoo. Later this year, the World of Reptiles will open- a complete renovation of the zoo’s 15,000 sq. ft. herpetarium. “We’re doubling the exhibit capacity and adding many new reptiles,” Bockheim remarked. “A new underwater viewing habitat will feature Orinoco crocodiles. We will have everything from a venomous snake gallery to a frog lab and reptile nursery. Sixty-five habitats in all, including an aquatics area featuring fish and invertebrates found in the local brackish rivers- from seahorses and pipe fish to various crabs. A large weedy sea dragon habitat is sure to be popular.” Other Virginia Zoo plans include brining in two popular and endangered pachyderm species to the zoo. “On the horizon for us is Indian rhinos,” said Bockheim. “We have a perfect five acre forested spot right off our Asian boardwalk. We’re planning to renovate our former elephant pool to accommodate pygmy hippos.

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

In addition, the Virginia Zoo is involved in significant conservation work. For more than twelve years the zoo grounds has been a study site involving water purification and conservation. A portion oft eh zoo’s waterfront has been re-established as proper wetland habitat, at no small cost, and the zoo shoreline is home to one of the largest oyster bed restorations in the region. Local universities have also been studying the local insect populations with recent research completed looking at flower color preferences of honey bees. On lands far away the zoo has been an important member supporting the protection of giant hornbill nest sites in Asia and has been a lead supporter in helping to understand and protect southern ground hornbills in Africa. This involvement has included sending equipment to help support the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, which works with local communities to help resolve human/hornbill conflict as well as support the captive rearing program in situ. Other conservation funds are sent to help programs that are community based in situ- reforesting habitats, providing anti-poacher patrols, educating local communities and land protection. Programs for rhinos, elephants, tigers, cheetahs and apes are at the forefront of the zoo’s present interests.

@ Virginia Zoo

Bockheim says his favorite programs are those that we “help create and then implement, some in partnership with affected governments and other zoos. The Virginia Zoo Conservation Fund has implemented a zookeeper training workshop in the Philippines where we actually send our own staff technical team to the islands to help build the capacity of animal care professionals in the Philippines, people that care for some of the most endangered species in the world.” The Virginia Zoo’s work in the Caribbean on the island of St. Vincent is similar but focuses on the study of invasive species and their effects on endangered species and habitats on this small island. “It is profoundly important, and exciting, to me knowing that our staff are on the ground working far from home to help wildlife and wild places.” The Virginia Zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Save Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program.

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

While Bockheim said animal deaths are the hardest part of his job, animals births and hatchings are always a spirit lifting event. “Probably the most rewarding aspect of my job, and career, has been walking among zoo visitors and seeing their smiling faces- it’s the greatest of therapies,” he said. “Seeing zoo staff get excited about their work or job success is also especially profound.”

@ Virginia Zoo

#VirginiaZoo

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