Going Down the Brazos River: A Conversation with Jim Fleshman, Director of the Cameron Park Zoo

Opened in 1993, the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas is one of the youngest zoos in the nation. It has ben led by Jim Fleshman for most of its existence. He has expanded the zoo by leaps and bounds. Among Fleshman’s accomplishments include bringing orangutans to the zoo and opening Brazos River Country, an immersive exhibit complex taking visitors on a journey up the Brazos River, from the Gulf of Mexico into the Texas Panhandle. Here is his story.

@ Cameron Park Zoo

Fleshman began his career as a volunteer and shortly thereafter a part-time zookeeper at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. “I was hooked on working in zoos and caring for animals, so I moved to San Antonio, Texas to be a large mammal keeper at the San Antonio Zoo,” he recalled. He was promoted to the position of senior keeper and later to being a supervisor in the mammal department. In 1992, Fleshman was hired as Director of the Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene, Texas. “It was a 14 acre zoo that had started a $1.2 million Discovery Center project,” he stated. “The former director expectantly had passed away. I was fortunate to be able to begin my career as a zoo director and complete the last stages of this project.”

@ Abilene Zoo

@ Abilene Zoo

Jim Fleshman helped set the Abilene Zoo on a path to succeed. “I was able to help professionalize operations and integrate the staff,” he elaborated. “We really worked on modernizing things. Many of the original animal displays were old moated exhibits. One of our priorities were to renovate many of those to give them a more natural feel. We were fortunate to be able to add an additional 25 acres to the original 14 acres. We were able to add plants and grass to many of the exhibits and changed some of our animal management operations. For instance, we renovated an old moat display to house jaguars. Besides planting a variety of botanicals we changed the old stone walls to look more like nature with a waterfall and tension wire. We were asked to hold some confiscated spider monkeys and were able to renovate another moat style display [for them.] We planted different species of grasses and plants in the hoof stock exhibits to create a softer, natural feel. Our staff were able to reproduce secretary birds and developed an off exhibit space to work on reproducing batelur eagles.”

@ Abilene Zoo

A critical priority was to increase the zoo’s conservation goals. "We built an off exhibit space for the critically endangered Atwater’s prairie chickens," Fleshman remakred. "The goal was to reproduce this species for reintroduction on lands in their historical range. Staff worked on golden-cheeked warbler habitat improvements and became involved in several AZA species survival programs." At Abilene, Fleshman served in two capacities, coordinating between the City of Abilene and the Abilene zoological society, a separate non-profit. “I was a city employee as were all zoo staff,” he commented. “I also served as the non-paid Executive Director of the Zoological Society. This dedicated group of zoo enthusiasts had a lot of input in operations and owned all the animals. Prior to accepting a new job, I was able to secure a large seven figure gift from a foundation that positioned the zoo to have success in the future.”

@ Abilene Zoo

In 2000, Jim Fleshman became Director of the Cameron Park Zoo. When he began working there it was a relatively new but small local zoo aspiring to become a tourist attraction in Central Texas. “The Central Texas Zoo was located outside of town near the Waco airport," he stated. "It opened in 1958, it was an older style zoo that had a very nice collection of animals. The board of directors and city leaders thought they could build a new zoo in Cameron Park, a 463 acre stretch of land along the Brazos River. The residents of McLennan County passed a $9.6 million bond to start work on a new zoo. They closed the old zoo and opened the new zoo during the same year. In 1993, the zoo opened with 58 animals. The community thought that the bond would be able to construct a fully capitalized facility so there were some citizens that were disappointed with it It featured a gibbon island, tiger display, an African plains with African elephants, white rhinos and giraffes and a petting zoo with an 1870’s Texas Ranch house theme and that was about it." Since there wasn’t a fully capitalized facility at that time, it was Fleshman’s job to finish the vision the board of directors, staff and community wanted.

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

“The challenge for me was within a year of beginning this new position we were working on passing a $9.5 million bond issue to develop this small medium sized zoo into a larger zoo that would be the tourist attraction for Waco and the surrounding communities,” Fleshman remarked. “The goal of the board was to increase the number of displays and raise a million dollars to build those opportunities. In 2000, the bond passed and we started working on designs for a signature native species series of displays. In 2005, we opened Brazos River Country with a christening of a Spanish galleon as the entrance to the aquarium. This themed series of distinct zones found along the Brazos River, doubled the number of animals and exhibits. We were also able to double the attendance. Attendance rose from 140,000 to over 250,000 guests. Attendance has held that 250,000 mark for more than 10 years. Just this past 2 years attendance has grown to more than 300,000 guests.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

Brazos River Country not only doubled the size of the Cameron Park Zoo but also gave the zoo is first holistic zoogeographic region. “Brazos covers seven acres and takes you from the Gulf of Mexica to a sunken Spanish galleon to the rivers beginning in the Texas Panhandle,” Jim Fleshman stated. “We have historic and current species from the seven vegetative regions found along the Brazos River. You begin your river journey from under the ocean through a Spanish galleon with a representation of the Flower Garden Banks Reef with a 50,000 gallon signature tank. We have five smaller displays that allow us to highlight other species from other regions of the world. When you exit the aquarium, you are on a boardwalk alongside of a beach in an enclosed aviary. Many of the birds are rescues. We pull you into the East Texas region with up-close viewing of alligators, caracara, cougar and black bears. Then at the halfway point otters are the guest favorite. Moving farther upriver we have a second aquarium of freshwater species found in the black-land prairie region (Waco). This 125,000 gallon freshwater aquarium houses reptiles, amphibians and fish from the Brazos River. We take you into the hill country part of Texas with jaguar, ocelots, bobcats and coyotes. A nocturnal building, bison, whitetail deer, javelinas and turkeys complete the journey in the Panhandle at the headwaters of the Brazos River.”

@ WDM Architects

@ WDM Architects

Brazos River Country was a true game changer for the zoo. “It cemented the idea in our community that we could have a recognized, award winning zoological facility that would be a tourist destination and be something that our community would be proud of,” Jim Fleshman reflected. “It made Cameron Park Zoo a true showcase. It shocked the community that we could add two aquariums.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

Next, the zoo would see the addition of its first great apes. "Following on the heels of the opening of Brazos River Country, in 2009 we opened Jim and Nell Hawkins Asian Forest," Fleshman said. "We were able to incorporate the existing original tiger habitat as an anchor and add Komodo dragons and Bornean orangutans into the zoo’s collection. This was a first for our institution. By bringing in a charismatic great ape, we could compete with much larger facilities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston for the first time. We did something a bit different [in the development of the exhibit.] We had our blueprints about 80% complete and took them to the orangutan SSP (Species Survival Plan) workshop [so they could] tell us what we were missing. We had a lot of collective work and eyes go over those plans. One of their ideas was an overhead outdoor transfer chute, which we included. It’s been a big hit since then. We’ve been able to set up a lot of different training routines with the orangutans, which allow them to assist us in providing better care for them.”

@ WDM Architects

@ Cameron Park Zoo

The addition of orangutans brought a much richer conservation focus to the Cameron Park Zoo. “In everything we do, we have a mindset of the conservation effect and how we can engage the public in our conservation effort to have a better impact,” Jim Fleshman stated. “We do a lot of staff training about how to engage the public to help highlight our work by doing little things. We had a baby shower registry with Target for our first orangutan baby. The public just went nuts over the registry. That helped improve our viewership and our image not only in Texas but internationally. We’ve brought in several folks to watch our echo cardiac workshops with our orangutans. We built a blood pressure sleeve for female orangutans and hold workshops on training that behavior. We’ve embraced the great ape community to be a participant in improving the welfare of orangutans. We’ve put a lot of trust in our orangutan program.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

A major priority for the zoo is supporting global conservation. “We’re involved in a lot of different conservation projects,” Fleshman continued. “We help programs in Indonesia who focus on orangutans. We have two staff members going to the Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary and have staff involved in the compilation of a new orangutan husbandry manual to be translated into Chinese. We also work with a species of snake in Trinidad and Tobago and with carnivores that range in national parks and pastoral lands in Western Zimbabwe. We work with the state of Texas environmental agencies to help close down rattlesnakes roundups and help protect this vanishing species.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

One of Jim Fleshman’s priorities during his tenure at the Cameron Park Zoo has been education programs. “From a community standpoint, our education department and volunteers conduct thousands of programs and workshops locally," Fleshman said. "We’re involved in an international zoo educator’s group and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” Another focus has been increasing the zoo’s reputation and attendance. “We’ve taken an active role in getting the Cameron Park Zoo name out there,” Fleshman said. “Just this last year we topped 300,000 visitors. That’s a huge milestone for us. We do a lot of electronic media but we get a lot of help from word of mouth. It used to be if I asked people at gas stations how to get to the zoo they wouldn’t know. Now people from fifty miles away can give you directions to the Cameron Park Zoo. The Texas Travel Organization has helped us tremendously.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

The Cameron Park Zoo has a number of grand plans for the future. Among the species that might be added to the zoo include bonobos, okapis and African penguins. Also in the works are a new veterinary hospital and an educational complex with “truly interactive technology.” “We are going to put in place augmented reality that will visually transport students from Waco, Texas to different parts of the world to see science at work,” Fleshman noted. “We can improve how students learn about science by showing them what field research is like. You’ve got to use technology since that’s what kids are most comfortable with. We’re trying to expand young people’s views of the world and make it become a bit smaller in how they view people, animals and the role zoos need to step into.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

The Cameron Park Zoo is determined to continue to grow in the future. “I see us improving the destination pull we have,” Jim Fleshman reflected. “That’s going to get bigger and bigger with these next expansions. We have around ten acres left to develop. We’re going to have to reinvent Cameron Park Zoo in developing a new master plan and strategic plan to build it from the ground up. We’re going to change how we lay out the exhibits to immerse the public more into the exhibit itself. The immersion piece is going to become more and more critical as we create closer experiences. At each corner they’ll be a new view or something special.”

@ Cameron Park Zoo

@ Cameron Park Zoo

“What makes us special is we have a unique facility,” Jim Fleshman concluded. “It’s not what you think of as a zoo when you come in- it’s a forested park with animal displays and along the way tells a story. The biggest thing we’ve accomplished is similar to what I did in Abilene- we took a staff and really professionalized and elevated that staff to the point where almost everyone has a college degree and several staff members have advanced degrees. We give them opportunities to excel at their job with animal welfare and enrichment. We have an overriding vision of animal people from a cultural standpoint. It gives people a lot to buy in.”

@ Jim Fleshman

#CameronParkZoo #AbileneZoo #SunsetZoo #SanAntonioZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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