The Pacific Rim: A Conversation with Gary Geddes, Retired Director of Point Defiance Zoo and Northwe

Both managed by Metroparks Tacoma, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park concentrates on animals native to the Pacific Northwest while the Point Defiance Zoo focuses on animals, both from land and water, of the Pacific Rim. Much of their success is due to the tenure of Director Gary Geddes, who led Northwest Trek from 1981 to early 2017 and the Point Defiance Zoo from 2000 to 2017. Geddes’ vision and dedication helped both institutions reach record attendance and become at the forefront of zoo conservation. Here is his story.

@ Metroparks Tacoma

Gary Geddes came into the zoo field in a very unusual way. “Before I moved to the Northwest, I studied zoology at Southern Illinois University,” he recalled. “I wanted to work in wild population management but the job market wasn’t great. I then learned about a project in collaboration with the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and ended up talking to the administrator of a the local foundation. I ended up working at the Peoria Zoo and then was allowed to work on this new wildlife park that was being design. That’s really how I got into captive wildlife management.”

@ Wildlife Prairie Park

The facility Geddes worked on was the Wildlife Prairie Park featuring animals historically native to Illinois and replicating the experience of the prairie. “I worked there for eight years and became the director of the operation before it opened in 1978,” he remarked. “It was all themed around the Illinois prairie- bison, el, white-tailed deer.” In 1981, Geddes moved out west to direct Northwest Trek, a similar institution that had opened in 1975 and featured animals exclusively from the Pacific Northwest.

@ Northwest Trek

The main feature of Northwest Trek has always been the 435 acre free roaming habitat where bison, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and caribou could range through grasslands, forests and wetlands in naturalistic herds. “Trek is a very unique experience as it has that large landscape native animal exhibtry,” Gary Geddes explained. “The heart of Trek is the tram tour, which uses about 2/3s of the site to see the hoofstock. The hoofstock can be a challenge to manage in such a large mixed-species environment. Moose, elk, bison, caribou, bighorn sheep and mountain goats all have different breeding cycles which can make things challenging when hormones run high. The keepers do a good job of keeping them apart [during that time] by feeding them at different places. It really gives you the impression of being in the wild.”

@ Northwest Trek

@ Northwest Trek

Although Northwest Trek was phenomenal from an immersion standpoint, Geddes needed to immediately make some operational changes. “When I came trek was on its knees,” he remembered. “There’d been political strife. The park opened in 1975 and six years later only two of the four trams were operating since they didn’t have the money to fix them. There wasn’t an active husbandry program to give health checks on all the hoofstock. There was a misunderstanding between the veterinarian and the family who donated the land that played out in the press in a very negative way. That year was our lowest attendance year.”

@ Northwest Trek

@ Northwest Trek

Much of the confusion was about how much husbandry and veterinary care the animals at the park should receive. “There was a misunderstanding Doc [the park’s founder] didn’t want anyone handling the animals but I found out he didn’t feel that way at all,” Gary Geddes commented. “Bison were dying because of a lack of parasite control. We actually closed the park November through March that first year just to work on animal husbandry. We brought all the elk and biosn into a new hoofstock handling system where we could run them through a cattle squeezelike operation so we could vaccinate them. We built on that and it was a fairly quick turnaround. We had babies born later that year and since then we handled the hoofstock and made sure they all had vaccines each year. Now we’re able to do most of that through feeding but we have the handling system in case we have to sort something out. We have to take the caribou out to make sure they don’t run into elk during the rut.”

@ Northwest Trek

The success of the restructured husbandry practices paid off immediately. “We got everybody on the same page with our animal health program and our attendance moved up,” Geddes stated. Additionally, over the next decade, the walking trail of Northwest Trek was completed. “Trek was not finished when it opened- they ran out of money,” Geddes recalled. “We struggled financially for a long time since we were way out in the country. Living from one bond issue to another is pretty difficult when you’re way out. We got some bond issue money in 1986, which gave us a big boost. What later helped both the zoo and Trek financially was a sales tax that passed in September 2000. That was a game changer and we’ve done very well from the sales tax. We began to think of ourselves much more in a business, operational way. Now 50% of our funds come from sales tax while the other half come from earned revenue. That change allowed us to be more creative with our conservation programs. It brought us to the table."

@ Northwest Trek

@ Northwest Trek

Some of the additions to the walking trail included new habitats for black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions, bobcats and lynx. However, the biggest change was the addition of grizzly bears. “Once the grizzlies opened, that was really the pinnacle,” Gary Geddes noted. “Grizzlies was a tough one to do as Trek likes to do very informal exhibitry. The deputy director had started to scan the country to find who had built a habitat for grizzlies that wasn’t so heavily armored to moated and he pointed to Calgary. The exhibit was heavily excavated by the bears but was very well done. We split our black bear exhibit in half, made a new wolf exhibit and still had almost an acre we could provide for grizzlies. Rather than put in welded wire, we used the heaviest chain-link we could get and got bears who had been trained to hotwire.”

@ Northwest Trek

“We presented the grizzlies in such a natural setting,” Geddes continued. “They could dig and go into their heavy duty sleeping quarters. We had a nice recirculating waterfall pool they could swim in. The grizzly bears led to a major boost in our attendance.” The improved walkthrough area helped provide a richer experience for visitors at Northwest Trek. “We did the walkthrough habitats to compliment the free-roaming area,” Geddes added.

@ Northwest Trek

@ Scott Richardson

By the late 1990s, the Point Defiance Zoo was in a state of political turmoil. “Tom Otten left and we went through some pretty serious fundraising with the park district,” Gary Geddes explained. “The AZA sent in a team and there was a bit of a misunderstanding where the AZA thought they had heard the park board was withholding the bond money. They learned the park board did not want to release all the funds for new construction if there wasn’t a clear strategy on how those exhibits would be maintained.” As a result, the zoo’s accreditation with the association got tabled and Geddes got brought in to sort it out. “They had us on the ropes for awhile so I had to go to the accreditation board every six months to report what we were doing with the sales tax and bond money,” he said. In 2000, the position of director for Northwest Trek and the Point Defiance Zoo got combined, making Gary Geddes director of both institutions.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Point Defiance Zoo is unique as not only does it have a large focus on aquatic animals but it almost exclusively features animals from the Pacific Rim. “The Pacific Rim theme came from the 1978 bond issue, which did Rocky Shores [which features polar bears, sea lions, seals, walruses and sea otters,]” Geddes remarked. “When we passed the $35 million bond issue in March 1999, that question came up and the staff decided to recommend we’d largely stay true to the them. the only area where we had license to go away from that was the Kids Zone, where we have meerkats and lemurs, and the outdoor theater, which has changing animals based on what could be easily trained for programs. We felt it would be a strong thing to do. We don’t want to try to do everything the larger zoogeographic zoos are doing. The theme made sense for our size.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

With financial stability in place, Gary Geddes began to look for ways to build up the zoo. However, he made the zoo’s developments a collaborative effort. “When I came, we had all that bond money and were able to start some design work on some pretty interesting exhibits,” Geddes said. “We designed the outdoor amphitheater to present conservation programs to our guests and a whole new entry.” Immense steps were taken to create more engaging and complex spaces for animals and people at the zoo.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The most ambitious project done by Gary Geddes at the Point Defiance Zoo was Asian Forest Sanctuary, a rotational habitat complex for Sumatran tigers, siamang, gibbons, Malayan tapirs, anoas, Asian small-clawed otters and Indian crested porcupines. “Asian Forest Sanctuary ended up being like $14 million, which was a big chunk of the bond issue,” Geddes recalled. The exhibit was inspired by Islands at the Louisville Zoo, the first ever multi-species rotation exhibit at an American zoo. “I talked to the staff there and looked through it all,” Geddes added. The area featured five habitats although “the big showcase exhibit” was a large one featuring an enormous waterfall (primarily used by tigers.)”

@ Scott Richardson

However, the staff knew the challenges of a rotational exhibit would be great and the execution of the rotation did not always go as planned. “It wasn’t without hesitation we went that direction,” Geddes explained . “It was a very expensive exhibit to build for relatively few animals. Not all of the aspects of the behind the scenes inner workings are utilized in the way they were intended. There’s lot of complicated movement through that system. It’s complicated and that complication could lead to mistakes. I’m not sure the value for visitors is enough for the amount we spent there.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Despite the challenges, the exhibit turned out to be successful in no small part because of the animal care staff. “I’d attribute the success we’ve had there to a really sharp staff,” Geddes praised. “They’ve worked out ways to simplify the control systems on all the cables and locks. They did a lot of the interior exhibit work- log placements and plantings. The animal care staff worked with our horticulture staff and it really showed in the exhibitry.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Asian Forest Sanctuary was well received as well. “I was afraid the public would be disappointed by the few animals in the area but they were not,” Geddes noted. “They were pleased with the size and naturalism of the exhibits. It was a real mindset change on us in terms of spending that kind of money on relatively few species.” It also has hosted a very successful breeding program of the critically endangered Sumatran tigers. Asian Forest Sanctuary not only had a strong conservation message in its interpretation but also connected to a lot of important conservation work in the wild. “Our people have gone to Southeast Asia and worked with local people in those countries,” Geddes noted.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Gary Geddes took advantage of the “close bond” the zoo holds with Tacoma and surrounding suburbs. “We’ve been a fixture for over 100 years and have a reputation for being a community zoo,” he remarked. “Traffic makes it difficult for the south King County population to drive to Seattle to go to the zoo so they have an easier time going to the Point Defiance Zoo. We have a great following.” Much of the zoo’s popularity Geddes felt was connected to its successful outreach programs and consistency at fulfilling expectations. “When you deliver what you say you’re going to do and exceed their expectations, visitors continue to support you,” he commented. “That’s made it easy for the zoo to remain relevant. Attendance has grown substantially over time and we’re estimating we could see over 100,000 more people when the new aquarium opens.” The aquarium will be the largest capital project in the zoo’s history.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

While the Point Defiance Zoo was able to do a lot of great things, Geddes kept it realistic in terms of its size. This is well reflected in the zoo’s decision to phase out Asian elephants after its two elderly individuals pass. “When these two elephants pass on our plan is to move towards rhinos,” Geddes explained. “We’re a small site and our elephant exhibit is quite small. The direction zoos have gone with is elephants in huge exhibits and larger groups. We can’t really deliver that on such a small site and there’s no interest from the parks standpoint of expanding the footprint for the zoo. Our elephants are older and aggressive so we are going to keep them here. That barn will be a good barn for rhinos.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Point Defiance Zoo is well known in the zoo world for its long-time red wolf breeding program. The zoo played an important role in bringing back the species from the very brink of extinction. “We lobbied our congressmen to get us funding as a federally protected species to run the breeding program for the country,” Gary Geddes remarked. “The zoo captured the last 14 purebred red wolves from the Carolinas and Texas and brought them to Point Defiance Zoo.During his tenure, the zoo built a new breeding facility for the red wolves offsite. “We had our red wolf breeding program at an offsite ranch but lobbied to put it on our own property,” Geddes explained. “In order to maintain that program, we moved it from the Mink Ranch to the Northwest Trek Conservation Center, which is 100 acres adjacent to the Wildlife Park intended to be used for such conservation projects.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In 2010, the Point Defiance Zoo built Red Wolf Woods to provide a better showcase of red wolves and the zoo’s conservation work. “We felt really bad about the red wolf area as here we were command center for red wolf programs in the entire world but had one of the most apologetic exhibits you could have,” Geddes stated. “Red Wolf Woods was made possible largely from a donation from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Tacoma. We used the same footprint- it was already plenty of land but we redid it. It’s a great exhibit now- the wolves are very visible now. They’re a great conservation story”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In recent years, the Point Defiance Zoo has also become a leader in clouded leopard conservation. “Our staff really initiated this,” Gary Geddes said. “Once we got the sales tax and had the ability to do conservation work, we established a conservation fund where we entertained ideas from staff for field projects. They could make a case for a project and it would be voted on for founding. Clouded leopards came up as did Oregon spotted frogs and pygmy rabbits.” The elusive cats were originally planned to be in Asian Forest Sanctuary, an idea which was abandoned. “Clouded leopards as it turns out don’t like to be rotated so keeping them in one exhibit was best,” Geddes remarked. “We had to do a separate exhibit for them so they could be comfortable and have their own rear denning areas. They’re so sensitive and secretive. “

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Cats of the Canopy, opened in 2011, is a state-of-the-art home for clouded leopards with an assortment of climbing and hiding spots. “It was largely designed by our staff who had been places and knew what would succeed,” Geddes commented. “It came out great. The difficulty with clouded leopards is they’re so secretive and shy so it took a long time for the animals to be visible. They’re not naturally great exhibits animals.” The zoo has had great success breeding clouded leopards at the facility. “The cubs are moved out early in life and mixed and matched for the health of the species,” Geddes added. “They need to be matched with the opposite gender at an early age so they won’t be aggressive.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

“The bottom line with [clouded leopards] is conservation,” Geddes continued. “We let people know if they can’t see them, [it’s because] they’re secretive, shy animals and need their space. They’ve got lots of climbing logs, vegetation and spaces where they can climb. For the animals, it’s fantastic and we have a good video where we explain what’s going on. When we have cubs, we have staff talking to the people.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Gary Geddes led the Point Defiance Zoo to being at the cutting edge of animal care and conservation. “We’ve been fortunate to have really good curatorial staff who are very engaged with what’s going on in the AZA world and home range countries [of our species.] For a small zoo, we’re pretty progressive when it comes to staff development. We like to send our staff to the field and classes and give them the hands on experience. That’s especially the case with red wolves, clouded leopards, tigers, polar bears, walruses and sea otters. It’s gratifying to know our staff are learning first hand- veterinary, education and animal care.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Point Defiance Zoo is also a leader in polar bear conservation. “We’ve sent our staff to symposiums on walruses and polar bears,” Geddes noted. “We’re members of Polar Bear International and some of our staff members have gone up to Churchill, observed polar bears and participated in symposiums. The best we can do with some of these things is talk about climate change and be proactive- not pull our punches. We got out there on that limb and made some strong statements on climate change and how it’s impacting animals in the Arctic.” In upcoming years, the zoo will be opening a state-of-the-art polar bear habitat expanding on the existing one.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In 2016, Gary Geddes announced his retirement. In April 2017, Alan Varsik became the Director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek. “For both operations I felt the best service I could provide was to leave with a strong team in place,” Geddes reflected. “It made things easier knowing the deputy director of the zoo would stay until we finished the aquarium. In fact, I stayed a little longer making sure I could find someone to fill the deputy director position at Northwest Trek (Varisk’s old position.) I hoped Alan could fit my shoes and it was a smooth transition. I feel good about them taking my recommendation to choose Alan to step into my shoes.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Geddes feels confident Varsik will continue to grow the zoo’s conservation efforts. “One of the efforts I worked the hardest on was reorganizing our conservation efforts- combining the zoo and trek conservation work on a departmental level and getting the parks commission to recognize what we do,” he reflected. “We designed the plan and Alan is implementing that. Alan got the education curator to become our conservation manager. We have a very supportive park board that’s welcoming this with open arms.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

“My belief is we’ve gotten into an era where conservation needs to be the main branding of zoos,” Gary Geddes concluded. “I’m glad we’re being as progressive with that as we are. As I look back on my career, I’m most proud of working on big picture funding issues that needed to be worked out. It was a formula that never has to be voted on again. We know we need to still be servants of the public’s wishes and do a great job communicating the things they feel are important. Conservation is what the folks who live around us want to know about. I always come back to how much the community appreciates the zoo- that was passed from one generation to another.”

@ Metroparks Tacoma

#PointDefianceZoo #NorthwestTrek

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