Conserving the Everglades: A Conversation with Carol Kruse, Director of Zoo Miami

Opened at its present location in 1981, Zoo Miami has long been regarded as one of the best and largest zoos in the world. It takes full advantage of its subtropical climate and over 300 acres of land. It is unique for a number of reasons: large variety of large mammals and hoofstock in large open habitats, world-class Asian aviary Wings of Asia, conservation work with rare species such as harpy eagles and clouded leopards, impressive Amazon and Beyond featuring a wide variety of South American animals, and newly opened Florida: Mission Everglades. Mission Everglades helps visitors gain a stronger appreciation for the animals in their own backyard and connect them with the plight to save these threatened wetlands. The zoo is led by Carol Kruse, whose passion and enthusiasm for the zoo is contagious. She’s committed to improving the zoo’s status at the forefront of animal care, guest engagement and conservation.

@ Zoo Miami

Having a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in business administration, Kruse did not get involved with zoos until far into her career. For years, she worked in the Parks and Recreation Department of Miami-Dade County. “In my role in the Parks Department I had worked in the financial management and budget division,” Kruse said. “Since the zoo is a division of the Department, I had worked with the zoo’s director on the budget and business management. When the business manager left the zoo, I told the director Eric Stephens I would love to come to the zoo since my passions have always been conservation and nature. I was hired as assistant director and coming over to the zoo was a dream come true.” As assistant director- her position was over all of the guest services and business aspects of the zoo.

Even though it was over a decade later, the zoo was still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew. “South Dade was quite devastated by Hurricane Andrew so a lot of people moved to the northern part of the county,” Kruse remarked. “For a decade, the zoo wasn’t as much a part of people’s everyday lives since so many people had moved away from the zoo.” The year she came to the zoo Wings of Asia, an aviary which had been completely destroyed by the hurricane in 1992, finally reopened. “The completion and building of Wings of Asia was the final program the Parks Department had with FEMA,” Kruse remembered. “You couldn’t rebuild the aviary like it was before. Now it has giant support columns and much stronger grades of meshing. We had to design it, bring it up to hurricane codes with unique features to make sure we wouldn’t go through that kind of destruction again.”

Today, the Wings of Asia is one of the best aviaries anywhere. It is also quite educational because it connects the birds with their dinosaur ancestors. “When I go through the aviary with my husband, the one thing we say we miss is the swing bridge in the old aviary,” Kruse reflected. “The new aviary is even more beautiful though and now more than 10 years later the foliage in it has grown and matured. It’s the lush tropical paradise I remember from the old one.” Even visitors who are not that interested in birds are sure to be impressed by the magnificent aviary teaming with tropical birds.

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When Kruse was director, she “concentrated on consistently providing a great guest experience." "We knew even when we didn’t have a lot of money for new exhibits we could be the world’s friendliest zoo,” she commented. “We worked a lot with staff on customer service. You can have beautiful habitats but not engage anybody. We tried to hire the right people with the right attitude to drive that guest engagement side of the equation. Without returning visitors who have very positive reviews we are not able to advance our conservation mission.” One of the ways the zoo worked on improving the guest experience was adding giraffe feeding. “That has been a big hit,” elaborated Kruse. “We’ve had 50 giraffes born at the zoo.”

Kruse talked about some of the challenges related to Zoo Miami and its predicament. Even though the zoo is very popular and gets almost a million visitors a year, it has immense competition from other attractions in the Miami area, all of which are much closer to downtown. “The number one and two things people come to Miami for are beaches and shopping,” Kruse commented. Also, unlike many major zoos, Zoo Miami is municipally run. “One of the challenges of being publicly run is we do not have a dedicated source of funding,” explained Kruse. “Some other zoos have a sales tax levy or some stable form of public support. Miami, on the other hand, is funded year to year which tends to not be stable. The other thing is being a municipally run zoo there is no consistent funding for capital reinvestment in the zoo to keep up with improvements.”

@ Zoo Miami

Kruse and the rest of Zoo Miami’s team have had to find solutions to this structure. “The zoo has continued to diversify its earned revenue sources,” she said. “Back in 2003 earned revenue only represented around 32% of our operating budget. This year, earned revenue is 61% of our operated budget. Meanwhile over the years, our subsidy has remained relatively flat or in some years has decreased. In order to move forward with Everglades we had to increase our admission by six dollars over three years to cover our increase in operating costs.”

During Kruse’s time as assistant director the zoo underwent the largest expansion in its history: the opening of Amazon and Beyond in December 2008. While before the zoo had almost exclusively been made up of wildlife from Africa and Asia particularly large mammals, Amazon and Beyond brought a wide variety of Latin American animals to the zoo and greatly increased the zoo’s variety of reptiles. It made Zoo Miami one of the best zoos to see South American animals anywhere. “Amazon and Beyond was a 27 acre addition to the zoo and located on land that had all not been developed,” Kruse explained. “We worked with Jones and Jones in Seattle and they were very creative. It is organized around three parts- Clouded Forest, Flooded Forest and Atlantic Forest.” Some of the stars of the area include jaguars, harpy eagles, giant otters, Orinoco crocodiles, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, piranhas, tamarins, anacondas and tamanduas.

@ Zoo Miami

She particularly liked how Amazon and Beyond has a different feel from the rest of the zoo. “The zoo is a long walk-it's 3.5 miles around,” Kruse explained. “There also are a lot of large open habitats. Amazon, on the other hand, becomes very intimate, jungle-like and immersive. Our climate lets us grow beautiful tropical foliage. There’s all kinds of vegetation here people have never seen.” She also likes the unique features the complex includes. “The Flooded Forest shows a great juxtaposition between the Amazon Basin in the wet season and dry season,” Kruse elaborated. “The Cloud Forest has a great array of reptiles and amphibians.” Not only was the project quite expensive but it also involved years of development and careful planning. Many of the animals arrived at the zoo several years before the project was completed and lived in off-exhibit facilities.

@ Zoo Miami

Amazon and Beyond has a strong conservation message and does a brilliant job of conveying the importance of protecting the rainforest of Latin America. It also features a variety of heavily endangered but fascinating animals rarely found in zoos. “We have been very successful with giant river otters including nine successful births,” Kruse remarked. Only a handful of American zoos have the species. Here the giant otters live in a fantastic state-of-the-art habitat recreating the environment of the Amazon River and they are among the most popular animals in the zoo. Another rarity found in Amazon and Beyond is the endangered Orinoco crocodiles, who live in a beautiful habitat with underwater viewing. “We have had four successful hatchings of Orinoco crocodiles at the zoo,” commented Kruse.

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

The zoo is also a leader in harpy eagle conservation. “Ron Magill (the face of the zoo and the zoo’s communications director) has a particularly strong interest in harpy eagles,” Kruse said. “Right now we have the only pair in America that has successfully hatched and reared chicks. We’ve had six successful hatchings and one of them went to the Summit Zoo in Panama.” The zoo runs the Harpy Eagle Project, which built a Harpy Eagle Center in Panama City, has lobbied to get federal protection for these birds and educates the public about their plight.

@ Zoo Miami

After serving as assistant director for eight years, Kruse was asked by the Parks Department to take an administrative position there. However, she “always made it clear that if I had the opportunity to come back to the zoo I would jump on it.” Given her experience and familiarity with the zoo, she was appointed Zoo Director in 2015 after longtime director Eric Stephens retired. While Kruse had plenty of experience with guest relations and the business side of zoos, she took the opportunity to brush up on her animal science knowledge. “I focused on understanding the day-to-day challenges in animal care,” she explained. “I’m a lifelong learner trying to understand and get better. When I was assistant director it was my responsibility to facilitate the five-year AZA accreditation process. In putting together all the documents I had to touch every single aspect of every part of the zoo and work with the managers in those areas to he zoo. It’s all about animal welfare, care and safety. That was a great opportunity to ask a lot of questions and learn a lot.”

@ Zoo Miami

When Carol Kruse became director, she immediately started on a strategic plan that would help guide the direction of Zoo Miami. A strong focus was put on animal welfare because “we want to ensure the wellbeing of our animals at Zoo Miami physically and mentally.” Among the first things Kruse did was hire “our first zoological nutritionist to oversee our animal nutrition center and evaluate all the diets to make sure we give them the best care on that angle possible.” The nutritionist, Dr. Kimberly Treber, came from the Fort Worth Zoo and “works hand in hand with the animal science staff and veterinary team to know every animal’s history and nutritional needs.”

@ Zoo Miami

Another important focus Kruse stressed was conditioning and enrichment. “We hired a curator of animal behavior and enrichment named Heather Keenan,” she said. “She’s been here a little over a year and we’re assembling a team around her to provide a more enriching experience for the animals in our care. It’s always much preferable to work with positive reinforcement with the animals. This makes it so we can do wellness checks without putting the animals under anesthesia.” A variety of animal care professional talks at the zoo let guests see these training sessions in progress and animals can often be found taking advantage of their enrichments.

Kruse also created a new curator of pachyderms position to focus on caring for the zoo’s elephants. The zoo is the only accredited one in America to house both African and Asian elephants in separate habitats and one of only a handful to have both black and Indian rhinos. “The elephants in our care are receiving the highest quality of husbandry and their handling is very much about social activation,” Kruse commented. “So we were able to get a curator of elephants to concentrate on them. We have a relatively new young team working with them. Our animal science manager Matt James has a background in elephants and he has been instrumental in improving the quality of care for our elephants.” The zoo has plans to renovate and expand the habitats and programs for both elephant species.

@ Zoo Miami

Next came the opening of a brand new entrance in July 2016, which greatly increased the guest experience. “Our old entrance was small scale and quite tired,” Kruse elaborated. “It did not handle crowds well on a busy day. Now the plaza welcomes you in a first class fashion and is so Miami in that it has a modern, open, tropical feel. We’re very pleased with it. It provides a lot of shade. We’ve got these brightly colored animal sculptures that lead your way into the zoo. They even spray water. It’s a great public engagement space.”

@ Zoo Miami

In addition to the entrance the zoo opened a great gift shop and a beautiful flamingo lagoon. The iconic flock of over forty American flamingos wade in one of the finest lagoons for their species I’ve ever seen and create a great first impression for visitors. The zoo runs the Florida Flamingo Program, which is managed both locally and in the Caribbean. The project is working to better understand American flamingos who migrate to South Florida in the winter. By monitoring these birds, they are able to protect the nesting and breeding sites of this iconic species.

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In December 2016, Florida: Mission Everglades opened and fulfilled communication director Ron Magill’s dream of having an exhibit at the zoo dedicated to its local wetlands (he had suggested it ever since he came to the zoo when it first opened.) “Everglades is in a relatively small footprint at 4.5 acres so it was designed to give just a glimpse into the true beauty of the Everglades,” Kruse said. “It sparks our guests’ curiosity so they will want to visit it on their own.” It features many of the region’s iconic species- crocodiles, alligators, river otters, black bears, Florida panthers, gopher tortoises, raccoons, bobcats, bald eagles and a variety of native birds- in modern, naturalistic habitats.

@ Zoo Miami

The project of Florida Mission Everglades was a complex and expensive one costing $33 million. “There was a lot of diversity of activity and complexity in the project,” Kruse said. “The life support systems for Everglades were very complicated. The other thing that happened was the original cost estimate was much less than the actual construction costs that came in. The recession was over and the construction industry in South Florida came rolling back; we unfortunately had to do a lot of valued engineering to stay in budget.”

“One of the program design criteria concepts we wanted to address was the concern that visitors would go ‘ho hum another Florida exhibit,'” Kruse explained. “We had been to a lot of Florida exhibits which were pretty generic and passive. We wanted to do something different. We had to tell the story of how vital the Everglades ecosystem is. If we can bring attention to it through the beauty and personality of the animals, we are helping to connect people to it.” A major focus of the project was to get visitors to “appreciate the animals in our own backyards which many residents take for granted and help them know why they’re special. Many of the animals in Everglades are rescued and so we’re working with local wildlife sanctuaries.”

One of the most unique features of Everglades is how interactive it is. “This could not be a passive exhibit,” Kruse said. “It had to be interactive and dynamic so visitors could see these animals in a whole new light.” A large glass tunnel goes through the stellar American crocodile habitat, which recreates a riverbank and is possibly the best of its kind in the nation. “You might be crawling right under a crocodile,” Kruse commented. The Everglades is famous for being the only place where alligators and crocodiles coexist. A dozen young American alligators, all brothers live in another stellar habitat viewed from a boardwalk.

@ Zoo Miami

Across from the crocodiles is a superb habitat for river otters where visitors can slide through the water on a tunnel. “The otters are so engaging,” Kruse said. She feels these interactive features have greatly enhanced the visitor experience at Florida: Mission Everglades. “It has just provided a whole new way for guests to engage in these animals,” Kruse elaborated. “It really makes for some unique up close and personal encounters with lots of memorable photographs.”

Florida: Mission Everglades also includes a rotating pair of habitats for black bears and Florida panthers. “The bears have a training wall, which was an idea we got from other zoos who used it for conditioning,” Kruse said. “We have a bear encounter where the keepers work on behavior training and talk a lot about the bears.” The black bear program is especially important as the two sisters at the zoo are ambassadors for Florida’s local population, which often comes into conflict with locals. This habitat helps visitors learn the need to harmoniously coexist with bears. “In Florida, black bear conservation is a big deal,” remarked Kruse. “For people to get to see them up close is very worthwhile. Our two sisters have very different personalities. There’s the bear crawl through where we put browse on the pop-up windows. That’s been very well received.”

@ Zoo Miami

The zoo’s Florida panther Mahala was rescued after being abandoned as a cub. “She’s a work in progress because she is pretty shy and rarely comes out on exhibit,” Kruse mentioned. “She has the choice of whether she wants to be out or not and I have not glimpsed her out there very many times. Florida panthers are typically solitary and elusive and she’s no exception.” Florida panthers are critically endangered with only 120-230 remaining in South Florida. They are threatened because of habitat destruction and roadway accidents. The zoo’s veterinary staff is collaborating with biologists to monitor Florida panthers in Big Cypress National Park and participates in the Florida Panther Recovery Program to protect them.

@ Zoo Miami

Additionally, Florida: Mission Everglades features a variety of native wading birds which are free to intermingle with wild birds who fly in. A unique way the entire area can be seen is by a boat ride. “The boat ride is named the Lostmen’s River Ride after a place in the Everglades,” commented Kruse. “The boats are themed like air boats. Geysers, mists and bubbles provide surprises and this is a ride where you might get wet. It gives some unique views into the animal habitats and has been very well received.”

@ Zoo Miami

For Florida: Mission Everglades, the zoo collaborates with Everglades National Park and cross trains its staff with Park Rangers. “Their rangers often come on weekends to teach guests about the Everglades,” Kruse said. “Sometimes the visitors ask if they are a real park ranger and have trouble believing them when they say yes.” Zoo Miami is surrounded by hundreds of acres of the pine rockland ecosystem. “We’re sitting right in the middle of a highly endangered environmental track of land,” Kruse explained. “We have gopher tortoises, endangered butterflies and a variety of wildlife living around us. Our teams work with other conservationists to monitor these animals and this land serves as a working laboratory.” The gopher tortoise habitat in Florida: Mission Everglades connects with the work the zoo is doing to protect gopher tortoises in the local area. The zoo does a variety of other conservation projects as well including protecting turtles and amphibians in Central America and the cheetah ambassador program which supports conservation for the world’s fastest cats in Africa.

@ Zoo Miami

Taking great pride in the excellent zoo she runs, Carol Kruse is determined to stay true to what has made the zoo so successful. “We just finished our master plan Vision 2025,” she said. “It focuses on improving what we have and modernizing habitats. We are positioning ourselves for a possible dedicated capital funding source since the one we had for Amazon and Beyond and Florida: Mission Everglades has already been used. We hope the master plan will provide an exciting look into where the zoo is going to go and hopefully in the not so distant future we can have another bond issue.”

The first thing that will happen will be the zoo’s first air-conditioned dining space located in the zoo’s old gift shop, opening this October. Next will be a renovation of the Australia exhibit building which will give an air conditioned viewing space to visitors and expanded and improved habitats for koalas and tree kangaroos. The rest of the master plan is primarily focused on what the zoo has been renowned with for these past decades: its variety of large mammals particularly pachyderms and hoofstock. “We will continue to concentrate our work on a variety of antelope species,” Kruse said. “Perhaps no other zoos has the variety we have of them, many of them threatened and endangered such as Arabian oryxes and addaxes. We plan on creating an area in the zoo that would help us focus on antelope called the Sahel. This will feature the antelope we have from North Africa."

The master plan will redevelop much of the zoo. The pathway from the Africa loop will be moved to where a service road is now creating room for a state-of-the-art rolling African savanna. This will feature an enlarged homes for African elephants and black rhinos as well as a mixed species plains featuring giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope. These animals will be free to roam a large amount of space with visitors looking out at them from overlooks. Nearby will be the carnivores including lions, spotted hyenas, cheetahs and African wild dogs. Another part of the Africa loop will be redeveloped as a Congo rainforest for gorillas, okapis, pygmy hippos and other animals from Central Africa. Asia will be renovated and modernized as well featuring species such as Asian elephants, Indian rhinos, tigers, sloth bears, orangutans, gaurs and clouded leopards. One thing from the interview was clear: Carol Kruse’s heart is with this zoo and she is determined to give its animals the very best lives they possibly can have.

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

Note: All Pictures by Grayson Ponti Unless Otherwise Noted

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