New England's Finest Zoo: A Conversation with Jeremy Goodman, Director of the Roger Williams Par

The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence has long been considered by many to be the best zoo in New England. Set on 42 acres in a beautiful park, it is one of the oldest zoos in the nation. Now it is a very nice medium-sized zoo featuring African elephants, giraffes, moon bears, snow leopards, harbor seals, bison, zebras, cheetahs, Komodo dragons, red pandas, takin and a variety of other popular animals. The zoo is especially known for its immense work with conservation of New England species. It’s now beginning a master plan that will open a South American rainforest next year and eventually add sea lions, penguins, tigers and grizzly bears to the zoo. The zoo’s director is Dr. Jeremy Goodman and here is his story.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

From day one Goodman knew he wanted to be a zoo director but decided to train as a veterinarian first. “Being a zoo director was always my dream so I approached it to go the veterinary route,” he explained. “I’m a very creative person by nature and zoo veterinary work lends a way to be creative a lot. There’s not off the shelf medical devices for the animals we need to treat so oftentimes you’re at Home Depot looking for a solution. I think all those things really made being a veterinarian quite enjoyable in terms of taking care of the animals and making sure they are healthy.” After working two summers as a seasonal keeper at the Bergen County Zoo and finishing his doctoral work, Goodman was hired to become the veterinarian at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana. “I knew the vets who came out of South Bend before me all ended up at prestigious institutions and did well for themselves,” he added. “They were building a new vet hospital at the time and had a nice collection that would allow me to get a lot of different experiences.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

While Goodman admitted parts of being a vet were tough, he also was clear even those parts were quite important. “No one likes to put an animal down,” he reflected. “However, we learn from every animal what works and what doesn’t work. Even the tough parts of being a vet were certainly very educational.” Goodman served as veterinarian at Potawatomi from 2000 to 2004, a time of much change at the zoo. With the help of newly appointed director Greg Bockheim (future director of the Virginia Zoo) and education and marketing director Jason Jacobs (future director of the Reid Park Zoo), he was instrumental to turning the zoo around. “Potawatomi needed a core group together on the same page,” Goodman recalled. “It's really important that you have good people working for the same goal. Greg, Jason and I put a huge emphasis on customer service, which was really important to turning that around.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

In 2004, Goodman was hired as the director of the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey. “Zoo directors have a varied set of backgrounds,” he commented. “Veterinary medicine was my background plan, which really worked for me. It also gives you more credibility when you first walk in. You’ve gone through medicine and taken an oath to help out animals. That background really opened the doors for me to get where I am today. I had also done a lot of administrative work at Potawatomi such as exhibit planning, animal acquisitions and budgeting.” The Turtle Back Zoo had actually been Goodman’s home zoo growing up and at this time needed a massive turnaround. It was not AZA accredited, lacked popular animals and had many outdated facilities. “Some people see problems while others see potential and I saw potential,” Goodman said.

@ Turtle Back Zoo

The first major goal of Goodman’s tenure at the Turtle Back Zoo was to get it AZA accredited. “One of the main reasons they hired me was to be AZA accredited,” he recalled. “I told them it would take a 3-5 year process and they appreciated I knew there were things that had to be done first. I knew if I had the right resources I could turn it around. We got the accreditation after the third year and they’ve been accredited since. It was a good fit coming to my hometown zoo and being able to make a lot of the changes I had dreamt about as a kid. “ One of the main things Goodman knew needed to happen is the zoo had to be better for the public. “I could see how much the public really wanted a good zoo,” he commented. “If you make things appealing for the public and provide good welfare for the animals visitors will come. I was confident from day one we’d turn it around.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

At the time Goodman came to the Turtle Back Zoo, most of the animals were native and the zoo lacked a good variety of exotic species. Additionally many of the spaces its residents lived in were subpar. “When I got there the squirrel monkeys and the penguins were the most exotic animals,” Goodman explained. “The cats were in 60s style cages which I converted over to bird aviaries. We couldn’t get rid of everything all at once but we did a lot and converted a lot of things that were inappropriate.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

During the beginning of Goodman’s tenure at the zoo his team gave a facelift to several habitats. “We had penguins in an old tiny sea lion habitat not up to modern standards,” he recalled. “We took what looked like a swimming pool and added a surface deck, rocked it all over and put in dens for the penguins. We put in glass viewing windows along the pool edge and brought it into this century. It had better viewing and better aesthetics and was better for the birds. It now looked like a rocky penguin coast rather than a swimming pool. We did many facelifts at the beginning to be more economical. For alligators we rocked the sides of their pool. We did the same thing with the otter space.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

One of the first habitats built from scratch during Goodman’s tenure was for black bears. “We had some donors who had stepped up to fund a bear habitat and I wanted to teach people about how to positively appreciate bears in the wild and live with them harmoniously. What we did is show them in both an artificial house and naturalistic space. You can see how they overlapped with human society but also appreciate them just as if they were in the woods. It was well interpreted with honey bees explaining how bee farmers have to keep bears out. We had really nice topography on the hillside that lets these bears climb. They share the same space with red foxes, which is a nice surprise. It was something visitors weren’t expecting.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

The first major project Goodman completed at the zoo was a brand new reptile house and education center. “My boss, the county executive, called and said he wanted to do a reptile house but the problem was it would be located where the education center was,” he explained. “So we combined the reptile house and education center. We created a nice functional plan that met our budget and knew until we were accredited we couldn’t do species like Komodo dragon.” The zoo had species like water monitors for a few years until it was able to get Komodo dragons after getting accredited. The facility was a real game changer for the zoo. “We highlighted our animals, expanded our event space and added educational opportunities. We built the zoo’s first walkthrough gift shop. Having a revenue source and a better educational facility was very, very important.” After the new exhibit was a big success, Goodman worked on a master plan to figure out how to elevate the zoo to being a great one for animals and people.

@ Turtle Back Zoo

After the completion of the Reptile House, Goodman led the zoo into a master place to give the zoo’s project a discrete, organized direction. A major focus was on doing habitats that were more engaging to the visitors. “You need to be able to interpret an animal’s habitat,” Goodman explained. “You need to let people think 'Wow that’s a really cool animal!' The animals became much more active in the new habitats. We also made the species more interesting. We took out goats and sheep and made it a wallaby yard. We had llamas but added other South American animals like capybara to their space to build up the area.” The Turtle Back Zoo also went through transformations behind exhibitry. “We built a brand new veterinary hospital and a lot of our policies had to become AZA level,” Goodman recalled. “Our guest services and education programs had to be improved. The zoo always had a good dedicated keeper staff but certainly the aesthetics and veterinary care had to be put into place.” These accomplishments were rewarded when the Turtle Back Zoo became AZA accredited in 2007.

@ Turtle Back Zoo

With the accreditation meant more visitors and the Turtle Back Zoo had to be accommodate these new guests. “Once we were accredited we had to adjust for increased visitation,” Goodman stated. “One of the things I was concerned about was staying financially self sufficient since government funding can come and go. Our attendance kept climbing so we tried to have something new every year while also looking at new revenue sources.” To make more money and add to the visitor experience the zoo added the endangered species carousel. which Goodman remembers “went very well.” The Turtle Back Zoo also added an African-themed mini golf course and a ropes course adjacent to the zoo, which added more revenue. “We were looking at finding ways to be able to keep everything good and maintained,” Goodman added. “That was an important part of our business plan. If you don’t have the money you can’t keep the animals in good spaces.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

The zoo’s renaissance continued with new animals. “We wanted to try to bring in dynamic animals as a part of our master plan and looked at not just being zoo geographic but hitting all the senses in every area," Goodman explained. "We wanted to trigger all the senses like smell from the popcorn machine. Sound was a big focus as well- we wanted every area to have a specific species very prominent for sound. In Australia it was kookaburras, for waters it was sea lions and for Asia it was gibbons. We took it a step beyond in trying to hit the various senses, which was a unique approach towards species selection. We also wanted lots of interactive experiences like the stingray touch tank, pony rides and a budgie feeding. It was all about bringing people closer to the animals and having exhibits where animals could have their privacy but also where the public get good views of them."

@ Turtle Back Zoo

In 2009, the Turtle Back Zoo received its first and only apes when it opened a new gibbon habitat. “The gibbon habitat was an unusual one because we had an indoor building we had to retrofit,” Goodman recalled. "We built a big meshed over enclosure for the outside with temple ruins that would give the gibbons things to brachiate on. We designed it like an archeological find and to be terrific for the gibbons to use.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

Goodman also brought significantly improved spaces for the zoo’s big cats. “We had our cougar and bobcat habitats in the Asian section and wanted to move the cougars up to North America,” he explained. “We knew it would be a hard sell to build a brand-new cougar habitat since our current one was in decent shape.” To sell donors on the idea, the zoo decided to have cougars do a timeshare with jaguars, a brand new species for the zoo. “We did Big Cat Country, a Southwestern canyon like area for jaguars and cougars,” Goodman said. “We then put the Amur and snow leopards in the old cougar habitat with new theming and renovations.”

@ Turtle Back Zoo

The central area of the master plan was Waters of the World, which brought sea lions back to the zoo for the first time in decades. “Sea lions are one of my favorite animals so I was really in favor of that project,” Goodman recalled. “That was a very expensive one to build and maintain. We needed marine mammal trainers and aquarists, which we didn’t have before. We knew what a big draw the sea lions were going to be and were really excited about Sea Lion Cove.” The Waters of the World area of the zoo was positioned to connect to all the areas of the zoo. “It was a natural tie-in since all the continents need water,” added Goodman.

@ Turtle Back Zoo

In 2013, Jeremy Goodman left the Turtle Back Zoo to take the director’s job at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. In his nine years of service there, he dramatically transformed it from a run-down uninspiring institution to a nice thriving small zoo with several interesting animal habitats, a dynamic guest experience and great community support. Since he has left the Turtle Back Zoo has continued to grow with an African area featuring giraffes, lions and spotted hyenas. This success would be impossible without the exponential growth under Goodman’s leadership and dedication.

@ Turtle Back Zoo

@ Turtle Back Zoo

In 2013, the Roger Williams Park Zoo was in need of a new director. “They did a national search for a director and they liked what I did at Turtle Back,” Goodman elaborated. “They thought my ideas were fresh and I wouldn’t be happy with the status quo.” When he arrived in Providence, he was determined to make New England’s finest and most popular zoo even better. “It was a very nice zoo but I expected us to be a great zoo,” Goodman commented. “I want to push our mission to connect our people to wildlife.”

@ Scott Richardson

One of the Roger Williams Park’s strong suits is its commitment to conserving New England wildlife and ecosystems. “We have a long history of doing a conservation work at the Roger Williams Park Zoo,” Goodman stated. “It was not nearly what it is here at Potawatomi and Turtle Back since those are smaller. There’s a strong focus on conservation here, especially on New England species like cottontails and wood turtles. We are the glue that unites all the groups doing conservation projects in the region. It’s something we’re very, very proud of. One of our goals it to be the go to source for conservation in New England. We help support various projects all over the world like elephants in Africa, the vaquita and tree kangaroos but we can have the biggest impact right here in New England. Conservation starts at home so most of our programs are local."

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Compared to Potawatomi and Turtle Back, the Roger Williams Park Zoo has a wide diversity of megafauna. Many of these animals Goodman had never worked for including elephants and giraffes. “It was definitely a little different, especially the elephants which take such a big commitment,” he commented. Like many zoos, the Roger Williams Park zoo reflected on whether to expand or end its elephant program in a time when standards for their spaces and husbandry are constantly growing. “When we did our master plan elephants were a large part of the conversation,” Goodman elaborated. “We’re lucky we have a great group of female African elephants in their early 30s who have a nice facility.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Unlike many other zoos which have decided either to build enormous facilities for large herds of elephants or have chosen to phase them out, the Roger Williams Park Zoo decided to stay put with its current elephant facility for the future. “Being landlocked we don’t have a lot of room to expand and get a large herd,” Goodman explained. “However, we’re committing our resources to our elephants. Our group is very stable right now- we’ve got great dynamics. We’re at a really good place with these animals. The elephants have a lot of choices to make. Elephants are labor intensive so they require a lot of individual care and attention.” With the zoo’s renewed long-term commitment to elephants, it transferred over to becoming a protected contact facility last year which means the elephants and their caretakers never share the same space without a barrier in between.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

While the zoo has an extensive master plan for the next 25 years, Goodman has led the zoo to adding some great animals and experiences in the meantime. “Every zoo tries to find their own niche as far as what they do well,” he reflected. One of the first improvements Goodman accomplished was a facelift of the harbor seal habitat adding an underwater viewing. The zoo also added cheetahs in 2015. “We had an aging group of African wild dogs so when we were down to one animal, we redid the area for four cheetahs,” Goodman commented. “The zoo also put its otters in a much better habitat with underwater viewing and added a seasonal space for alligators. Ankole cattle were recently added to the wildebeest and zebra habitat. We’ve added a number of species with limited costs that improve the experience.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Even more popular was a major renovation of the zoo’s farmyard area. “We had an old farmyard with no contact- all our goats and sheep were behind double fencing,” Goodman explained. “It was a very limited farmyard so we did a brand new farmyard that is as people friendly as possible. We brought in alpacas, who you can pet. You can pet the donkeys and brush the goats and sheep. We do chicken demonstrations and added Kune Kune pigs from New Zealand. We have fake cows whee kids can milk them. The farmyard is one of the most popular areas of the zoo after the elephants and giraffes.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Best of all the zoo added a very popular species: the Komodo dragon. “One of the first things I did when I got here was put us on the list for Komodo dragons,” Goodman said. “That was something our staff and the public were really excited for. This is the first one ever to be on exhibit in New England, which is really cool. Many of our visitors have never seen a Komodo dragon before! It’s great to see such an incredible animal.” The largest of lizards arrived at the zoo this year and has been a major hit.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Now the zoo is reaching to even greater heights with the construction of the master plan’s first project, the Faces of the Rainforest. This indoor South American rainforest will open in the summer of 2018 and be the largest project in the zoo’s 145 year history. “It will be awesome,” said Goodman. “It’s an over 10,000 square feet building that will be a large planted rainforest. It will feature giant otters, which we are really excited to have since they are only found at a few zoos. We’re going to have lots of mixed primate spaces- howler monkeys, titis, and others. There will be tamanduas, toucans, agoutis, piranhas, anacondas and free roaming tamarins. Outside there will be flamingos, macaws, anteaters and primates. When we were designing it we wanted to do both the forest floor and the canopy since different things can happen on each layer. We realized a second story would be cost prohibitive so what we came up with is the visitors are all on one level but the rainforest tiers down as it goes. When you’re on a rope bridge you’re about twenty feet up as you go. Instead of people going up, the forest floor is going down.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Even better will be the conservation educational value of the Faces of the Rainforest. “The coolest thing about the project is our whole interpretive theme which gets people to realize we all have connections to the rainforest,” Goodman elaborated. “We’re going to tell the stories of the faces of the rainforest. We’re going to have this unique turning point where we’re showing people the faces they expect like the conservationists but then the unexpected faces- the coffee salesman, the furniture dealer, the cancer researcher. We’re going to make people realize their daily decisions all can impact the rainforest. We want to give visitors definitive actions as to what they can do once they leave the zoo and I think this project is going to hit home with that.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

The rest of the master plan is equally ambitious and will help the Roger Williams Park Zoo become even better. Along with Faces of the Rainforest the first phase will include a new reptile house and education center. “We have ideas as to how to get people to really appreciate reptiles and their unique role in the environment,” Goodman commented. “We’ll definitely have a large crocodilian species, a large snake species and a large turtle species as well as bring our Komodo dragons over.” An Islands exhibit will be featured in the first phase as well and recreate a lot of island environments including ones for wallabies and lemurs. “We’ll cover most of the major islands- Indonesia, Madagascar, Galapagos, Australia,” said Goodman. The next phase will include a new entrance with state-of-the-art habitats for penguins and California sea lions. The final phase will feature a variety of North American animals such as grizzly bears, moose and bighorn sheep and Asian species such as tigers, all brand new species to the zoo. “We’re making some really, really good projects and a ton of infrastructure is being improved as well that you don’t see,” concluded Goodman.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

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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. 

 

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