Bringing the Zoo to You: A Conversation with Suzi Rapp, Vice President of Animal Programs at the Col

Since zoo icon Jack Hanna became director in 1978, the Columbus Zoo has grown exponentially to being one of the most well respected zoos in the world. Much of its success is due to its excellent animal ambassador program where zoo staff members bring fascinating animals to public appearances and spread out the word of the Columbus Zoo and conservation. A wide variety of animals from cheetahs to kangaroos to penguins to lemurs to clouded leopards go everywhere from schools to special events to television appearances to serve as representatives to their species. Suzi Rapp is the woman in charge of the animal ambassador program and has been vital to the success of the Zoo. Here is her story.

@ Columbus Zoo

Suzi Rapp always knew she wanted to work at the Columbus Zoo. “I visited the Zoo as a little girl growing up in Columbus and knew I was going to work here,” she recalled. “I started at the zoo 38 years ago, one year after Jack Hanna started at the zoo. It was a very different place back then- there weren’t very many employees. There were only about 25 of us while now we have hundreds of people working here. We were definitely a smaller facility and we didn’t have very modern exhibits at the times. In some ways it’s still the same. We’ve always had a very tight community here and our zoo doesn’t have a high turnover rate because we’re such a close group of people.”

@ Columbus Zoo

When Rapp came to the Zoo, it was just building its education building. “That’s one of very few facilities that has stayed the same during my time here,” she remembered. “One of the advantages we have is we’re not landlocked by downtown Columbus. We’re kind of out in the country. A lot of the space the zoo is on now was farmland when I got here. Jerry Borin bought that land and developed it. In fact, the entrance used to be where the tunnel in the middle of the zoo is now.” Hanna took it upon himself to begin redeveloping the zoo. “Jack is the one who brought life to the zoo,” Rapp praised. “We went to habitats instead of bars and cages. We went to zoogeographic regions and organized the zoo.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Not only did the animal facilities need to get better but so did the educational component. “When I started we were just developing the education program and they didn’t know what to do with me,” Rapp explained. “I want to be with people AND animals. Jack challenged me with developing a camp for kids. I came up with the Summer Experience camp. Then I developed the Zoo Kids preschool program, Zooper Saturdays and Camp-In programs where you stay the night at the zoo. I basically created the education program. Every summer in college I’d come back to the zoo and run the summer camp. When I graduated, Jack hired me full time and I stayed with the education department for a long time.” She worked with the late Jeff Swanagan (later creator of the Georgia Aquarium and director of the Columbus Zoo) to further develop the zoo’s education programs.

@ Columbus Zoo

While the zoo was rapidly improving, it also needed ways to get the word out about the zoo and spread its mission. “Jack was very passionate about how to get people involved in the zoo,” Rapp said. “He said ‘If I can’t get people to come to the zoo I’ll take the zoo to the people. We developed that into the animal ambassador program.” The animal ambassadors helped the zoo’s reputation grow and exposed millions of people to its message. It also led to Hanna becoming a celebrity. “Jack and his daughter did a local show called Hanna’s Ark in the early years,” Rapp recalled. “Then he went on Good Morning America when the twin gorillas were born and the producer of the show realized this man who had this incredible animal charisma was special.”

@ Columbus Zoo

As Vice President of Animal Programs, Suzi Rapp is responsible for all the animals who make public appearances. “I oversee all the shows, the Animal Encounters Village, the part of Heart of Africa with the cheetah habitat and the watering hole and the animal promotions program," she said. "I coordinate all the animals who go on television shows, any type of outreach and accompany Jack Hanna on his travels. My animals are all ambassadors so they’re all very well trained. We’re all about training for positive behavior.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Even though they are not on exhibit, all the animals Rapp oversees receive top notch animal welfare. “I would honestly say animals take precedent over everything,” she stated. “Jack Hanna stressed nothing was too much to do for our animals. We are always looking at how to better our animal welfare for all our residents. I feel we’re out on the front end for that. In a way I was part of changing the philosophy of the zoo, which I’m very grateful for. I serve on the animal welfare committee for the AZA. I’m all about animal welfare and participating in studies with animal welfare concerns.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Rapp uses a dramatically different approach to animal ambassadors than other zoos. “A lot of zoos have taken animal ambassadors and lumped them into the education department,” she explained. “However, most of them come from an education background so they don’t have as much time to focus on animal husbandry. You don’t learn anything about animal welfare from an education degree- I learned my animal welfare knowledge from training horses. You learn how to run a program- not how to take care of animals. Fortunately I had leaders who let me take control of our animal ambassador program.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Unlike many other zoos, the animal ambassador program is separate from the zoo’s education department. “We are definitely the extreme but we are 100% right,” Rapp commented. “We have invested in our animal ambassador program because we know it works and it’s what our guests want.” Essential to the success of this program is the team working with the animal ambassadors. “My people range from degrees in communications to wildlife management to zoology," she remarked. "I don’t care what your degree is but I need to know you love animals, animals are your passion and you love people. If you’re applying for a job at the Columbus Zoo you probably love animals but you don’t necessarily love people. You have to love people to work for me. They call it the Suzi Rapp mold."

@ Columbus Zoo

“We have over 25 full-time employees and 35 seasonal employees in the program and every one of them goes through a training course on how this department operates,” Rapp explained. “They do animal training for.” The employees have to prove they are able to hold up to the high standards of the program before they can work with more complex animals. “As a seasonal employee you won’t be working with lemurs or cheetahs,” Rapp added. Unlike many other zoos which stick with relatively mundane animals, Columbus’s animal ambassadors include a wide variety of exotic animals including fourteen cheetahs, a tamandua, servals, fennec foxes, lemurs, a bushbaby, ground hornbills, free-flight macaws and toucans, kangaroos, binturongs, penguins, clouded leopards, lynxes, bobcats and swift foxes. The program also takes care for the warthogs, jackals, hyenas and aardvarks who rotate through the watering hole in Heart of Africa but they do not leave the Zoo for programs.

@ Columbus Zoo

Essential to the animal ambassador program is training. “Everything we train is about behavior, which is very scientifically based,” Rapp stated. “Everything we do is for positive reinforcement. We start very slowly with training and usually start with young animals. I’m very picky about how an animal is trained since it has to be beneficial to them. It takes thousands of hours to train these animals. It’s a science, not everyone can do it. I have some people who are better trainers and others who are better speakers.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“We always want to use the right animal for the right program,” Rapp elaborated. “If I do a display program where people are going to come and go I won’t take a cheetah since I won’t have control over what the audience will be doing and cheetahs don’t do well with that. I won’t take a flying bird or a lemur either for that. A sloth, penguin, fennec fox or snake would be perfect for that kind of situation. If I am going to do a speaker program up on a stage, then I would take a cheetah, a lemur or an otter. We never promise a specific animal for a program. We’ve never allowed the person booking the program to pick what animals we use, we pick what animals we use. If an animal doesn’t want to come out it doesn’t go. We want our employees to pick the animals they feel most comfortable with. Every morning we have a 9 o’clock meeting where we talk about all the programs and decide which animals we are taking.”

@ Columbus Zoo

The animal ambassador program has been vital to raising awareness for the great work the Columbus Zoo does. “This program is how the Columbus Zoo got on the map,” Rapp elaborated. “Our community is very supportive of the Zoo so we support them as much as we can. Many, many, many of our programs are free. Most of our school programming is free of charge to the schools since a grant covers that cost.” Suzi also has tried to help other zoos develop their ambassador programs. “We are the mothership when it comes to outreach and ambassador programs," she added. "I’ve worked side by side with many major zoos- Nashville, Brookfield, Bronx- to help them build their animal ambassador programs. We are definitely the leader in that industry but are more than willing to work side by side with any organization who wants to know what we’re doing.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

While Suzi loves all her animals, she has a soft spot for cheetahs. “Cheetahs are my passion,” she said. “We’ve participated in a few studies and our cheetahs have a decreased level of cortisol than many cats that are just on exhibit. All my cheetahs go on exhibit in their habitat in Heart of Africa, take part in the run (unless they can’t for medical reasons) and go on programs. All of our cheetahs are hand raised. Cheetahs are the only big cats who cannot and will not raise a single cub. The longest a cheetah mother has raised a single cub has been 14 days. Many of our cheetahs were single cubs and they would not have survived if they weren’t taken and hand raised. I’m very involved with the cheetah SSP and work directly with their chair. If they get cheetahs who can’t be raised by their mothers, I’m usually the person they call.”

@ Columbus Zoo

The Columbus Zoo’s cheetah care program is second to none. “We have a cheetah with deformed legs who would have probably been euthanized at any other zoo but we did surgery and now she can have a good quality of life,” Rapp explained. “ She is our number one cheetah for school programs.” The cheetahs in the program also tell a very important story about a very important species. “Our cheetahs are incredible ambassadors to cheetahs in the wild,” Rapp elaborated. “Cheetahs are a tough animal to figure out. There are so many things about cheetahs which are so different from any other cat. They’re a challenging species but, because they’re my favorite animal in the entire world, I have it down to a science how to raise them and have invested a lot in them.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“The nice thing about hand-raised cheetahs in human care is they’re a lot more comfortable and easy to manage,” she continued. “They’re naturally and instinctually very scared and skittish, which causes problems for them in the wild. If a mother in the wild is confronted by a lion or hyena, she won’t defend her cubs and will just flee and run away. Cheetahs tend to prey on the smaller antelope rather than the bigger ones. Oftentimes they’ll make a kill but the lions and hyenas take the kill. They really have it rough.” Additionally, habitat loss and human-predator conflict has led to the cheetah population being reduced to 7,000 in the wild.

@ Columbus Zoo

Rapp is determined to help save cheetahs and the ones at the Columbus Zoo serve an important role in inspiring people to care about cheetahs. “We’ve used cheetahs in our ambassador program for thirty years and have raised millions of dollars for cheetah conservation through this program,” she remarked. “Our cheetah fund goes directly to cheetah conservation in Namibia. All my ambassador animals are sending a message about their plight in the wild. We sell cheetah pins and bracelets where all the proceeds go back to cheetah conservation. Every time I use a cheetah in a program, we charge an additional fee and all that money goes to the fund. Anytime Laurie Marker (director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund) goes anywhere on the East Coast we usually provide her with a cheetah.”

@ Columbus Zoo

One might be surprised to find that the Columbus Zoo’s cheetahs are usually raised alongside a dog. “We started with Anatolian shepherds, who in Namibia, help cheetahs by guarding livestock, and in turn save them from farmers who would normally shoot them to protect their livelihood,” Rapp explained. “However what I learned is cheetahs are very social by nature and it’s not uncommon to find groups of boys together in the wild. The females tend to go off on their own but brothers will typically live their lives together. So, oftentimes I end up with a single cub so I find that they are most comfortable when we have a puppy typically a Labrador retriever, to be their companion. We put them together at a young age and they end up taking their cues from their dog. We want our ambassador cheetahs to be comfortable and they get the confidence from their dog.”

@ Columbus Zoo

After nearly ten years of not having a public exhibit at the zoo, the Columbus Zoo opened a brand new cheetah habitat in the award winning Heart of Africa. Suzi Rapp was heavily involved with the design of the facility. “We modeled the cheetah habitat after the Cheetah Conservation Fund center in Namibia,” she commented. The habitat lets visitors get up close to the majestic cats and gives them a nice space with plenty of shade. Across from it is the watering hole where the cheetah run takes place. “In Heart of Africa we decided it would be really neat to run cheetahs in the watering hole,” Rapp explained. “I decided to build the cheetah building right next to the watering hole so they get a much longer run. Also, our cheetah run is much larger than at most places because the space is so huge.”

@ Columbus Zoo

When the cheetah runs are not going on, the Watering Hole is a rotational space which a variety of animals use as a time share. “If you’re in Africa on safari and go to a watering hole, you never know what you’re going to see,” Rapp said. “We usually start and end the day with the ostriches, which go out on the savanna for the rest of the day. The only thing set in stone are the cheetahs runs. In between you may see jackals, aardvarks, warthogs or hyenas. Those animals all spend time in the watering hole. We have a nice, off exhibit facility for them where they stay that is not visible to the public.” The animal ambassador staff takes care of these four species.

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

“We leave the watering hole flexible and consider what climate is best for each animal,” she added. “Our jackals actually like to be out there with the cheetah dogs. We’re one of the few zoos to have jackals. We do a lot of training with them. When I got the chance to get these three jackals I couldn’t pass them up because I knew they’d be great. The hyenas love going in the water and the warthogs love to roll in the mud. It’s a very similar experience to what you’d find in the wild.” Rapp’s team also lets the animals have agency over when they come in and out of the watering hole. “If we want the warthogs to go out they may not want to go out and they don’t have to,” she commented. “Sometimes the animals don’t come back when they’re supposed to and that is okay."

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

Suzi Rapp and her animal ambassador team are taking on a brand new challenge in the future: marine mammals. Adventure Cove, opening in 2019, is going to have a state-of-the-art habitat for seals and sea lions as well as a revamped animal encounters village. “A year and a half ago I knew nothing about sea lions while now I know a lot more,” Rapp stated. “We haven’t had them in over thirty years so it’s very exciting to bring them back.” For the second time, her staff will be responsible for the care of animals on permanent exhibit. “I love a new challenge so it’s great to enter a whole new world with this,” Rapp elaborated. “We recently received seven sea lions from a facility in China where they were all housed in isolated cages. It took me a year to get all the litigation in line to be able to bring them to the U.S. All of them were born in human care and are now living in a temporary facility outside of Sarasota. I have two of my trainers down there managing them until they come here in the spring of 2019. Bringing the sea lions here is one of the biggest challenges the Columbus Zoo has ever faced.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“The sea lion habitat will hold over 300,000 gallons of water,” she explained. “It’s going to mimic the environment where sea lions live in California. We’re also going to have a sea lion show where we train them to do natural behaviors. Our seven sea lions had been living apart and haven’t been socialized so we thought one of the biggest challenges was going to be to establish socialization but in less than two weeks they came together as a group. It’s truly a great thing the Columbus Zoo did. This new exhibit will be my next big fun challenge.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Having been there for almost four decades, Suzi Rapp takes immense pride in the Columbus Zoo. “The Columbus Zoo is special in so many ways,” she reflected. “Our staff and leadership help make it special. We’ve put the right people in the right place. I’ve been very fortunate to work side by side with Jack Hanna for nearly forty years and truly owe my success to him. It’s been great to work with Jerry Borin and the late Jeff Swanagan too. Our current director Tom Stalf is also wonderful. He’s very much a free spirit leader like Jack. He’s so passionate. He comes from a strong animal background and has been in the zoo business for much of his life. If I have a concern I can count on him to say you do what you need to do. Tom and I have been going back and forth on the upcoming sea lion exhibit and he listens to me. We’ve been lucky to always have leaders supporting the people making the day-to-day decisions.”

@ Suzi Rapp

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