Promoting Animal Wellness, Growing Plants and Letting Tigers Go Over Your Head: A Conversation with

For decades Tony Vecchio has been one of the most well-respected directors in the zoo field. Responsible for immense growth and success at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence and the Oregon Zoo in Portland, he is now director of the Jacksonville Zoo. Although the Jacksonville Zoo was already a very good zoo when Vecchio took charge in 2009, he saw it as an “opportunity to come to a great zoo and make it greater.” He expanded on the success of the zoo’s former director Dennis Pate, who opened the award winning Range of the Jaguar and made the zoo the first botanical garden between Central Florida and Atlanta. Vecchio has done a fantastic job as he has improved the zoo’s marketing and attendance (over one million last year), elevated the zoo’s animal wellness program and opened the award winning Land of the Tiger. Here is his story.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

After working as a keeper at several zoos, Vecchio was hired by zoo legend Dr. Terry Maple to become curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta. At the time it was a zoo desperate to rebound after having been named one of the ten worst zoos in the nation. Vecchio was instrumental to turning the zoo around under Maple’s leadership and helping it become a world-class institution. “That was a learning experience,” Vecchio reflected. “It was not an easy road to get from where it was to where we wanted to go.” Next he became the director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence in 1989, another zoo in need of a facelift. Again Vecchio, this time as director, led the zoo to becoming a high quality, reputable institution and redid much of the zoo. “I had a little bit of a reputation as someone who transformed zoos,” he commented.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

In 1998, Vecchio moved out west to direct the Oregon Zoo in Portland. The zoo had long been known for its Asian elephant program and legacy with the large animals but was now beginning to also become known for conserving species in the Pacific Northwest. “Unlike Atlanta and Providence, Oregon was already great and they were already well along the way,” Vecchio said. “The question was 'How do you make a great zoo greater?' They had put together plans for a very ambitious project called the Great Northwest and I got to be there for most of its construction.”

@ Scott Richardson

Built in several phases from 1998 to 2007, the Great Northwest is one of the most immersive and large-scoping projects ever done in American zoos. It represents a wide variety of ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest and blends seamlessly into the evergreen forests around the zoo. Some components of the area include Cascade Crest (a mountain habitat for rocky mountain goats), Stellar Cove (kelp forests for harbor seals and sea otters), Eagle Canyon (a state-of-the-art habitat for bald eagles), Cougar Crossing and Black Bear Ridge. “There were a lot of innovative habitats there,” reflected Vecchio.

@ Oregon Zoo

“Zoos add more and more tools to the toolbox in terms of conservation,” explained Vecchio. “My time at Oregon lined up with when more and more zoos were starting to do more conservation projects locally. The timing of the Great Northwest was great and brought attention to the fact you don’t need to go to Africa or Australia to see great animals. They’re in your own backyard! It got people excited about local wildlife and gave us the opportunity to work with local conservation groups. We began participating in programs such as pond turtles, native butterflies and pygmy rabbits. As much as you focus on exotic animals you should always concentrate on local animals too so you can do lots of hands on work.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

While they did not come on exhibit at the Oregon Zoo until years after Vecchio’s departure, the zoo also started a California condor breeding facility offsite. “We wanted to let people know condors used to be in Oregon and help with the comeback of this species,” he recalled. “The long term goal was to bring them back to Oregon. It’s been suggested some condors from California might come back to the area on their own.”

@ Oregon Zoo

A variety of other animal habitats and facilities opened during Vecchio’s tenure at the zoo including Pigs of Asia and the Predators of the Serengeti. Predators of the Serengeti, opened in 2009, reimagined the zoo’s former Alaska Tundra area as the plains of East Africa and featured lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs and caracals. The exhibit educates visitors about the role Africa’s carnivores play in an ecosystem, the challenges they face and the ways they can take action to help protect them. In 2010, Predators of the Serengeti won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award. “It was very gratifying seeing the Predators of the Serengeti win an award,” Vecchio recalled.

@ Scott Richardson

@ Oregon Zoo

The public took notice of Vecchio’s efforts to improve the zoo and the community’s love for the zoo grew ever stronger. “Almost every year I was there we broke our all-time attendance record,” he recalled. "The Oregon Zoo was really well received in the community. It’s a town of only a million people but we got over 1.6 million visitors the year I left.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Vecchio was determined to build strong relationships with the community and do what he could to help animals even if it meant working with people who were not always zoo friendly. “When I was at Oregon I went out of the way to get to know the director of In Defense of Animals,” he commented. “I worked with the Humane Society to lobby on animal bills. It’s all about relationships and looking for common ground. That was my strategy out there and it worked for us. Those anti-zoo people don’t go away but I think they understood we were just as committed to animal welfare as they were.”

@ Oregon Zoo

One of Vecchio’s biggest accomplishments at the Oregon Zoo was passing a $125 million bond measure in 2008. This bond to improve the zoo passed with overwhelming support despite occurring at the height of an economic recession. “The bond issue in Oregon was transformative- they’ve got a great community that’s looking ahead and very progressive,” Vecchio reflected. “A third of the bond measure was on sustainability with the goal of making the zoo 100% sustainable. It was an interesting bond measure as there were a lot of animal habitats but the community also wanted to see us taking care of the zoo they were proud of. It proposed bringing up older exhibits to the top of modern standards."

@ Oregon Zoo

While also including new habitats for orangutans, polar bears and chimpanzees, the biggest project was for the Oregon Zoo’s iconic family of Asian elephants. Having been famous for elephants ever since the recently deceased Packy was born in 1962 (the first elephant born in North America), this initiative was realized in the opening of Elephant Lands in 2015. This state-of-the-art facility not only quadrupled the amount of space the zoo’s largest residents roam but gave them plenty of choices as to where they want to be and who they want to be with, provided the perfect environment to forage and roll in the mud and included plenty of pools for swimming and bathing. The elephants also have an enormous, cutting-edge barn called the Great Forest Hall complete with soft flooring, sunlight and space for them to interact socially during inclement weather.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“The Oregon Zoo elephants have a long history,” remarked Vecchio. “Mike Keele was very involved in elephant conservation and kept the Asian elephant studbook for years. We had talked about the future of elephants for years and wanted to give our elephants something better. We saw the need to have a state-of-the-art facility to manage Asian elephants. We had talked about having an offsite facility for elephant management in addition to the one at the zoo but when they tried to figure out how to make it work it turned out to not be feasible.” While Elephant Lands opened years after Vecchio left, his leadership to the zoo passing the bond issue was instrumental to its development.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2009, Tony Vecchio ended up having a career move when he was recruited to become director of the Jacksonville Zoo. “I had been in Oregon for 11 years but had loved my years living in the southeast when I worked at Zoo Atlanta and the Riverbanks Zoo,” he recalled. “It was always a goal or an idea to come back to the region but I wasn’t looking aggressively for a job. Then the Jacksonville Zoo’s director Dennis Pate (about to leave to become director of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo) recruited me and offered me to come down to see the zoo. At first I turned him down since I had seen the Jacksonville Zoo in 1990 and back then it was quite rundown.” Little did he realize how much Pate had transformed it into a wonderful zoo. At Pate’s urging, he came down to visit and was very impressed. “It was a completely different zoo,” Vecchio remembered. “I didn’t recognize a single spot.” Vecchio then accepted the job and became the zoo’s director in 2009.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Vecchio came in determined to grow on the momentum of his predecessor. “Dennis Pate did a great job and did a lot of great things here,” he praised. Part of Vecchio’s job was telling the story of the zoo and letting people know it was special. “When you go to a new zoo you try to get a feel for the place,” he explained. “One of the frustrating things when I came here was I found a great zoo and it was totally under the radar. As I talked to people in the community I would hear negative things about the zoo but find out those critics hadn’t visited in 20-30 years. Back then it was smelly and full of concrete. The zoo is not that zoo anymore.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Significant work was put in marketing the zoo more effectively. "One of the biggest things I did was on changing the community perception of the zoo to get people to find out we were not only a great zoo but a botanical garden,” Vecchio elaborated. “I focused a lot on marketing and public relations. Now when you talk to an average person in Jacksonville they brag about the zoo. We’ve turned the tide. That was the biggest project- it was not about physically making the zoo better but getting the word out that the zoo was great.” Vecchio also added great new species to the zoo including magellanic penguins and okapis and improved the guest experience by adding a butterfly garden and bringing in animatronic dinosaurs for the summer.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

After getting the word out about the zoo, Vecchio led the zoo to opening the award-winning Land of the Tiger, a journey through the jungles of Southeast Asia. Visitors pass hornbills, Visayan warty pigs, babirusas and Asian small-clawed otters before reaching the climatic lair of Sumatran and Malayan tigers. The pair of habitats for the majestic tigers are some of the most complex, detailed and modern ever built. This exhibit was significant for the zoo as it gave Asian wildlife representation at the zoo and brought back tigers to the zoo for the first time in decades.

@ Grayson Ponti

“Land of the Tiger was a major project,” Vecchio stated. “We worked with some really good architects and our zoo staff collaborated with them to really brainstorm what we could do. I’m a big one on trying big and innovative things. I don’t like the idea of replicating what worked in other zoos and like to encourage zoo innovation. Our staff came up with some ideas that had never been done before- getting the animals out of their habitats and into the public area.” He was referring to the bridge that passes between the two tiger habitats, letting them rotate from one space to another. “It was a nerve raking idea but we were able to build something that was really different and worthwhile,” Vecchio added. “The big concept of the animals moving around in a trail system- that’s innovative. It was very scary but rewarding to see it get done.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The tiger habitats are perfect for providing a faceted, enriching life for the tigers. “There's lot of built in enrichment in that exhibit,” Vecchio elaborated. “When you end up throwing milk cartons and kegs into these exhibits it looks tacky and unnatural. What we did was we built these habitats from scratch and tried to build in enrichments which also looked good. The most innovative idea we had was a bubble machine which sends out meat flavored bubbles for the tigers. We’re still working on that one.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Also, Land of the Tiger allows visitors to appreciate and see the vital behavioral training the zoo’s tigers receive. These training sessions are important as they stimulate animals both mentally and physically as well as encourage them to do natural behaviors. “We have a training wall- which was something we didn’t do in the days when I was a keeper,” Vecchio said. “At certain times of the day we slide open the wall and keepers demonstrate how they work with the tigers. Training in itself is enrichment so it lets the keepers talk about both enrichment and training. We wanted to show visitors that keepers are animal experts and let them see how they care for the animals.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Another major feature of Land of the Tiger is its tremendous amount of water. “Tigers are water loving cats,” commented Vecchio. “We have streams and deep pools where they can even take naps in the water. They have a waterfall, which they love to be up and near.” Visitors can even see the tigers swim through underwater viewing windows. “There’s a lot of features in Land of the Tiger which are really tiger friendly,” Vecchio elaborated. “The happier the animals are the better the zoo is for visitors. The trail system is unique in the keepers can let the tigers move spaces multiple times a day. This make our tigers more active than at other zoos. When they move from one space to another they want to walk around, sniff, patrol their territory and check things out. We had to increase the diet of the tigers three times in the first three months because they were getting so much exercise.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Not only is it great for the tigers at the zoo but the facility is also connected to the zoo’s work to save tigers and other species in the wild. “The thought is if you’re going to work with these endangered species you’ve got to be supporting them in the wild,” Vecchio said. “We’re very lucky to have John Lucas as our director of conservation. He’s on the board for the International Rhino Foundation and was aware of the conservation needs in Southeast Asia. As a result, we fund an anti-poaching team in Southeast Asia that not only protects tigers but also rhinos, reptiles, birds and a variety of other animals. that’s our biggest conservation project in the field and we have a long term commitment to participating in that.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

Recently the zoo opened the Manatee Critical Care Center to serve as a hospital for these threatened sea cows. Here injured manatees who would not survive on their own are rehabilitated before being introduced back into the wild. “The hospital is all about the manatees,” Vecchio explained. “There are times when the manatees will need isolation since they are in need of critical care. We also know sometimes they just need time to recover from cold stress so we built a viewing area in the manatee rehab center. It’s right adjacent to Wild Florida. If the manatees are accepting visitors they can go see the animals. It’s a nice way to connect to conservation and animal wellness. They see that individual animals need help. The idea of showing the pubic how we care about individual animals and conservation is very important.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The Jacksonville Zoo is at the forefront of animal wellness. “We are one of only a few zoos in the nation to have an animal wellness department,” Vecchio elaborated. “Their sole function is to look at how we can make life better for each of our animals. They study what the animals need and how they respond to enrichment. We can learn going forward what the animals need. it’s also a great way to connect with Florida universities as students can come here and work with our staff. The research is really focused and we have trained professionals studying animal welfare every single day. We not only learn things but share that knowledge with the zoo community.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The zoo’s next major project will be African Forest, a reimagining of the zoo’s Great Apes loop. “Our board of directors made a commitment that they would continue to raise money for the zoo to open new exhibits and repair old ones,” Vecchio said. “Our Great Apes area was the most outdated area of the zoo so we’re redoing that. We have won national awards for Land of the Tiger and Range of the Jaguar so the bar is really high. We want our great ape habitats to be as good as ours for the jaguars and tigers.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The Zoo’s gorillas and bonobos will have a completely new experience in their new homes, opening next year. “We’re going to have a trail system for the gorillas and bonobos where they can wander around outside of their exhibits,” Vecchio explained. “We’re taking full advantage of the cognitive breakthroughs made with great apes. We’re going to have cognitive learning centers where the apes can interact with scientists through technology. One will be off view while another will let guests see how the gorillas and bonobos learn. We’re building a 50 foot tall rainforest tree they can enter and exit the trail system from.” The construction fencing for the project just went up this month and the new area will be opened next year.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

One area of the zoo Vecchio is particularly proud of is the Giraffe Overlook, a beautiful habitat for the long necked animals adjacent to the Savanna Gardens deeming with African plants. “It’s really large and we do public feedings ,which are very popular,” he elaborated. “Soon we will be moving the zebras into that area. John Lucas is the director of the Okapi Conservation Foundation so we’re going to build a breeding facility and combine the current zebra and okapi facility into a more forested area for okapis. We haven’t designed it yet but Lucas knows what they need and has worked with okapis for decades.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

@ Jacksonville Zoo

The zoo will be completing the last phase of Asia, which will finish the master plan created during Pate’s tenure at the Jacksonville Zoo. It will make the Land of the Tiger, which is currently a dead end, a cohesive Asian loop featuring orangutans, siamangs, Asian bears and possibly Indian rhinoceroses. Vecchio has plenty of ambitions for the zoo both in Asia and in his recently created master plan, which has the directive of creating “the best elephant exhibit in the country.” “We have a big commitment to African elephants,” he commented.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

At the heart of the zoo’s mission is conservation. “We want our animals to have important conservation messages,” Vecchio said. He pointed to the zoo’s jaguar program as a textbook example of the zoo’s conservation goals in practice. “Karl Kranz was the general curator here for several years and he was one of the first to really emphasize what you do here you have to do in the wild,” Vecchio explained. “When Range of the Jaguar opened, he signed an agreement to work with the nation of Guyana to support their rehab center and help their zoo. We’re helping support a graduate student doing conservation work in Guyana and try to make a strong connection between Range of the Jaguar and the real range of the jaguar.”

@ Jacksonville Zoo

One thing that made Jacksonville different from the other zoos in Tony Vecchio’s career is its commitment to plants. “Here in Jacksonville was the first time I’ve been at a zoo that has a huge commitment to being a botanical garden,” he elaborated. “That has a strong impact on the visitor experience. It’s a wonderful place to stroll around.” A unique feature is instead of having the botanical gardens separate from the zoo, it’s located among the main visitor pathway and often forms the entrance for exhibits. For instance, Savanna Blooms forms the entrance to the giraffes and Asian Bamboo Gardens forms the entrance to Land of the Tiger.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

“The thing that makes the Jacksonville Zoo special is we’re a great zoo and gardens,” Vecchio reflected. “We have a great horticulture staff and take our garden mission very seriously. One of the gardens is the main pathway- they’re like pocket gardens. The feel is very different than other zoos- it has the feeling of a botanical garden. As far as what’s going on here, we have a very dedicated, passionate staff who accepts conservation and animal welfare as their primary mission. They’re dedicated to animal wellness and are so excited about moving the zoo forward. Those are the two things that really stand out for me about Jacksonville.”

@ Tony Vecchio

#JacksonvilleZoo #RogerWilliamsParkZoo #OregonZoo #ZooAtlanta

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