Animals Rotating Habitats: A Conversation with John Walczak, Director of the Louisville Zoo

The Louisville Zoo has long been known for its appetite for innovative exhibitry. This is shown by its three AZA award-winning habitat complexes: Islands (the first American zoo exhibit to rotate large animals), Gorilla Forest and Glacier Run. Additionally, the zoo has taken a significant role in conservation by helping save the black-footed ferret from extinction. Since 2004, the Louisville Zoo has been led by John Walczak. Walczak's strong animal background, desire to create innovative habitats and focus on improving staff relationships has helped the zoo grow and flourish. Here is his story.

@ Louisville Zoo

John Walczak began his career in zoos after doing landscaping work in South Florida and working at the Humane Society in Boca Rotan. “I applied to work at the Palm Beach Zoo but there was a flood in South Florida and the interview didn’t work out,” he recalled. “Then, they called me back and I have been in the profession ever since.” At the time, the zoo aspired to get accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and needed all hands on deck to make that mission a reality. “We would do animal routines in the morning but would spend the afternoon knocking down old exhibits and building new ones,” Walczak said. “We built a new leopard habitat as we had a leopard that was a former pet and had never been on grass. It was an incredible evening when we opened the exhibit as I’ll always remember opening the door and the leopard testing the grass one paw at a time. It was heartwarming and inspired me to want to build great habitats for all animals.”

@ Palm Beach Zoo

In the 1980s, Walczak went to the Oklahoma City Zoo as supervisor of ecotherms. He was in charge of all the animals in the herpetarium, aquarium and Galapagos exhibit. “We made a lot of improvements to the herpetarium and were really proud of improving environmental controls,” he elaborated. “My curator there was David Grow and he had a great vision on how to create a complete habitat for whatever species in a terrarium type environment to meet their enrichment needs. I learned a lot.”

@ Gillian Lang

In 1985, John Walczak applied for three curator positions in herpetology- the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Detroit Zoo and the Louisville Zoo. “I wanted Louisville as they wanted someone to oversee the construction of their new facility and assemble the staff for the animals exhibited," he remarked. "It was the first one that hired me so that made it quite easy.” This gave Walczak the opportunity to supervise the development of the Herpaquarium, a building home to reptiles, amphibians and fish that opened in 1989.

@ Louisville Zoo

“Herpaquarium, to my knowledge, was the first bioclimatic herp display in the country,” Walczak explained. “You used to have all the rattlesnakes together or all the king snakes together but we went for a bioconcept organization. We put the tropical animals all in one area and the desert animals all in one area, [which let us have] all the environmental controls needed next to each other.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

At the time, the Louisville Zoo’s director was Bob Bean, Jr., whose grandfather founded the Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago suburbs. “Bob Bean was ahead of his time in terms of creating a culture,” Walczak remarked. “Management was still pretty traditional at other places but Bean really cared about the culture and the staff. He had a tradition where he would come every Christmas and make a Christmas brunch for all the staff that worked on Christmas. He let us understand what a privilege it was to work with these special animals and help make the planet a healthier place. He really cared about the staff and had a big influence on me.”

@ Louisville Zoo

Bean’s successor was the zoo’s Veterinarian and Assistant Director, Dr. Bill Foster (currently CEO of the Birmingham Zoo.) “Bill’s a high-energy person and promoted me to General Curator in 1989,” John Walczak recounted. “I was Bill’s right hand man at the zoo. As General Curator, you’re helping all the staff create the reality of what the unique visions of the zoo are. I very much enjoyed that. Then, Bill decided he needed an assistant director and I became that in 1992.”

@ Louisville Zoo

The Louisville Zoo broke new ground with the opening of Islands, the first exhibit complex in an American zoo to rotate large animals through multiple habitats. Tigers, orangutans, Malayan tapirs, siamangs and babirusas rotated through four lush environments. “We [have always] liked innovation and there were not many exhibits [at that time] that had a comprehensive theme,” Walczak elaborated. “Islands was the first multispecies rotational exhibit [at an American zoo] and told a great story. One of the thoughts was let’s set up the predator-prey relationships to increase animal behavior and enrichment. Since the tigers and orangutans would be stimulated, you’d have more engaged animals for the guests.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

The rotation system behind Islands was a complex one. “To move animals from point A to point B, we had to design interest passages and do operant conditioning through positive reinforcement,” John Walczak explained. “That design has so many benefits we didn’t anticipate. One of the major ones is the staff worked with these animals all day long and built such strong relationships with them. The relationships between the orangutans and siamangs and their keepers developed through operant conditioning [were especially special.] With the focus and need to get animals to move through the passage system, keepers loved doing positive reinforcement training and built such strong relationships with the animals.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

Many zoos did not have the courage to take the risk Louisville Zoo took with Islands. “What we deserve credit for is not the idea but that other zoos weren’t willing to take it on but we were,” Walczak commented. “Jane Anne Franklin (the zoo’s curator of husbandry) was the center for all that relationship building with the animals [allowing them the trust to be trained.]”

@ Louisville Zoo

In 2002, the foundation set in Islands was taken to another level with the opening of the award-winning Gorilla Forest. “With Gorilla Forest, [we focused on] people really feeling the story line and creating the experience of leaving an ecolodge on a brush trail to a sanctuary to see gorillas,” John Walczak remarked. “The storyline got better communicated [than in previous habitats.]” This project brought gorillas to the zoo for the first time ever. The animal care staff successfully rotated multiple social groups of gorillas between habitats. “The ability to build a facility for multiple gorilla groups was huge,” Walczak said. “[Gorilla Forest] has three day rooms, seven bedrooms and two outdoor yards. With all those types of space, the animals are never faced with a dead end. You can make a new circle for an animal that’s so family centric and let them interact and get away from each other.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

Not only did Gorilla Forest expand on the knowledge learned in Islands but it put the zoo’s groundbreaking husbandry training in the eyes of the public. “In Islands the keeper space was on the backside but with Gorilla Forest we put it on the front side,” Walzcak said. “We let guest see the gorillas and keepers working together.” This allowed guests to see the operant conditioning training the animal care staff accomplished with the gorillas.

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

In 2004, John Walczak was promoted to Director of the Louisville Zoo after Foster left to lead the Birmingham Zoo. “What motivated me to want to be Director is I loved being Assistant Director,” he reflected. “I started in this profession as a keeper and have a great appreciation for the work of zookeepers but I wanted to be able to improve how we worked together and the values and culture of the staff. My first step was to get together with the staff, discuss our values and how we wanted to define our culture. We [started to figure out] how we could get there together.”

@ Louisville Zoo

Having played a crucial role in Islands and Gorilla Forest, Walczak embarked on another innovative project when the zoo needed more modern spaces for its polar bears and pinnipeds. “We knew we wanted to exhibit polar bears [well] and came up with a half dozen storylines,” he elaborated. “We did surveys to find out how the public wanted to experience [polar bears] and [we found] they wanted us to discuss climate change. We stayed committed to polar bears because climate change would [only] become more real.” This concept involved into Glacier Run, the third exhibit at the Louisville Zoo to win the AZA Exhibit Award.

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

Glacier Run centered on issues related to climate change and human-wildlife conflict in the Arctic Circle. “Glacier Run replicates a town on the edge of the Arctic where humans are learning to live with polar bears,” John Walczak claimed. “We wanted people to think about glaciers melting faster and increasing climate change. ‘Glacier Run’ is a play on words to get that point across. The storyline and immersion of people going into that place is very well done.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

The exhibit turned out to be state-of-the-art from an animal wellness and care perspective. “We created a 360 degree rotation [for polar and grizzly bears,]” Walczak added. “This is probably our best rotation system. We had rollup doors where we can do animal presentations right in front of the guests and let them see polar bears five feet away. We have a pickup truck inside part of the exhibit where people go in the cab and the bears go in the backup. It’s enriching for the bears since they get to bounce the kids around and the kids are really excited to have the bears right behind them. We built the bear bedrooms underground since it’s much easier to cool a basement. That let us be responsible and reduce our carbon footprint. That’s something we’re happy with. The bedrooms also have skylights and a lot of space.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

“There a lots of digging area for the polar bears to enjoy,” Walczak continued. “We made the exhibit entirely treatable for medical concerns in case they were to happen to the polar bears. We built it so we can take out the dirt and heat blast it if there were ever a parasite. For the sea lions, we keep them in water that’s essentially ocean water.”

@ Louisville Zoo

However, what really made Glacier Run unique is the way it let humans see their part in the story. “What’s unique about the concept is all the exhibits involve human-animal interaction and engagement,” John Walczak explained. “We feel it’s very important for people to understand they’re part of the planetary balance. If it’s just a pristine tundra or savanna, you’re only telling half of the story. Humans and animals live in the same space.”

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

One of Walczak’s biggest accomplishments at the Louisville Zoo has been expanding its conservation programs. “A dollar from every membership and a quarter of every admission goes into our conservation fund,” he explained. “We round up food coats to go to partners like Polar Bear International, the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Snow Leopard Trust. We can help [these partners] with frontline conservation efforts. We’re also a black footed ferret breeding site and have produced more kits than any other zoo.” The Louisville Zoo was instrumental in helping save the black footed ferret from extinction.

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

Recently, the Louisville Zoo put together a comprehensive master plan to guide its future. This plan will extend the level of quality and innovation found in Islands, Gorilla Forest and Glacier Run into the entire zoo. Among the components of the master plan include a reimagined African section home to elephants, lions, giraffes, rhinos, cheetahs and hoofstock, a new animal hospital, a shark conservation institute, an exhibit dedicated to crocodiles and a complex dedicated to the wildlife of Kentucky. On top of his accomplishments at the Louisville Zoo, John Walczak has served on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

@ Louisville Zoo

@ Louisville Zoo

“There’s never been a more important time in civilization than today for a modern zoo,” John Walczak reflected. “We all know the pressures of a modern urban society and people need a place they can go, relax and feel safe. Zoos are that oasis. People can feel good and create great memories. The other part is we have to constantly better engage with the animals and give animals opportunities to engage with guests, which will get the guests more inspired. We need to tell our story better at the exhibits, get keepers to the front and have guests engage with animals. People are really enrichment for the animals.”

@ Louisville Zoo

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