Subtropical Paradise: A Conversation with Eric Stephens, Retired Director of Zoo Miami

Eric Stephens worked at Zoo Miami for the first 35 years of its history, 17 of those as director. He led the 324 acre zoo (the only one in the continental United States in a subtropical climate) through immense growth. Among Stephens' accomplishments were obtaining a $180 million bond, dramatically improving the zoo's attendance and business operations, building the 27-acre Amazon and Beyond (a massive departure from the zoo's previous habitats) and expanding the zoo's conservation efforts. Here is his story.

@ Eric Stephens

Eric Stephens’ tenure with Zoo Miami literally began on day one. “I worked on opening day in 1980 when they opened the preview,” he recalled. “All it had then was tigers, orangutans, gibbons, siamangs, zebras, wildebeest, blackbuck and Siamese crocodiles. I was a volunteer for the parks department [that day.]” Soon, Stephens transitioned to working at the zoo fulltime. “When an opening came up for an administrative position, I was selected to be administrative officer,” he remembered. “I did the finances, budgeting and purchasing for everything. Shortly thereafter, I picked up human resources and then became the zoo business manager. Eventually I was in charge of everything besides veterinary care.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

Zoo Miami, then called the Miami Metro Zoo, utilized state-of-the-art habitat design featuring spacious habitats surrounded by moats. It replaced the Crandon Park Zoo, a small zoo in Miami built in the 1940s. “The zoo was part of the Decades of Progress bond issue which included with other large parks, the county metrorail and other government projects,” Stephens explained. At first, the preview center was only open during weekends but in 1981, 160 acres of habitats opened and the zoo was in full swing. Subsequent phases were opened in upcoming years. “Parcel by parcel, we opened something new,” Stephens remembered. “We started transitioning animals from the Crandon Park Zoo to the new zoo. We opened to great fanfare and reception but are far south of much of Miami’s population. It took awhile to get people to drive to South Miami-Dade county and discover us.”

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For the first fifteen years of its existence, the zoo’s director was Bob Yokel. “Bob Yokel was a doer,” Eric Stephens reflected. “I think he was really hired by the parks director to build Metro Zoo [as] they knew Bob would be a good choice to build a brand-new zoo. He was a strong personality and looked for his staff to accomplish insurmountable challenges. He looked for his staff to be strong.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

In 1992, tragedy struck the zoo when it endured $15 million in damage from Hurricane Andrew. “I was the FEMA contact for Hurricane Andrew,” Stephens looked back. “I had to get all the money reimbursed to replace what had been destroyed and make sure that all happened in as timely of a manner as we could.” The zoo looked practically unrecognizable to before. “Hurricane Andrew basically destroyed Wings of Asia (the zoo’s state-of-the-art aviary),” Stephens remarked. “We declared 100 birds we didn’t find dead. We were closed from August to December of 1992. While we made a big deal of our reopening and how grateful we were for the community, it took awhile for people to realize we reopened. Attendance was down for years.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

Zoo Miami had to reduce its staff to make ends meet. “We had some reductions in our marketing staff [to avoid cutting] our animal care staff,” Eric Stephens noted. “That coupled with us not building anything new suffered our attendance. We made some staff reductions, particularly among the bird staff. The other thing that sticks out is we had to move some of our elephants out as we didn’t have enough staff resources to care for all of them. We eventually brought Dahlip (the zoo’s male Asian elephant) back. He’s a wonderful, beautiful animal.”

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@ Grayson Ponti

In 1998, Eric Stephens was promoted to Director of Zoo Miami. He immediately embarked on the task of diversifying the zoo experience. “When I became director, the zoo was very vanilla from an exhibit perspective,” he remarked. “The only non-moated exhibit was the aviary, which was closed. Everything was very similar and there was not a lot of variation in the zoo experience. We had three great ape species, two elephant species and two rhino species but never had the reptiles people seemed to enjoy or any animals from Florida. The original design of the zoo included interpretive buildings that never got built.”

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@ Grayson Ponti

The new director started to change the feeling of the zoo. “We tried to overcome the vanilla feeling by building things like Dr. Wilde’s World, our first air-conditioned space,” Stephens stated. “That was designed to be a space for traveling exhibits. Over the years, we’ve had exhibits on Jane Goodall, animal art, dinosaurs [and so forth.] We turned it into a haunted house for Halloween. We thought that transitional space was important to offer something new every once in a while.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

A major focus was on providing cool spaces during Miami’s hot summers. “We knew, as hot as we get, the climate was keeping people away so we added misters along the walkway and a water play area,” Eric Stephens noted. “We air conditioned the buildings so you could eat your lunch in the cool.” The zoo also improved its food service. “We changed our food partner to Service Systems Associates, who has been an amazing partner, and revamped our whole food service,” Stephens said. “People used to eat lunch before or after they went to the zoo as the food wasn’t good.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Stephens’ first animal habitat at the zoo was for Andean condors. “We had Andean condors off exhibit but I thought it was important for people to see them and hear their story,” he explained. “They were an old pair who had produced a number of eggs we worked with the Los Angeles Zoo to hatch. We reintroduced a number of them into the Andes.” In addition, meerkats were added to the Children’s Zoo.

@ Zoo Miami

Zoo Miami also became more involved with conservation. “We established a conservation committee with the Zoo Miami Foundation and county employees to meet after soliciting grant proposals and giving small grants around the world,” Eric Stephens articulated. “We also added many professionals to our care team who were conservation specialists in their field. We joined the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums as I wanted to make contacts around the world and participate with them in their conservation efforts. One of the most important things that happened was we hired our first staff solely dedicated to conservation work. That’s an accomplishment I’m very happy we were able to make that happen.” The zoo also hired its second full-time veterinarian (a third has been added since that time.)

@ Zoo Miami

Animal care at Zoo Miami became more advanced as well. “We hired outside firms to come in and help train our staff to do behavioral training with our animals,” Stephens remarked. “[Instead of using anesthesia,] you can get an animal to take medication through yogurt or over their head. It encourages enrichment activities and lets them have those trusting relationships with their keepers.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

In 2003, the rebuilt Wings of Asia was finally opened to the public. “Wings of Asia was a very complicated process [in terms of] working with the federal government,” Eric Stephens articulated. “We were able to secure private donations and federal money to rebuild the devastated exhibit. It was also our first real experience working with a professional zoo design firm. They helped us with the flow of the exhibit and design of the landscape. We had professional people working on it from every aspect- whether the story, landscape, animals or habitats.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

Wings of Asia not only had the glory of the old building but a new interpretive storyline. “The aviary now has a nice theme about how birds are modern day dinosaurs,” Stephens added. The aviary tells the story of how birds evolved from dinosaurs in addition to featuring a variety of Asian habitats.

@ Zoo Miami

One of Eric Stephens’ biggest accomplishments during his tenure at Zoo Miami was successfully getting a $130 million capital program off the ground- which funded Dr. Wilde’s World, the giraffe feeding station, Amazon and Beyond, the Wacky Barn and Florida: Mission Everglades. In 2006, the Samburu Giraffe Feeding Station let guests feed the popular long-necked animals for the first time and became one of the zoo’s most popular attractions. “The ability to get close to an animal like a giraffe and feed it is a once in a lifetime exhibit most people don’t get to do in Miami,” Stephens commented. “People don’t forget [that experience] and come back just for that.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

The opening of the zoo’s carousel was another important addition to the guest experience. “The carousel lets you ride on sun bears, okapis, cheetahs, tigers [and so forth],” Stephens said. “It’s a great way to introduce a child to these animals.”

@ Zoo Miami

In 2008, Zoo Miami opened the 27-acre Amazon and Beyond, a complex featuring wildlife from Central and South America and the zoo’s first serious foray into representing biodiversity. “We hired the Portico Group to do the master plan and South America was identified as an area we could look into,” Eric Stephens elaborated. “Then we hired Jones and Jones do to Amazon and Beyond. If you came to the zoo before Amazon and Beyond, you came to a dead end and either had to take the monorail or walk back. We had the space available [to do a South American section] and complete the loop. We also added two buildings with air conditioning [for Amazon and Beyond.]”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

Amazon and Beyond represented a departure from the large moated habitats for megafauna found in most of the zoo. Instead, it was comprised of intimate trails showing primarily smaller animals. “It was our first real effort to exhibit reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects,” Stephens commented. “We never had those kinds of animals before and it remains some of my favorite exhibitry as it is so different [from the rest of the zoo.]” Among the animals featured in Amazon and Beyond were jaguars, giant otters, harpy eagles, Orinoco crocodiles, giant anteaters, anacondas, tamarins, howler monkeys, tamanduas, stingrays, bats and poison dart frogs, all animals new to the zoo.

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

This new style of exhibitry allowed the zoo to tell more cohesive, impactful conservation stories about its residents. “When we built the giant otter exhibit, that was an effort for a dramatic animal that needs conservation work,” Eric Stephens remarked. “Same thing with the jaguars and the flooded forest. It tells the story of how the Amazon floods every year and the dramatic differences between the seasons. Ron [Magill, the spokesman for the zoo] had been working with harpy eagles in Panama and that sparked the rest of us to appreciate harpy eagles. We’ve produced a number of harpy eagle chicks and sent them to Panama”

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@ Grayson Ponti

Amazon and Beyond brought record attendance to Zoo Miami. “Attendance was up so much because we listened to what the public wanted,” Stephens claimed. “Otters, monkeys, snakes and other reptiles were a great departure in the kinds of animals we displayed [and the public wanted to see them.]”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

The zoo decided it needed to do something to address the illegal wildlife trade in Miami. “We have a program with Florida Fish and Wildlife called Exotic Animal Amnesty Day,” Stephens explained. “You can turn in an exotic pet that you no longer want without penalty. We’ve had over 100 animals turned in during one day. It’s a different way for people to look at the zoo as they can understand maybe they shouldn’t have this animal as a pet. We’ve had everything from parrots to monkeys to a serval turned in- things that look intriguing but that you can’t care for.”

@ Zoo Miami

Eric Stephens chaired the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Board of Regents, which managed their professional development schools. “When you get to design and implement coursework that concentrates on everything for animal record keeping to elephant management, it’s amazing the kind of things you learn yourself and get to bring back to your colleagues,” he elaborated. “That was one of the best experiences of my career.”

@ Zoo Miami

A major focus during Stephen’s tenure was improving Zoo Miami’s business operations. “We worked on the business side an awful lot,” he recalled. “We looked at the times when attendance was slowest and highest to identify the differences. What changes could we make to change the situations? Things like misters, a new food and retail partner and air conditioning made a big difference. We added the rhino encounter and walkthrough Australian birds. We brought the business plan more in line with what we needed to do. We now earn more of our budget than we get.”

@ Zoo Miami

In 2010, Miami Metro Zoo changed its name to Zoo Miami. “It was our 30th anniversary and the metro name was no longer appropriate for our government,” Stephens remarked. “It didn’t make sense to hang onto the Metro Zoo name. We used our 30th anniversary to announce the birth of a new zoo. One of the main reasons we picked Zoo Miami is it’s Zoological Miami in Spanish. That made sense since most of our guests are Hispanics. We could not only announce the rebranding but take advantage of that natural landscape opportunity.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

While it opened after his retirement, Eric Stephens led Zoo Miami through the design of Florida: Mission Everglades, a section devoted to local wildlife. “We involved a lot of people on staff in the design who contributed their specialty,” he remarked. “When we talked about black bears, we brought in the curator of mammals to talk about what as necessary. We talked with other departments about what we were going to do with the public.” A major objective was to have the exhibit be interactive. “It wasn’t going to be just a bear sitting here but a bear you could interact with,” Stephens said. “We did interactives so you could crawl through with the crocodiles, pop up with the bears and slide through with the otters.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

After 36 years of working for Miami-Dad County (35 at the zoo), Eric Stephens retired in 2015. “In 2010, I had already worked at the zoo for thirty years and had to have the conversation with myself if I thought I would want to do another ten,” he reflected. “I said no, went through the retirement program and worked five more years, the maximum allowed. I miss the zoo tremendously and wish I could have stayed through the opening of Florida: Mission Everglades.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

“Zoo Miami will always be special to me,” Stephens elaborated. “It was the only adult job I had. Our climate makes the zoo special- we’re the only zoo in the states in a subtropical climate. We don’t have to do indoor buildings like zoos in Cleveland, Omaha, New York and Detroit. Our animals live outside year long and, by choosing the right animals, we provide them the most real habitats they can have. Our temperatures are as close as you’ll get to those of where most of our collection comes from. My greatest pleasure is I was part of a great passion team and we built a lot of exciting exhibitry, almost tripled attendance, enlarged our conservation efforts and did a lot of positive things.”

@ Zoo Miami

@ Zoo Miami

“Zoos have to always show they walk the walk and have efforts in conservation in countries around the globe whether in the Caribbean or Australia,” Eric Stephens concluded. “You have to show you’re not just a local place to go on a weekend and that you’re a vital conservation facility with worldwide partners. We’re lucky to have some important conservation efforts in our backyard like Florida panthers and flamingos and have great opportunities to do conservation work no one else can do the same way.”

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