Mixed Species, Rare Births and Outside of the Box Animal Management: A Conversation with Larry Killm

For nearly fifty years, Dr. Larry Killmar has been a leader in animal management and husbandry. He spent 37 years with San Diego Zoo Global, where he served as General Curator of both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park (now called the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.) There, Killmar helped make groundbreaking achievements such as developing protocols for large mixed species exhibits, developing an innovative management system for elephants, helping reintroduce Arabian oryx back into the wild and helping figure out how to breed three species of endangered rhinoceros. He now serves as Zoo Director and Chief Zoological Officer at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Here is his story.

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Killmar’s time at San Diego Zoo Global began in 1969. “I grew up in San Diego and was a fan of the zoo as a kid,” he remembered. “I was supposed to take over my father’s business but I needed more hours. I applied at the San Diego zoo and got a position picking up paper. That was for two weeks but I stayed at the zoo for 37 years.” Around this time, the zoo was working on developing an off site breeding facility that would soon evolve into the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.) Even before the park opened to the public, Killmar was hired as one of the park’s keepers.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

The park was the brainchild of legendary zoo director, Dr. Charles Schoerader. “Charles was one heck of a guy,” Larry Killmar stated. “After he retired from the zoo he had a home near the Wild Animal Park so he’d come over several times a week. He was very, very dedicated to the Wild Animal Park and it was his vision.. the way I understand [how the park came to be] is they needed space for animals as they knew the zoo could not fulfill sustainable population needs for animals within the zoo itself. It was all based on having a place for animals to breed. The park was not originally designed to be opened to the public but then it was decided that it would be a good idea to open it for the public to enjoy. They were actually building the village when I started.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

The zoo brought on John Fairfield from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo as animal care manager of this new park. The park required an entirely new type of mentality than the zoo in terms of animal care. “No one had done anything to that scale before and we did it all off the book,” Killmar explained. “They wanted keepers with no background or experience since they didn’t want bad habits from the traditional zoo industry management practices.” Many of the exhibits at the park were larger than most entire zoos and mixed species together that had never been mixed before, requiring new ways of thinking and a lot of risks. “Many keepers at the zoo didn’t want to go to the park since it was hot and dusty,” Killmar added. “Some people thought we were crazy.”

@ San Diego zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Finding the right mixes of animal herds was an epic challenge ”The first five years were basically getting animals into these mixed species exhibits,” Larry Killmar elaborated. “The next five years were finding the compatible population size for each species. You had a lot of competition and aggression going on. It took ten years to know you’d have so many impala, so many rhinos and so many giraffes to make this work. You had exhibits up to 100 acres. The rest of it was fine tuning developing the breeding plans and reproduction requirements. It was a very complex operation. We learned everything [by trial and error] at the Wild Animal Park. There was a lot of books written on this stuff in the wild but this application was all new. As an example your only protection while working in the field exhibits was your vehicle.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

The mastermind behind the animal populations at the Wild Animal Park was Dr. Jim Dolan, who served as General Curator at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park for decades. “Working with Jim Dolan was a huge benefit,” Killmar remarked. “He took this on as a challenge. Jim was bigger than life. He had a presence in a room hard to describe. He was very passionate about what he did and, when working with him, you had to be at the top of your game. You had to pick up stuff quickly- he was highly demanding, an excellent teacher and had an unbelievable level of knowledge of mammals, birds and reptiles. I use a lot of what he taught me 48 years ago today.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Jim Dolan and the staff figured out the right dynamics for the mixed species field exhibits and how to manage them. “It was a lot of problem solving,” Killmar said. “How do you manage calves in a 100 acre exhibit without them being trampled? Even identifying a calf was born and capturing it to sex it and give it a once over was a challenge.” The work documented by Dolan and the staff set the stage for other zoos to do mixed species habitats successfully.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

One animal that was particularly problematic in a mixed species environment was Grevy’s zebra. “We originally put in two different types of zebras with a dozens or more other speices,” Larry Killmar recalled. “What we found was traumatized antelope calves in the morning but we could not figure out what the problem was. We finally determined the Grevy’s zebras were the aggressors and had to remove the Grevy’s completely and built a new exhibit [for them.] We also had issues with coyotes in the valley intruding into the exhibits. We had to put a barrier all the way around these exhibits to control the coyote’s access to these exhibits. Those were some of the big learning curves.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Soon after, Killmar became Mammal Curator of the Wild Animal Park and then became General Curator of the park in the 1980s. However, soon his responsibilities became even larger. “A year later my counterpart at the zoo decided he didn’t want to continue as General Curator of the Zoo so I was asked to manage both parks’ collections,” Killmar recalled. “I was going back and forth between the zoo and the park.” The animal care experience at the zoo was very distinct from that of the park. “The keeper management was very different,” Larry explained. “You clean and release everything at the zoo while at the park keepers worked in the animal exhibits and were part of the social structure of an exhibit. The most difficult keepers at the Wild Animal Park were the seasoned keeper and the brand new one. You had to manage those two extremes very carefully. [At the park,] you have to walk away from your vehicle at times to find the animals and you had to know what you’re doing. You can’t not know your exit strategy when you’re in with rhinos. At both the park and the zoo everyone expects you to be on top of your game at all time.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

When Larry Killmar became General Curator at the San Diego Zoo, the zoo was just beginning a massive redevelopment of much of the zoo that turned large chunks into immersive bioclimatic regions using modern exhibitry. He would be very influential in these projects. “The way it was set up was Jim and I would do the concept for what we wanted to see and how we wanted it to look,” Killmar explained. “Then we’d hand that down to the curator [of that particular section] and they’d do the fine tuning and see it through construction. If there were financial or concept issues we’d come back in and make a referee call. We would keep in touch with what was going on but the curators were the ones on the construction site.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

The first major project Killmar was involved with at the San Diego Zoo was Tiger River Trail, a 3-acre immersive trail through Asia that won the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Exhibit Award in 1989. It was the first cohesive chunk of the zoo to replicate a particular environment and present animals in that fashion. “Tiger River Trail was a tough one because of the elevation chances- you’re going down a canyon,” Killmar elaborated. “We had a lot of concern about the topography but that was the footprint we were handed. A lot of the exhibit design at the zoo is very difficult because of the canyons.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

While the challenges of the landscape made Tiger River Trail difficult, it turned out very well and opened to great acclaim in 1988. “The visuals of Tiger River Trail were stunning,” Larry Killmar remarked. “The exhibits flowed well from one to another and we hid the hard barriers in the tiger and tapir exhibits. We learned a lot from the products we had available. To look back at that area, you could say wow we could have done this or that with today’s technology. Disney developed some really innovative technology that the industry has been able to borrow. You’re always trying to reduce the barriers and make the exhibit as open as possible. You’ve got to keep in mind child viewing and adult viewing. You’ve also got to give the animals necessary space, security and quiet time. You’re always juggling a lot of stuff.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

In upcoming years, the San Diego Zoo opened lush, rainforest environments for troops of gorillas and bonobos, an area dubbed Gorilla Tropics. The animal care staff had to go to great lengths to make sure none of the animals could get out. “With the gorilla exhibit, we had this open-topped facility with glass panels and waterfalls and had to make sure they didn’t have any ability to go out,”Killmar noted. “The design of the rockwork was one thing, the texture was another. We had an orangutan named Ken Allen who had gotten out of the orangutan exhibit frequently so we had rock climbers test out the gorilla and bonobos habitats and find things we visually didn’t think were a problem. We had to work with the company constructing the artificial rock to not create a way out for the animals. It had to look beautiful but not create escape routes. When you have smart, agile primates, you have to stay a step ahead.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ San Diego Zoo Global

While these new habitats were being built, Larry Killmar had to manage all of the collection at both the zoo and the park. “We could manage it as we had two facilities- kind of the best of both worlds,” he stated. “There were 8,000 animals between the two parks. There were very complex management issues at the zoo since you have smaller exhibits [than the Wild Animal Park] and the tradition was the zoo always had the traditional species. [For instance,] the zoo was never able to breed Indian rhinos so we moved them to the Wild Animal Park. Oftentimes, you’re the politician when making those decisions.” Killmar, Dolan and their staff were able to ensure top notch animal welfare and husbandry always prevailed at both parks.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

In the 1980s, the San Diego Zoo had phased out hippos since “their exhibits were godawful.” In 1995, the river horses made a triumphant return with the opening of the state-of-the-art Hippo Beach, later incorporated in the Ituri Forest. “We had donors who really wanted to see hippos come back,” Killmar remembered. “The biggest challenge there was water quality and all the glass. The engineers said it would hold but you don't want to just trust those calculations. You’re building something with this big glass viewing and it better hold since you don’t want a hippo running around the zoo. They defecate a great amount so you have to filter it to keep it visually appealing. What’s behind the scenes to keep that water clean is remarkable.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Larry Killmar was part of the team that negotiated the agreement to acquire the endangered giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo. In order to achieve this, the zoo made a strong commitment to Chinese conservation. “We were the first zoo to develop an agreement for giant pandas and other species from China,” Killmar remarked. “At the time, we had the largest collection of Chinese animals outside of China. We originally had pandas come in for 2-3 months but then our government said we’re not going to do [short-term loans anymore.] That changed the entire complexion of the negotiation. This wasn’t going to be a sideshow and you had to have conservation programs attached to the acquisition and financial support in place to protect pandas in China.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“We had to go through the hoops,” Killmar continued. “You’re got a project that can only be supported by legitimate conservation in China agreed upon by both governments. There’s a lot of money being exchanged and you want to make sure that these efforts continue. We negotiated for other species conservation efforts before that such as the takin, white-lipped deer and Kiang just to mention a few. Negotiating to get those animals into the country and getting them to the zoo took many years of effort. The Chinese government doesn’t pay the animal transportation cost, you pay for it. A lot of the species from China in American zoos came through the San Diego Zoo.” In 1996, the San Diego Zoo finally received giant pandas on a long-term loan and has had success reproducing them.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

The same year the pandas arrived in San Diego, the zoo opened Polar Plunge, arguably the best polar bear exhibit in the nation when it opened. “Polar Bear Plunge came completely from left field,” Killmar recalled. “We were planning on doing polar bears later but a donor that wanted polar bears paid for everything. It had its challenges as we were moving to another side of the zoo [from where we had been building.] We had to consider all the marine mammal requirements, get the water quality correct and ensure correct water temperature for the polar bears as well. You had to have all that engineered and make it feel like the wilds of Alaska. With a bear that’s potentially a predator, you have to have special holding facilities so the keepers are protected.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

One of Larry Killmar’s biggest accomplishments while with San Diego Zoo Global was completely changing the way its elephants were managed and trained for. Not only did it pioneer the protected contact system but it had an amazing opportunity to start from scratch when the Wild Animal Park rescued seven elephants from death in Swaziland. ”They were wild born animals naïve to all these training regimes,” Killmar noted. The animal care staff was able to develop a positive reinforcement behavior management system for the herd of African elephants and they ended up having several calves.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“Going from the death of an elephant keeper in the 1980s to having an innovative elephant management program in that period of time was incredible,” Killmar reflected. “The industry benefits from the standards [of elephant management] we established in San Diego Zoo. With climate San Diego has, the elephants don’t spend much time in indoor facilities. If you’re in the Northeast working on a training regime, when the snow starts it’s all indoors.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

A crucial element of Killmar’s philosophy to elephant management was to trust their natural instincts to come through. “My premise has always been let them be elephants, there’s no need to micromanage these animals,” he explained. “As humans we want to over manage everything but we don’t need to. They’ll do just fine by themselves. Watching these elephants give births [at San Diego and Lowry} I saw they knew exactly what to do and do not need our intervention. There’s been way too much micromanagement in elephant management so we’re knocking that door down.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

San Diego Zoo Global also helped bring back the California condor and Arabian oryx from the brink of extinction. “I’m very proud of the Arabian oryx reintroduction project,” Larry Killmar mentioned. “If my career stopped today, I would feel very fulfilled as I helped introduce a species back into the wild. Getting the animals there was just a tiny part of it- all the other politics, the setups and procedures took the time. That’s a feather in San Diego’s cap.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

One of the new concept habitats developed during Larry Killmar’s tenure at San Diego was Lion Camp at the Wild Animal Park. “The idea with Lion Camp was displaying lions in a setting that appeared to be part of the East Africa field exhibit,” he explained. “The vista was perfect for them. There was a lot of discussion about size and quality verses quantity of space. Putting lions in thirty acres would be spectacular but you’d lose them. This habitat had no fencing, just open vistas. It looks like an infinity pool and we had thorn trees, rock outcropping and the jeep parked in the exhibit that looked just like Africa.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“You could walk by and see a lion on the hood of the jeep,” Killmar continued. “The lion house is hidden- it appears to be a rock outcropping. The really cool part of that exhibit is that with the large glass panels we didn’t bring the glass all the way to the top so you could hear the lions roaring.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Killmar’s last major project with San Diego Zoo Global was Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, which turned the outdated Heart of the Zoo into a set of immersive trails through mesh habitats for a variety of primates and other rainforest animals. However, the milestone exhibit was delayed from opening. “At the time, steel prices were going crazy and availability was low so we were way behind schedule,” Killmar remarked. “We notified everybody we were behind and the exhibit would not have animals on the opening day. When you’re putting primates in new facilities, it takes time to get them acclimated to their surroundings. The marketing department did a good job with us as we rolled out the exhibits over months. Still, that was a lot of pressure and I never want to do that again.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Some of Killmar’s most iconic work during his time at San Diego Zoo Global was with managing large populations of white, black and Indian rhinoceros and obtaining unprecedented breeding success with the three species. “The numbers are phenomenal between the three species and are huge in supporting the managed populations of those species,” he elaborated. “The rhino program is the one I feel in general met all the criteria for success. We let them be rhinos- they had no constraints and were together 24/7. That has been my premise.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

In 2007, Larry Killmar was recruited by the Lowry Park Zoo. “My skills are in putting collections together and exhibit design,” he commented. “Lowry Park Zoo was never looking to be as big as San Diego but they wanted an important collection.” Killmar has brought immense animal knowledge to the Lowry Park Zoo team. “I negotiated to bring okapi into the collection, which is a unique species in any zoo,” he mentioned. “I took the same elephant training routine from San Diego and brought it to Tampa. We had the first parent-raised chicks of shoebill storks in human care, a great reward for this institution. We’re never going to be as large as San Diego but the point is the quality. If a bus took me out tomorrow, I want the zoo to have good programs doing important conservation.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Killmar has implemented many of the philosophies he and Jim Dolan developed at San Diego into the animal management at Lowry Park Zoo. “The classic is with the Indian rhinos,” he stated. “When I got here the male and female weren’t together and the staff were concerned to put them together because they’re aggressive. Indian rhinos are a challenge as there’s lots of running and aggression. I said we should let hormones be our friend and the next time that female cycles, let me know. We had to learn what signs to look for but when we found out she was cycling, we put them together and they bred immediately. That aggression and animosity had all been taken care of by hormones so they could continue to be together. Now the staff just calls me and say yep they’re breeding. There was no magic- we just let them be rhinos. When the female gave birth, she did exactly everything right.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

“Same strategy with the African elephants,” Larry Killmar continued. “We let them breed naturally and have their calves naturally. All the free contact stuff has been thrown out. It’s all positive reward conditioning and there’s no stress on the elephants. If they want to do it, they do it and get a reward. If not, there’s no consequences. That management style is very beneficial.” Again, the seasoned veteran had to train his staff to let go. “I had them look at tapes of what an elephant birth is like so they could get used to it and not overreact,” Killmar explained. “There was a lot of information of the mother wanting to kill the calf but if that was the case there’d be no elephants alive on the face of the earth.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Most accredited zoos that house elephants now follow the training routine used at the Lowry Park Zoo utilizes. “Most institutions are now following the basic training regime we have,” Killmar claimed. “We’re outside the holding area and use a whistle as a bridge and a food reward. If we ask for a trunk, the food reward is an apple. One of our female elephants is trained for AI without restraints. She doesn’t even need the food reward anymore. That’s what’s wonderful about training. The old way of doing that was the animal was chained but we’re way beyond that. We probably have more trouble when we go to the doctor than an elephant does with giving blood.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Larry Killmar even claimed micromanagement can even be detrimental to an animal’s wellbeing. “It has caused trouble as they’re interfering with natural behavior,” he articulated. “It sets up the animal to be nervous and intense. I said if we had an elephant calf born on exhibit that would be fine. The mother is not going to let the calf fall in harm’s way at all. There’s no reason to keep the mother isolated as long as the calf is nursing, healthy and doing well. They’re herd animals and want to be together.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

A year after arriving at the Lowry Park Zoo, Killmar found himself in headlines as a scandal emerged related to the zoo’s director Lex Salisbury. It was in part his responsibility to get the zoo back on track. “We got an A for effort and completeness when we collectively wrote 40 new policies in sixty days,” Killmar recalled. “We conducted a top-to-bottom review of the whole zoo. Our job was to be the positive force and give confidence back to the city and mayor. We got accreditation back and didn’t lose one donor through that entire process. A lot of lessons were learned there.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Since that difficult time, the Lowry Park Zoo has not looked back. “The whole premise of our collection philosophy is if I’m going to have a pigeon in the collection, it should be a pigeon that needs a lot of conservation or husbandry work since it costs the same to take care of an endangered pigeon as it does for a common pigeon,” Larry Killmar remarked. “We’re contributing to populations that need help. If we have an exhibit, climate and staff that can manage it I’ll take it on.” Among the animals Killmar has added to the zoo include okapi, nyala, mountain zebras and patas monkeys.

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

The Lowry Park Zoo is well known for its manatee rehabilitation program and has rescued and rehabilitated over 400 manatees since 1991. “Manatees is our signature conservation project and one we take seriously,” Killmar claimed. “We spend a million dollars a year on it. We have a survivability of 85% of every manatee that comes in.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

As stated above, positive behavioral training is of upmost importance at the Lowry Park Zoo. Currently the zoo is working to extend the management style used for the elephants to all animals at the zoo. “We have outside consultants helping us fine tune training with everything from giraffe to chimpanzees to extend this positive reinforcement throughout the entire zoo,” Larry Killmar remarked. “We can get them to stand on scales and do blood draws without chemical restraint. It takes focused, concentrated effort.” He used the giraffes as an example. “We have giraffe feeding here and not al the animals come up to feed regularly as there’s some dominance issues so we want to lessen those issues,” Killmar explained. “That’s working quite well. It takes someone to focus on it and get amazing results. You change one thing in a giraffe exhibit and it takes forever for them to get used to it. In a handful of training sessions, we’ve made a huge difference.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Another task taken on by Killmar and his staff was integrating the elephant herd with antelope. “We put in impala with the elephants first and the issue there was the impala could technically get out of the habitat,” he remarked. “We had to figure out how to condition them not to leap out. We put thick hotwire tape around the exhibit to make it obvious to them. They saw it and knew quite well that was their boundary. After several months, we slowly removed it. We had four birthing seasons in that habitat. We just switched to Nile lechwe since impala are extremely common. We left the impala in with the lechwe to get them used to the boundaries. Lechwe aren’t as agile but they know where their boundary is.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The team also successfully integrated the traditionally aggressive Grevy’s zebra in with white rhinoceros. “Grevy’s are a large zebra who can handle rhinos,” Larry Killmar noted. “They have the temperament to put up with rhinos. There’s always risks but you have to handle that risk. You try to take the risks to the lowest common denominator and always have a plan B. it’s a much better exhibit feel with them together and this is how these animals live in their environment. Why not show that in our zoo environment? Another one people said would never work was silvered langurs and orangutans. We did it for three years and it worked quite well. We took the langurs out only because the youngster orangutans were rough with them. It takes a lot of patience and timing with the staff to slowly put them on exhibit and not pressure them. You’re got to have a steady handle on the throttle and just be patient.” In the future, the zoo might try to integrate elephants with giraffes and zebras.

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

In 2015, Larry Killmar was promoted to Chief Zoological Officer and Zoo Director at the Lowry Park Zoo. “Education and science divisions now report through me,” he remarked. “I’m one of the six executive leaders who manage the zoo and we all share the responsibility.” The team’s ambitions are big. “We want this to be an iconic zoo,” Killmar reflected. “We want to be unique and have exhibits that are state-of-the-art. We’re going to concentrate on animals that thrive in this tropical environment and do the best we can.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

“Zoos have got to be doing rescue and rehabilitation or similar local and national conservation related projects to stay relevant,” Larry Killmar concluded. “Zoos can’t be introspective. They have to be involved in conservation in their community and think outside the box. When our guests visit the zoo, they have to have some fun things to do and it can’t all be serious science but we have to make those demands. To me, I’m most proud of the Arabian oryx and African elephant projects. Also the manatee project that I help support. The fact I’ve supported a handful of species and helped form good policy on industry committees that I served on will hopefully have an impact on the future. I hope my time in the business will benefit long after I’m gone. I want to leave it better than I found it."

@ Lowry Park Zoo

#LowryParkZoo #SanDiegoZoo #SanDiegoSafariPark

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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