Shoot High and Go for Broke: A Conversation with Steve McCusker, Retired Director of the San Antonio

The San Antonio Zoo has one of the largest varieties of animals of any zoo in the nation. Over the course of the past twenty years, the zoo has took important leaps into the modern age and reinvented itself as an institution devoted to conservation and innovation. Much of this success is due to Steve McCusker, who directed the zoo from 1994 to 2014. Here is his story.

@ Steve McCusker

McCusker began his career working at the Harvard Primate Center. “That was my first animal job,” he said. “I learned a lot about primates. They had a lot of macaques and marmosets. It was all based on human medicine primarily and research done for that purpose.” After a year, McCusker moved to the Fort Worth Zoo. He started by working at the zoo’s aquarium but then transferred over to working with mammals. “The Fort Worth Zoo was really nice- beautiful location,” he remarked. “It was a really good experience for me because I learned a great deal. When we did seals and sea lions, I learned a lot about filtration, water quality, and maintenance. They had an Amazon dolphin while I was there, which was a great experience since I don’t know if there’s even one in human care anymore. I worked with lions, hyenas and tigers as well.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

In 1976, McCusker moved to the Oregon Zoo (then known as the Washington Park Zoo) as General Curator. The director was the late Warren Iliff, who he remembered very fondly. “We got a lot done in the effort to become a modern institution,” McCusker noted. He considered the Oregon Zoo a great learning experience. “I learned a lot about elephants and hoofstock while I was there,” McCusker said. “I was there with Packy (the first elephant born in America) and we had a birth or two while I was there. I learned elephants are all so different. Some are trustable while others aren’t so one needs to be careful at all times. They can be very dangerous but are very smart. As for hoofstock, I’ve always liked them and enjoyed working with them.” During his time at the zoo, the Oregon Zoo imported the first musk ox found in American zoos for a long time.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

McCusker gave Iliff much credit for the zoo’s success “Warren Iliff was a visionary,” McCusker recalled. “He was an individual who always had bigger, better and more far-reaching ideas, some which were possible and others that weren’t. He set the bar really high. We built the first elephant restraint chute, which was a step in the right direction. Warren Iliff was always willing to try something different and he never forgot anything.” Later on, Iliff would do more great things as Director of the Dallas Zoo, the Phoenix Zoo and the Aquarium of the Pacific.

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

One of the zoo’s major projects during this time at the zoo was Cascade Stream and Pond, an immersive set of habitats for otters and beavers that won the AZA Exhibit award in 1983. “Cascade Stream and Pond was a native exhibit all about teaching visitors about the great outdoors,” McCusker remarked. “That was really a kickoff to [me] working in zoos with fresher exhibits.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

McCusker noted the role of zookeepers began to shift dramatically. “When I was at Fort Worth, keepers were keepers and everybody else was everybody else,” he stated. “Very few keepers were college graduates back then but when, I came to Oregon, keepers began to have college degrees and even graduate degrees. They were now keepers because they wanted to be. In the late 70s and early 80s, keepers became more than people who cleaned for animals- they became caretakers. The esteem of the keepers has grown over the years.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1986, McCusker got his first directing job at the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson. “More than anything, [the opportunity for] growth brought me to Tucson,” he elaborated. “It put me in the director’s seat for the first time. It’s a really nice new zoo and still is. It’s in a small footprint but it’s around a gorgeous park near downtown Tucson. It was a really fun place to work. It had a really good bird collection but not many amphibians or reptiles. We had polar bears, which people found bizarre since we were in Tucson but they did pretty well there. We worked a lot with giant anteaters while I was there. We bred them and raised offspring.” As a result of this work with the species, a giant anteater became featured in the logo of the Reid Park Zoo.

@ Reid Park Zoo

@ Reid Park Zoo

One unique thing about the Reid Park Zoo was the peak and low seasons were shifted. “It was a challenge granted as the seasons are intense,” McCusker said. “When it’s hot, it’s really hot. When it’s cool and pleasant, the snowbirds all came down. Your [peak and low] seasons are kind of shifted.” During his time at the zoo, he oversaw facelifts to many different habitats. “A lot of in-house things were going on,” McCuskr said. “We redid lions, tigers and sun bears and did some things with the zebras and elands. There was a lot of polishing of exhibit areas.”

@ Reid Park Zoo

@ Reid Park Zoo

He found the Reid Park Zoo to be an important learning opportunity about zoo leadership and in terms of the importance of finances in running a zoo. “What I really learned there is pleasing the public and being revenue oriented is a big deal,” McCusker reflected. “Maybe I realized that because the Reid Park Zoo was my responsibility. You have to have money. How to get it is a different ballgame depending on where you are. To do what you want to do from a conservation, biological and animal aspect in a zoo you’ve got to have money and the only way to make it is through earned revenue, grants or donations."

@ Reid Park Zoo

@ Reid Park Zoo

"To do all the things you want to do from education to field research to getting into people’s heads early on, you need money," McCusker continued. "Whether a city or private zoo, you’ve got to fight for those dollars. You have to get your share because everyone else is looking for the same pile of money. You have to have the right people who understand the need for dollars. Warren Iliff was a master at that. He had a skill that people appreciated and respected so they would help him fund things. When I went to Reid Park, the city would only do operations so we had to find money from private donors for improvements.”

@ Reid Park Zoo

@ Reid Park Zoo

In 1994, McCusker became Director of the San Antonio Zoo, where he would spend the rest of his career. “San Antonio was another opportunity for me to go to a larger institution,” he remarked. “I felt comfortable about how I could do what needed to be done in that arena. When I was offered the job in San Antonio, I was eager and anxious to accept it and move on. I had visited the San Antonio Zoo maybe twice when I was in Fort Worth so I knew it. It’s built in an old quarry and the backdrop is gorgeous. The river runs through it and it’s backed on one side by water and a park and on another by a quarry. There’s an allegation some of that quarry helped build the Alamo.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

While the zoo was already well-respected, McCusker was determined to see it move to the next level. “There were a lot of small moated habitats so we took care of that,” he remembered. “There was a boat ride that was just sad. It didn’t have value and it broke down all the time. We replaced it with the Kronosky Tiny Tot children’s zoo. That was about getting young kids involved in nature. It’s a wonderful exhibit for 5 to 7 year olds. That was one of the first things we did. We stressed the value of water throughout. Water is the theme- there’s a floating dock. It’s a really comfortable place for very young children to be. It’s a great place for teaching and an entire group of volunteers and staff work for that purpose. It’s aimed at an age group that before had not been intentionally dealt with.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

McCusker and his staff built off of the foundation set up by his longtime predecessor, Louie DiSabato. “The animal care was always good but what we changed is we tried to create larger, more natural habitats throughout,” he stated. “We did things that kept up with the modern zoo philosophy of putting animals on the top of the list. It was all about their comfort. We enlivened some things and changed the zoological holding areas. You didn’t need to have one of everything anymore but just a really nice program. That’s the major change that took place in the last thirty years of zoo history. One used to want to have one or two of everything while now they just want to do it right.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

One of the first major projects the zoo built during McCusker's tenure was a new gibbon habitat. “The gibbon habitat is an advancement as it’s much bigger and higher,” McCusker noted. “There’s places where the gibbons can hide and swing. It’s an incredible opportunity for the gibbons to go through their space without touching the ground. There’s probably at least three gibbons in there. It’s cool because it’s so big but it’s not an island. You’re right up there seeing them. People enjoy seeing the animals in a very natural setting displaying natural behaviors. We did a similar thing with the mangabeys.” Also, the zoo began to take down walls among several habitats to give more space.

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

McCusker and his team had the difficult task of finding sufficient funding and revenue for a zoo that didn’t receive much public money. “The biggest challenge the San Antonio Zoo faced was money,” he elaborated. “That’s the big problem that comes with turning a zoo into a more modernistic facility. We wanted to do so much and had to raise every penny. A lot of it was development money. We raised a lot of money for fine exhbiitry, conservation efforts and the teaching that goes with it. A lot of money was spent on that institution in the past 25 years and it was all money we worked to get through developmental efforts.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

During the 1990s and 2000s, the San Antonio Zoo’s education department blossomed. “They had one or two people when I got there while they had 12-15 when I left,” McCusker remarked. “A whole new education building was added and there’s an education person on tier with the curators. Education took a top row and became one of the important things we do. Conservation also did the same thing. We hired a conservation person that’s a really, really talented field researcher Dante Finolio. He’s always in the field somewhere. That started conservation becoming a big thing. Conservation, research and education blossomed during my time there and a lot has happened that has made the San Antonio Zoo a much more valuable organization in terms of conservation and biological work.” Today the San Antonio Zoo is a global leader in insitu conservation and carries out projects all over the world.

@ San Antonio Zoo

In 2008 and 2010, the San Antonio Zoo opened Africa Live in two phases, the largest and most elaborate project in the zoo’s history. It features a wide variety of African habitats and animals including river hippos, Nile crocodiles, okapi, African wild dogs, colobus monkeys and a variety of African birds and reptiles. “We wanted to get rid of that dreadful monkey island- it had to go and it was a big footprint,” McCusker explained. “We wanted to maintain a variety of African animals so we came up with the idea of Africa Live and raised the money for it. We also had a whole stretch of crocodilians in old moated exhibits and hippos in a piece of river that was unfiltered so we knew we could do better. People were glad we took those animals out of the water force.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

Africa Live represented a major leap into immersive habitat design for the San Antonio Zoo. The centerpiece of the area are river habitats for hippos and crocodiles complete with underwater viewing. “They’re all glass fronted and you can see the hippos underwater,” McCusker remarked. “They’re in there with a gizzilion fish and it looks like it flows into the crocodile habitat. The people are enclosed but the hippos and crocodiles are not. It really worked.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

“The hippos were unbelievable,” McCusker continued. “It was a tough two days getting them craned over and moved in but all the moves went remarkably well. They adjusted perfectly and surprised us. The reputation of the zoo had grown over time but when we did Africa Live it really went ca-pow. It hit people this is really cool and this is where zoos should be. We used the public space by the hippos for banquets and parties since it was built with that in mind. It’s wonderful.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

While the hippos and crocodiles were Phase I of Africa Live, Phase II included African wild dogs, okapis, colobus monkeys, mona monkeys, mongooses, hyrax and a variety of African birds. “My philosophy for construction was always to teach people to shoot high and go for broke,” McCusker said. “Africa Live Phase II was easier to promote because of the reaction to Phase I. For the most part, the institution now has that mindset. When we promote something, it works because it’s going to be for the betterment of the animals."

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

"It’s all about letting people know [who we are] and make sure their mindset is not of zoos 35 years ago but zoos today," McCusker continued. "They need to know it’s all about the comfort of the animals, keeping things here for their grandkids, conservation and education. Those efforts come first and the cotton candy and hot dogs come second, third or fourth. We do need that hot dog money to continue to build exhibits and do conservation. Those things need to be brought up to par to get all these things done. Zoos have realized the conservation efforts they put into it are what it’s all about.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

During his career, McCusker was heavily involved in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA.) “I was in AZA forever and went to my first conference when I was at Fort Worth,” he stated. “I went to all the annuals and was on the ethics and inspection committees. I served on the board and was president for a year. AZA is important because we all have to have an organization where they foster us and we foster them. We all have to be pulling in the same direction. We all have to be in the same place and be going together in the future. An organization like AZA can push all of us to go forward. We need to continue with the organization we have. We’re better now than we ever have been. We have more influence and impact and all are about conservation. If we can’t breed every wild dog, we can sure get the message into people’s minds.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

In 2014, McCusker decided it was time to retire. “It hit me maybe it was time,” he recalled. “I had done this for a long time and I was comfortable doing it. I felt I needed to let things progress as they had without me.” However, he is very pleased with what has been developing at the zoo since he left. “San Antonio Zoo is still happening,” McCusker said. “There’s a lot of things going on. It’s good for the animals, people and gates and it’s mostly done with earned revenue. I think San Antonio is going strong and they have good public support.”

@ San Antonio Zoo

@ San Antonio Zoo

“Zoos are going to continue as they are," Steve McCusker concluded. "Only they will be [even] more devoted to conservation and education. The institutions that can’t afford those luxuries will fade away. The good, progressive zoos that have conservation, education and public enjoyment in mind will continue to flourish. I feel all the institutions I worked for were better when I left than when I came. I know that’s true of Reid Park and San Antonio. I did something at every place that made it [at least] a little better. I think having faith and confidence in your employees is really important. I would like to think there were a lot of people who got some opportunities they cherished from me. I’d like my legacy to be that I changed the philosophies of some of the public and helped develop a group of individuals at each institution that are bound to maintain a conservation effort and make the conservation of wild places more pronounced. The ability to let the public know is what we’re all about.”

@ Steve McCusker

#SanAntonioZoo #OregonZoo #ReidParkZoo #FortWorthZoo

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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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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti