Entering the Realm of the Lost Kingdom: A Conversation with Terrie Correll, President/CEO of Tulsa Z

When Terrie Correll took over the Tulsa Zoo, it was a zoo in transition. While it boasted some nice exhibits and a great staff, much of the zoo was outdated, there was plenty of deferred maintenance and much of the zoo was understaffed. One of Correll’s first steps in making the zoo better was assisting with the privatization of the institution and developing a new master plan. Over the past few years the zoo has grown leaps and bounds with increased staff and funding and new exhibits including Sea Lion Cove, Lafortune WildLIFE Trek (a renovation of the North American Living Museum), Mary K. Chapman Rhino Reserve and most recently Lost Kingdom. Opened this summer, Lost Kingdom is the largest project in the zoo’s history and recreates the temples of Asia and is home to Malayan tigers, snow leopards and Komodo dragons. Correll is determined to continue to bring the Tulsa Zoo to world class quality and this is her story.

@ Tulsa Zoo

Correll grew up in Oklahoma and after studying wildlife ecology at Oklahoma State University was rejected for a keeper job at the Tulsa Zoo. However, she was instead hired to work as a swing keeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. While it now is one of the best zoos in America, the zoo was still up and coming when Correll worked there. “I was there from 1978 to 1986,” she stated. “I was even there for a year before Mark Reed (the zoo’s legendary longtime director) was hired as assistant director! In 1978 what had been completed was the Asian/American Farms, the African Veldt, the Jungle Building and the herpetarium. While I was there two new exhibit were built- the Pampas/Outback (now the South American and Australian complex) and Apes of Man- what’s now the chimps and orangs."

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

"It was after I left when Mark Reed became director and the Sedgwick County Zoo began their expansion you see today," Correll added. "Mark was an incredible mentor to me while I was at the zoo and has been throughout my career. I gained a variety of animal experience while working there which included African hoofstock, marsupials, small and large carnivores, primates, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Eventually I became a senior keeper of the Pampas/Outback and supervisor of the Jungle Building and Herpetarium.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

In 1986 Correll moved to The Living Desert in California to work as the animal curator. Unlike many other zoos, The Living Desert focuses exclusively on animals from the world’s deserts. “I always loved the desert and I had a great opportunity there to advance my zoo career path,” she recalled. “I had the fortune to become a studbook keeper as well as an SSP coordinator for several species in particular the addax antelope. Again, I had the good fortune of another great mentor, Karen Sausman (now President Emeritus of The Living Desert.) While I was there I was also able to oversee and participate in many conservation programs including the reintroduction of addax and scimitar-horned oryx into Tunisia.”

@ The Living Desert

“I also had the opportunity to eventually become the chief operating officer of The Living Desert,” Correll said. “As a private nonprofit facility, it allowed me and let me to learn the business side of the zoo world as well.” In 2009, she applied to work as director of the Tulsa Zoo and was lucky enough to get the job.

@ The Living Desert

“I had always liked Tulsa and the potential the zoo offered,” Correll said. “It was a crazy time to be here since the zoo privatized within a year and half of my arrival.” Previous to the public-private partnership with the City of Tulsa, the zoo was part of the City’s parks department. “Due to budget constraints under the City’s management the zoo over the years had a lot of deferred maintenance,” Correll explained. “As a City run facility the budget was tight. There wasn’t any significant investment in the zoo and we needed more funding for staff, infrastructure improvement and to build new major exhibits. The Friends of the Tulsa Zoo, our support organization, ended up funding animal care positions instead of capital projects. We nearly lost its accreditation and through the public/private partnership we were able to maintain accreditation and have been moving forward ever since.” While the City of Tulsa still owns the land and buildings, the zoo is run by the nonprofit Tulsa Zoo Management, Inc. This has put the zoo in a much better place to grow and thrive.

@ Tulsa Zoo

Correll credits the privatization of the zoo as a great move. “The zoo is now in control of its own destiny,” she said. “As a nonprofit we have our own budget and the earned revenue we generate stays at the zoo. We can now focus on the needs of the zoo. We’ve developed a 20 year master plan and a business plan to make this a world class zoo.” Some benefits of the privatization have included addressing deferred maintenance, adding sufficient staff to professionally operate the zoo and cultivate more donors. “There’s more donor confidence in the nonprofit management of the zoo and they’re willing to invest more in the zoo,” Correll elaborated. “They know once we build an exhibit we’re going to take care of it. The city has been supportive of the public/private partnership and through our agreement we are also eligible for capital improvements through tax initiatives.”

Steve Jones @ Tulsa Zoo

The privatization of the zoo has also let the zoo be a larger player in global conservation. “Before, the zoo had limited means to execute our mission because of funding issues,” Correll explained. “But now we have expanded upon the Tulsa Zoo’s past conservation initiatives. We even have a conservation research manager who is focused on developing conservation partnerships and green initiatives. We look to balance our conservation portfolio with local, regional, national and international programs. For instance we support the American burying beetle conservation effort and Monarch Butterfly Initiative locally and at the same time we lend support to international efforts such as the Scarlet Macaw Recovery Program in Central America, the West African Primate Action (group) in their work with Diana monkeys, restoring chinchilla habitat in Chile and supporting tiger anti-poaching efforts in Malaysia.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Connell stressed that along with supporting conservation programs, it is extremely important to provide conservation messages to the public. “One of the things we try to do in our messaging is to make sure our visitors understand the pressures wild animals face from threats like habitat fragmentation and poaching,” she said. “For example, through our interpretative graphics and our zoo docent program, we talk about those messages to our guests. We find that direct engagement by our staff really works with visitors. Keeper and husbandry chats are a really important way to reach our visitors about what’s going on in the wild. People really want to talk firsthand with the people who take care of these animals. When you have the keeper deliver a conservation message one on one with a guest, it’s more powerful and allows two-way communication to occur.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

While conservation and communication were important, so was improving the lives of the animals at the zoo. The first project carried out in Correll’s tenure was the Helmerich Sea Lion Cove, a replication of the shores of the Pacific Northwest. “Sea Lion Cove replaced the original sea lion pool built in 1964, eliminating the traditional outdated cement swimming pool type of exhibit common back then,” she elaborated. “We were able to create a naturalistic habitat with a great filtration system and realistic rockwork.” The habitat opened in 2012 and was a big hit with both the visitors and sea lions. “It introduced to the community the types of naturalistic habitats we’d be building under the master plan,” Correll added.

@ Tulsa Zoo

Next came a renovated version of the North American Living Museum that now featured animals from all over the world. “WildLIFE Trek took inspiration from the living museum and reimagined it in a broader context,” Correll explained. “WildLIFE Trek consists of the four original buildings that became Life in the Cold, Life in the Desert, Life in the Forest and Life in the Water with animals from around the globe allowing us to talk about biomes and ecosystems.” The Tulsa Zoo used to be an accredited museum but the zoo has decided to focus less on nonliving collections. “We decided we wanted to put our resources towards rebuilding the zoo,” Correll commented.

@ Tulsa Zoo

Not only did Correll begin the implementation of the master plan to rebuilt the zoo but the public/private partnership also allowed her to expand the staffing level and resources. “We were able to employ a second veterinarian as well as a second vet technician and hospital keeper,” she said. “We hired a curator of behavioral husbandry who focuses on behavior enrichment and husbandry training. While good animal nutrition has always been a priority, we’re now able to advance our program further by ensuring we have highly trained staff to manage the nutritional needs of our animals and to complete nutritional analysis of our diets more frequently. We have better resources and management because our funding allows us to do these kind of things.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

In 2014, another expansion came with the opening of the Mary K. Chapman Rhino Reserve, which educates visitors about the need to fight the rhino poaching crisis. Covering three acres, it recreates an African grassland home to white rhinos, nyala, springbok and African crowned cranes. “We themed the habitat to be like you’re in a rhino reserve in Africa,” Correll commented. “We focused on the poaching of rhinos for their horns and worked really hard to talk with our guests about the link between rhino horns and the need to eliminate the desire to use them for human needs. We worked to convey how that would dramatically reduce the pressure on these animals. We use interpretive graphics as well as docents and teen volunteers talking with our guests about the threats rhinos face in the wild.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

In June 2017, the Tulsa Zoo opened the first major habitat complex of the master plan, Lost Kingdom. Featuring architecture inspired by ancient Asian cultures, it takes visitors on a journey to Asia with naturalistic habitats for Malayan tigers and snow leopards. “When doing the master plan we looked at exiting exhibits that needed to be replaced and the big cat grottoes really needed to go,” Correll said. “They all dated back from 1964 and did not meet the standard of a modern naturalistic habitat. We also needed to get away from the taxonomic placement so we moved tigers and snow leopards away from where our African section would be expanded. The Lost Kingdom theme is of an ancient Asian temple ruin in which animals have taken over. It’s nearly five acres and adds a restaurant and other guest amenities to the zoo. We also created new spaces for siamangs and Komodo dragons in Lost Kingdom and added new species to the zoo- binturong, red pandas, Chinese alligators and a variety of birds including Demoiselle cranes.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

Lost Kingdom was designed to accommodate Tulsa’s weather. “In the building itself, the guests will be able to see animals in the wintertime when it’s too cold or, in the case of the snow leopards, too hot in the summer,” Correll said. “They’re also dayrooms where keepers do training presentations with the tigers and snow leopards. A unique aspect of our design was to create a habitat that could accommodate both red pandas and binturong: red pandas in the cold weather of fall and winter and binturong in the spring and summer.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Josef Lindholm

Lost Kingdom is built to provide top notch husbandry, management and enrichment for its animals. “They’re all state of-the-art facilities,” Correl said. “There’s ample behavioral enrichment opportunities and more complicated, natural spaces to give the animals more opportunities to make choices in their daily environments. We put in hot rocks to entice some of the animals to lay closer to the viewing windows. The training walls allow the care animal staff to do behavioral training with the tigers and snow leopards that keeps them mentally and physically stimulated as well as engages our guests on how we care for the animals. We also do target training with the Komodo dragons. Having these big immersive natural spaces containing enrichment and opportunities for training helps immensely.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Of course the superstars of Lost Kingdom are the Malayan tigers in their fancy new digs. “There are actually two tiger habitats with a tiger bridge in between,” Correl explained. “The larger habitat has a bridge from their bedroom which the tigers can cross over the public pathway into the space. The space is themed with crumbling temple ruins with a tiger pool next to large viewing windows. On the other side is the smaller habitat, which can only be viewed from the interior of the building. It would be perfect for a mother and her cubs after they are first born.” Lost Kingdom also has a strong conservation message as it talks extensively about the pressures animals face in Asia such as wildlife tracking.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

The next project Tulsa Zoo is planning is Africa Wilds Experience focusing on animals from the open savanna. “It will finish off our African area and give better spaces for our African carnivores,” Correll said. Not only will it renovate habitats for African wild dogs and meerkats but it will also add Grevy’s zebras and pygmy hippos to the zoo. Of course, the stars of the show will be African lions in a brand new modern habitat replacing their outdated grotto. On top of this the zoo is currently expanding its giraffe barn to allow for an expanding herd as well as improve their animal management abilities for their tallest residents.

@ Tulsa Zoo

After Africa the zoo will expand and renovate its spaces for its Asian elephants. “We have three Asian elephants including Gunda, one of the oldest Asian elephants in human care,” Correll said. “She’s in her mid sixties. We’re designing the elephant habitat to become a breeding facility as well as house bachelor groups of males. We have a highly trained dedicated staff that takes care of our elephants every day. Our elephants receive daily footcare and radiographs and because Gunda is older, we chop up her hay making it easier for her to chew and digest. The elephants receive one on one attention with the animal care staff every day. We also offer enrichment to the pachyderms and talk with our guest about elephants here at the Tulsa Zoo and the good quality care they receive and about the pressures elephants are facing in the wild.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

After the elephant exhibit expansion, the zoo will go from having one species of great ape to three. The Tulsa Zoo has long had chimpanzees and has had breeding success with them. When the zoo opens African Forest it will include chimpanzees in a brand new habitat while also adding gorillas to the zoo. Meanwhile the current chimpanzee habitat will be reimagined as a home for orangutans.

Steve Jones @ Tulsa Zoo

“One of the challenges we initially had with Lost Kingdom was it was hard for our community to envision major exhibit habitats on the scale we’re talking about but now with the opening of Lost Kingdom they can picture these large scale immersion exhibits which engage visitors more easily,” Correll stated. “They’ll have something to have in mind as we talk about future exhibits.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

The Tulsa Zoo is lucky to have great community support. “We try to be the best zoo we can be for our community and we like to offer new and unique experiences for our area,” stated Correll. “We even draw people from Northwest Arkansas, Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas. From our perspective we try to be the best zoo we can be and listen to the needs and wants of our community and region.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Terrie Correll praised the Tulsa Zoo’s staff for being essential to its success. “The staff who work here are dedicated and caring and they want to get our conservation message out into the community about the animals in our care but also so they can make a difference for animals worldwide,” she said. “It’s not just the keepers but it’s all of our staff from maintenance to custodians to guest services. They are all dedicated to getting the word out about animal conservation and how we care for animals here at the Tulsa Zoo.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

“The hardest thing about being a zoo director is having to wait,” Correll reflected. “You’ve got all these exciting plans mapped out but it takes time to construct all of these habitats- to rebuild the zoo. That’s difficult because sometimes I’m impatient. The easiest part is coming to work everyday and getting to be around staff and animals. Who wouldn’t like to go to work and see giraffes, tigers and elephants everyday and get to talk about how important the zoo is to the community? The zoo is really important because it’s a community resource for education and conservation. When people have questions about animals or conservation or recycling or teachers who need help with the science curriculum I want them to call the zoo. Yes the zoo is partially for recreation but it’s also for learning as well. It’s also about teaching our community to be better stewards of the environment. I like it when people think ‘Well I’m going to call the zoo.’”

@ Tulsa Zoo

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