Celebrating Watershed Heroes: A Conversation with Gretchen Ziegler, Director of the Sequoia Park Zoo

Sitting on five acres in Eureka, California, the Sequoia Park Zoo is one of the smallest zoos in the AZA as well as the oldest zoo in California. Nevertheless the Zoo is determined to do the best they can with the limited space and resources they have. The zoo had a major breakthrough when it won the AZA Exhibit Top Honors award for zoos with an operating budget under $5 million for Watershed Heroes. This immersive exhibit shows the importance of the watershed ecosystem through habitats for river otters, bald eagles and salmon. Gretchen Ziegler heads the Sequoia Park Zoo, who has greatly increased the zoo’s quality and reputation. Here is her story.

@ Gretchen Ziegler

Ziegler grew up in Topeka and went to their zoo often growing up. “In high school, I started working with the keepers,” she recalled. “I went off to Manhattan, Kansas and worked at the Sunset Zoo. I got an internship at the Zoo and worked at the children’s zoo there.” After graduating from college, Ziegler returned to the Topeka Zoo and got her first full-time zoo job. At the time, the Zoo was run by zoo legend Gary Clarke known for his innovative ideas for exhibits. “Gary had some good visions for the zoo,” Ziegler commented. “He had led the zoo to opening the walkthrough rainforest, which was state-of-the-art. At Topeka I primarily worked as a carnivore keepers. I cared for polar bears, tigers, lions and others. When I came they were just about to open Lion’s Pride, which was a pretty nice immersive exhibit. Gary had spent a lot of time in Africa and the exhibit replicated that experience. I was able to be the keeper at that new facility for several years, which was really fun.”

Since she was “quite enamored by the Pacific Northwest,” Ziegler jumped ship to Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon after working at the Topeka Zoo for six years. “I had an absolute blast,” she stated. “It’s a combination of a drive through and a traditional walkthrough zoo. It’s in the most beautiful setting you could imagine. I worked with carnivores there. We got to walk cheetahs across the landscape from the exhibit to the breeding area. It was quite special.”

@ Wildlife Safari

In 1995, Gretchen Ziegler took the job of head keeper at the Sequoia Park Zoo. The Zoo got accredited by the AZA for the first time the year she started. “At the time the zoo was pretty antiquated,” Ziegler reflected. “There were some wide open pens with pasture for elk and other hoofstock and a new walkthrough aviary but most of the rest was quite outdated. We had two chimpanzees in pretty small exhibits and some other buildings and structures that weren’t very good.” It was a zoo in need of a turn around and she was determined to make it better. After 7 years as keeper and four as curator, she was promoted to director in 2006.

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

“I was just in the best position to come in and start making a positive difference for the animals,” Ziegler explained. “We stepped up the enrichment program and slowly improved our husbandry. Once some investment came our way through community support we were able to start building new exhibits. Almost all of our exhibits now are fairly new. The only old ones remaining are the primate ones and the old bear grotto, which no longer has bears but now has bushdogs. There was a lot of development that happened in terms of policies, procedures and safety protocols. We’ve developed and matured into a modern zoo.”

@ Scott Richardson

“We take care to make sure our animals have quality space,” Ziegler elaborated. “We phased out elk since we didn’t have proper space for them and only had one left. We got guanacos to take their home, who are easier to manage. We’ve got rheas in there with them. We added a lot of new exhibits- red pandas, peccaries and flamingos. We added bushdogs, which are a big hit. People are very unfamiliar with bushdogs. We’ve had people drive from Southern California just to see them.” The species kept at the zoo are carefully chosen to match the size and resources of the zoo. “The veterinary expertise here in Humboldt is not exotic based so we stay away from animals who are tricky from a veterinary care perspective,” Ziegler added.

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

Sometimes adjusting the variety of animals at the Zoo to its footprint and budget meant saying goodbye to some popular species. The zoo used to have two black bears who were phased out because their grotto home was outdated. “I got to work with the pair of black bears for many years before they passed away,” Ziegler said. The zoo also lost its most famous residents, Bill and Ziggy the chimpanzees. “Both of the chimps had grown up in entertainment before coming here in the fifties,” Ziegler said. “They didn’t really coexist or get along. Before I got there the superintendent had looked into finding a better home for the chimps because everyone recognized their homes were not up to par.” However, they tested positive for hepatitis meaning it would be difficult to place them in a facility where they could live with other chimps. So the decision was made to keep the elderly chimps at the zoo and “give them the best life we could give for them here.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

Ziggy passed away a few years after Ziegler came and Billy died in 2007 after being at the zoo for over fifty years. “We were upfront we didn’t have the space or resources to properly house chimpanzees,” she elaborated. “The week after Bill passed away we razed the exhibit, gutted it and built a memorial garden to commemorate the legacy of Bill and Ziggy and talk about what’s going with chimpanzees in the wild. It explains why we are not appropriate for chimpanzees now. We have a statue of Bill and people send there a lot of time reading about Bill and chimpanzee conservation. Jane Goodall visited Bill a few months before he died and said he thrived despite the circumstances.”

@ Scott Richardson

Not only did the spaces and care for the animals get better but the staff grew greatly. “There used to be about four people on staff while now we have 16,” Ziegler said. “Professionally our keeper staff has really matured. We have a lot of people who are super dedicated to their profession. We didn’t have much of an education program before while now we have a robust program that does our interpretive messages. The things we offer to the community are immense compared to what they used to be. Our conservation program was nothing 5-7 years ago but bow we have a conservation advisory committee which does quarters for conservation. We also do an adult lecture series.”

@ Scott Richardson

Ziegler and the Sequoia Park Zoo decided to be ambitious and creative within a small budget when they were planning Watershed Heroes, a state-of-the-art bioclimatic zone featuring river otters, bald eagles and salmon in naturalistic environments. “Watershed Heroes really transformed the zoo,” Ziegler elaborated. “We competed for a state grant for natural education facilities with other zoos and aquariums and they told us we had one of the best projects they’d ever seen. We wanted to tell this compelling story about water conservation with otters, eagles and salmon. We wrote in the grant the exhibit would talk about how these species interact with each other and their environment. It was a great story and there’s a superhero component to it as we have an anthropomorphized salmon who tells the story.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

The stars of the attraction of course were the river otters and their habitat turned out to be arguably one of the best ever built. “The otter habitat couldn’t be as big as I would have liked due to space constraints but out designers added a lot of topography,” she explained. “There are these hills and valleys in their exhibit. It’s a very lush, fully vegetated space. They’ve got all these places they can go that make this a very dynamic space. Kids can go through an acrylic tube through the otters. The otters will swim around the tube or eat on top of it.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

“Above the otters is our bald eagle exhibit and a couple of pools for salmon,” Ziegler added. “We have some local salmon species in there. There’s a new classroom where kids can look out at the bald eagles or the salmon. We can do education about them right there in the classroom. Watershed Heroes talks about the role we play in the watershed, how we need to conserve water and a lot of messages about watershed health and the keystone species of salmon. It gave us a huge bump in attendance and people are very happy with it.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

Watershed Heroes is only the beginning of the zoo’s master plan, carefully tailored to meet the needs and constraints of the Zoo. “The next phase we plan to do is Native Predators, which will bring back bears to the zoo,” Ziegler remarked. “It will piggyback on the west edge of Watershed Heroes and include black bears, ringtails, cougars and coyotes. Then there will be the Redwood Canopy Walk, where visitors will go up in the air to see the redwood forest. It will allow us to talk about the biodiversity way above our heads. We hope to open that in 3-4 years. It’s a great vision and people are very excited about that. We also want to do a new gibbon habitat to upgrade their space, add more South American exhibits and round out Asian Forest with clouded leopards and binturongs.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

Gretchen Ziegler takes great pride in the Zoo and enjoyed helping it find its identity. “This is one of the neatest zoos I’ve seen,” she reflected. “It’s a very special place. The hardest part of being a director is knowing what a great vision we have and having that hurdle of needing to fundraise in a capacity beyond what this region can easily support. It takes a lot of patience and work, which isn’t one of my automatic skill sets. The most rewarding part is being able to design a zoo habitat and see animals thrive in there and see visitors wild to see these animals. The otter and eagle habitats took years of work but they couldn’t have turned out better.”

@ Sequoia 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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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti