Mission Driven: A Conversation with Amos Morris, Deputy Director at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo

With nearly 30 years of experience in the zoo field, Amos Morris is the current Deputy Director/COO at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. From 2009 to 2017, he served as Director of the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden in Evansville, Indiana. There he worked diligently to improve the quality and resources of the zoo. This summer, Morris joined Fresno’s team, one of the fastest growing zoos in the nation. There he works with the zoo’s director Scott Barton to build off of the momentum the zoo has undergone in recent years and oversee day-to-day operations. Here is his story.

@ Amos Morris

Morris began his zoo career as a hoofstock keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo in the 1987. “I worked in the Antelope House with the giraffes, zebras, camels, gazelles and other hooved animals,” he recalled. “One of the things we were influential in was banteng and gaur conservation. We were working on AI for both of those cattle. In an effort to specialize, the gaur went to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and the banteng stayed at Saint Louis.” Next, Morris went to the Dallas Zoo as an Area Supervisor and was responsible for the large mammal section of the zoo featuring elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, lions, tigers, leopards and antelope. “There were all old type grotto exhibits that have since been replaced,” Morris commented. “That’s where I first worked with elephants and Leo Baggio was my trainer.” After a few years working in Dallas, Morris left the zoo profession. “At that time, zoos weren’t communicating well why they existed and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it for the rest of my life,” he recalled.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

After spending some time in construction and substitute teaching, Amos Morris was recruited by Ron Kagan back to zoos as Associate Curator of Mammals at the Detroit Zoo. At this time, he was regaining his faith in zoos. “We were starting to actually put action to our words and AZA created a mechanism for zoo people to get involved in conservation,” Morris noted. Additionally, the Detroit Zoo was beginning to adopt a unique approach to animal welfare. “Ron always felt zoos had just as much of a part in the animal rights argument as PETA and HSUS and that we have a place at the table to argue welfare for animals in human care," Morris said. "He was really trying to promote that.” While Morris was not at the Detroit Zoo for long, he was there for the initial planning of Arctic Ring of Life, a groundbreaking immersive habitat complex for polar bears that would go on to be the largest of its kind when it opened.

@ Detroit Zoo

Next, Morris went to the Roger Williams Park Zoo as an area curator. “That was actually my first experience at a small, medium-sized zoo,” he remarked. “We got a lot of stuff done. We were very popular in the community and had some interesting ways we connected the community to our education programs. We also were very strong in the American burying beetle project, which was started there, and did some cotton-top tamarin research that gained us a good reputation.” Morris was responsible for supervising the zoo’s large mammals, including its three African elephants.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

When Director Tony Vecchio left to direct the Oregon Zoo, Amos Morris became Interim director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo for a time before going to the position of General Curator. “It was a city-run zoo that had a lot of other components,” he noted. “A nonprofit ran part of the zoo while the city ran the day-to-day animal part. My responsibility as interim director was the city’s budget so I worked with the superintendent of parks to make sure the zoo had funds to feed the animals and pay the keepers.” Being general curator really helped expand his knowledge. “As general curator at a small zoo, you had to have knowledge of the whole collection,” Morris stated. “My background was more in large mammals so I had to build some knowledge with birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. After downsizing, I was the only curator position there so I was responsible for working with the registrar to move animals in and out of the zoo and set up management plans for all of them.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Next, Morris became Curator of Mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo. “We had a lot going on there,” he remembered. “It’s a place where you don’t sit on your hands.” Some of the things Morris accomplished at the zoo were taking part in the development of Water’s Edge (an exhibit featuring polar bears, sea otters, and other marine animals) as well as curating successful breeding programs for Amur tigers and African elephants. “We really wanted an underwater tunnel in Water’s Edge, which we did,” he remarked. “You can get nose to nose with the polar bears through the glass and the polar bears have a really nice vantage point of the entire zoo.”

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

However, the planned walruses for Water’s Edge never came. “Walruses are a very difficult species to acquire for human care,” Morris explained. “Few places have them and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service would not allow rescued walruses to go to any facility that didn’t already have them.” Morris was also responsible for finding and developing the now International Conservation Center in Somerset, PA. This is a 725 acre facility dedicated to African elephant conservation and is owned and operated by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

@ Pittsbugh Zoo

By 2008, Amos Morris was looking for the opportunity to become a director and move closer to family in the Midwest. He applied for the top spot when the job became available at the Mesker Park Zoo and became its director in early 2009. “They had just finished building the tropical building Amazonia and were riding high attendance from the success of that construction,” Morris stated. "The large indoor tropical rainforest was the crown jewel of the institution. “

@ Mesker Park Zoo

@ Mesker Park Zoo

"Amazonia was a walkthrough tropical building and I’d say it’s one of the better ones in the Midwest,” Morris remarked. “You enter at the top of the tree canopy with the toucans, howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys and work your way down to the Amazon water’s edge with tapir and caiman. You see bats and porcupines, go through a free flighted aviary with spoonbills and exit with the jaguars outside. There were over 200 species of plants from South America in there and about 26 species of animals. It was the first major exhibit at the zoo in many years and increased attendance by 60 percent. It set the stage for better revenue and elevating the zoo to a more modern accredited zoo.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

@ Mesker Park Zoo

While Amazonia was new and state-of-the-art, much of the rest of the zoo needed catching up. Amos Morris immediately stepped up efforts to improve the animal care staff, facilities, and financial stability of the zoo. “The zoo was in heavy need of a commissary so one of the first tasks I had was to identify funds to build a brand new commissary,” he elaborated. “I also hired the first full-time veterinarian at the zoo. With this kind of changed the zoo went from a facility that did veterinary medicine on as-needed basis to one doing preventative medicine.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

“We could now do proactive care rather than reactive care,” Morris continued. “We also established training and enrichment programs and got the staff to organize themselves so we could do a better job for the animals. We used operant conditioning to do the husbandry work required by the vet.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

Amos Morris worked diligently to solve the zoo’s financial problems. “The city was having difficulties funding the zoo,” he explained. “They could barley meet status quo funding status. The zoo competed with the police and fire department for funds and was often at the bottom of their priorities. The city used riverboat funds generated through gaming for capital improvements only. Operational funding was a challenge. In order to build Amazonia, the city funded a bond measure. However, those funds could not be used for operating expenses at the zoo. We had extreme difficulty establishing operating funds for the zoo through the city. We had to operate on a minimal budget and had trouble keeping up with the complexities of a modern zoo”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

Morris led a large campaign to get the zoo privatized in order to solve these problems although that campaign remained unsuccessful. Despite this the zoo retained strong community support in Evansville. “The community loves the zoo,” Morris remarked. “They appreciate what the zoo means to the community. Our membership was consistent and was heavily used by the surrounding three states.”

@ Amos Morris

Lacking money to do larger improvements, Amos Morris and his staff reimagined a number of older exhibits to make them better and more interesting. A number of new species were added to the Mesker Park Zoo. “We brought in takin, red pandas, Komodo dragons, springbok and sun bears,” Morris noted. “We took some older exhibits to accommodate those species. We took an old aviary, added glass and heated rocks and then put Komodo dragons in. There was a meshed exhibit that used to have lions and leopards in it that was very arboreal and suited sun bears nicely. Another zoo needed to move out their sun bear for a new exhibit so we took in a lone sun bear that needed a home.” Additionally, the zoo funded through a capital campaign by the Evansville Zoological Society a brand new carousel and event rooms. During his last year, Morris began raising money for a budgie aviary and a Humboldt penguin habitat.

@ Mesker Park Zoo

@ Mesker Park Zoo

The Mesker Park Zoo also began to have its staff become more involved in field conservation. “One of the things we began to do was, instead of just writing a check to conservation organizations, we used our dollars to let our staff get involved in conservation work,” Morris stated. “Our vet did work in Alaska with a species of duck, someone created a collaboration to study pine marten with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and our curator was very involved in the Mexican gray wolf program. In addition, we developed a collaboration with Purdue University and Indiana DNR to bring back the Eastern Hellbender. Mesker Park Zoo is now a major rearing and breeding facility for the Eastern Hellbender which is now found in only one river in Indiana.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

While Amos Morris was never able to privatize the Mesker Park Zoo, he felt good about how he was able to help it run better. “I really enjoyed working with the staff to find ways where the zoo could be successful,” he remarked. “Things like the hellbenders and improving the husbandry of the collection, sprucing up exhibits and adding the commissary [did that.] I worked hard at arguing with the city to prioritize funds for the zoo. We reenergized the nonprofit organization to create a fundraising arm for the zoo.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

In July 2017, Amos Morris joined the staff of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo as Deputy Director. “I had inspected the Fresno Chaffee Zoo as an AZA inspector and was really impressed with the zoo and its direction,” he said. “I’m Deputy Director of the zoo but in many ways the activities [of being Director at Mesker Park Zoo] are pretty similar. My responsibilities are to run the day-to-day operations of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, make sure we enhance the guest experience and ensure we use our funds effectively. I’m also here to provide experiences for the staff to continue to grow. We look at it as I’m responsible for the day-to-day operation, inward facing, while Scott [Barton, Director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo] is responsible for the vision, where the zoo is headed in the future and working with the community- more outward facing.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

In the past five years, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has risen rapidly among the hierarchy of accredited zoos with the openings of the state-of-the-art Sea Lion Cove and African Adventure. Additionally, a number of projects are planned for the future. The Fresno Chaffee Zoo’ animal care and conservation program have skyrocketed as well and the institution has been receiving record attendance. “My role was created to help this growing zoo move forward,” Morris remarked. “Having this role helps reduce the pressure of the day-to-day operations of the zoo.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“My goal is to position the zoo right now to operate at a high level, help it run efficiently and continue to grow,” Amos Morris stated. “The exhibitry is outstanding, the operations at the zoo are outstanding and we have a phenomenal executive team. The zoo, as it continues to grow, will be one of the major zoos in the country. One of the things I like about it is it’s not too big- it’s still a half day visit and retains a community feeling. It’s an awesome zoo to be at during this time.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

In addition to an enormous tax initiative called Measure Z, the zoo has a lot of plans to expand in the future and to become a bigger tourist destination. “There’s two national parks within an hour’s drive from the zoo- Yosemite and Sequoia,” Morris noted. “A lot of people coming to those parks go through Fresno so we hope their landing spot is the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The zoo has some major projects on the board and those projects are funded. It’s just a matter of getting them in the ground. You’re going to see a very new, fresh zoo.” Among the projects coming up in upcoming years are the African River Experience featuring river hippos, Nile crocodiles, African antelope and birds, a new warthog exhibit and an Asian area for tigers and sloth bears. Recently, the former Asian elephant exhibit was transformed into a lush home for Indian rhinos. Further in the future, the zoo is considering adding South American area and a new entrance to the zoo.

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Additionally, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has greatly expanded its conservation efforts. “Some of our staff are getting involved in local and abroad conservation projects,” Morris said. “We hope to move more in that direction.” In addition to the zoo’s state-of-the-art African elephant habitat in African Adventure, the zoo supports funds for the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania. In total, the zoo “puts out about $750,000 in wildlife conservation dollars.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“I see zoos really having to position themselves as the organizations that help connect people with wildlife,” Amos Morris reflected. “We can’t be seen as a place of confinement. Animals should be exhibited as naturally as possible and we have to have a high level of welfare. Zoos are doing an extraordinary job of moving in that direction and moving their exhibitry to reflect that mission. Instead of just talking about it, we’re finding ways to measure our success through visitor surveying.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Of all his achievements, Morris is most proud of being asked to be on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). “I was proud to represent other zoos at that board and help the association move its programs forward,” he remarked. “While on the board, we made a huge transition in the way zoos managed elephant care. We moved to a more restricted contact environment and tried to move zoos along a safer handling environment. We also tried to build a new and refreshed message in the SAFE program, Saving Animals From Extinction, which demonstrates what zoos do for conservation. It was very fulfilling to be part of that work.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“The hardest part is always managing the resources to do a better job,” Morris concluded. “The most rewarding part of my job is being part of a group of people who are mission driven. They’re not doing it for the money- they’re doing it because they’re passionate about animals, conservation, and what zoos are doing for their communities.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

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