A Family Tradition: A Conversation with Hayes Caldwell, Director of the Caldwell Zoo

The Caldwell Zoo is a nice medium sized zoo in Tyler, Texas, but what really sets it apart is the story of how it was created. It was started by D. K. Caldwell in the late 1940’s in his back yard as part of the first preschool program in Tyler. Since 1976, the Caldwell Zoo has been directed by his nephew, Hayes Caldwell. He has brought the zoo into the modern age and kept it a thriving institution. Here is his story.

@ Hayes Caldwell

Hayes Caldwell literally grew up around the Caldwell Zoo from day one. “Interestingly enough my uncle started the zoo in his backyard, “he explained. “The reason he started it there was that he married late in life and never had any children of his own, but always loved children so he developed a partnership with the City of Tyler and the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to start the preschool in Tyler at his home. Mr. Caldwell knew children loved animals and started innocently enough keeping an Easter bunny and a couple of ducks. The menagerie began to grow and soon there were macaws, parrots, spider and capuchin monkeys, and even an alligator in his backyard. Around 1951 as this collection grew, his wife Lottie called him at work and asked him to come home. When arrived, he found about twenty people in his backyard enjoying the animals. That was when it was decided to move the animals out to some land Mr. Caldwell owned in northwest Tyler where the zoo is located today.”

@ Scott Richardson

Despite starting a zoo, D.K. Caldwell didn’t have an animal background. “Mr. Caldwell grew up in Alabama, was a civil engineer by trade and got into highway road construction,” Caldwell stated. “His work led him to Louisiana and then into East Texas where he was credited with developing the use of iron ore gravel as base material and was referred to at one time as the ‘man who got East Texas out of the mud’. During that time he purchased mineral interests in tracts of land that were being foreclosed on. His wealth was developed with the discovery of the East Texas oilfield in 1930. By the time he started the zoo he had failing eyesight and had retired from road construction work. Over time he received help in developing the zoo from the directors of the Dallas Zoo and Ft. Worth zoos (Pierre Fontain and Lawrence Curtis). The original cages were constructed oilfield materials by a welder whose wife taught at the play school. The zoo opened to the public in 1953.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Over the years, the collection became more exotic. In 1970, the Caldwell Zoo even received its first elephant. “We had an incident in 1969 where some kids broke into the zoo and killed several domestic animals,” Caldwell recalled. “The community wanted to help the zoo and Mr. Caldwell was presented with a check for $1500 from the ‘school children of East Texas’. He was really touched by this donation. To show his appreciation, he purchased a baby Asian elephant for the zoo.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Hayes Caldwell began to work at the zoo when he was 14 years old. “I basically grew up there in the summers and worked there every summer except for one summer when I worked at the Dallas Zoo while I was in college," he remarked. "I went to Texas Tech University and graduated with a degree in Park Administration. Then I came back home and worked for the zoo as Assistant Director.” However, he would soon be Director of the Caldwell Zoo at the young age of 27. “My uncle was in failing health and he wanted to make sure a family member was in charge of the zoo,” Caldwell said. “I became director in 1976.”

@ Scott Richardson

At the time Caldwell became director of the zoo, it had to make major changes. “About that time the Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act had recently come into existence,” he elaborated. “At that point we decided we either needed to stay in the zoo business or get out- we shouldn’t just maintain a menagerie of animals. We also had an ever-growing elephant in homemade quarters that wouldn’t be adequate for long so that was the incentive to develop the zoo’s first master plan.” Almost immediately, Hayes Caldwell worked to implement the master plan and would transform the zoo from a homemade menagerie into a respectable zoo over the next fifteen years. “It was a plan that was basically the basis of what we have now- emphasizing zoogeographic exhibits,” he remembered.

@Hayes Caldwell

“We had 125 acres and the zoo was developed within 80 acres of that footprint," Caldwell explained. "The first project was to build a new elephant exhibit, which is now home to our rhinos.” After doing a new area for elephants, the Caldwell Zoo added the first giraffes in its history. “At that point in time there were a number of animal dealers who bought and sold animals to zoos and we bought those giraffe from a dealer who delivered them to the zoo," Caldwell recalled. “As time went on, you started to see zoos transferring animals from zoo to zoo and using dealers strictly for transferring animals.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

The plans for the Caldwell Zoo began to become more ambitious and Hayes Caldwell was determined to take it to the next level. “The main driving force was always to have a good zoo – not the biggest but whatever we did we wanted to do it well," he reflected. "We saw what other zoos were doing and the Accreditation program of AZA helped streamline our thinking. We’ve been accredited since 1985. That was the first year accreditation was required to be an institutional member of AZA.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Up until 2003, the Caldwell Zoo had free admission. The zoo is privately run and the majority of its support is derived from the Caldwell Foundation set up by D. K. Caldwell. “Being a privately run zoo always has it challenges, “Caldwell stated. “ We’re very fortunate in that the zoo is owned by the Foundation and always has been considered a gift to the community. In 2003, we saw that to sustain the operation long into the future it was necessary for the zoo to start to generate revenue. Fortunately, excellent financial advisors and great community support has helped insure the financial stability of the Caldwell Zoo.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

After building homes for elephants and giraffes, the Caldwell Zoo expanded with a North American region. “One of the overarching goals of our master plan was to show predator-prey relationships wherever we could,” Caldwell said. The area features bison, white tailed deer, Texas longhorns, mountain lions, ocelots and…….white tigers! “That’s an interesting story,” Hayes Caldwell explained. “Overtime we lost our jaguars and there were not any available. From time to time, we’d bring in temporary exhibits like white alligators. On one of my road trips we stopped at the Alexandria Zoo and they had a pair of white tigers who had two cubs. I thought they’d be a great temporary exhibit. The director Les Whitt and I were good friends and we started talking. I told him we would like to exhibit these cats for six months for a temporary exhibit and they’d be wonderful. He said we’d work it out. They were about a year old when they came. The staff fell in love with them, the visitors fell in love with them and Alexandria didn’t have room to take them back so they stayed in the North American section!” Eventually, the white tigers will be phased out and replaced with traditional tigers in a different part of the zoo to better share the story of their endangered counterparts in the wild.

@ Caldwell Zoo

Also around this time the Caldwell Zoo built a South American region featuring multi-species exhibits with animals such as squirrel monkeys, giant anteaters and a variety of birds. Next, the zoo completed is largest project ever in two phases: East Africa. With the two phases opening in 1987 and 1991, this exhibit put the Caldwell Zoo on the map and was state-of-the-art upon opening. “We were working with a planning firm in Chicago called McFadzean and Everly, “ Hayes Caldwell elaborated, “We worked with George Speidel, retired director of the Milwaukee County Zoo and the firm’s zoo consultant.” When the Milwaukee County Zoo was built in the 1950s and 60s Speidel designed habitats where only moats separated carnivores from their prey. “I had spent a lot of time talking to George,” he remembered. "Back then the architects and George came down here for planning sessions. George said if he could spend six months down here we could really get this done. We spent a lot of time walking in the woods, looking at the land and sharing ideas with each other. That developed the exhibit you see now. George was going to just be here for six months but he ended up living in Tyler for the rest of his life.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Caldwell wanted to expand the predator-prey concept to a greater scale than found in Milwaukee. “We had to the acreage available to make it larger and do a little better job on it,” he stated. “The first phase was the concession stand that looked out on the African Plains with the elephants, giraffe and hoofstock as well as black rhinos and cheetahs. The second phase was lions, wild dogs, a reptile-aquarium building with rock python, Nile crocodiles and a cichlid tank and the bongo/colobus monkey exhibit.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Caldwell Zoo

“One of the biggest challenges for East Africa was convincing staff we could have multiple species in the same space,” Hayes Caldwell explained. “At the time, we had separate pens for Grevy’s zebras, ostriches and greater kudus. The thought was we’d have them all together in one exhibit. It was a challenge to convince the staff to do that but once they saw how well it worked they really bought into it.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

The invisible moats are so well done that from many angles it looks like the pride of lions are on the same grass as the zebras, warthogs and antelope nearby. “The architect we worked with was really good at studying sightlines,” Caldwell stated. “One of the things we did was try to hide as many of the barriers as we could and try not to have it so you look into an exhibit and see people on the other side. What you can’t see is the moat that separates the lions from the hoofstock.” This proximity provides enrichment for the lions while keeping the prey safe.

@ Caldwell Zoo

Many things about East Africa were unique from other savannas. One that still is a rarity is the inclusion of warthogs in the mixed species savanna featuring Grevy’s zebras, greater kudu, impalas, wildebeests, and ostriches. “We always tried to come up with things from a multispecies standpoint and we had the crazy idea of gee let’s try warthogs,” Hayes Caldwell remarked. “It had some challenges because the warthogs and ground birds like crowned cranes and guinea fowl didn’t always get along and warthogs are hard on sprinkler systems. What we do now is rotate so when the warthogs are on exhibit, the guinea fowl and crowned cranes have the day off. The reason the mix works is we received the warthogs when they were young, quarantined them in the hoofstock barn and slowly trained them to go into a mixing yard where we could hold animals off exhibit. We then finally introduced them into the full savanna. The hoofstock yard is pretty large so there’s a lot of room out there and they cohabitate with the other species quite well. Most of the time in a typical zoo the warthog exhibit is not that large.”

@ Scott Richardson

The savanna is also one of only a handful that mixes Grevy’s zebras, the largest species of zebra, in with other hoofstock. While Grant’s zebras are often found in with other species, Grevy’s zebras tend to be more aggressive and harder to mix. However, the Caldwell Zoo has done it very well. “We typically don’t have the male Grevy’s zebra out on exhibit- we have a separate area for him,” Caldwell added. “We’ve been fortunate as the females we have aren’t overly aggressive. Occasionally when we have a young foal the mother will be pretty protective and we’ll keep them off exhibit and integrate them back in slowly. In developing the savannah we went by species we knew would get along together- like impala and greater kudu. We have slowly added other species such as two male wildebeests and ostrich.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Another unique feature of East Africa is it mixes bongo antelope with colobus monkeys. “That was another brainstorming idea we had,” Hayes Caldwell said. “We were talking about a forest exhibit and bongo came to mind. I suggested one day that colobus monkeys might work in there since they’re so arboreal and bongo are a forest terrestrial animal. No other zoo had done it but we didn’t see why it wouldn’t work so we gave it a try. It worked out quite well.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Over time, some parts of East Africa have received some changes. “We had a group of three male wild dogs before we built their exhibit and they did fine together,” Caldwell recalled. “We built this new exhibit which was more spacious but for some reason, when they moved, they didn’t get along and they fought and fought.” The decision was made to send them to another zoo and meerkats took their place. Additionally, Caldwell found the reptile exhibits did not do enough to engage visitors. “The Nile crocodile and rock python exhibits were pretty passive and there wasn’t a lot of interest so we decided to send them out and add African penguins," he said. "We combined the two exhibits by opening up the wall in between. We had a good body of water for the crocodiles so that was a good starting point. We changed the filtration system and added penguins.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

@ Caldwell Zoo

Hayes Caldwell noted that the staff and professionalism among the staff at the Caldwell Zoo has completely changed over his four decade tenure. “Forty years ago I was the only college graduate on the staff,” he said. “Now we have a lot of college educated staff members and they’re more in tune to conservation and animal welfare. When I started there were maybe one or two females who worked at the zoo while now they’re the majority. We definitely work smarter now than we did forty years ago. It used to be you’d grab an animal or restrain it in any way you could while now we’re smart enough to know you can train animals for vaccinations, enrich their behavior and do a better job with the husbandry.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

“Animal care and welfare has changed dramatically,” Hayes Caldwell elaborated. “As times goes on, we have learned more about the care and welfare of animals. That’s obviously a priority for us. What we’ve learned in the past forty years about caring for animals has increased dramatically. It’s almost like night and day. Forty years ago, I don’t think anyone even understood the word enrichment. Now we provide enrichment and stimulus for animals in any way we can to promote natural behaviors.”

@ Hayes Caldwell

The Caldwell Zoo has also forged many ways to help visitors engage in the zoo and its conservation messages. “We’ve developed a lot of programs for visitors to interact with our staff,” Caldwell said, noting how the zoo does a lot of keeper talks. “We have member evenings at the zoo which let us share our conservation messages. Our visitors these days are more in tune with conservation and interested in learning more from our staff. We have more interactive activities like giraffe feeding and are in the process of doing some behind the scenes tours where we can engage our guests one on one with the staff and share our messages with them.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

One of the main conservation projects the Caldwell Zoo participates in is the breeding program of the Attwater prairie chicken, a critically endangered species. They collaborate with the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, the Houston Zoo, the Abilene Zoo and the National Fish and Wildlife Service to breed these birds and release them into the wild. Additionally the zoo helps support a number of preexisting conservation projects. “We like to collaborate with larger groups we can join forces with,” Caldwell said.

@ Caldwell Zoo

Recently the zoo has opened the reimagined African Overlook featuring a restaurant looking out on the savanna, giraffe feeding and a greatly improved and expanded African elephant habitat. “Elephants have always been a flagship species for us and we wanted to maintain elephants here,” Hayes Caldwell noted. “As standards of care grew and we learned more about elephants, we decided to expand our facility. We doubled the size of the yard and pool. We eliminated the original U-moats, which can be dangerous for animals if they fall off into them. It now gradually slopes instead and the elephant have more varied terrain. We have the ability to hang hay baskets up so the elephants reach up and forage like they would in the wild.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

“We changed the substrate so it’s a sandy type that’s more comfortable and better for their feet,” he continued. We added a water cannon where we can give the elephants baths, sometimes with the help of our visitors and the elephants and guests both truly enjoy that. We’ve also incorporated a training wall so we can do foot trims, training sessions and baths right there in front of the public. We can explain to them how we care for these elephants and why we do what we do. It’s very educational for our visitors and they thoroughly enjoy it.”

@ Hayes Caldwell

Not only is the updated area better for the elephants but also the visitors. “We had a café before but now it’s really enlarged and updated,” Hayes Caldwell said. “There’s outdoor setting that overlooks East Africa. We’ve added a deck at the giraffe exhibit where you can feed the giraffes lettuce. That’s done tremendously well.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

In the future, the zoo might add a children’s zoo and an Asian section. “We did some plans for a new children’s area that did not happen,” Caldwell recalled. “We were close to starting that project in 2008 when the economic downturn took hold. We’re taking another fresh look at that and seeing what else we want to do. Many of our exhibits are 20-30 years old so they need to be refurbished. We’d like to do some sort of Asian area with tigers, siamangs and some other Asian species. We want to revisit our children’s area and incorporate maybe a farm like area with lots of hands on activity for children.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

The Caldwell Zoo has also updated its approach to marketing. It used to be the zoo would focus on billboards to attract drivers on the nearby highway. “We’ve changed our focus so we’re doing some billboards but looking more into digital advertising,” Caldwell said. “Our educational department oversees our Facebook page and, while we haven’t gotten into Twitter yet, I’m sure we’ll get there. Our visitors come from a 75 mile radius on a regular basis. We want to maintain the quality of the zoo and think people will continue to enjoy it.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

When thinking about his biggest accomplishments, Caldwell noted carrying on “the legacy of D.K. Caldwell and his wife Lottie, who loved children and loved to educate them through recreation and play” through the operation a good zoo. “One of the most satisfying things for me is going out in the zoo and seeing our staff interact with the visitors,” he remarked. “The dedication and passion of our staff is shown every day in the quality of their work. I love seeing visitors have ‘wow’ moment. When a child sees an elephant for the first time, and you see the sense of wonder in their expression- that really excites me.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

Hayes Caldwell feels good about the direction the Caldwell Zoo and zoos in general are heading in. “We’re still on a good track going forward,” he reflected. “We will continue to enhance our animal habitats as we continue to learn how provide the best care and welfare for our residents. I am excited about the future of the Caldwell Zoo and the role it plays in our region.”

@ Caldwell Zoo

“The most challenging part of my job is planning with the resources available to continually develop the zoo with ideas we have and would like to accomplish,” Hayes Caldwell concluded. “Resources are always challenging but that’s part of the excitement of working in this environment. The most rewarding part of my job is enjoying seeing our wonderful staff interact with our guests and sharing their knowledge about the animals in their care."

@ Caldwell Zoo

"I hope people will look and see I did a good job of maintaining our family’s legacy in our community," Caldwell said. "It’s a pleasure to go to the zoo every day, work with the staff and seeing visitors enjoying the zoo.”

@ Hayes Caldwell

#CaldwellZoo

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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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