Jambo Topeka: A Conversation with Gary Clarke, Retired Director of the Topeka Zoo

Gary Clarke is often credited as being one of the first modern zoo directors in American zoo history. He directed the Topeka Zoo from 1963 to 1989. During that time, he developed a number of groundbreaking exhibits and innovative practices. Among Clarke’s achievements were being the first president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after its independence from the National Recreation and Park Association and creating the zoo world’s first indoor tropical rainforest building. After retiring from zoos, he had a second career guiding African safaris. Here is his story.

@ Topeka Zoo

“When I was a boy, there were two things I wanted to do in life: work in a zoo and go to Africa,” Clarke remembered. “When I was 16, I put in an application to work at the Kansas City Zoo but they told me the rule at the zoo was you had to be 18. When I was 18, I came back to the zoo and was hired.” While he started with the title of a keeper, he recalled having to do a lot of groundwork and maintenance before he could work with animals. “Then the director said one of our major keepers is on vacation so you can take his place for two weeks,” Clarke added. “That’s how they tested you. I took his place for two weeks and when he came back he gave me a passing mark.” Initially he worked with a variety of animals including emus, Humboldt penguins, mouflon, rheas and capybaras. “That area is where the Australian area is now,” Clarke said. “Today the Kansas City Zoo is almost completely different.”

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While Gary Clarke worked part-time at the zoo, he needed a full-time job. ”I got one with the Midwest Research Institute, which did a variety of things including nutrition,” he explained. “I was put in charge of the animal colonies they were doing nutritional research with. I had a contract with what became NASA to do studies on environmental conditions for space travel.” Clarke also became involved in reptile research. “When I was at the zoo in Kansas City, they had a small reptile collection but no strong reptile keeper so I became the reptile keeper,” he elaborated. “When I left, the zoo director said 'We’re going to discontinue our reptile collection. Would you like to have all the reptiles?' I took all of them to MRI and set up a reptile laboratory. I ended up creating a simulated zoo to study snake mites.”

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Soon enough, he was back at the Kansas City Zoo, this time taking care of everything. “They said if you want to do reptiles, we don’t have a reptile collection so we could send you to the Saint Louis Zoo or you could be a general zooperson for us and work with everything,” Gary Clarke recollected. “I ended up taking care of everything- African elephants, Asian elephants, lions, tigers, jaguars, giraffes, polar bears, grizzly bears, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, Rhesus monkeys, mandrills, hippos, black rhinos, waterfowl [and so forth]. I worked with the first gorillas ever at the Kansas City Zoo.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

“In 1963, I was offered a curatorial position at the Fort Worth Zoo, which was an entirely different operation,” Clarke continued. “Kansas City stressed large mammals while Fort Worth was just finishing its new reptile building. It was revolutionary just as their Museum of Living Art (MOLA) is today. Outside there was a mosaic of a dinosaur. I got to help with the finishing touches on that building. The zoo had a big reptile collection, large tropical bird collection, and plenty of small mammals. They had much more innovative exhibit techniques than Kansas City. Fort Worth was a zoological society operation rather than strictly city run.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

@ Fort Worth Zoo

In 1962, Gary Clarke was hired as Director of the Topeka Zoo, which he would make famous in the zoo world. The zoo’s condition was quite unflattering at the time. “It was a small town municipal menagerie,” Clarke reflected. “To be real honest with you, a lot of my colleagues at the time advised me against [going there.] They said it would be professional suicide and they’d never hear from me again.” Despite its reputation, he went to the zoo and began to turn things around. “I had to clean up the zoo and the diets,” Clarke remarked. “ I knew in order for the zoo to survive and develop it needed a citizens support group. I worked with a local civics club to organize Topeka Friends of the Zoo, which was founded in April 1964. Today they operate all the guest services and are the main source of public funding for the zoo. It was one of the best things I did.”

@ Topeka Zoo

This was only the beginning of making the Topeka Zoo somewhere people wanted to come. “They only had one building, a converted greenhouse built in 1907 that had been converted to be the winter quarters, alligators and a few reptiles,” Clarke recalled. “They had a pair of lions, a puma, aoudads, polar bears, Alaskan brown bears, spider monkeys, deer, local reptiles and local waterfowl but that was about it. Most people who said let’s go to the zoo after church on Sunday would go to Kansas City. I had a big job.” He worked with the city on creating a master plan for the zoo. The first major project in the plan was the Large Mammal Building, which brought in the zoo’s first elephants, hippos and giraffes. “It was a $250,000 building and they said they didn’t have the money for it,” Clarke explained. “I proposed an admission charge, which wasn’t popular since the zoo had always been free. My compromise was the zoo would be free the first year the building was open and then we would charge admission to pay the bonds off.”

@ Topeka Zoo

“We did a campaign called Operation Noah’s Ark where the sponsors would be soda pop and potato chip companies and they would save items to buy the animals,” Gary Clarke continued. “It was a very successful campaign. The Large Mammal Building opened in May 1966. We brought in two female Asian elephants. When I worked at the Kansas City Zoo, a hippo was born there and I made arrangements to bring that hippo over to Topeka. We brought in a male giraffe from Oklahoma City and a female giraffe from Colorado Springs.” Since then, the building has had some upgrades and in upcoming years a major expansion of the elephant habitat will open.

@ Topeka Zoo

Operation Noah’s Ark led to the Topeka Zoo becoming wildly popular. “I think developing community support was the main thing,” reflected Gary Clarke on the zoo's success. “Also, just getting the community involved helped the city become very proud of the zoo. When I first came, they were embarrassed by [the zoo] and rightly so. Now they started calling it the crown jewell of Topeka.” The zoo worked for a variety of ways to engage with Topeka’s people. “We worked with the local library in town [to do education programs],” Clarke said. “I contacted things like the program of crippled children to do programs for kids with disabilities. I wanted the zoo to be part of the fabric of the community so we could do more things than just animals. The zoo became a community asset.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Gary Clarke told a story that illustrated the special place the Topeka Zoo earned in the community. “In 1966, there was a killer tornado where 17 people were killed and a $100,000 worth of damage was caused in 1966 dollars,” he recalled. “The next day, the zoo was packed. Many tornado victims came and said they felt comfortable at the zoo and it helped take their mind off what was going on.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Another important change was the improvement of the diets and animal care. “Because the diets were so poor when I came, I worked with Mark Morrison Associates, who did domestic diets, to develop the science diets,” Clarke stated. “We talked about whether we could develop a prepared diet for zoo animals. They were willing to try that and I was willing to cooperate in the research. We set up a series of experimental diets with scientific procedures to see how much different animals each day. That became the zoopreme diets, which were once very prevalent in the zoo world. In the 1960s, that was a big deal and other companies jumped on the bandwagon. We did everything from a feline diet to a ratite diet for ostrich and rhea to a primate diet to a marmoset diet since they needed special minerals. That was a very exciting thing for a small zoo like ours.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The Topeka Zoo would become world-famous for its next project. “There were a number of zoos who in their large bird house would have a free flight aviary in one room,” Gary Clarke recollected. “Guests would be in the dark space while the birds would be in the light space. I wanted to develop an entire structure that would literally be a walkthrough exhibit.” This thought led to the vision for Tropical Rainforest, which opened in 1974 as the first of its kind in the United States.

@ Topeka Zoo

“In developing the plans for Tropical Rainforest, we wanted to have free-flying birds and my thought was to put in a geodesic dome,” Clarke continued. “We did a 31 foot high dome at midpoint. We had a waterfall dominate the central area- a 17-foot high waterfall which at the time was the highest waterfall in Kansas. We also had free ranging iguanas, marmosets, agoutis, pacas, flamingos, fruit bats and two-toed sloth. As far as we now it was the first walkthrough tropical rainforest habitat anywhere.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The building was rather challenging to build. “The first challenge was educating the architects,” Gary Clarke stated. “They were local architects who were receptive to doing things differently, evaluating design techniques and not being afraid to ask questions and consult others. Our staff became as familiar as possible with the husbandry of the species who would be free ranging. We made sure we had time to introduce all the animals and had howdy units where they could get used to the sights, sounds and daily rhythm of the entire exhibits and see the other animals nearby.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The Tropical Rainforest was an astonishing success both in popularity and critical acclaim. “The AZA established the exhibit achievement award and our rainforest was the first exhibit to win that reward,” Clarke reflected. “The public was thrilled to death. One of the things the rainforest did was help increase our winter attendance because they loved that, when Kansas was blanketed in snow, they could be transported to the Amazon. We had people request weddings in the rainforest. When I’d make my rounds, I’d see a couple where the husband was in a wheelchair. They were here everyday and the wife said the husband was a terminal cancer patient and wanted to see the rainforest everyday because it was filled with life.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Gary Clarke took pride in the Tropical Rainforest inspiring other exceptional rainforest at zoos. “When the North Carolina Zoo did that big aviary their design team came to Topeka and spent an entire day in our rainforest to see how it functioned, " he recalled. "When Lee Simmons was the director of Omaha, he came down and spent an entire day in the rainforest. He’s a detailed technical guy and said one day he’d build a bigger rainforest than ours. Of course he did that with the Lied Jungle. It took our little rainforest and expanded it beyond anything we could have ever imagined. A lot of people called us to ask for information and we were happy to give it.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Under Clarke’s leadership, the Topeka Zoo began to have a strong focus on education. “We were one of the first zoos I know of to develop a docent program,” he commented. “We also built an education room in the Large Mammal Building. When we hired the educational curator, he said we needed to upgrade our graphics so we did that. We established school programs with traveling animals and an outreach program. The educational curator got involved with the Kansas University Natural History Museum and we did a joint program. We also enhanced the relationship with the public library where we’d bring animals to story time.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The zoo also began to elevate animal care. “After revamping all the diets, my assistant director at the time developed an animal care manual,” Gary Clarke explained. “When accreditation came along, we wanted our own standards to be higher. We created temperature guidelines for when animals could go out. Basic things like that.” The keepers became more professional as well. “When I first came, I instituted uniforms for the staff,” Clarke added. “We started to send our staff to AZA regional conferences, which helped upgrade their professionalism. The AAZK (American Association of Zookeepers) was started by San Diego but they didn’t want their headquarters there since it sounded too much like a union. I offered to have them here so for many years the AAZK was headed in Topeka. I encouraged our staff members to serve on the board and committees. We did a keeper exchange program with other zoos and whenever we’d transport an animal, I’d always want keepers to come along just for the experience.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The Topeka Zoo followed up the Tropical Rainforest with Discovering Apes, which took the zoo’s gorillas and orangutans outside. “When we built the Large Mammal Building, we initially built three primate units,” Clarke noted. “That was when glass wasn’t as common in zoos as it was today. They were primarily designed for young apes and not necessarily adults.” One of them was Tiffany, who resided at the zoo until she passed this year. “Tiffany was born in Kansas City and I took care of her parents there,” Clarke said. However, by the early 1980s, the apes were outgrowing their spaces and the decision was made to move them to better homes. Chimps were phased out in favor of focusing on gorillas and orangutans.

@ Topeka Zoo

The first phase featured an innovative orangutan habitat, which opened in 1981. “We did the orangutan exhibit first where the people our on the second level,” Clarke said. “The orangutan space was vertical and we brought the public into a simulated treehouse. You’re on the same level as the orangutans and you’re looking at them in the treetops. We developed an upper and lower level for the orangutans, water pockets in the crotches of the trees and two brachiation patterns- one for adult males where they’re spaced far enough apart for them to brachiate and a smaller one for young orangutans. The orangutans love to be on the upper branches so they could see the people. The keepers would hide things up in the trees to keep the orangutans all over the place looking. Outside we did a grassy hill with plenty of climbing opportunities.”

@ Topeka Zoo

In 1985, Discovering Apes was completed with Gorilla Encounter, which featured the first gorilla tunnel in America. “With the gorillas of course, we developed a glass tunnel that went through the outside habitats,” Gary Clarke stated. “The gorillas could climb up the rockwork at each end of the tunnel and be overhead. There was a waterfall in the middle of the tunnel. As you looked to your right, there was a hidden dry moat at the back of the yard and the vegetation blends itself in. it looked like they could go beyond where you could see it. then you could see the visitors looking at them. Some zoos never want you to see the visitors but I think it’s important for the visitors to see each other in certain areas. We purposefully built it so you could see the interaction between the gorillas and the visitors.” Clarke claimed the gorilla tunnel at Topeka helped set the foundation for the more elaborate, larger scaled Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo, where visitors can see gorillas on both sides from a tunnel.

@ Topeka Zoo

The last exhibit Gary Clarke developed was Lion’s Pride. “My concept with Lion's Pride was many zoos have the same species like lions so it’s important to distinguish [our exhibit] from [others],” Clarke said. “Husbandry can all be the same but the perspective the visitor has makes it unique, engaging and memorable. I proposed we developing this habitat setting for lions where you have three different perspectives into the same space. You first view the lions through tension wire, which is almost invisible. I love that perspective and the sound and breeze comes through. You proceed down the path to a series of kopje rocks and go inside to get a glass fronted view, which also views into the den. That’s another different perspective. Then you exit and make another turn to a simulated bush camp where you can go under a canvas tent structure like you would in Africa. It was the same area and lions but three different perspective. We had little simulated shipping crates where kids could look from a telescope.”

@ Topeka Zoo

“The center area was elevated because the lions like to establish territory visually,” Clarke continued. “Under the elevated section on the south side, it opens up into a den. We put a skylight in the den so the lions had natural light while lying in the den. We had heat in there too. We also had a series of artificial termite mounds and logs for them to climb on. We had the source of drinking water for the lions right next to the viewing glass so the lions would crotch right in front of the public. They could also get away from the public and hide behind the wall. There were quite a few trees and grass grown in there.”

@ Topeka Zoo

On top of directing the Topeka Zoo, Gary Clarke was involved in designing a number of zoos with the group Zoo Plan. “When the Sedgwick County Zoo was being developed in the late 1960s, Ron Blakely hired a firm in town and his concept was to being in colleague zoo directors as a consulting panel,” he recalled. “I was asked to be on of them. Marlin Perkins was asked, Rich Mately, who was at Busch Gardens was asked, Bill Braker, Director of the Shedd Aquarium, was asked [and so forth.] We all met regularly in Wichita and helped with the concept and design of the plans. The concept for Sedgwick was, even though they have a winter climate, we would have all the large mammals outside in good weather and inside in inclement weather but not with elaborate inside viewing facilities. Most of the space and money spent was devoted to the outside exhibits. Of course there was the Jungle and the reptile building but attendance is low in the winter so we didn’t want to focus on indoor viewing. That philosophy has changed how a lot of zoos have built their indoor space."

@ Topeka Zoo

“Once we got through with that, Blakely thought [zoos directors consulting] was such a good idea we created a company called Zoo Plan Associates,” Clarke elaborated. “Marlin Perkins was the chairman of Zoo Plan. We did a master plan of the Calgary Zoo, the current Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park and the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. We did an initial study for the Minnesota Zoo: the concept of the Minnesota Zoo was we’d do cold climate animals and have a monorail take you around. We did some work at The Living Desert. We designed Toronto Zoo and the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center too. For Toronto, I proposed we theme the African Savanna like you’re on safari. I came up with the idea of it starting with a simulated airport and doing a national park with a Swahili name.”

@ Topeka Zoo

While Gary Clarke had given a lot of his life to zoos, he also was very passionate about traveling Africa. “In 1989, during my 26th year with Topeka, I achieved one of my long time goals of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa,” he remembered. “For once in my life, I wanted to stand on the highest point of that great continent. I made it to the top but they had to carry me down. My first thought was why I’m doing this while my second thought was I want to share Africa with people. In September 1989, I resigned [from the Topeka Zoo] to start my own safari company. I took a daring chance since I wasn’t of retirement age and still had to make a living. I had no paid employees- everyone was a volunteer. I had no paid advertising- that was all word of month. I was fortunate as I was young and healthy enough to lead these safaris. I led 140 safaris until 2006.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Since retiring from the field, Gary Clarke still takes pride in the zoo industry. “I’m impressed and pleased with the advancement of animal management, animal husbandry and conservation efforts,” he reflected. “I’m impressed at the improvements in exhibit techniques. I’m concerned about the continued regulations that might inhibit zoos from functioning on a more efficient level- things like you have to bring the elephants in when it rains while in Africa the elephants stay out and get wet.”

@ Topeka Zoo

“I love the fact zoos are so cooperative [with each other] these days,” he continued. “ I can remember when I started in 1957, zoos were very competitive. They wanted to be the only zoo with okapi or bongo while now zoos willingly loan those animals to other zoos. I’m also pleased with the continued development of the educational component of zoos. I love seeing zoos taking advantage of all these things. Professionalism and accreditation are higher than ever. These are all good. Zoos continue to be popular and supported despite critics. We are a window to the wild to people from urban areas. You can see a living breathing creature better than in a book, film or animatronic.”

@ Topeka Zoo

Clarke noted the conservation efforts of zoos are much more immense than they were when he was a zoo director. “When I was in Topeka, it was mostly conservation education,” he explained. “We did breed a lot of Bali mynahs in our rainforest and some of those returned to the wild. We also bred golden lion tamarins and Preswalzki’s wild horses. There are fewer of those horses than Rembrandt paintings. We developed a great education program around them and their status in the wild. For awhile, we had an off site breeding farm for them. To me, that was very exciting for a small zoo like ours.”

@ Topeka Zoo

In recent years, Gary Clarke has again been used by the Topeka Zoo in an interesting way. “They hired a new zoo director in 2010 named Brendan Wiley,” he stated. “He’s a number one first class zoo director and human being- perfect for our zoo. They decided to get me back involved in the zoo and asked me to review the master plan. They wanted me to be active as Director Emeritus so they gave me an office, keys to a cart and wanted me to be directly involved in the future of the zoo and raising the funds. I’m like the Goodwill Ambassador guy. I’m thrilled to death since I can’t go to Africa anymore and the new master plan is extremely exciting.”

@ Topeka Zoo

The first project in the master plan will be Camp Cubawunga. “They were going to call it Gary Clarke’s Africa but they had already had named the education center after me and I said 'You’d be the only zoo in the world to have two building named after a guy and he’s not even dead yet,'” Clarke commented. “I knew they were trying to take advantage of my safari experience. My thought was we shouldn’t compete with what every other zoo has done [and do something different.] So often Africa at zoos is pristine and untouched by human hands so I said why don’t we let the guests go through the mindset of a safari goer. I said we should take them to a camp first. We would do a camp setting reflective of what you’d do on safari. I said let’s call it Camp Cubawunga and Lion’s Pride would be the anchor connecting the past and the future.”

@ Topeka Zoo

While Lion’s Pride will remain, everything around it will change. “The kopje rocks are coming out and a series of tents will go in to create one indoor structure that will be heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer,” Clarke remarked. “The first three tents will be named after the first three lions we had. We’re going to have a safari gallery with many of the artifacts I brought back from Africa. We’re going to have Patas monkeys and African wild dogs as well as an expanded elephant habitat. The public space will be called Dung Beetle Square and have all kinds of activities for visitors and guests. We’ll have a Zambezi river canoe, a hot air balloon, climbing logs for tents and a simulated air strip- all activities you could do on safari. Nobody has ever done all this stuff to reflect a true safari experience. We’re also going to put more behavioral enrichments in the lion space and have a viewing window three times the size of what it was.”

@ Scott Richardson

“I get a lot of credit for what’s happened at the zoo but the community deserves the credit for that,” Gary Clarke concluded. “I was the cheerleader but they were the ones that made it happen. I was blessed to have a great staff, great volunteers and a great governing authority. All that stuff couldn’t have happened if they didn’t approve it. I would hope my efforts in work for zoos and involvement with people on safari resulted in people I came in contact with having a better understanding and appreciation of animal life and an understanding in their stewardship for wildlife, the environment and our earth.”

@ Topeka 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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