Making Ways: A Conversation with Bob Chastain, President and CEO of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs has long been known in the zoo world for being the nation’s highest zoo and having produced more baby giraffes than anywhere else in America. However, now it has much more going on. The zoo has become one of the top zoos in the country for supporting insitu conservation projects. It was one of the first zoos to encourage Quarters for Conservation, where a portion of every admission to the zoo is donated to saving animals in the wild. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has particularly excelled under the leadership of Bob Chastain, who has been President and CEO since 2005. Here is his story.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Initially, Bob Chastain wanted to study animals in the wild but realized “studying animals in the wild and not relating that information to people wasn’t the best way to help wildlife.” He soon switched his focus to horticulture. “My professor realized I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do,” Chastain recalled. “I wanted to help nature and wildlife so he suggested I work at the Indianapolis Zoo but I responded 'I hate zoos.'” His image of zoos was they were a place where animals were kept behind bars in insufficient conditions. Little did Chastain know of the tremendous progress zoos were making into the modern area and allowing animals to live in naturalistic predicaments. At the insistence of his professor, he started working at the Indianapolis Zoo, which was just about to open at a brand new location in 1988. “I worked there when they were building the new zoo and there were maybe six trees on site,” Chastrain said. “I learned what zoos were about and changed my opinion on them. I stayed there for three seasons.”

@ Indianapolis

Chastain left the zoo to work in a large arboretum but discovered he missed zoos. “I really did miss the ‘drama’ of people and animals all trying to kill the plants we planted,” he remarked. “I met a guy named Mark Fleming, who was a friend of the horticulaturalist I worked with in Indianapolis. We rock climbed a bit together in Boulder, Colorado. I didn’t think much about it and didn’t hear from him for two years but then he contacted me saying he was working at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo as their first horticulturist. He was leaving and thought I would be great for the job.” Soon, Chastain joined the zoo staff as the second horticulturalist at the zoo.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Among the unique aspects Bob Chastain discovered at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo were its renowned giraffe breeding program and a highway that ran through the zoo. “You can drive through the zoo,” he explained. “The story goes Spencer Pentrose, the founder of the zoo, started it as an animal collection in a hotel. Then a guy got bit by a monkey and the zoo was required to purchase this property. El Pomar still owns a piece of the property above our property where Spencer Pentrose is buried and the road through the zoo accesses that shrine.” However, during this time, much of the zoo was outdated and in need of an overhaul. “There hadn’t been much renovation since the late 1970s,” Chastain added.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Horticulture began to become much more prioritized at the zoo and Chastain’s work helped make the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo more beautiful. “Before Mark Fleming, the horticulture was run by the maintenance department,” he explained. “Over the past 25 years, we’ve had a pretty strong commitment at continuing to improve the horticulture as we improve the zoo.” Chastain’s first project as horticulturalist was on Asian Highlands, which featured Amur tigers, snow leopards and Amur leopards. Opened in 1996, this project marked a shift at the zoo towards open, naturalistic habitats recreating biomes around the world. Chastain’s planting helped make this area authentically recreate the mountainous regions of Asia.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

In the early 2000s, Bob Chastain’s responsibilities were greatly increased as he got to play a larger role in the development of the zoo’s exhibits. “During that time, we had numerous people leave the zoo so I contacted the director and said I’d like to take half of their responsibility,” he explained. “She let me do that and I was able to manage construction projects at the zoo. My Big Backyard [the children’s zoo] was the first project I managed while the giraffe exhibit was the second project.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Opened in 2003, African Rift Valley recreated the Acacia savannas giraffes and other animals call home and let visitors get up close and personal with the nation’s largest herd of the tall giants. “It was an important move for us since the lower part of the zoo was just old hoofstock yards and we tore them out,” Chastain remarked. “We moved the giraffes down there, which let guests have a great animal experience right from the gecko. We have one of the largest giraffe herds in human care in the world. I’ve never seen a larger herd of giraffes and we’ve always tried to manage 17 to 20. We’re getting ready for giraffe baby 200.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“The first thing you get to do when you get into the zoo is feed giraffes,” Chastain continued. “It’s not one of those situations where twice a day 20 people can feed giraffes. All our guests can feed giraffes if they want to as we have enough animals and we switched from the high calorie cracker to the low calorie Roman lettuce. That is the number one experience. We have some great bird species in there, an okapi (which is pretty rare in the zoo world), zebras, red river hogs, colobus monkeys and red river hogs but they’re really supporting players to the giraffe in that experience and help them look more like they’re in a natural setting.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

By 2005, Bob Chastain was playing a larger responsibility in the zoo and wanted to learn more. “When my director said she was considering retirement, she asked if anyone was interested in learning her job,” he recalled. “I said I would be interested not because I wanted to be a director but because I thought she did a good job and she made me VP. Two years later when she retired, I was the only person on the staff who applied for the job. By that time we had started some good success and we wanted to make sure the good things we had done continued. I applied since I thought we were headed in the right direction. I wasn’t the obvious choice- 120 people applied for my job. They took a risk on someone from within, which I hope has paid off for them.” In 2005, Bob Chastain began his tenure as President and CEO of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Immediately, Chastain took steps to continue the zoo’s escalation in operations, animal care and conservation. “One of the first things I did was write a strategic plan but not one heavy on goals and objectives,” he noted. “We spent three years writing a plan on who we were and what we wanted to be. The first half of the plan talked about our core values and what the zoo should be. We did that first so the other employees could see the path we were heading down.” Another one of Chastain’s first actions was ending temporary exhibits at the zoo. “There was a long philosophy those were the ways to get people into the zoo but in reality we were spending money on those and our attendance wasn’t increasing,” he explained. “We stopped bringing in things like white tigers and white alligators and started building more permanent exhibits. What we noticed is people started seeing things were new and coming to the zoo.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

One of the largest initiatives of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo over the past dozen years has been expanding its conservation work. “We gave away $7,000 in conservation money when I came in but this year we’ll probably do close to $500,000 towards field conservation work,” Bob Chastain commented. “What we tried to do first and foremost was get serious about the amount of dollars we were putting in, which we started with Quarters for Conservation.” Quarters for Conservation is a program at certain zoos around the nation where a portion of every admission is donated to insitu conservation. While the program has become widespread among zoos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was an early advocate. “We were the ones who really tried to make it more common,” Chastain remarked. “We started charging a quarter and I called Steve Burns (Director of Zoo Boise) and asked if he wanted to do a roadshow promoting it.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo focuses its conservation dollars on six legacy projects. The largest of those is the black footed ferret program. “We’re famous for our giraffes but if you talked to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, they’d know about us for being an early supporter of the black ferret program,” Chastain commented. “We’ve been in it since the 1990s and have Della Garelle, who was the long time SSP (Species Survival Program) coordinator for black footed ferrets. She ran that program for close to twenty. Our other legacy projects are Wyoming toads, giraffes, elephants and rhinos, a palm oil program for orangutans and a Panamanian toad project. Those are where we spend most of our money.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

The first major exhibit opened during Bob Chastain’s tenure was Rocky Mountain Wild in 2008. Focusing on the wildlife of Colorado, it features grizzly bears, moose, river otters, mountain lions and other native species. “Rocky Mountain Wild was the first time we built an exhibit with an eye for what we wanted the interpretation to be,” Chastain explained. “Colorado is a multi-use state- it’s mostly public land so we told peoples’ stories about camping, bike riding, mining and fishing and tried to paint a picture of how, if all those groups work together, we can make a better future for wildlife. Many of the species there were extirpated from Colorado but have been successfully reintroduced. We wanted to tell that story.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

A unique aspect of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is it is one of very few accredited zoos not to receive tax dollars. “A number of years ago we ran for a tax levy two-three times and were voted down each time,” Chastain noted. “When I took over, I wrote it into the strategic plan we’d never run for a tax again. We started thinking about what we needed to do to get on more financial stable ground. I ran common sense spreadsheets and found the best way to get more money was to get more people to come. When we made moderately priced improvements, people appreciated that. For instance, we built an elephant, rhino and lion exhibit for $10 million while other zoos were building them for $20-50 million. We built a $10,000 chicken area that has earned revenue. Two years ago we spent around $15,000 bringing in domestic goats and building a cool playground for them. We’ve done regular planting on zoo grounds for shade and fire protection. Those are just some of a variety of consistent moderately priced improvements we’ve made. We divide them up between guest visible and behind the scenes.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

In 2013, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo opened its largest project ever in Encounter Africa, home to African elephants, black rhinoceros, lions and meerkats. The state-of-the-art facility was carefully designed to meet the highest possible welfare of its residents and inspire visitors to care about conservation. “We had a little bit of a different strategy as we tried to focus on two things- animal welfare and strong connections with guests,” Bob Chastain elaborated. “We shouldn’t have animals in our care if we don’t have strong connections with our guests. Our three directives were we wouldn’t have elephants if we couldn’t benefit elephants in the wild, we wanted to give guests the greatest possible elephant experience they could have and we wanted the elephants to do the most natural behaviors they can.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

With Encounter Africa, the zoo decided to focus on geriatric elephants rather than putting together a breeding herd. Also, many steps were taken to bring the costs down. “All the money people typically spent on theming we saved,” Chastain stated. “We chose to build our gigantic building, which is 2/3s the size of a football field, out of metal material rather than far more expensive material.” The team ensured as much as possible the dollars spent were directly put towards animal welfare rather than elaborate but nonessential features.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“Our elephants are liaisons for the wild,” Bob Chastain remarked. Many steps were taken to promote positive elephant welfare. “We added tons and tons of enrichment points,” Chastain explained. “In our barn, we have seven cranes to lower and raise enrichment. We have a sand stall inside that is larger alone than all of our old stalls put together. We have a stall that floods with water so they can have a splash pond. Outside we have a big pool and lots of enrichment. “ A couple of nontraditional features were put into the exhibit as well. “We made a half mile elephant trek for them to get extra exercise," Chastain remarked. “We also made a three acre off exhibit vacation yard. It’s very different than a backup yard as it only gets used a few times a year and provides a mental break for them.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“We don’t ask anything of them when they go out,” he continued. “They just get to go be elephants. We don’t try to lead them around or influence their behavior. They mostly eat grass and knock down trees. It’s used a few times a year just like you’d go on vacation. Sometimes if the vegetation in that yard is great, they’ll go out several times in a summer.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Not only was Encounter Africa built for exceptional welfare for African elephants but it was designed to show visitors the great care they receive. “We wanted to show people, not tell people [what we're doing with elephants,]” Bob Chastain elaborated. “We have several training demonstrations daily where our keepers bathe and care for the elephants. We have elephant feeding where all the money goes to elephant conservation. We wouldn’t have elephants if we couldn’t benefit elephants in the wild.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Also present are black rhinos and lions. “We were deciding if we would do black or white rhinos but chose black rhinos since they’re more endangered and the SSP wanted us to,” Chastain explained. “We have rhino feeding where all the money goes to anti-poaching efforts. A lot of our messaging is about poaching. We run a lion demonstration where we talk about the conflict they have with livestock.” Chastain recalled the zoo waited for a few months before letting the lions roam their exhibit to “let the vegetation grow in since they’d be rough on the vegetation and it’s on a hillside.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Next on the zoo’s agenda is state-of-the-art homes for Nile hippos and African penguins opening in 2019. “We are getting ready to tear down the old Aquatics Building and have relocated all the animals,” Chastain commented. “Our hippos are temporarily [at the Dickerson Park Zoo] in Springfield until we finish the exhibit. The water conservation standpoint was a big reason to do this since we had a dump and fill pool system and now are going to do recycled water. We want to have baby hippos and needed space for a male. With penguins, we wanted to have penguin chicks and have had a ventilation problem preventing that. We’re also going to give our penguins an outdoor exhibit, which they didn’t have before. We’re going to have gazelles, a couple of stork or crane species and a lemur species as well.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“What we’re currently continuing to try to do is focus on being the best zoo we can- something our community can be proud of,” Bob Chastain reflected. “We think we’ve made good headway on that. We’re finding innovative ways to fund conservation. I personally am interested in the concept of a zoo out of the box. We’re trying that as we have a number of ideas of how to expand our building and outdoor spaces in significant ways. We may let our beaver swim in the moose pond or the coati visit the administration building. I define the box as the traditional outside exhibit and backholding area.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Chastain wants the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to be a model for other zoos. “Zoos need to find out how to position themselves as not only experts in conservation but the welfare of animals,” he elaborated. “No one is better positioned to do that than us. We have 180-190 million people coming to AZA zoos and aquariums. No one has the opportunity to be such a strong voice for conservation. We need to work collaboratively for conservation both with other zoos and out guests whether through letter writing or political support. We need to keep harvesting our energy for conservation.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Over the past decade, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has climbed leaps and bounds up the hierarchy of American zoos both in quality and conservation impact. “Roll back in time and we were giving $7,000 to conservation while now we give $400,000 for conservation,” Chastain pointed out. “If zoos can be that serious in making an improvement in conservation, there’s no questions zoos are doing a good job. We’re getting laser focused on two things. Zoos are waking up to the reality of what people want from us. In the past they just wanted to see a tiger- they didn’t care whether it was in a cage or a natural habitat. People now want to know zoos are helping animals in the wild and the animals have a reason for being here.” In terms of other zoos that have taken conservation seriously, Chastain singled out Zoo Boise, the Tracy Aviary and Zoos Victoria.

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“What we say here is there’s three things that absolutely make us different,” Bob Chastain reflected. “First, we have a beautiful mountainside and are working hard to take care of it. Second we have an unbelievable staff. Our staff is super passionate about sharing their love of animals with people. We transfer our passion to our people. When you come to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, I would compare the activity and welfare of our animals to any other zoo in the world. We pay attention to making our animals healthy. Last, we have unbelievable donors. We go to them every fix-six years and they pledge to give money for our next exhibit.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“We have a mom whose child has a sensory deficit disorder,” Chastain continued. “This young girl has been in therapy all her life and the mom says the zoo is the place where she feels the most happy. Her dad just got deployed to fight overseas so the single mom is running two kids, one with a health issue she’s dealing with, but our zoo is a bright space for her. Also, I’ll get a report from Africa showing we moved twenty giraffes across a river to safety in Namibia. It’s a bunch of small things we do every day that make me proud of what we do. We’re beginning to have a measurable impact on global conservation.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

“I think two things make a great zoo director- caring about your staff who does the work everyday,” Bob Chastain concluded. “You have to do that. That’s something we’re learning with younger groups coming in. They want to be paid attention in a way older workers didn’t. That’s a good learning experience for us. Second is doing the right thing everyday. That’s particularly hard for two reasons. Knowing what’s right is really hard. Somebody’s heart has to be in the right place and they have to find what the right thing is. Also, we often know what we need to do but knowing that doesn’t mean you’re going to have the discipline to do it. Leadership is all about paying attention and doing the right thing. I’m seeing zoo directors care first and foremost about the mission of their organization.”

@ Cheyenne Mountain 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