Riverbanks: A Conversation with Satch Krantz, Retired Director of the Riverbanks Zoo

For over forty years, Palmer “Satch” Krantz led the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. He became director when the zoo was just two years old and struggling financially. He helped elevate it into a very nice mid-sized zoo that now hosts over 1.3 million visitors a year. Krantz was very involved in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is often considered one of the best zoo directors of all time. He finally retired this summer but has left a rich legacy behind him. Here is his story.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Krantz began by talking about how he already misses the zoo after retiring a month ago. “I absolutely miss the zoo,” he noted. “You can’t do something for 44 years, have it be an integral part of your life and not miss it. I don’t miss the daily grind but in terms of the people, professionalism and the animals, I miss it a lot. We’re in an interesting time period where a number of us zoo directors are in our mid to late sixties and retiring. You’re seeing people retire at a pace of one every two months.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Krantz’s tenure at Riverbanks Zoo actually began before it opened in 1974. He grew up in Columbia and when he was in the seventh grade a campaign was held to raise money to build a zoo for the children of Columbia. The effort failed, but several years later when he was home for a weekend from college, he read in the paper that a zoo was actually under construction. “There was an act of the state legislature that started the Riverbanks Zoo Commission,” Krantz recalled. “That took place completely unkown to me as a college student. I was majoring in zoology at Clemson University. I drove down to where the zoo was located and happened to run into the man who had been hired as the first director, John Mehrtens. We started talking and he found out I had some experience as a veterinary assistant. Back then, many zoos didn’t have a full time veterinarian. Mehrtens told me he wanted me to be veterinary supervisor there once I finished school.” Surprisingly, Krantz had never even visited a zoo before he started working at one. “There wasn’t a zoo for me to go to,” he added. “My first zoo was Riverbanks.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Unlike some other large zoos built in the 1970s, Riverbanks didn’t aspire to be the zoo of the future or a world-class institution. “You had the North Carolina State Zoo and Minnesota State Zoo just a few years behind Riverbanks where there was a huge infusion of state dollars and extremely large tracks of land,” Krantz remarked. “Riverbanks, on the other hand, was just a local government initiative. There was no hype around Riverbanks being [more than] a nice small zoo in a small southern city.” The Riverbanks Zoo that opened in 1974 was much different from the zoo you see today. “I’m going to say less than 30% of what’s there now was there when we opened,” Krantz stated. “The layout of the zoo has changed dramatically. If you visited in 1974 and came back today, you wouldn’t recognize it.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Since that time, the Riverbanks Zoo has seen three major expansions and dramatically grown in attendance. “Riverbanks is unique as it’s a relatively small zoo with very large attendance,” Satch Krantz said. “We’re in a city with a metropolitan population of only 800,000 people but we get over one million visitors. That’s almost unprecedented in the zoo profession. That growth we’ve had over the last twenty five years needs to be sustained.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The first few years of Riverbanks’s existence were quite difficult and the young zoo faced many obstacles. “Mehrtens was an interesting man,” Krantz said. “He had never been a zoo director before but had been a reptile curator and a general curator in Fort Worth. When Columbia got the initial funding to construct the zoo, he applied and got it. John had very strong opinions about a lot of things. As the zoo was being built, there were a lot of delays in construction that were beyond anyone’s control. We had a string of two or three really wet winters that delayed the opening by a couple of years. By the time the zoo opened, politicians were frustrated since they had gone on a limb to build this zoo and it took so long. The Zoo Commission and John pledged the zoo would be self-supporting but of course that was not the case. Within 18 months of the zoo opening, it had become very controversial with the local political community because they were having to support the operating budget. John refused to cut costs and kept spending money at a pace people thought was not sustainable. In April 1976, he was fired.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The zoo found itself financial unstable, controversial in the community and without a director. Krantz, who was then serving as general curator, was asked to be the acting director despite being only 26 years old. “They conducted a national search and offered the director job to two people who turned it down,” he recalled. “Out of desperation, they asked me if I would take the job permanently.” Satch Krantz became Director of the Riverbanks Zoo, never looked back and the rest is history.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

One of the first things Krantz did as director was cut costs. “There were a lot of ways the zoo was spending money it didn’t need to spend,” he said. “We didn’t do any massive layoffs but within a year or two we trimmed down the staff tremendously with natural turnover. The zoo had just opened and there were a lot of employees whose roles switched from being creative and building the zoo to just operating it on a day-to-day basis. Some people found that to be boring so we had a lot of those original employees leaving at the time. We had a very large art department who had been responsible for doing all the interpretive graphics but we didn’t need those folks anymore. After they left, we just eliminated those positions.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

As time went on, the zoo began to win over the public and the local government. “Once we got finances in order and demonstrated to the community that we could operate the zoo in a fiscally responsible manner, the controversy fizzled and in 1986 we started our first expansion,”Satch Krantz elaborated. “The fact that the zoo had been so controversial and now politicians were willing to approve a bond issue was pretty remarkable.” The first expansion of the zoo featured the addition of Riverbanks Farm, the Aquarium Reptile Complex, a new public entrance and the zoo’s first restaurant.

@ Scott Richardson

The Zoo had a very large bird collection but it didn’t have any reptiles. “From the day the zoo opened, the one question we got over and over again was why don’t you have any reptiles,” Krantz said. “We felt pretty confident a reptile exhibit would be very popular and help boost attendance. We also didn’t have anything specifically for children so we were interested in doing something for them. Our entrance was grossly inadequate and only had two ticket windows. We had terrible food service- just two snack bars unable to handle big crowds so we built a sit-down restaurant. We hired the zoo architect firm of CLR, who had just formed, and they developed a mini master plan for us.” The Riverbanks Zoo’s master plan addressed all these needs and helped set them on the path to becoming a major zoo.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The planned reptile house morphed into a building that would feature both an aquarium and reptiles. “When we originally envisioned the ARC, it was two buildings but we combined them into one single building,” Satch Krantz explained. “The design intent behind it was people would go on a tour around the world starting in South Carolina seeing reptiles and fish common in the state and then move to the desert, then the rainforest and finally the ocean. This was at a time when aquariums were just becoming popular. Baltimore and Boston really set the trend for aquariums being built to boost economic growth and development. A lot of cities thought that was the way to go- build an aquarium and things would pop up around them. We tried to take advantage of some of the aquarium technology back then.” The ARC became one of the best herpetariums in the nation. “ It still looks very good today,” Krantz said. “Two years ago we renovated the interior with new carpeting, painting and graphics.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Since Riverbanks didn’t have reptiles, they needed to find a reptile curator. “We had a supervisor in our bird department named Scott Pfaff who came to Riverbanks in the hopes we would build a reptile house and he was right,” Krantz noted. “We conducted a national search for a reptile curator and, like me, we picked the in-house candidate. He’s still there.” As for the reptiles, the zoo acquired many from other zoos that had large varieties of them. The ARC was a phenomenal success. “I don’t know any single exhibit at any other zoo that has had the impact on attendance that building had on Riverbanks,” Krantz stated. “We went from 400,000 visitors in the early years of operation to over one million visitors in 1990. It continues to be ranked as one of the most popular exhibits at the zoo.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

While the farm, entrance and restaurant probably had minimal impact on attendance, Krantz credited them with “adding to the critical mass of the zoo and the length-of-stay.” The Riverbanks Farm let kids interact with farm animals while the restaurant dramatically increased revenue. “The two snack bars we had from 1974 to 1988 were just little belly up stands,” Krantz said. “You just walked up to a window and placed your order. Now we had indoor seating for 100 people and that completely changed the way people visited the zoo. People actually could buy a hamburger and French fries and sit in air-conditioned comfort. That changed the feel of the zoo and added earned revenue.”

@ Scott Richardson

Also important to the rise of the zoo was a focus on landscaping. “I think without a doubt the biggest impact made on the zoo was that we embraced the concept of landscape immersion and lush planting,” Satch Krantz remarked. “Historically, zoo horticulture was relegated to the maintenance department and all employees would do was cut grass and trim hedges. We got rid of all the lawns and started planting more native grasses. The horticulture program exploded in the 80s and 90s. It’s had a profound impact on the zoo and people love it. We also began to focus on things like behavioral enrichment of our animals- we embraced that early on. I like to think Riverbanks was always on the cutting edge of technology and improving the lives of animals and guests.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

As Riverbanks Zoo entered the 1990s, Krantz and his staff focused on developing better customer service. “We began to operate the zoo in a more business like manner,” he remarked. “During that time, we hired our first human resources mangers. Prior to that each supervisor managed their own HR, which no one would do today. We started treating our employees better. Computers suddenly started popping up on people’s desks and people could communicate better. A lot of things that happened to every business in the 90s impacted us. We all began to realize we needed to operate more responsibly.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The zoo also began to become more engaged with the larger zoo and aquarium community, particularly those in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA.) “The 1990s were the decade of transition from our being a small regional zoo to one that was beginning to get some prominence,” Krantz noted. “We were involved in a lot of AZA initiatives and, in 1998, we passed another bond issue that really changed the look of the zoo.” Also during this time Satch Krantz served as president of the AZA. “Being president of the AZA was wonderful,” he recalled. “My first involvement with AZA was around 1980 when I served on the membership committee and then became chairman of that committee. One thing led to another and they asked me if I’d run for the board. I got on the board for three years and then became vice president, then president. There was a lot going on in the zoo world and I really enjoyed it. We were very cognizant that animal management and ethics were becoming more important.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

However, the zoo’s biggest accomplishment during this time was the opening of the Riverbanks Botanical Garden. “Our zoo is located on the banks of the Lower Saluda River so we opened the botanical garden on the opposite side of the river,” Krantz stated. “That piece of property is pretty unique as it has a steep hillside and is not necessarily suitable for animal habitats. There was a 12-acre piece of land on top of the bluff we thought would be perfect for the formal garden. We hired Environmental Planning and Design, who specialized in botanical gardens, to design it. When the Garden opened the only way guests could access it was through the zoo over a bridge.” The physical challenges of getting to the garden inspired the zoo to open a second entrance on the side of the property. Recently, a children’s garden has been added to the Garden. “We just built and opened a children’s garden, which has dramatically changed how people use the garden,” Satch Krantz explained. “We now see that a lot of folks who visit the zoo with their children have discovered the garden next door."

@ Riverbanks Zoo

In 1998, the Riverbanks Zoo passed a second bond issue that led to a second major expansion. While not part of the bond initiative, this time also saw the addition of koalas to the zoo. “Jim Hodges, our governor at the time, met the premier of Queensland Australia at an international gathering and as a result South Carolina and Queensland formed a state sister state relationship,” Krantz explained. “The premier of Queensland pledged she would secure koalas for the Riverbanks Zoo. We raised the money privately for that initiative- it was totally independent of the bond issue. Koalas aren’t the most exciting animals you know but people love them and can’t believe the zoo in Columbia has koalas.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

One of the major projects in this bond issue was the construction of a new state-of-the-art birdhouse. “The original bird house was kind of ahead of its time,” Krantz remarked. “It was very large but the problem was it was built out of wood. Of course, animal exhibits have to be washed everyday and over time the building deteriorated. It was nearing the end of its useful life. The new building is actually half the size of the old birdhouse since it doesn’t have a second floor and all the support facilities are in a separate structure in another part of the zoo.” The space where the zoo’s birds were housed during the construction of the new Birdhouse at Riverbanks became its support facility.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The Birdhouse at Riverbanks is arguably one of the best exhibits for birds in the United States. When it opened in 2001, it was recognized by the AZA as being one of the best exhibits of the year. “We’ve got two exhibits I like that are side-by-side of South American and East African birds,” Krantz mentioned. “We put species in each that appear similar and we talk about convergent evolution and how around the world there are birds who look similar but evolved under different conditions.”

@ Scott Richardson

The next year, Riverbanks opened the second major project of the bond issue: an immersive rainforest habitat that brought gorillas to the zoo for the first time. “Not only did we want gorillas but we also decided to demolish our old elephant exhibit, which was very small, and combine the two into a larger, multi-species space,” Satch Krantz said. “The entire east side of the zoo is now dedicated to elephants and gorillas. Around the same time the Ndoki Forest was being described by National Geographic and that name really resonated with us.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

CLR was hired to design the Ndoki Forest. “CLR had built some really nice gorilla habitats before- Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Denver,” Krantz elaborated. “Like every project, they were able to improve upon each one. We built our habitat around the design criteria that the gorillas would be outside over 300 days a year. It’s a beautifully landscaped exhibit. It has a natural forest in the background that we used as ‘borrowed landscape.’ You look up a hill where the gorillas hand out and behind them there is a big natural forest that, to guests, looks like goes on forever. It’s a great exhibit- I’m very proud of it. Our visitors love it and it’s always packed with people.” Initially, the gorilla habitat housed a family group of gorillas from the Lincoln Park Zoo as they were also building a new exhibit. After two years of holding the Lincoln Park group Riverbanks transitioned to a bachelor group. A few years ago, the zoo again went to a family group.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The Ndoki Forest also featured a new elephant exhibit and an exhibit for meerkats. “That was right before the whole revolution in elephant management,” Krantz remarked. “The new elephant exhibit was four times bigger than the old one but it’s still a bit small. We would certainly like to enlarge it. When we built the new exhibit, we transitioned from free contact to protected contact.” He also admits that meerkats do not live in the Ndoki Forest in the wild. “Like every other zoo, we’re not 100 percent accurate with geography so we have meerkats in there,” he added. “The public loves that one, too.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

In his last few years as director, Satch Krantz finished the third and largest expansion of the zoo. One of the big initiatives of this bond issue was to bring sea lions back to the zoo. “We had a sea lion exhibit in the original zoo that was actually one of the largest in the country but very poorly designed from a life support standpoint,” Krantz elaborated. “The filtration system failed within two years and we were managing the exhibit on what is called a dump-and-fill basis where you dump water and immediately fill it. That was incredibly expensive to do. That exhibit was starting to deteriorate so in 2009 we sent the sea lions to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and demolished it.” In 2010, its former location was converted into a kangaroo walkabout. “That exhibit was designed on a piece of notebook paper,” Krantz said. “It cost less than $100,000 dollars to build but is very popular.” However, people wanted sea lions back so they were made the centerpiece of the new bond issue.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Also included in the expansion/renovation were a large new entrance complex with guest relations, a new gift shop, a new parking lot and habitats for grizzly bears and otters. Grizzly bears had been exhibited in an antiquated grotto from when the zoo first opened. “The public was very far back from the animals so we filled in the moat and replaced the moat with glass,” Krantz said. “Now you’re just an inch away from the grizzlies. We did a lot of aesthetic changes and built the otters right next to it. We took something old and tired and made it really nice.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“The new entrance and gift shop are probably more important than anything,” Krantz continued. “Riverbanks always suffered from the lack of a gathering place at the entrance. People bought their ticket and were immediately immersed in the zoo. On busy days, there was no place for school groups to gather before entering or leaving the zoo. We decided to push it out, cut our parking lot in half and build a new plaza in front of the entrance. We built a second plaza on the inside of the zoo. We went from having virtually no room for people to gather to two wonderful spaces for our visitors.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

In 2016, the long-awaited Sea Lion Landing finally opened. It is one of the most modern habitats for pinnipeds in the country and serves as a true highlight of the zoo. “Our sea lion exhibit is wonderful,” Krantz added. “It has a one million-dollar life support system so our sea lions aren’t in city water but in saltwater chilled to 78 degrees. We now have incredibly crystal-clear water. Guests have multiple viewing areas where they can see the sea lions both above and below water. We modeled it on Pier39 in San Francisco so it’s got a much more urban look. The habitat is designed with a really great swim path for the sea lions- it has tunnels for them. Our keepers conduct demonstrations twice each day, all geared toward enrichment.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

After completing the $40 million Destination Riverbanks expansion program, Krantz decided to retire after 44 years of service. “The decision to retire was actually fairly easy,” he reflected. “I had been there for 44 years and was always a workaholic. The zoo had a record year in terms of attendance and revenue leaving the zoo in good shape. It was the perfect time to go. It’s like a baseball player having a grand slam. I feel the zoo is going to continue to succeed in upcoming years.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“I’ve been saying for several years if zoos didn’t exist our governments would probably be studying how to create them,” Satch Krantz concluded. “We’re seeing an incredible decline in wildlife populations around the world. I think maintaining animals in human care and learning how to save them is becoming more and more important. Zoos have to become sophisticated in how they position themselves and make themselves relevant. At Riverbanks, we never looked back. When we passed these bond issues, we sat down and enjoyed them for about a month and then went on and did the next thing. We kept the zoo relevant and fresh. We did everything a successful business should do. I’m very proud of the fact I was part of developing a great zoo in a small community. That’s good enough for me.”

@ Riverbanks 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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