Taking Zoo Atlanta from Worst to World Class: A Conversation with Dr. Terry Maple, Retired Director

In 1984, Zoo Atlanta was panned as one of the ten worst in the country by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS.) However, its director Dr. Terry Maple was determined to change that and within five years the Zoo had transformed into one of the most respected zoos in the country. Few figures in zoo history have become as iconic and legendary as Maple. While he will forever be remembered for turning around Zoo Atlanta and all he accomplished during his 19 years as director, he also directed the Palm Beach Zoo for six years, pioneered a cutting edge animal wellness program, has done important research on many species and has mentored dozens of students who have become the zoo leaders of today. Maple has coauthored or contributed chapters to thirteen books and written over eighty papers. Here is his story.

@ Terry Maple

Maple grew up having no intention to work in zoos and was much more interested in animal science. “I had been doing research at primate centers and zoos from the time I entered graduate school in California to when I came to Atlanta to serve on the faculty of Emory,” he recalled. “At the time the director of the program was the president of the Atlanta Zoological Society and asked me to join that board. I spent three years on the board during which time I moved to Georgia Tech. One day out of the blue I got a call from Ron Forman, director of the Audubon Zoo, asked me to serve on a gap as general curator. Forman was one of the iconic zoo directors and I knew him from when I conducted a study at the zoo with Tulane University. I said I’d love to work in a zoo and took a sabbatical. While I didn’t have tenure, they allowed me to do it because I said I might write a book on the experience. We packed up to New Orleans and spent a year there.”

@ Audubon Zoo

When Maple returned to Atlanta, his advice was sought as an emergency was declared with the zoo in Atlanta. The zoo had fallen into disrepair and needed to be turned around immediately. “Based on the fact I told Mayor Young the zoo would never be successful unless it got new leadership I was appointed interim director in the summer of 1984,” Maple said. “I only had three months but he was willing to take a chance. I did such a good job stopping the bleeding I was there 18 years later.” He made arrangements so he could continue to teach at Georgia Tech as he led the zoo.

@ Terry Maple

The condition of the Atlanta Zoo was bleak and the zoo had been named one of the ten worst zoos in America by the U.S. Humane Society. “At the time I considered myself the least experienced zoo director in the nation but I was also in charge of the worst zoo in the nation,” Maple stated. “My leadership genes were revealed for the first time. Once I walked in and took a great look at the zoo I couldn’t imagine the others on the list being worse. The exhibits were old, beat up and in terrible shape. The staff were demoralized and underqualified- there were way too few of them as well. It was a really terrible situation all around.”

@ Terry Maple

At the time there were only two redeeming things about the zoo. “We had an excellent reptile collection and staff who were able to run a good program,” Maple recalled. “There was also Willie B., who was as charismatic of a gorilla as you’d ever meet but he basically was in a jail.” A big part of the zoo’s problem was it was severely underfunded. “The zoo had a very tiny budget and no one knew where the money was going,” Maple explained. “For my first year at the zoo it was under the government of Atlanta and it became clear the zoo was a low priority to the city.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

Maple was inspired by what his friend Ron Forman had done with the Audubon Zoo in Louisiana. “When I visited in 1976 the Audubon Zoo was in terrible shape but Forman turned it around after privatizing it,” he added. The Audubon Zoo was now thriving and a very nice zoo. “We hit on the idea if we turned it into a public private nonprofit the city would let go of the zoo,” Maple said. “Turning the management system around was how we got started.” In 1985, the zoo was privatized. “When that happened the city offered the Zoo's employees a job with the city so they could keep their positions and most of the ones who took it were the ones I would not have continued,” Maple remarked. “I did not have to do a lot of firing because of the city’s action.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

From day one, Maple’s leadership had a significant impact on the zoo. “The publicity began to turn after I’d been there for a month,” he explained. “They began to talk about how we were planning to recover and rebuild. Once they stopped picking on us and let us go the momentum shifted. One day Jane Pringle, the leader of a pr firm, came to see me and they told me there was a company outside of Atlanta that wanted to make a splash in the city. They wanted to do something important and get noticed. I said I had a gorilla living alone, had a vision of building the best gorilla facility in the world and, if I had a corporate sponsor, I thought I could do it. She turned back to her sponsors who happened to be Ford Motor Company. Ford decided to try this and their support was strong from the beginning. They did our first annual gala, the Beastly Feast. They are still the sponsor of it- it’s lasted that long and they’ve made millions with this party. From then onwards others stepped up and the momentum began to shift.”

@ Scott Richardson

The stakes were high and the exhibit had to be a success.. “I remember Jim Donaldson of the Ford Motor Company gave us a $100,000 check and I kept telling him we’re going to build the best gorilla exhibit,” Maple remembered. “He said quietly just to me this gorilla exhibit better not be number two since they considered Ford the number one auto company. I followed that idea- we were never going to be a big zoo but we could be a great zoo. We had to do something special. That exhibit was going to be what made our reputation.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In fact, there wouldn’t be just one gorilla habitat but four different ones and there would be more gorillas at the zoo than any other in the nation. “We acquired eleven gorillas from the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory where they had gorillas living in somewhat restricted surrounding,” Maple explained. “By acquiring them and having this great new facility we were able to form groups. We did three habitats for the 11 of them and one for Willie B. since we’d thought he’d stay solitary.”

@ Jon Coe

@ Zoo Atlanta

Originally the zoo planned on doing a rotation of the gorillas through the four habitats since they thought that would encourage breeding. However, it turned out that was not needed. “From almost the moment the gorillas hit the ground they started breeding, which is why we didn’t fulfill the rotation plan,” Maple said. “Our idea was the gorillas would wake up every day in a different habitat. As a psychologist I thought it would create excitement and arousal, which would stimulate breeding. We never got to carry the rotation out besides the time one one of my students, Kristen Lukas, tested it. It turned out the gorillas bred immediately and didn’t need it. The real key to the exhibit is it was the first facility for gorillas in the world designed and built for a population- not just a group.”

@ Jon Coe

@ Zoo Atlanta

While it has been done by other zoos since, building for a gorilla population was seen as revolutionary and risky back then. “No one had ever done it,” Maple said. “It did create a certain stimulation because in the wild gorillas know who the neighboring silverback is. The facility is a very naturalistic space and the gorillas are doing quite well. We won the Bean Award from the AZA for our gorilla program. We published more material on gorillas when I was there than any other zoo.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

Maple still felt the Ford African Rainforest, opened in 1988, holds up quite well. “It’s still on one of the great gorilla exhibits,” he elaborated. “The gorilla SSP has been very successful and many gorillas have been born in Atlanta. They still breed them today although it’s not what it was as they’ve focused more on bachelor groups. When Tara Stoinski was my student, she took an interest in that.” The exhibit also connects to Zoo Atlanta’s work in gorilla conservation. “We formed a partnership with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund so we’re actually supporting conservation of gorillas in Africa,” he added.

@ Scott Richardson

@ Scott Richardson

When Ford African Rainforest opened, Willie B. finally got to go outside and touch grass after being alone behind bars for 27 years. To the surprise of the staff he actually integrated with the other gorillas and sired young at the zoo before his death in 2000.

@ Nevin Lash

While the gorilla habitat opening in 1988 might have been the major turning point in the public perception of the zoo, Maple had done several other practical changes to the Zoo. “I got them to stop doing dumb things,” he said bluntly. “I closed the feline house because it was terrible. It had too many cats, all indoors, in too many small exhibits and it smelled bad. We also repainted the entire zoo. It’s amazing how paint improved the way the zoo looked and felt. We knew paint would not make us a great zoo but it helped us get people on board and know we were changing. We changed from mostly being an indoor exhibits to being largely an outdoor zoo.”

@ Jon Coe

“The first three years were operational changes,” Maple recalled. “I was able to hire some good staff. I hired Tony Vecchio (now director at the Jacksonville Zoo) as curator and he did a great job in Atlanta. Rita McMannamen was the veterinarian and she was the most valuable player for years and years. She was the first full time veterinarian the zoo had. We needed another senior leader who was a humane person and the keepers need to know we cared. She fit the bill perfectly.” In 1987 the zoo finally got accredited by the AZA. “I did not go for accreditation for three years because I wanted to use the accreditation hammer to make change,” Maple explained. “We had to do a lot to get the accreditation. I got chewed out from AZA executive Bob Wagner when I first came in talking about how Atlanta’s zoo was an embarrassment and we needed to be the best zoo ever to be accredited to get accredited.” Once Zoo Atlanta was accredited, it never looked back.

@ Zoo Atlanta

After the success of the Ford African Rainforest, Maple and his team built Masai Mara, a replication of East Africa featuring elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras and antelope. “In the old elephant house there was an impression on the wall of an elephant created by a famous sculpture,” he recalled. “I liked the sculpture so we lifted it out of the wall and recast it in the new one. We designed a much larger elephant house so the animals could come inside if they wanted to. We have three baby elephants at the time and it was a great space for them but they outgrew it so Nevin Lash is doing an expansion of the habitat.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

“Masai Mara was an interesting experience,” reflected Maple. “We went to Africa to see animals in the wild and made a film of it. We came back with lots of ideas for the savanna with the giraffes and the others. It was on a hilly site so it was hard to maintain the grass on it and what we had to work with was limited in space. We couldn’t do a gigantic savanna like other zoos have done. However, we won an award, it was nice to have an African section and the public certainly loved it. We built a very good lion exhibit. The sad story is I had an old male lion I was looking forward to putting in with the females but the vet told me he was blind in one eye and we couldn’t risk him getting injured by the females. He retired to an off exhibit space in the back of the zoo and we brought in a new male with the females, who was happy as a clam.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

“We wanted to build a hippo exhibit but I wanted to do it the right way,” Maple added. “Most hippo exhibits are one-two hippos and they don’t have night ranging opportunities. Animals like that should live in groups- one or two is not a group. I think hippos are highly entertaining- they’ve very interesting, very vocal. Everyone likes hippos but zoos haven’t been creative about their exhibits. The best I’ve seen is Disney’s Animal Kingdom where there’s the family in the river. To do the hippo habitat my way it would have cost two million dollars per hippo so the decision was made not to break the bank for two hippos. I would like to see zoos do hippos in a way where people can really enjoy them at night since more and more zoos are having night safaris.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

As Zoo Atlanta continued to build new exhibits, Maple had zero hesitation to get rid of bad spaces for animals. “In the early 1990s we blew up the bear grottoes,” he recalled. “We were expected to instead do an Asiatic black bear habitat in Asia but when pandas came available we decided to build one of the best panda habitats in the world instead. I got rid of the polar bears- they were living in a hard rock enclosure. It was a bit controversial since one of the two polar bears we sent away was named after the mayor. Before I came in the mammal staff did not want the new director to get rid of the bear so the named it after the mayor. However, I told them I did now want the bears living that way.” The zoo also got rid of its sea lions. “They were in a really badly put together exhibit and we didn’t want to see any animals suffer so we phased them out,” elaborated Maple.

@ Zoo Atlanta

The next part of the zoo’s expansion was Asian Forest, home to tigers, orangutans and other Asian wildlife. “I planned to do an orangutan habitat that would have been best in the world but we didn’t have enough money to do it the way I wanted,” explained Maple. “What we did do was build a very good habitat where the orangutans can climb a height of 54 feet. They can see the entire zoo from up there. The orangutans have done quite well and over the years they have bred several times.” Like with gorillas, Zoo Atlanta has more orangutans than any other zoo in America. There is even an orangutan living there who learned sign language before being retired to the zoo.

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

“With tigers we were very interested in helping the Sumatran tigers so we built a very nice space for them,” Maple elaborated. “Asian Forest also let us bring in Komodo dragons, which are very popular. Later after I left the zoo they did a very good exhibit on the illegal wildlife trade in that section. When the pandas came in 1999, they really put that section of the zoo to life.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 1999, Zoo Atlanta became one of the few zoos outside of China to have giant pandas. It was a very difficult operation that involved lots of politics and red tape. “I worked on getting giant pandas there for ten years before it happened,” Maple explained. “They changed the rules and the rent a panda program was stopped. The new rules were going to be very expensive so it was decided only zoos who had the right capacity could do it. It was a very expensive proposition but we obtained gifts from companies and individuals who had never donated to the zoo before. We had to pay a million dollars each year for panda conservation."

@ Zoo Atlanta

While it was an expensive and difficult project, Maple knew it could be done and would be worth it. “In a smaller zoo like Atlanta every marquee exhibit counts more than at a bigger zoo,” he commented. “The panda space had to be very good. We made sure we had a nice naturalistic space for the pandas heavily planted with bamboo and Asian plants. Then we built an air-conditioned space for the pandas where they could go inside. The outdoor space has a nice long perimeter for people to see them and the pandas have been quite playful in the space.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

“The giant panda exhibit is very popular,” Maple added. “The long-term goal of breeding pandas has been fulfilled as they’ve produced twins several times. One of my students Rebecca Snyder, who married Dwight Lawson (the last person I hired in Atlanta who is now director of the Oklahoma City Zoo), did a lot of great work on the giant pandas.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

Terry Maple gives great credit to his staff for the success of Zoo Atlanta during his tenure. “We hired great people to interpret the exhibits,” he said. “I had great education curators like Jeff Swanagan, who built the Georgia Aquarium, and Rich Block, who directs the Santa Barbara Zoo. It was the talented people who made the zoo special. We were one of the few zoos to have advanced students writing papers and coming up with ideas for us. My greatest contribution is the people who I trained and set on to work in the zoo world and other places. Others have confirmed that no zoo person has trained more zoo leaders than me. We elevated the intellectual capital of the zoo industry just by what we did.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 2003 after having completely changed the landscape, culture and reputation of the zoo, Terry Maple retired from Zoo Atlanta. “I was worn out,” he reflected. “I was a full time professor at Georgia Tech this whole time and had to work hard to keep up with the other professors. When I retired I decided it was time to pack it in and that I was going to start a center for animal behavior at Georgia Tech. I still had gas in my tank but I was not healthy at the time I retired.” Soon Maple got in much better health and, to his surprise, he ended up getting recruited by other zoos. In 2005, he moved down to Florida to direct the Palm Beach Zoo.

@ Grayson Ponti

“I went to Palm Beach for two reasons: money and the ocean,” Maple elaborated “My wife and I were west coasters so we wanted to get back to the ocean.” Having only 23 acres, he found himself at a much smaller facility with a limited variety of animals. “I was limited by size and knew I wasn’t going to build a world-class zoo like I did in Atlanta but was just trying to get the zoo to function on a better level,” Maple stated. “They had already done their revitalization and I was only there for six years."

@ Grayson Ponti

“One thing they couldn’t get done was built an animal hospital so I cleared that up and build the first LEED certified animal hospital in the nation,” Maple said. “It’s a beautiful hospital and I’m very proud of it.” This Animal Care Complex allows the zoo to practice state-of-the-art animal care and welfare. However, Maple’s favorite accomplishment he did in Palm Beach was hiring his daughter. “I hired my daughter Emily, who is still a reptile keeper there,” he said. “She’s a great zookeeper.”

@ Palm Beach Zoo

Maple also got some new animal habitats and species added to the Palm Beach Zoo. “We decided at the zoo our marquee animals would be big cats,” he added. “We already had a great jaguar habitat so we expanded and rebuilt our tiger habitat. The tigers are doing well and breeding.” Maple also led the zoo to having a stronger focus on Australian animals. In 2010, he opened Wallaby Station and Koala Forest, making the zoo one of only a handful to exhibit the iconic animals. “I started the koala program and, when I was first at the zoo, we designed a bird show where the birds go over the water,” he stated. "That bird show is very popular." In 2011, Terry Maple retired from zoo directing and changed to working as a zoo consultant.

@ Grayson Ponti

Maple’s first consulting work was with the San Francisco Zoo, a zoo looking to create a better image with its community. “I wondered if I could help them break though,” he recalled. “I had developed the idea of an animal wellness program in Palm Beach. I told them if they invested in this animal wellness construct it would fly well with their community since Californians are really into wellness. For three years I worked with them to build that brand. I felt they needed a full time staff member to do this project so they got some great people to do it. they’re still invested in the wellness brand and it’s helping them a lot.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

Next, Maple would bring his consulting talents to help his former mentee Tony Vecchio bring the animal wellness program to his zoo, the Jacksonville Zoo. “Tony liked what I did in San Francisco so he asked me to work as a consultant there,” he explained. “I do most of my writing at my home office in Fernandina Beach but I am grateful the Zoo provided me a small office and a staff for me to coordinate work on wellness. I am trying to help people with my experience.” The Jacksonville Zoo is now one of the few zoos in the nation to have an animal wellness department and it has worked very well.

@ Jacksonville Zoo

As much as he’s done as a zoo director and consultant, Maple sees his biggest accomplishment as his students. “The quality and impact of my students is what I’m most proud of,” he stated. “I’ve produced 29 doctoral students who have done very important work in this field. The impact of these smart kids is amazing. They have a certain piece of my philosophy they take with them and they all are doing wonderful work. I’m so proud of them!” When reflecting on the role of a zoo director, Terry Maple was straight forward and to the point. “There are no animals problems that can’t be solved,” he commented. “Animal problems are always people problems. Our zoos need to keep our communities informed about the good work we do. Since people are so important to a zoo, I'm very glad I was trained in psychology."

@ Jacksonville Zoo

#ZooAtlanta #PalmBeachZoo #SanFranciscoZoo #JacksonvilleZoo

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