Positive Difference: A Conversation with Steve Wylie, Retired Director of the Oklahoma City Zoo

Few zoo directors have been as well liked by the American zoo community as Steve Wylie. He will always be remembered for his tenure as director of the Oklahoma City Zoo where he put the zoo on the path to being a great zoo. Beforehand, Wylie was an excellent curator who helped establish sustainable captive populations of a variety of species in zoos. Here is his story.

@ Steve Wylie

Wylie began his career at the Kansas City Zoo in the later 1960s. “After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, I attended the University of Kansas for two years, was interested in wildlife management and was newly married,” he recalled. “My parents lived in Kansas City and the zoo was looking for a zookeeper, so I applied and got the job. At that time, the Kansas City Zoo was under the parks and recreation department and was a traditional style zoo with one central building, grottos and numerous other outdoor exhibits. It was fairly rudimentary, but it was the only zoo of size within a two-hundred mile radius. I started in 1967 and learned everything I could. They didn’t teach zookeeping in books, so you had to learn the fundamentals of feeding, cleaning and management. In addition, you had to learn how to keep yourself safe while maintaining your responsibilities. I actually started with gorillas, orangutans, chimps and gibbons and later worked with hoof stock and large carnivores. Although I was interested in birds, the zoo didn’t have a large collection. However, it was large enough for one individual to maintain, so eventually, all of my time was dedicated to the zoo’s bird collection."

@ Grayson Ponti

After three years, Wylie moved east to work at the Philadelphia Zoo. “Philadelphia was a really great opportunity for me,” he said. “I had become involved with birds and was a member of the International Waterfowl Organization. That’s where I met Gus Griswold, Curator of Birds at the Philadelphia Zoo. In those days, there were only three or four primary bird curators in American zoos and he was one of them. I had the opportunity to become Gus’s Assistant Curator so I jumped at it. I learned a lot from Gus. He was like a second dad and taught me a great deal about birds and aviculture. This was also more of a true curatorial type position, which opened avenues to meeting other ornithologists and zoo professionals. My move to the Philadelphia Zoo was indeed significant.”

@ Philadelphia Zoo

Prior to Griswold’s retirement, Wylie was approached by the Saint Louis Zoo to become their Curator of Birds and Deputy General Curator. “It was a zoo in transition at that time,” he recalled. “They had just received a funding base from a municipal/county tax. These monies were going to be used to replace old buildings, which were badly in need of renovation as well as other improvements. This created tremendous opportunity and was the beginning of building the zoo into what it is today.” The first project in the renovation of the zoo was Big Cat Country, which created naturalistic habitats for the felines. “The old lion house was all concrete and bars," Wylie said. "Big Cat Country consisted of outdoor, planted exhibits that provided more exhibit space in addition to larger indoor holding facilities.” The exhibit won the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Exhibits Award in 1976, one of the first zoos to get the honor.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Following Big Cat Country were renovations of three historic buildings, the Primate House, Herpetarium, and Bird House. “The Bird House was constructed in 1935 and largely consisted of exhibits that were fronted by glass windows.” Wylie explained. “The first thing you encountered when entering was an open aviary in the center of the building, perhaps the first of its kind in the country. However, all the remaining exhibits were small and mainly utilized concrete floors covered with sand. It had a wing with exhibits fronted by metal netting. This was bird exhibit technology at the time the building was constructed. What we did was remove all the old exhibits and created larger ones that didn’t have glass, but rather high-tension wire for containment. Each of these exhibits represented a spacious planted aviary. The building was carpeted and air conditioned as well; a whole different type of structure.” As Curator of Birds, Wylie was heavily involved with the design of the reimagined Bird House.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“One of the first things I addressed as Bird Curator was the bird department’s nutritional program,” Wylie stated. “Some of the bird diets weren’t very good and often they were a hodgepodge of several food items that made little nutritional sense. I was part of a generation that was beginning to consider the merits of proper nutrition. We were very fortunate to have Ralston Purina’s animal food division headquartered in Saint Louis. They helped us assemble diets for the bird collection that provided a more nutritional basis. We also began reorganizing the collection. We tried to organize it in a way that took advantage of available exhibit spaces. For instance, we had three large pond areas, which were great for an extensive waterfowl collection."

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Wylie was also Vice-chairman of AZA’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee during the conception of the Species Survival Plan, which facilitates sustainable breeding populations in America’s zoos. “I was involved with the SSP program really at its beginning,” he stated. “The committee was given the task of creating this plan. None of us were quite sure where we were going. The philosophy at the time was not as much an ex-situ effort to maintain populations to eventually release into the wild, as it was an in-situ effort to maintain populations of species that would be available for exhibiting in zoos. We were becoming more knowledgeable about inbreeding challenges in zoo collections and wanted to establish animal populations that were genetically diverse in order to have specimens for continuing education and conservation purposes. The SSP program has since grown and become very complex. Through the years, the philosophy of saving species has expanded into a larger conservation effort than the original concept.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“One of the problems that has evolved is that we’ve stopped breeding several species,” Wylie continued. “The emphasis was moved from a majority of captive species populations, to those that were more challenged in nature. Over time, zoos have been breeding a pre-identified list of species and ignoring others. As a result, we have limited the number of species we are working with and in turn have reduced their availability to collections."

@ Grayson Ponti

After Charlie Hoessle became the Zoo’s Director, Wylie became the zoo’s General Curator. “The nice thing about Saint Louis was we had a very competent staff,” Wylie continued. “My responsibilities were more of a management nature. When it came to mammals and reptiles, we had excellent curators. The same could be said for the Veterinary and Education Departments. So it was just a matter of ensuring the continuance of established programs."

@ Saint Louis Zoo

"The zoo also had an experienced and knowledgeable keeper staff," Wylie continued. "This was largely due to the fact that the University of Missouri graduated numerous wildlife management and zoology majors each year. There was a continual list of diversified candidates to pick from. I recall that when I started in Kansas City, I was the only keeper with a formal education and there were no female keepers. I am pleased at how this has changed. The creation of the American Association of Zookeepers(AAZK) also happened about that time, which provided keepers an opportunity to communicate with each other.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 1985, Steve Wylie was recruited by the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Oklahoma City was looking for a director and they approached me,” he remembered. “There was actually a zoo regional conference at Oklahoma City in 1985, so I interviewed during that conference. The rest is history. At the time, the Oklahoma City Zoo needed a new vision. Oklahoma is an oil based economy and oil had dropped in price, businesses were failing, banks were closing, and residents were losing their jobs. The economy had tanked and thus zoo revenues and support were down. The zoo’s property had not been maintained well and much was needed in terms of painting or replacement. You’d look at animal barns and see broken windows.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

It was obvious that the zoo required a face lift. “We really needed to get the place cleaned up despite not having a lot of money,” Wylie explained. “One of the main items you always have to address is balancing the budget. We were operating at a deficit and needed to get that corrected. As a result, we had to lay off approximately thirty-five people and eliminate several other positions. For instance, we had a construction crew, but no money to build anything. We began doing some painting and making repairs. Since it was easier to change aesthetics than build anything, we chose to do that. We manicured the grounds and planting areas. Within a year or two the zoo was starting to look more like park than it had before. When you change the aesthetics of things, people notice. Between 1985 and 1990, our primary goal was cleaning things up and making zoo operations more economical so that if we ever had the opportunity to grow and expand, we’d be ready to do so.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Changes in the collection were made as well. “Dr. Warren Thomas, one of the zoo’s former director’s, was greatly interested in hoof stock," Wylie recalled. "He established numerous large exhibits that displayed several species of antelope and deer. The hoof stock collection was really a remnant of Warren’s influence. However, the exhibits were overpopulated and the result was that we had to reduce the collection because we couldn’t afford to feed and care for all the specimens. We had thirty Gaur in an exhibit and it looked like a cattle feed lot. We placed the Gaur in other zoos and surplused several individuals and species from the antelope and deer collection. We trimmed these groups down to a workable size and selected species that needed to be part of a conservation program.”

Another major focus for Wylie was the improvement of the zoo’s guest experience, education programs and marketing. “We had to advertise more,” he elaborated. “We had to compete with other local attractions and get people to come to the zoo. There wasn’t much of an education department when I arrived. One of the problems was that the zoo had become departmentalized to the extent that some departments didn’t work well together. The education department suffered from the same type of behavior and had become somewhat isolated. Eventually we identified new goals and visions for the department and hired new staff members. We began to receive better access to schools, students and families. The zoo suddenly became a point of interest through the city’s education system.”

Lena Kofoed @ Oklahoma City Zoo

“Improving guest services was just as important,” Wylie elaborated. “We upgraded our refreshment stands, gift shops and even installed a merry-go-round and tram, which was a hit. We had a parking lot that was dirt so we paved it with asphalt, which was also a major improvement. It took time, but these along with other visitor enhancements, improved the whole package of visiting the zoo."

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

The first major exhibit project during Wylie’s tenure was an aquatics center featuring dolphins. “When I came here, the zoo was in the process of building an aquarium and dolphinarium known as Aquaticus,” he said. “It was scheduled to be a $5-6 million exhibit, but because of the economic decline of the petroleum industry, $2 million in donor pledges had defaulted. We had to rethink the scope of the building as we were now doing a $3 million exhibit. The contractor went bankrupt, so the bonding company took over the project. Despite these issues, we were able to get it opened approximately a year later than expected."

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

“In 1988, we put together the zoo’s first comprehensive master plan.” Wylie remarked. “By doing that, we had a road map to grow, but just needed money to get where we wanted to go. At the time, attendance was still down and we still weren’t increasing our revenues as much as we wanted. As a result, we started considering other revenue options like mill levees and bonds. After much research, we settled on a sales tax. That wasn’t an easy thing to do because Oklahoma is an interesting place when it comes to tax or bond related referendums. History had shown that each time a bond issue came up for something like education, the voters turned it down. No one thought our effort would ever succeed. Through the zoological society, we hired a local, professional pollster, who was familiar with the political community. They conducted a poll and discovered there would be support for this tax. A petition drive was conducted to get the topic on the ballot and we did a great amount of campaigning. In July 1990, the referendum for a one-eighth cent sales tax was placed before the residents of Oklahoma City. Sure enough, it passed. So basically, for every dollar spent in Oklahoma City, an eighth of a cent of that is given to the zoo. A lot of doubters were surprised, but people in the community cared about their zoo.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

The first item to be addressed in the Master Plan was the greatly outdated great ape exhibits. “Gary Lee was our architect and he had a lot of experience with gorilla exhibits,” Wylie continued. “At the time, our ape exhibits were old and needed to be replaced. We had gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangs in old concrete and cinder block structures." The decision was made to build Great EscApe, a complex comprised of naturalistic, open habitats for gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees which opened in 1993.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

“There was much thought put into that exhibit,” Wylie said. “It was state-of-the-art when it opened and the first time some of the zoo’s apes ever had access to outdoor exhibits. The indoor holding quarters were also much nicer and visitors could view the animals inside their day rooms. It really was an unbelievable improvement over what they had previously. The apes adjusted very well.” Great EscApe was very successful, led to record breaking attendance at the zoo and signaled the tide of a new era for the Oklahoma City Zoo being a modern, well-respected institution. “Everybody loved Great EscApe,” Wylie reflected. “They were amazed how nice something could turn out.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Great EscApe was followed by Cat Forest, featuring large and small felines including lions, tigers, snow leopards, jaguars, clouded leopards and caracals. “The cat exhibit is built on pillars placed on hard rock,” Steve Wylie commented. “You have to have those kinds of special conditions since we don’t have the hard soil found in other locations. Oklahoma geology can be very difficult to work with. All the zoo’s cats had previously been exhibited in grottos. Cat Forest provided landscaped, net covered exhibits, while the indoor holding quarters were modern. We used every bit of new technology available to improve those facilities.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

“The cats we chose to exhibit were compatible with SSP plans,” Wylie elaborated. “We obviously needed lions and tigers, but we also got Pallas cats, sand cats and clouded leopards, which we never had before. We also created a much better exhibit space for the snow leopards. Thus, it was a more rounded collection that had more conservation potential."

Lena Kofoed @ Oklahoma City Zoo

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Cat Forest was also a major improvement for the visitors. “The public spaces were so much better,” Wylie said. “Educational graphics enhanced the exhibit areas, just as they had in the Great EscApe. Air-conditioned visitor viewing areas were also incorporated. It’s a much more comfortable experience for visitors than looking into grottos”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

As the Oklahoma City Zoo became more successful, it increased its conservation efforts. “When we finally were able to improve the exhibits and grounds after the sales tax passed, we had funding to support conservation issues,” Wylie explained. “Probably the largest conservation programs we were involved with were the SSP programs. Jack Grisham, the zoo’s General Curator, was very involved in cheetah and canine programs. We didn’t have the funds to give much money to third world nations or national parks as other zoos were doing. We were, however, one of the original members of the Madagascan Fauna Group.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Wylie was candid about the fact the local government and community donors were lukewarm to funding conservation programs. “At first the zoo’s governing body supported the philosophy to just put money into the zoo,” he recalled. “I even had a chairman of the governing body comment to me that conservation didn’t raise revenues for the zoo. Part of my time was spent educating the Zoo Trust and Zoological Society members about the world of zoos and their purposes. We were in essence trying to change a culture by educating both our governance as well as the public.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Toward the end of his tenure as director, Wylie thought of the name of an exhibit that would later elevate the zoo even further. “There was a piece of land we wanted to get as part of the main zoo,” he explained. “We had to come up with a name for it and tell the Park and Recreation Department what we wanted to do. I believed it would be a great place for a bison/prairie dog exhibit since Oklahomans are very keen on Oklahoma history and nature. I came up with the name Oklahoma Trails.” While it was not built on that land, Oklahoma Trails would become the zoo’s signature exhibit when it opened in 2007. It takes visitors on a tour of ecosystems of Oklahoma and features wildlife such as black bears, gray wolves, bison, otters, American alligators, alligator snapping turtles and elk.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Steve Jones @ Oklahoma City Zoo

During his fifteen years as director, Steve Wylie completely transformed the Oklahoma City Zoo and put it on track to become a great zoo. However, he knew it was time to move on. “In 2000, I was considering other opportunities,” Wylie elaborated. Since retiring, he has only been to the zoo three times. “I’m one of those people that when I leave a job, I don’t want to be hanging around,” Wylie commented. “The succeeding directors need to have space to do things. I don’t want to be in the way nor placed in a position to judge what someone else is doing. When I left the zoo, I went directly into consulting.” Since his retirement, the Oklahoma City Zoo has continued to thrive with the opening of the state-of-the-art Oklahoma Trails and Asian elephant habitat.

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Wylie first began consulting at the Kansas City Zoo where he had begun his career. “I knew the Kansas City Zoo had some issues and they were looking for someone to help out,” he stated. They had completed a total new master plan. However, the Park Department had reduced their funding. The zoo had gotten big and spread out. It’s a mile from the parking lot to the chimpanzee exhibit. Then the zoo’s accreditation was tabled because of operational issues that hadn’t been addressed."

@ Grayson Ponti

“I was hired to assist in straightening it out,” Wylie continued. “We were able correct most of the Accreditation issues, particularly those associated with animal management and the education department. Because the Zoo Friends had just taken over the zoo’s management, there were budget issues to be considered. We put together an animal collection plan and reorganized departments. We implemented the basic principles that go with any modern zoo.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Next, Wylie went to California to be the Interim Director of Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo. “The zoo was pursuing a sales tax similar to Oklahoma City’s and because I was experienced in what would follow if it passed, I was asked to join their team.” “Fresno had numerous political challenges to deal with. I received a real education while I was there in how the politics of the zoo’s governance was going to work. It was a work in progress at the time, since there were many trip hazards. Back then, the city government wasn’t that supportive of the zoo.” Since then, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has soared and become popular."

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Despite being fully retired, Steve Wylie still takes great pride in the zoo industry. “All this new technology is allowing zoos to do things we couldn’t do,” he reflected. “The internet adds a totally new dimension. I marvel at what they are doing and the scope and time they’re dedicating to it. Unfortunately, when I get my Connect magazine, I really don’t know many people anymore. I feel good about the future, though, as there appears to be a lot of energetic people who are working for the betterment of the industry. I believe they’re doing some tremendous work for conservation. There’s a lot of funding coming in too, which is great.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

“My philosophy basically was that everywhere I went, I tried to make a positive difference.” Steve Wylie concluded. "I don’t feel I ever wavered from that goal.”

@ Steve Wylie

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