Pro-Environmental Behaviors: A Conversation with Jeff Ettling, Director of the Sedgwick County Zoo

At 247 acres in Wichita, Kansas, the Sedgwick County Zoo is one of the biggest and best zoos in the nation. Much of this growth was due to Mark Reed, the zoo’s director from 1991 to 2016. This growth reached a pinnacle when Elephants of the Zambezi Valley opened, a state-of-the-art home for six African elephants recreating the Zambezi Valley. Jeff Ettling, the zoo’s new director, has pointed to Elephants of the Zambezi Valley as the standard for where the zoo should go in the future. He also wants to drastically expand the zoo’s field conservation work. Here is his story.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Ettling grew up on the Illinois side of St. Louis. “The Saint Louis Zoo was the only zoo I knew as a child,” he recalled. “I’ve always had a lifelong interest in wildlife, particularly snakes. My interest in nature was fostered partially through my father, who is an outdoorsmen. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a biologist.” Ettling then attended Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which he chose because they had a herpetologist on staff. “The late Dr. Ralph Axtell introduced me to Charlie Hoessle (then Director of the Saint Louis Zoo) and the late Ron Goellner (then Curator of Reptiles at the Saint Louis Zoo),” he said. “I started at the zoo in 1987 as a reptile keeper. I was ecstatic just to be a reptile keeper. If someone told me what I’d be doing thirty years later, I would have not have believed them.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Jeff Ettling considers Charlie Hoessle one of his mentors. “I grew up watching Charlie Hoessle on Saint Louis Zoo show so working for him was truly phenomenal,” he remarked. “Charlie Hoessle was the one who hired me at Saint Louis and Mark Reed hired me at Sedgwick. I couldn’t ask for two better mentors. They’re alike in so many ways- true zoo guys through and through. For me having the chance to work with both of them has been a highlight of my career.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

By 1991, Ettling had become aware of another zoo. “I worked in the herpetarium at the Saint Louis Zoo as a keeper,” he said. “The head keeper in the herpetarium used to talk about some of the zoos he visited on her travels. One of the zoos I heard about was the Sedgwick County Zoo and how modern it was. When the curator of herps position opened up at Sedgwick, I thought I should check it out and I was amazed. The zoo was very young and modern. Two days after the interview Mark offered me the job. It was a great opportunity so I spent four years managing the reptiles, amphibians and fish, as well as the commissary. Coming back twenty two years later, the zoo is double the size in terms of number of exhibits. I learned a tremendous amount from Mark Reed about zoo management and managing a zoo collection”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

In 1995, Sedgwick County Zoo’s future director left to return to Saint Louis. “I joke a lot now I’ve done two tours of duty at each zoo,” Jeff Ettling remarked. “I couldn’t ask for a better zoo career. I really couldn’t.” As Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, he got to work with one of the largest collections in the nation at the Saint Louis Zoo. However, Ettling’s strongest achievements at the Saint Louis Zoo came in the form of conservation programs. In 2004, the Saint Louis Zoo started the WildCare Institute, which works on insitu conservation projects all over the world. “The result of the hellbender and Armenia programs have been very rewarding to me,” Ettling stated. “Hellbenders is probably at the top of the list as it was something right in the backyard and we were able to make a difference. In Armenia, I had good partners and we got two of the existing protected areas increased in size.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“[Those programs] are really the pinnacle of what we’re doing now in zoos,” Ettling reflected. “We’re conservation organizations in the truest since of the word. [At Sedgwick County Zoo,] I want to increase our conservation involvement and educate people about what our zoo is doing for conservation. I just came back from Armenia and got the program at Saint Louis transferred to Sedgwick County. My PhD on the Armenian viper is completed but we’ll still monitor those populations as well as expand to a lot of other species. That area is one of the biodiversity hotspots and has endangered species like Armenian mouflon and Persian leopards that need attention.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

While at the Saint Louis Zoo, Jeff Ettling and his staff were able to get conservation work they were doing in the wild included in the interpretives of the Herpetarium. “When we started our conservation initiatives we put together film clips from Armenia to educate the public on what our zoo was doing,” he noted. “We did the same thing for hellbenders.” Ettling also did a lot of great work on the zoo grounds. “The herpetarium’s collection of reptiles was one of the most diverse in the nation, especially with old world vipers,” he said. “They have always been a big interest of mine and a group of snakes largely ignored in U.S. zoos. With a relationships with the Tula Exotarium in Russia, I was able to bring in a number of Eurasian vipers over the years and establish breeding colonies at the zoo. It was a great experience for me to manage that building. I was only the fifth curator in the history of the Herpetarium and I followed in the footsteps of legends.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Ettling noted one of the biggest differences between the Saint Louis Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo is their age. “As long as I can remember, people in Saint Louis have had a tremendous love for their zoo and its history,” he evaluated. “Even back in the 1970s when the Zoo Museum District was formed, they made a commitment to make sure they always kept the historical buildings in tact. The Historic Hill buildings all have Spanish architecture. The fact they’ve been able to maintain that history but incorporate modern features is unique. At 46 years, Sedgwick, on the other hand, is fairly young zoo.” Like the St. Louis residents, the people in Wichita have a tremendous love for the Sedgwick County Zoo.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

When Jeff Ettling started his zoo career 30 years ago, being a zoo director was not on his bucket list. But he began to think about the possibility as his responsibilities were expanded. “When Dr. Jeffrey Bonner came on board as President/CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo, he emphasized that we [curators] should be pushing down authority. As a result, some of the things historically done by curators were given to their respective zoologial managers,” he explained. “At that point, we now had involvement by all levels of staff in day-to-day operations and Bonner involved us [curators] in higher-level initiatives. Between 2005 and 2013, the Saint Louis Zoo provided me the opportunity to pursue and complete a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri Saint Louis. Additionally, I was able to attend the Disney Excellence in Leadership course and have an executive leadership course. All those experiences really opened my eyes to another side of the zoo operation. I began to think that maybe it was time for me to step into a new role and utilize all these new ‘tools’ in my tool box. When Mark Reed announced his retirement, I thought the Sedgwick County Zoo would be an ideal place to be director.” In May 2017, Jeff Ettling was named Director of the Sedgwick County Zoo.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

One of the new director’s first tasks was to getting to know the zoo’s staff. “I decided, that rather than having a large assembly on day one to introduce myself, that it would be more personal if I met with each of the zoo teams individually,” Ettling remarked. “It took me two months to meet with all the departments. I shared with everyone the PowerPoint I was asked to put together for my interview. It provided them with the opportunity to learn about me, my values and my vision for the zoo. It was very personal as I sat down with 6-8 people at a time.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Jeff Ettling is committed to increasing the zoo’s green initiatives. “For us to succeed moving forward it is going to take all of us working together,” he commented. “We need people to be good stewards of the planet right here in Wichita. I’ve challenged us to introduce eco-friendly products. Doing the right thing often costs more than doing the wrong thing, so we won’t be able to do it all at once. In 2018, we’ll be switching to compostable plates and flatware in our restaurant. Over time we’ll switch to ecofriendly products throughout the zoo and institute green practices in the construction of new facilities. We’re talking conservation in a holistic view: wildlife, wild places and green practices. Everything we’re doing here on site is about conservation.”

@ WDM Architects

Another goal is to increase the professional development of staff. “Our people are the most valuable resource we have here,” Ettling elaborated. “I want to help with the professional development of our staff. We have a very talented team here at the zoo. They are the future for this zoo and I want to ensure that they have the resources to do their job and develop professionally.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ WDM Architects

One of Jeff Ettling’s objectives as director is to continue the legacy of Mark Reed and the zoo’s founding director, the late Ron Blakely. “The concept Ron Blakely put in place was truly visionary,” he elaborated. “For the past 46 years, we have stuck to that concept. I’ve been telling everyone here that I’m going to honor and respect what Ron and Mark have accomplished and continue to adhere to the original plan.” His other objective is to make existing exhibits better. “For me it’s not about getting bigger, but getting better,” Etttling remarked. “Since 1995 the number of exhibits have doubled, so I want to concentrate on going back and looking at exhibits built in the first ten years of the zoo’s existence and breath new life into them.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Ettling pointed out a few areas he particularly wants to focus on. “We’ll be looking at our Amphibian and Reptile Building, which was built in 1974,” he stated. “We want to make it larger so we can exhibit large crocodilians, Komodo dragons and large snakes. We also want to build something new for the Amur leopards and redo our African Veldt complex. Our fabulous elephant exhibit and the tremendous amount of space they have is an example of what we want to do for all our animals at the zoo. That’s going to be a big part of what we look at in our next strategic master plan. Our focus will be on providing larger habitats for our resident animals.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

Besides providing top notch animal welfare, the zoo is going to look at new revenue streams. “Our idea is a rental event center that could be rented out during the day and not disrupt our guest experience,” Ettling said. “It could be used for corporate meetings during the day and parties, weddings and even sleepovers in the evening. We would theme it like an African lodge and have it overlook a watering hole.” Etting noted that last year the zoo’s attendance exceeded the population of the metropolitan area. “This is a huge zoo for the size of this community,” he added.

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“I think the role of the modern zoo is more important now that it’s ever been in its history,” Jeff Ettling reflected. “Zoos started out as private menageries for emperors and kings, evolved into public institutions and then conservation education came into the picture. Today zoos are conservation organizations in the truest sense of the word. The sad reality is that there are not that many wild places left on the planet and conservation agencies often look to us for help managing small populations of animals. We’ve been able to partner with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and I see those types of relationships continuing to build. As one of my colleagues in Saint Louis said, ‘If zoos didn’t exist something like them would be coming into existence out of the sheer need of necessity.’ We have the opportunity to help with the conservation for a tremendous number of species.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

“The conservation work with Armenian vipers and hellbenders would rank at the top of my accomplishments,” Jeff Ettling concluded. “Making a difference for a species in the wild is very, very rewarding. Our society a larger disconnect with nature than ever before. Zoos have the opportunity to inspire people, especially children to care about wildlife and wild places. If we inspire them, they’re more likely to develop pro-environmental behaviors. That’s a very important role for zoos. Having guests come to the zoo and be inspired to have a sense of discovery, appreciation, respect and conservation action is great. Those are all very rewarding for me. We’re making a difference for the future.”

@ Sedgwick County Zoo

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