Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley: A Conversation with Mark Reed, Retired Director of the Sedgwi

The Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas is often regarded as one of the zoo world’s best kept secrets. Despite having a much smaller market than its peers, it is often considered by zoo insiders and fans to be one of the best zoos in America. Much of this success goes to Mark Reed, who worked at the zoo for 38 out of the zoo’s 46 years of existence. In 1991, he became director of the zoo and led it to unprecedented growth. After opening the state-of-the-art Elephants of the Zambezi Valley in 2016, Reed finally decided to retire. Here is his story.

@ Mark Reed

Reed’s love for zoos was started with his family. His father Dr. Theodore Reed was director of Smithsonian’s National Zoo for decades. “I was five years old when we moved to Washington and my dad became the veterinarian there,” Reed said. “He was veterinarian for a little over a year when he was called down to the Smithsonian to be the acting director of the zoo. Back then, the zoo was underfunded and needed a lot of help so it took awhile to get things rolling. He was very fortunate to get some help from FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) and he redid much of the zoo- the Bird House, the Elephant House, the Monkey House, the Reptile House, the Small Mammal House. They built a new great ape house and the new hospital research center as well. The thing he was most proud of was finding the land for the Conservation and Research Center at Front Royal, which is now known as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. That was important to him.”

@ Smithsonian

Reed’s dad instilled in him his passion for visiting zoos around the world. “The thing I got out of him is he visited not only a lot of zoos in America but also overseas,” he remarked. “He always made a point to see as much as he could and took those ideas. When I went off to be a zookeeper in 1972 at the San Antonio Zoo he gave me two books to read: Zoo Biology and Man and Animal in the Zoo, both by Heini Hediger. I still have never forgotten the phrase there’s no such thing as a straight line in nature- I had the good fortune to visit the original rhino/hippo house in Zurich, which has no straight lines. The other thing I learned from my dad is you need to surround yourself with as many good people as you can.”

@ Smithsonian

After graduating from Kansas State University in 1972, Mark Reed got hired as a keeper at the San Antonio Zoo. While working at the zoo, he completed a master's thesis on safari parks at Texas Tech. “My thesis was a document the San Antonio Zoo would use if they utilized 328 acres of land they had been given by the city for a safari park,” Reed explained. “I visited all of the facilities like that and learned what I could. Louis DiSabato, the director of the San Antonio Zoo, was on my thesis committee. I was sad the land never got utilized for that purpose but they didn’t have the money.” He added that many safari parks faced problems including misuse of land, overstocking them with animals and high operating costs.

@ San Antonio Zoo

In April 1979, Reed went to the AAZPA regional conference at the Sedgwick County Zoo. He was impressed by the zoo and was soon offered the position of assistant director there, “I thought I’d be here for five years but stayed for 37.5,” he recalled. “The rest was history.” Two of the things that impressed Reed the most were its director and completeness. “The Sedgwick County Zoo was blessed with a director named Ron L. Blakely who came out of Brookfield and Lincoln Park,” he added. “Brilliant man! They started with a master plan that had the concept of a central plaza with thematic exhibits and zoogeographical areas branching off of it. To my knowledge, it is the only zoo that has followed its master plan and utilized it. I think that’s part of its success.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

When Reed got there, the Sedgwick County Zoo was only eight years old and featured modern zoo technology. Its premier exhibit was the second tropical rainforest building built in the United States. “The Tropics Building, originally called the Jungle, feels more like one than any in the United States,” Reed remarked. “It has a wood mulch path and smell like a jungle. We just did a renovation of it and it’s now climate controlled.” The year after Reed arrived, the zoo opened its walkthrough South America-Australia exhibit. “My first job was to get all the animals for the exhibit,” he added. “It was a quarter mile pathway through what people would call an aviary; in part it was like you’re in the cage and looking out into their area. It actually is my favorite exhibit because it’s the most diverse and there’s a lot of animal management involved.”

@ Sedgwick Count Zoo

Reed quickly found Ron Blakely to be a great mentor to him. “The thing I got most from him was his philosophy,” Mark reflected. “I learned from him to question why we’re doing what we’re doing and the whole cost benefit ratio thing. He taught me we’re here to interpret nature for the laymen. I think people now realize that’s the most important thing we do. We need to tell our story and, if they leave with an appreciation for wildlife, we have had an impact. We’ve got a long way to go- a lot of people just get the recreational message of a zoo but we’re getting out our story about the field conservation we’re supporting. I tried to have or support a field conservation program for most of our endangered species we had at the zoo.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“As assistant director it was operational,” Reed explained of his first job at the zoo. “I oversaw the animal care, animal health, maintenance and horticulture departments. Those were basically my areas of responsibility. I had an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the higher level of operating the zoo than I did at San Antonio.” By 1991, he was applying to work at other zoos but Blakely retired early and he was chosen to be the executive director of the zoo. For the next 25 years, the Sedgwick County Zoo was Mark Reed’s responsibility.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

As much as he admired Blakely, Reed knew from the beginning he wanted to approach some matters differently. “My predecessor basically kept everything to himself and did not raise money,” he recalled. “I made the decision I was going to run the most open and transparent zoo I could. I was very open and even published a monthly death and birth list. I was surprised we never got burned but we had good support with the media and the community. We were a very trusted organization.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Mark Reed made a large point in elevating the marketing of the zoo. “The zoo has always been popular but it was not marketed right,” he elaborated. “When I became director we had under 300,000 visitors while last year we had over 700,000 visitors. Wichita for the last twenty years had drawn at least 90% of its metropolitan area to the zoo. That was one of the benchmarks I used to judge how we were doing with our community. We have an annual fundraiser every year called Zoobilee and, during the last two years, we’ve grossed over one million dollars in one night. That’s incredible. It’s the largest fundraiser in the state of Kansas. The community has just been great. We have a public-private partnership so the zoo is managed by a board of 35 trusties and most of them are community citizens.”

@ Mark Reed

Before Reed even became director, the zoo decided it would build a North American Prairie. “It was hard to get excited since they weren’t exotic animals but it was amazing how well it was received,” he stated. “We had a boat ride and canal through the middle of it so you can see the wolves, bison and pronghorn from the boat ride. One of my greatest days was when Clayton Freiheit (the late longtime director of the Denver Zoo) was in the boat and fifteen feet away from him were pronghorn drinking from the water. He just shook his head. The grizzly bear exhibit is still one of the few in the country where you’re looking at the bears with blue sky behind them and no barriers. It’s totally vegetated.” In upcoming years, the zoo added black bears, river otters, cougars and elk to the North America area.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“As far as exhibitory, we always tried to do things new or different,” Reed remarked. “I can say the underwater barrier for elephants has never been done before. If it didn’t work, there would nothing stopping those elephants from being anywhere they wanted to be in the zoo. That’s an idea I got on the Zambezi River. I could see elephants crossing from Zambia to Zimbabwe and said we can do this in Wichita.” However, he also was concerned with making the zoo as visitor friendly as possible. Although they might not be as flashy as new exhibits, Reed mentioned two things he was “very proud” of accomplishing at the zoo were adding many bathrooms and expanding the parking lot. “You can never have enough bathrooms or parking spaces,” he added. “No one should ever be in pain.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

After North America, Reed added outdoor habitats for the zoo’s chimpanzees and orangutans. “The chimp habitat is open-topped with the traditional rock wall on the backside,” he explained. “Back then everyone used to bring mountain climbers to see if they could get out. This guy, after four hours of trying, had enough sense to say he couldn’t speak for chimpanzees but no human could climb out. Our maintenance guy then jumped from a climbing structure in the yard to the viewing wall and hoisted himself out to the public side. I’ve learned now what human rock climbers can do is unbelievable and, if that’s how you judge you’re exhibit, that’s how you’re going to spend a lot of money. It’s a stunt that can backfire on you.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“The orangutan habitat was only the second with ‘Carlos’ Mesh,'” he continued. “It’s woven wire mesh and had only been done before at Cheyenne Mountain. One time when they went in to trim some bamboo and they nicked some wire so one of our orangutans briefly escaped. Other than that it’s worked. I believe orangutans enjoy the mesh since it adds much more climbing ability. It was amazing to see them put their toes on the mesh side wall and fall backwards and bounce like they were on a sideways trampoline. They are clever animals and I had seen some clever orangutan escapes so this meshed habitat made it simple not to worry about them.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Of course, one of Mark Reed’s most important contributions to the zoo was a larger focus on conservation. “We weren’t the first but probably the fourth or fifth to do Quarters for Conservation,” he stated. “Steve Burns (director of Zoo Boise) and Bob Chastain (director of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo) talked about it at a conference and I implemented it in a year. For admission, there’s a quarter extra charge for conservation. This allowed us to spend close to $150,000 for field conservation work. I told the new director that one of his challenges is to expand the conservation message.” Reed also commented that their commitment to elephant conservation was essential to them being able to rescue African elephants from Swaziland in 2016.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

The Sedgwick County Zoo was also ahead of its time in terms of education. “The first person Ron Blakely hired was an education curator and we were one of the first zoos to build an education building,” Reed said. “We have active programs from preschool at the zoo to a four year college degree in zoo science at Friends University. I gave out about $80,000 worth of scholarships at the zoo last year. The philosophy of the zoo is being spread by graduates throughout the profession and they’ve produced several zoo leaders.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

At the end of the day, Mark Reed believes animal welfare is the zoo’s top priority. “There’s absolutely no question it has become the thing we need to do the best we can,” he elaborated. “Unofficially, we said we shouldn’t be locking animals in at night so most of our animals have access to their exhibits 24/7. Except for inclement weather, they’re not brought in and shut for the night like at many other zoos. It’s our ethical responsibility to give our animals the most enriching lives we can.” Reed explained how animal enrichment programs at zoos started with great apes but now even extend down into the birds and reptiles. He said it’s not just important to have enrichment but to make sure it works. “For the elephants, you have to document all the enrichments you’re doing,” Reed stated. “There’s no question animal welfare is where we’ll be looked at by the public. We have to provide the best possible care and environment we can.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Mark Reed and his staff took a number of measures to make sure the animals lived the best levels possible. “One of the big changes I made was letting the animals go out at night,” he commented. “We have a pretty secure fence system and enough support at night to do this. It’s great that I could see the elephants out in their yard at midnight. The hippos would be outside. The lions would be outside. There are a lot of places with these fabulous exhibits but animals are only in them eight hours a day. That was an easy step.” He said the bigger challenge is making sure the animals are enriched throughout the day. “You provide great welfare by letting them be elephants,” Reed stated. “You’re providing them the means to live an enriching life whether by new mud wallows or giving them all the browse they can handle. It’s realized now animal welfare and conservation are our two majority priorities.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“We all need to be exceeding the bar that gets raised constantly,” Reed reflected. “You need to educate your local government too.” In order to do that, he believes zoos need to make sure they work from a financial/business perspective. “When I became the director, we had a $2.5 million operating budget while last year it was just under $14 million,” Reed said. “We had to be entrepreneurial, market the zoo and get community support for fundraising and memberships. It’s all about personal relationships in the community to show what can be done, that we need their help and it’s the right thing to do. The zoo has to be a quality experience and they need to want to come back. You can’t rest on your laurels”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Mark Reed takes great pride in Sedgwick County Zoo having some of the best cost ratio benefits of any major zoo in the country. “You had to be constantly aware where the dollars were going, what they are doing and not exceed the budget,” he remarked. “You had to make decisions about how far you went. The underwater viewing of the otter exhibit could be done much easier and cheaper with four panels than two. That saved us $42,000 dollars. No one comes and realizes there are four panels of glass. That’s the whole thing with construction. I’ve challenged colleagues at other zoos about what we spend on animal exhibits. We have one of the best elephant habitats in the country but we did it under budget for around $10.3 million. We had people up there with tears in their eyes because they were so happy to see them in this situation. We couldn’t afford to make mistakes and correct them.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

In 2000, the Sedgwick County Zoo opened Pride of the Plains, a state-of-the-art lion habitat. Recreating the kopjes of East Africa, the region also features African painted dogs, red river hogs (originally warthogs) and meerkats. “The challenge of Pride of the Plains was to make a carnivore habitat immersive,” Reed explained. “It’s not like you can go in with the lions. We came up with this pathway where you meander around the kopje rocks and could see the lions, hogs, meerkats and painted dogs. You’ve got a water moat situation and the traditional pride rock out in the middle of it. The greater the viewing area, the more active the carnivores.”

@ WDM Architects

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

One unique thing about the exhibit was the rockwork was done in-house to keep down the costs. “The rockwork at the time was the largest in-house rock project ever done by a zoo,” Reed said. “We hired two people who were artists to teach us how to do the artwork. We got incredible rockwork [in Pride of the Plains.] We’ve had people saying this looks like such-and-such place in Zimbabwe. I’ve seen some equal lion habitats but never better. The open viewing makes it enriching for the lions.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“We had a major commitment to African painted dogs,” Reed continued. “Mike Quick, our Mammal Curator, is the SSP coordinator of African painted dogs and we have put in a lot of funds into programs for them. When it opened all the little kids knew meerkats and warthogs from Disney’s Lion King. We had wanted those animals at our zoo. We had African painted dogs from almost the very beginning of the zoo and about a third of their current area was their old yard.”

@ WDM Architects

Initially, Mark Reed wanted to follow up Pride of the Plains with a modern large elephant exhibit. “I knew the Downings were interested in doing an exhibit for the zoo and I wanted to talk them into elephants but I could tell in 30 seconds it was gorillas,” he recalled. “I wanted to do elephants first but we never had gorillas and they were in the master plan. The Downings had just been with the mountain gorillas in Uganda and had this mystical experience. If someone offers you a lead gift of four million dollars to do gorillas, you can’t say no. Politics doesn’t work that way. It would have killed us with the community.”

@ WDM Architects

@ Downing Foundation

“ They wanted babies but I said it would be males first,” Reed stated. “There were no female gorillas available. A lot of zoos gave up gorillas in the 80s and concentrated them in larger family groups at zoos like Cincinnati, San Diego and Bronx. There were no females available but 32 males were so I took eight of them. We built the first large scale gorilla bachelor facility. At one time we had nine bachelors. We’re since shipped out some males to Como and Miami and brought in three females. We’ve had two female babies born last year and that group is doing well.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“I wanted to do more than gorillas and so we flew back with the donor to the Bronx Zoo to see the Congo exhibit,” Reed continued. “That inspired us to add okapis and colobus monkeys to the exhibit. We had bongo in one of the okapi yards temporarily but now they are in the regular African veldt. We have five okapis now.” The Sedgwick County Zoo supports the Okapi Conservation Project to help this elusive species in the wild. It also is heavily involved with the AZA Great Ape Initiative and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“At the time, Downing Gorilla Forest was the most expensive thing we had ever built,” Reed said. “One challenge was building a forest in Kansas. It took four years for the trees to fill in. We learned from Bronx’s Congo exhibit the whole amphitheater bowl complex lets people have that close experience. The gorillas spend so much time up there close to the people. The message inside the building is to help support the programs we do. Obviously we also have the keeper talks that are done every day at various times, as there are in the orang and chimp areas. We have a special great ape appreciation weekend that’s a big deal here.”

@ WDM Architects

While Mark Reed continued holding out the desire to build a spectacular elephant habitat, he again found a donor who wanted to do other things. “I came in hoping to do elephants and then I saw tiger statues and paintings everywhere,” he remembered. “He wanted to leave tigers as his gift to the community. We had tigers in the past but it was in a cage. I had gotten rid of them so we went without tigers from 1991 to 2009.” As a result, the Sedgwick County Zoo built Slawson Family Tiger Trek.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“We’ve got a lot of space for the tigers,” Reed elaborated. “We’ve got an oriental style building like you’d find in a national park. We do sleepovers in there where the tigers can look at you at night. We’ve got a lot of water features and bamboo in there. The entire fence is covered with bamboo. We added Eld’s deer and red pandas nearby. The Eld’s deer were a bit of a disappointment since people don’t pay attention to them but the red pandas have been a hit.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

In between the Downing Gorilla Forest and Slawson Family Tiger Trek, the Sedgwick County Zoo opened a habitat for Humboldt penguins. “We got a call from Cessna saying they wanted to do a penguin exhibit, which was rather interesting,” Reed said. “Here is an aircraft company that wanted to sponsor an exhibit for a bird that can’t fly! Anyway, this was all part of the Aquatics Complex. The plan was to have sea lions in a second phase and an aquarium in the third. I had this vision of going in seeing the sea lions as you edge into the aquarium and exhibit through the penguin area. We went back and forth between African and Humboldt penguins but went with Humboldt penguins since we already had a lot of African species. The exhibit will probably be the most visited exhibit in the zoo for all time, in part because of its central location not far from the entrance and being next to the main Zoo restaurant, Plaza Beastro.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Now that the zoo had done lions, gorillas, penguins and tigers, Mark Reed felt it was time to make his dream of a habitat for elephants a reality. Also, changing standards soon gave the zoo two options: raise the money and build a new exhibit or phase out elephants from the zoo. While the zoo knew they wanted to build the habitat, economic challenges and lack of availability of surplus elephants gave the zoo a reality check. “I was a month away from saying we had to ship out our two elephants when we joined a consortium with Dennis Pate of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Lynn Kramer and Gregg Hudson of the Dallas Zoo to rescue elephants from Swaziland," Reed remarked. "We saw the possibility existed and asked the board for a million dollar commitment to bring them in. After they said yes, I related that ‘Oh, we also need to raise the money for a new exhibit.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

The situation in Swaziland had become so dire the park would have culled the elephants if they had not been rescued by the consortium. “These parks in Swaziland were recreated parks since all the animals had been shot or hunted out of Swaziland by the 1950s,” Reed explained. “Their parks are probably the best habitats for rhinos in all of southern Africa- it’s incredible what they’ve done and how they’ve protected them from poachers. They’ve caught over 1200 people trying to poach rhinos and other animals. As it turned out, the land could only hold so few elephants and they were way past that number. Basically man, elephant and beaver can take a forest and turn it into a desert. They were totally destroying the park. Also, a three year El Nino induced drought was devastating them. The UN had declared Swaziland a national disaster emergency. We had to pay thousands of dollars a day for them to import alfalfa and feed the elephants. There’s no question, absolutely no question these elephants would have died if we could not have taken them in.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

The three zoos involved were well aware and prepared their rescue mission would be controversial and spark outrage among some animal rights extremists. “We got lots of letters and three death threats about not wanting us to do this,” Reed said. They consulted with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Lowry Park Zoo, who had done a similar rescue situation from Swaziland in 2003, to know how to handle the controversy around the situation. Reed mentioned that, despite the activists, not a single picket took place at the zoo, a testament to the community support of the zoo in Wichita. The Sedgwick County Zoo also got support from the zoo industry and elephant experts.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Meanwhile, Mark Reed and the Sedgwick County Zoo were busy building a state-of-the-art habitat for a multigenerational herd of African elephants. “I had this dream of recreating the Zambezi River along with pontoon boats since 1997 and then we also came up with this idea of a people ‘island’ in the middle of the 5 acre habitat,” he stated. “People want to see the elephant’s five inch eyelashes so we have elephants walking all around the island and there’s always one coming by. You can always see the elephants enjoying their vistas and be surrounded by the herd.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“Our habitat allows the management to let elephants be elephants,” Reed remarked. “We have the largest pool in the elephant world- half a million gallons. It’s 12 feet deep and the elephants can completely submerge. It’s also the third largest elephant exhibit in the country so they’ve got plenty of space. They’ve got lots of trees and plenty of enrichment opportunities. We provide them the browse and everything they need. We’ve gone to the point where we’re feeding them off the ground by hangers so they’re working the neck, shoulder and back muscles. We have these horse feeders you can set on timers so the elephants can move from one to the other as the hay is pushed out for feeding. We’ve got several other interesting feeding mechanisms for the elephants to use.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

One of the most anticipated challenges of Elephants of the Zambezi Valley worked out much easier than expected: integrating the Sedgwick County Zoo’s longtime resident elephant Stephanie in with six much younger elephants imported from Swaziland. “At first Stephanie was freaked out when all these elephants showed up but very quickly she became the matriarch,” Reed explained. “She had not seen another elephant besides the one she was with at the zoo since she was two years old but instinctually knew what to do. The integration between Stephanie and the new elephants was fantastic. She’s the matriarch with the herd and has added a lot with being the boss lady. When they came out, she led them into the water. She’s disciplined them when she’s had to and got a real spring in her step. She cycled for the first time ever recently. That’s a positive indication she’s feeling good.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Opened in spring 2016, Elephants of the Zambezi Valley was a tremendous success. The herd of elephants have shown lots of natural behaviors and the zoo broke its attendance record. The zoo hopes to have great breeding success among the herd in upcoming years. However, Mark Reed decided it was time to move on. “I finished the elephant exhibit after 28 months of the most exhilarating and stressful thing I had ever done,” he said. “My wife and I went to Africa afterwards and went to Swaziland to tell them how the elephants were doing. When we got home, we sat down and decided it was time to retire.” In December 2016, Mark Reed retired from the Sedgwick County Zoo, now one of the best zoos in the country.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“It’s an interesting zoo in that it’s a major zoo by size and variety but it’s on a relatively small budget,” reflected Reed on the Sedgwick County Zoo. “There’s not another community of its size in the country with a zoo of this quality and reputation. We’ve had great staff and volunteers. I was very privileged to work with them for 38 years. The most incredible thing about the zoo profession is working with a number of dedicated professional colleagues. I’ve had fund being a mentor and helping a lot of people.”

@ GLMV

“I continue to believe strongly that zoos will continue to be a place for people to connect with nature, something different than themselves,” Mark Reed concluded. “It’s probably the oldest cultural facility that has been enjoyed by mankind and I think that will continue. The Sedgwick County Zoo will do a major strategic plan and review the master plan soon. I think our community will continue to support the zoo. The zoo has a 50th coming up and will hopefully have new exhibits open around that timeframe.”

@ Mark Reed

Video on Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley: https://fpdl.vimeocdn.com/vimeo-prod-skyfire-std-us/01/1540/7/182702855/600075956.mp4?token=1502350680-0x748b24e8d5f8ccaa137a48a5c2e425aac5eb0d96

#SedgwickCountyZoo #SanAntonioZoo

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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