The Living Museum: A Conversation with Dave Zucconi, Retired Director of the Tulsa Zoo

During his 27-year tenure as Director of the Tulsa Zoo, Dave Zucconi transformed the institution into not just a modern zoo but also an accredited museum. He came up with the vision for the LaFortune North American Living Museum, a groundbreaking exhibit that incorporated animal habitats with museum-quality interpretation. Zucconi served as President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and as Chair of its Accreditation Commission. He wrapped up his career in zoos by serving as Director of the El Paso Zoo for three years. Here is his story.

@ Dave Zucconi

David Zucconi started his career as a reptile keeper at the Staten Island Zoo in the 1950s. “Staten Island Zoo’s reptile collection was renowned since they didn’t have the space for a lot of anything else,” he commented. “Carl Kauffeld, who eventually became the director, put the reptile collection forth in publicity at.” When drafted in the army, he was assigned to a snake bite study in Fort Knop. “I was lucky enough to do something I love,” Zucconi remarked. After returning to Staten Island, he was offered the position of Reptile Curator at the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1965.

@ Staten Island Zoo

Under the guidance of director George Speidel, Zucconi was responsible for the development of the reptile portion of the zoo’s reptile/aquarium building. “It was the opportunity to help design, build and acquire a collection for a new building at a new zoo,” he recalled. “It was a big thrill to have that opportunity. I learned a lot from George and learned people in Milwaukee aren’t exactly like those in New York. They said I talked funny.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

In 1969, Dave Zucconi became Director of the Tulsa Zoo. “By golly they offered me the job so I packaged up my family,” he remembered. The zoo was in need of help. “Tulsa Zoo was lacking in many ways,” Zucconi stated. “The best thing they had was the main building for the primate, bird and reptile collection but even those were pretty sterile. They had two big wings and we developed those enclosures over the years quite a bit and made them a lot more livable. We had lions, tigers and bears in old grottoes, small mammals in WPA wire cages, hoofstock pens with elk, zebra and bison, elephants behind the old building and Rhesus monkeys on an island. The one thing the zoo in Tulsa was better known for was our breeding of giraffes. We had a pair of reticulated giraffes who had been very successful in having and rearing offspring who went to other zoos.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

While the zoo had traditionally been free, that soon changed. “One of the first things we did was the installation of the perimeter fence and along with it the implementation of the zoo’s first admission fee,” Zucconi remarked. “Without a fee, it was too easy for people to come to the zoo who didn’t take care of the zoo- who littered, harassed the animals and didn’t care for the experience.” Another step was elevating the professional requirements of the staff. “Working with the personnel section of the city, we were able to improve the requirements to work at the zoo,” Zucconi stated.

@ Tulsa Zoo

What the Tulsa Zoo really needed was more money. “The big jump came with the passage of a park and recreation bond issue which allowed four million dollars for improvements in the zoo,” Dave Zucconi remembered. “Animal care, behavior, activities and opportunities were improved. The old monkey island was converted into a naturalistic habitat for chimpanzees, which at the time became one of the best chimpanzee facilities in the U.S. with real grass and small trees and allowed the chimps a much bigger opportunity to act like chimpanzees and be out in fresh air.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Steve Jones @ Tulsa Zoo

Starting 1969, Zucconi was actively involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which allowed him to collaborate with other zoo professionals. “I was fascinated by the opportunity to get to know professionals in other zoos, what they were doing and the things they had accomplished. We could adopt those ideas at our zoo to improve. Zoos were getting a lot of heat around the country and, if we didn’t self-regulate to improve, the government was going to do it. That’s why the AZA started an accreditation program, which I thought was a great idea. In time, the Tulsa Zoo became one of the first 10 accredited zoos in the U.S.”

Steven Jones @ Tulsa Zoo

The most ambitious project that sprang from the bond issue was the North American Living Museum, a first-of-its-kind exhibit that combined museum displays and interpretives with live animals. “The idea for the living museum was one I proposed after I had come to feel we could better educate our public and serve the causes of conservation awareness by combining the facilities of a zoo and museum,” Dave Zucconi explained. “We could accompany live animal exhibits with static exhibits. We would adapt everything a museum does- dioramas, graphics- to zoo exhibits to provide better context of an animal’s life- how it relates to the culture of the people, what does it do, where it’s from, how it relates to weather, geology and everything else that makes that animal’s piece of the world what it is. The bond issue enabled us to hire professional people for educational and exhibit programming.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Zucconi was keen to taking the challenge of doing such an unconventional exhibit head on. “I was influenced by the Life Nature Library, which focused on specific habitats and ecosystems,” he elaborated. “I thought this is cool- you can walk into this building, see these animals and everything else in the world that relates to them. I was able to do it with a very energetic and talented staff. We had a professional exhibits team and hired a museum curator who knew the field. With that three-pronged approach, we could develop the exhibit programs and education programs to go with it.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Each of the buildings in the North American Living Museum focused on a different biome- tundra, eastern forest, southwestern desert and southern lowlands. “[For instance,] we had the Arctic tundra building with polar bear, Arctic fox, snowy owl, king crab and wolves, and had cultural exhibits,” Zucconi remembered. “We also had the Southwestern desert with small animals and birds like peccaries, diamondback rattlesnakes, kit fox, gila monsters and roadrunners in addition to geological and cultural exhibits. The original master plan had more buildings and continents than North America. The idea was to eventually represent the world’s animals and the various environments they lived in [through living museums.]”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

Public reaction to the Living Museum was mixed. “There were some people who said, ‘Golly! Why don’t you have more animals and why do you have all these graphics?’” Zucconi reflected. “There were others who said ‘This is great. I can bring my kindergardeners here to show them the sun never sets at the North Pole at a certain time of the year when the fox is white.’ We did bring in record crowds when it opened and the zoo community seemed to like it. They copied a lot of the things we did because they thought it was innovative and would get the public’s attention, at another level, it wasn’t quite as well appreciated because they were more focused on seeing the animals.”

@ Scott Richardson

However, one aspect of one exhibit was controversial among certain sections of the zoo’s audience: its discussion of evolution. “To some parts of the religious community, it was a problem to highlight these things,” Dave Zucconi remembered. “A representative from an evangelical community told me he found it offensive to see these things in print at a facility operated by his tax dollars. I said you have to realize this is the latest information science can give us. If we talk about animals and their plight, we need to talk about science. There was a meeting of the powers saying we could put up a sign saying we understand our labels conform with the best science but some people might not agree with it.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

In 1984, the largest manmade cave in Oklahoma was added to the exhibit. “Our exhibit staff jumped in, engineered everything and built everything,” Zucconi said. “The public loved it.” For a long time the zoo was accredited by the American Museum Association. “We did a lot of graphics in Chimp Connection but didn’t return to the Living Museum concept until Tropical American Rainforest,” Zucconi elaborated. “That facility employed a lot of graphics and imagery. When you go through one part it’s like going through a cave and the walls have drawings like early cultures would have drawn in South America. We built a station for education programs that looked like a South American hut where our staff would be in holding a live bird or snake an artifacts. These were features more museum oriented than live animal oriented.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

Instrumental to the growth of the zoo was Zoo Friends, the society that was the zoo’s fundraising arm. “When Zoo Friends hired Mary Collins and fired up, things really started to happen,” Dave Zucconi mentioned. “Big fundraisers were held like Zoo Lights, Dinosaurs Alive and Waltz on the Wild Side. More money came in for better facilities.” For instance, Zoo Friends funded Chimp Connection, an indoor exhibit for chimpanzees opened in 1991, exclusively with money raised from Waltz on the Wild Side.

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

During Zucconi’s tenure, the way zoos approached animal behavior and provided enrichment for their residents developed. “In the 1980s, enrichment programs really blossomed,” he elaborated. “The more the public praised [enrichment at other zoos], the more we realized we could use it to improve our own programs. Provision of behavioral items for animals in their exhibits snowballed. As zoos were building new facilities, they were building new animal welfare inclusions. The thing just caught fire and everyone got onboard.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Steve Jones @ Tulsa Zoo

Another major change was the start of Species Survival Plans (SSPs), detailed population plans that ensured sustainable, genetically diverse populations for species. “SSPs had to happen,” Zucconi remarked. “To justify the existence of zoos, we had to be cognizant of shrinking populations in the wild and be part of solving the problem. Conservation was one of the big four [in zoos]: Recreation, Education, Conservation and Research. That was the mantra of the zoo field. At some point conservation needed a bigger push and it got it through programs like the SSP. We could handle education and recreation well ourselves but conservation needed to be backed up by research. We tried to work with research people from universities but it wasn’t until the mid 1990s we were able to fund an actual research director through a federal program that awarded us a museum grant.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

Dave Zucconi served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and was appointed President of the organization for a year. “That was very humbling although that’s when I found out I wasn’t so good at doing certain things,” he remembered. “I was sitting at the top of the heap of very sharp professionals- some who agreed with me, some who disagreed with me and all who wanted to be heard. When I was outgoing president, I was at the podium making my last few words at the annual conference but someone in a gorilla costume came up and I got irritated. We became immediately aware it was a stunt from the PETA group. They were objecting to us having gorillas and he was up there growling so I started pushing him backwards. He was shouting through the costume and it became a bit of a sensation for the rest of that conference.”

Beth Wegner @ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

In 1994, Tulsa Zoo opened Elephant Encounter, a new habitat for the zoo’s Asian elephants along with a museum about the history of elephants. “Elephant Encounter was another expression of our efforts to combine zoo and museum,” Zucconi said. “The indoor holding areas and the outdoor yards were way larger than previously and we had a giant shade facility so in the hot summer elephants could have access to shade. It enabled the keepers to better care for the animals. We built very good facilities for the elephants but also lots and lots of graphics and interactives. We had a diorama with a mastodon that was robotic and another where you could manipulate the fake trunk of an elephant with a stick. It was a tremendous hit. People loved to come in and engage all the things that pertained to elephants.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Tulsa Zoo

Again, the zoo got called out by evangelicals for its representations of religion and culture. “There’s a giant statue of the elephant god [Ganesh] outside,” Dave Zucconi mentioned. “That was one of the things evangelicals were critical of because some strange god was installed at the zoo. To me it was a cultural effort since the Asian elephant is part of that world and its culture.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Tulsa Zoo

Three years later in 1997, the Tulsa Zoo opened Tropical American Rainforest, following a trend of large indoor rainforest buildings built at zoos in New York, Chicago, Omaha, Cleveland and Seattle in previous years. The walkthrough exhibit featured jaguars, golden lion tamarins, howler monkeys, caimans, anacondas, piranhas, sloths, fruit bats and other animals in a humid tropical climate. “We mostly had smaller animals in the rainforest and many of those animals were free to roam the building,” Zucconi stated. “We saw the popularity other rainforest facilities had received and thought we could do a South American component of the Living Museum that was a tropical American rainforest under a dome.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

That same year, Dave Zucconi left the Tulsa Zoo to take a new challenge: directing the El Paso Zoo. “I felt very proud of the Tulsa Zoo and thought we’d been able to do something not like what other zoos had done,” he reflected. “27 years begs for a change and I had been around Tulsa Zoo so long I felt I needed to give someone else a shot. I thought well, ‘El Paso is a smaller zoo, so maybe I can do a bit of good down there and experience a different part of the country, especially since I’m a desert person.”

@ El Paso Zoo

@ El Paso Zoo

El Paso Zoo was significantly smaller than the Tulsa Zoo and needed programs to ensure a positive trajectory. “They had a lot of small, older exhibits but also some excellent exhibits like Asia and a restaurant,” Zucconi remarked. “One of the things I had the opportunity to do was implement some of the programs we had done at Tulsa. Things like a walkthrough butterfly exhibit and the zoo lights at Christmas time. They were an immediate hit.”

@ El Paso Zoo

@ El Paso Zoo

While Dave Zucconi was only at the El Paso Zoo for three years, he set the stage of great improvements and growth to come. “We got El Paso going and prepared a bond issue,” he said. “After I left, the bond issue was passed and funded new facilities. It’s going great guns.” In 2000, Dave Zucconi retired from the zoo profession and moved back to Tulsa.

@ El Paso Zoo

@ El Paso Zoo

Dave Zucconi expressed great pride at the progress of the Tulsa Zoo since retirement. “As far as zoos of the future, I think they’ll continue on the same track they’re on,” he concluded. “They’re having a stream of conservation success and I don’t see that ending for a long time. Bond issues get passed and fundraisers are on board. I see great conservation effort going forward. I operated the zoo for a number of years to the best of my ability and left it for others to carry on. They’re doing great at the Tulsa Zoo.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Danielle Owen @ Tulsa Zoo

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