A Great City Has a Great Zoo: A Conversation with Phil Frost, Director of the Baton Rouge Zoo

Having served as a director since 1981, Phil Frost is one of the longest serving directors in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Since 1998, he has served as director of BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo. Currently, the Zoo is exploring a possible relocation. The goal is to find a more centrally located piece of land to main interstates and roadways, thereby opening it up to more tourist & local visitation, additional corporate support – all in an effort to become a world-class facility. As director, Frost is the zoo’s biggest champion to the possible move and wants to give new life to the zoo he’s devoted nearly 20 years to. Here is his story.

@ Phil Frost

Frost started his zoo career as director of the Henson Robinson Zoo in Illinois in 1981. “I had just completed college at Greenville College, IL and had an interest in animals but hadn’t thought of working in a zoo,” he remembered. “I was more interested in doing wildlife management for a national park. I knew there’d probably be a recreation component to that so I took a lot of courses in recreation. When I got out of college, the first job I had was working in a camera store. I love photography and continue to be an amateur photographer. I got a call from the parks department in Springfield and started working at a skating rink and swimming pool complex. About three months later, the HR director came to me saying they have a tennis program that’s not doing well, a zoo that’s just not making it at all and they had just been given a 100-acre nature preserve. They wanted me to be the area manager for all three areas. I looked at the tennis program and all they needed was to stop trying to be in the retail business and start promoting the sport. That only took me a few months to resolve. The nature preserve was quite easy - we just let people enjoy nature and built a few trails.”

@ Henson Robinson Zoo

“The zoo was a bit different and that’s where I started really having an appreciation for what zoos did,” Frost continued. “I was the director of a zoo and knew little about the zoo world. They took a big risk on this young college grad, but I guess it paid off for everyone. Almost every weekend my wife and I traveled somewhere else to see a zoo and talked to the staff. I found an industry just full of people so willing to help because they all realized we’re all in this together. The challenge was saving wildlife and wild place from those who are trying to destroy it. I found my place was working in a zoo and developed a passion for this environment.”

@ Henson Robinson Zoo

Phil Frost needed to put a lot of working in turning the Henson Robinson Zoo around. “Henson Robinson was a challenge as the attendance was nothing,” he stated. “It was a reflection of the staff who were there at the time. The director before me really saw it just as a little country club and a place for him to fish in the evening. For me, the whole motivational challenge was getting people there to share a story and appreciation of animals. We saw a 250% increase in attendance and over a 1090% increase in revenue. We did a lot of renovations and, by the time I left there, I was able to get things moving in the right direction and have the community see it as a valuable institution.”

@ Henson Robinson Zoo

Next, Frost moved to the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana to become director there. “We increased attendance by 25% and led the zoo to its first accreditation by the AZA,” he remarked. “We spent a lot of time marketing the zoo and getting people to realize it was okay to see the zoo year-round. They got a lot of snow so we had to convince people this was a zoo for all seasons. When you have Amur tigers, Bactrian camels and snow monkeys, they look their best in December. It was a more developed collection of animals than at Henson Robinson Zoo, which provided a lot more interest from the public and more opportunities for education.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“This was back in the 1980s when conservation and animal welfare were important but hadn’t been taken to the level of importance they are today,” Frost said. “We were close to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and several of their staff took a special interest in helping our Zoo move forward. During that time, we built the children’s zoo, the new North American exhibit and a new Andean condor flight area. The condors came from Lincoln Park and we were even successful in hatched several Andean condor chicks. At one point, we did X-rays on one of our condors and found out it had buckshot in its leg which pretty much confirmed it was a wild caught condor from the Andes mountains.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

Next Phil Frost moved to Nashville, at the time the largest city in the U.S. without a zoo. He was responsible for developing Grasmere Wildlife Park which focused on Tennessee animals and is now the site of the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere (which opened in 1997.) “When I went to Nashville, that was quite the unique opportunity,” Frost recalled. “We got to build a zoo from the ground up. We started with a blank piece of paper and didn’t have to deal with old facilities and infrastructure. The only thing we were stuck with was the Tennessee wildlife theme which was most challenging. The land, 200 acres right in the middle of the city, was donated to the Cumberland Museums for this project. It was an old hidden homestead, called Grassmere, where two sisters had lived and few people even knew what was there. They wanted to do something for nature so they donated the land for the wildlife park.”

@ Nashville Zoo

“It was a very beautiful facility.” Among the wild animals there were bison, elk, black bears, bobcats, cougars and even Przewalski’s horses. Unfortunately, native species didn’t meet the needs of the community, who want a zoo with exotic animals. This was in conflict with the museum board’s vision. As we tried to stray away from native animals, there was a lot of pressure from the museum board to stay true to the Tennessee theme.” Ultimately the Cumberland Museum board felt they could not financially support the wildlife park which received no public support. After several years or operation, the wildlife park closed and the land was donated to the City of Nashville, which made way to create the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. In 1997, the Nashville Zoo opened on the Grassmere site incorporating some of the old infrastructure and exhibits. “The cougar exhibit is still there, the bison/elk exhibit is now home to zebras and hoof stock and there are tigers were we once displayed black bear,” Frost mentioned. “It’s very rewarding to see the Nashville Zoo for what it is today.”

@ Nashville Zoo

For a few years, Frost served as the director of Wildlife Prairie Park in Illinois. “We had animals native to the prairie, destination lodging, a pioneer farmstead and some of the most spacious banquet facilities of any zoo in the country,” he said. “We found people would come to Peoria for conferences and meetings and that’s all they did. We started working with the convention and visitor’s bureau to have conventioneers spend their first night in Peoria ‘On the Prairie’. It was the perfect place for an icebreaker and this greatly added to the bottom line and was a huge success for us.”

@ Wildlife Prairie Park

In 1998, Phil Frost became Director of BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, where he stills serves today. In the 1970s, BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo opened and later became the 19th zoo in the country to be accredited by the AZA. “We had a very, very large collection when I came here with 1800 animals and 350 species,” he remarked. “What I found was, while we had a wonderful variety of animals, we had a lot of species that no one else was displaying, so the collection wasn’t sustainable. Many species were very common and not in need of strong conservation efforts and collectively, zoos had abandoned displaying them. We really had to look at our collection and make decisions about what’s the purpose of having so many different species. We had a lot of animals off display that our guests never saw including a lot of confiscated birds. When we start looking at the food bill and operating costs, we came to the conclusion the Zoo was not benefiting for having these animals. We developed a master plan where we looked at every animal based on their status in the wild. Are they secure? What’s their status in human care? Are they unique? What’s the exhibit value? What research potential is there? As we looked at that, we greatly reduced the number of animals at the zoo so we could focus more attention on the species needing our help.”

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

“Asian elephants were one of the first animals at the Zoo when it opened in 1970," Frost said. "In 2013, one of our older two female elephants died and we had to make the tough decision to send our remaining elephant, Bozie, to another zoo. We selected the National Zoo so she could be in a strong social environment with a larger herd and have never regretted that decision. It certainly was not a popular decision but most of our community understood it. It was the right decision for Bozie. We also had a very large cat complex that was typical 60’s construction. We held eight different species of cats in that area. It was just a postage stamp collection. That’s where we built the Realm of the Tiger, which holds our Sumatran and Malayan tigers, Siamang, walk-thru aviary, rock garden and koi pond. We feature flags from the range countries as well as information on the life of the people who share the tiger’s realm. The sights and sounds help our guests immerse into this experience.”

@ Phil Frost

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

Realm of the Tiger was BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo’s first major leap into modern habitat design. “When we built Realm of the Tiger, it was a huge change for us,” Phil Frost stated. “It was the first time we used landscape immersion and incorporated the culture into an exhibit. We really tried to embrace the uniqueness of the area these tigers come from. We talk about how there’s often conflict between tigers and people. That was a huge exhibit for us to do. We also did a new entrance with our Conservation Plaza including a massive globe. That lets us talk about the conservation projects we support across the globe.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Phil Frost

In recent years, Phil Frost and his staff began to think about how they could elevate BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo both in quality and attendance. They came to realize that this might mean a makeover for the entire Zoo. “We had already started planning a new African elephant exhibit. When we talked with community and philanthropic leaders, they suggested we think even bigger and not just focus a new elephant exhibit but look at recreating all of the zoo. We want our entire Zoo to look like Realm of the Tiger and The Otter Pond. We have some very large, grassy exhibits for hoofstock but they’re still lacking the modern display techniques we desire. That’s when the discussion came up that we should not just ‘put lipstick on a pig’ but reimagine the zoo in a completely new way. We realized we would probably need to demolish 90% of the current zoo. I have long said, we are way under-demolished.”

@ Phil Frost

“That is when the question surfaced, if we’re going to spend that much money, are we really in the right location,” he continued. “Our current location was selected nearly 50 years ago because the mayor at the time was from that area and he wanted the Zoo in his part of the Parish. It was also the largest piece of property the park department owned. However, since that time the population in the Baton Rouge area is moving in a different direction and much of our core audience is located 20 to 30 miles south. Much of the synergy that is desired is not in our current location. We’re not near an interstate or any other major economic development, rather we are in a neighborhood – out of site out of mind. We’ve looked at the potential of moving our Zoo to a new location just like Indianapolis, Nashville, Miami and Waco have done. We began this study in 2015. In August 2017, we received approval from our governing commission to begin looking for an alternate site that would provide more stability, sustainability and offer more options for success. This has pretty much consumed most of my time over the past 2 years.”

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

Phil Frost has ambitious plans for the new Baton Rouge Zoo. “The new zoo will include the welcomed return of elephants and lions, and add gorillas and a new feature,” he said. “Much of our current zoo is an older style design in terms of how people see animals. People now want smaller loops with geographical zones. “We need to build a zoo for the future. We’re looking at baby boomers who will be less mobile so we’ll need wider paths. We want to develop it in a way where we can do things we can’t do where we are liking destination lodging and tents like you’d have in Africa. People could actually spent the night in the zoo and watch elephants, giraffes and zebras in the morning. We’ll recreate the sights, sounds and smells of Africa. We would like to have a sky rides so people can see the animals from different vantage points. We’ll do a lot more programming that talks about enrichment and animal welfare.”

@ Phil Frost

Frost even has some ideas for how the current zoo site could be used. “If the zoo were to move, we could take a lot of the current zoo and turn it into an amazing park for people in the area,” he elaborated. “The walkways, lagoons and monkey islands could be used for kayaking, canoeing and fishing. We have a whole section of the zoo where the buildings could be used. We’re looking at putting in large adventure playgrounds, rock climbing and zip lines. The community near the current Zoo would use this regional park a lot more than they use the current Zoo. This decision has not been made yet - our park commission is still debating the options determining if we’ll be able to move. If we rebuild where we are, it will take 15 years and produce around 375,000 visitors annually. However, if we go to a new location, our attendance is projected to rise to over 500,000 and reach 675,000 after fifteen years. It would take only five years to build but be almost the same cost.”

@ Phil Frost

@ Phil Frost

With the future uncertain, Frost is cautiously optimistic this move can happen. “I would be thrilled to have the opportunity to build a zoo from scratch for the second time in my career,” he said. “All of this is focused on our mission of connecting people with animals. We’re considering building our animal hospital where people can look in. We have a wonderful working relationship with the veterinarian school at LSU. We are one of only a small handful of zoos in the country that have a school of veterinary medicine also in our town. This is a very important benefit for students wanting to practice in the exotic animal field.

@ Phil Frost

Frost takes great pride in the zoo’s conservation projects. “We are involved in a lot of programs for a zoo our size,” he said. “Often that means we’re not going out and doing it ourselves but supporting other groups who devote themselves to these missions. For instance, we support field conservation work with nearly 20 organizations including Turtle Survival Alliance and Cheetah Conservation Fund. We have an annual 5K race that raises money for cheetahs. We are also support the International Elephant Foundation, the Golden Lion Tamarin Foundation and the Hornbill Family Nest Adoption Program where we help fund cameras that monitor hornbill nests in Thailand.”

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

Looking back, Frost feels the biggest thing he’s accomplished is “stabilizing the zoo to where we are using our resources wisely.” In particular, the zoo has greatly expanded its education program. “We started Project ARK: Animals Reaching Kids,” Frost remarked. “We go into 28 of the lowest performing schools in our city and talk to them about animals, wildlife and conservation. We administer both pre and post testing and found the kids knowledge increased. We try to reach kids that often have a difficult time in school. About 85% of the students in Baton Rouge public schools live at or below poverty level. We feel it’s really important to get into those schools and help make a difference.”

@ Baton Rouge Zoo

“This is one of the many ways we’re helping change our community,” Phil Frost concluded. “The thing that keeps me going everyday is know we’re making a difference in the lives of kids and adults and we’re a place where three generations can come together, and each truly enjoy themselves having had a great time together. We’re going to save wildlife and wild places because we provide a fun-learning environment which give a better appreciation for wildlife and wild places and in the end, they start to really care.”

@ Phil Frost

#BatonRougeZoo #PotawatomiZoo #HensonRobinsonZoo

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