Starting From Scratch: A Conversation with Greg Geise, Retired President/CEO of the Binder Park Zoo

Over the course of forty years, the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Michigan has evolved from land, a group of volunteers and a $15,000 check in the bank to a modern zoo featuring the worldclass Wild Africa. For the first 35 years of its existence, the zoo was led by Greg Geise. His leadership, vision and focus on professionalism helped the zoo grow into what it is today. Here is his story.

@ Binder Park Zoo

After finishing graduate school at the University of Connecticut, Greg Geise decided he wanted to have a zoo career and volunteered at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport and the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. “Subsequently I wrote a grant at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, which funded my first position as an animal behavior specialist,” he stated. “I knew this job was going to end at some point so I looked all over the country for work. One of the jobs I saw in the AZA newsletter was Education Director for the Binder Park Zoo. I grew up in New England and viewed Michigan as a foreign country. I sent a cover letter to the folks in Battle Creek and they called me to say I was one of the finalists. We had very limited resources at the time so I asked if they could pay for me to come out and interview. I came out and was pretty unimpressed. There was basically nothing there but a group of excited volunteers and 15,000 dollars in the bank.” The zoo had not even been built yet.

@ Binder Park Zoo

At first, Geise wasn’t sure if he should take the job. “I sat down with my wife and said there’s nothing there,” he recalled. “However, she said it would look good on my resume and then I’d get a real job at a real zoo in a real city. I came and was the only employee. I literally took a shovel, dug a hole, put in the mailbox and built the zoo from the ground up. My first office was a rented trailer that didn’t have air conditioning and had inadequate heat. You had to wear really warm clothes to work in the winter.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

Soon enough, Greg Geise became Director of the Binder Park Zoo and was responsible for opening it. “My first job was to show up, smile a lot and meet the funding sources in time,” he remembered. “We received grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Miller Foundation to get things kicked off and received a few more grants. We were able to get enough grant money to open a very modest children’s petting area. We inherited a few domesticated animals for it. Then, we built an American bison exhibit and a prairie dog exhibit. Many people said this project was foolish, would never go and had no chance of success. That irritated me and made me very uncomfortable.” Geise was determined not to give up on the zoo.

@ Binder Park Zoo

Geise started to build up the zoo’s facilities including a building with restrooms and another building with a kitchen to prepare diets for the animals. The zoo continued to slowly add more exhibits and experiences. “The board committed to buying a miniature train and volunteers led the tracks,” Geise remarked. “Then we built an amphitheater finished, did a new office building, added heat to the barn and got a lot of education animals. We started doing a lot of education programming at schools and parks, which was important to our mission and community.” Animals such as ring-tailed and brown lemurs, wallabies and emus were added to the zoo as well.

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

Making the zoo succeed took a lot of effort. “I was working sixty hours a week and slowly adding more staff,” Greg Geise recalled. “We were very dedicated. I spent a lot of time networking in the community and did everything I could to develop our press releases as best as I could. I made friends with key media folks and worked to build our image with the general public. Our education programs were really what got our name out there.” Soon more popular animals such as zebras, cheetahs, bald eagles and wolves were added to the zoo.

@ Binder Park Zoo

The Binder Park Zoo is one of very few in the country to receive no tax money. “One thing you must remember is we had no tax support besides occasional grants,” Greg Geise elaborated. “We had to pay for everything- the electric bill, phone lines and plumbing was all on us. That was a huge challenge but opened the way for the institution to be run in a highly entrepreneurial way. I stayed largely because that was an opportunity if I could take advantage of it. We had to build everything and find funding to do it ourselves. Part of the initial philosophy and agreement when the city leased the land to us was we wouldn’t cost the city anything. That spoke to my beliefs very strongly. If you’re receiving government money, you’re under the control of government. You don’t want that to get in the way of running a good organization.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

Geise focused on improving the professionalism of his staff. “I always believed very strongly in a high level of professionalism,” he explained. “When I first went into this business, it was just past the time when zoos were the dumping ground for city employees they couldn’t get rid of. It was the very beginning of professionalism in the business. I gave that professional example and expected others to follow that. Those who did ended up very happy at Binder Park Zoo.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

One of the benefits of the Binder Park Zoo was that it had the space to grow. “I was always thinking ten years in the future,” Greg Geise elaborated. “We had to continue to build this highly efficient business that could generate enough income to stay afloat and deliver strongly on our mission: nurture empathy, understanding and conservation of nature. I saw some spectacular adjacent land, which became Wild Africa. It was outside of our lease but I realized it was a huge opportunity handed to us.” The city agreed to include it on the zoo’s annual lease of $1.00 and planning began on Wild Africa, the largest project in the zoo’s history that put it on the map in the zoo and aquarium world.

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

The zoo was committed to using the natural landscape as an asset. “We didn’t have to do any excavating,” Geise said. “We just had to not mess it up. It was a big grass valley with forests all around it.” First, the zoo needed to raise the money for the project. “I started selling those ideas in the community although at first people looked at me as strange,” Geise recollected. “We started the Double the Zoo campaign and Wild Africa was the main selling point. It also involved a parking lot, infrastructure and a mile-long boardwalk into a marsh for nature interpretation. There was a lot in that package and we were able to raise over $11 million.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

The Binder Park Zoo found ways to build Wild Africa cheaply for a project of its size. “We built very inexpensively and constructed the boardwalks with our own construction crews,” Greg Geise stated. “The laborers were high school and college students. We did some darn nice work with those young people. That was the selling point- we would be employing students and teaching them how to be good workers.” Also, the zoo stayed with what it could afford. “Elephants and gorillas are extremely expensive and were unreasonable for us,” Geise added. “We built a 50 acre exhibit and we were pushing as hard as we could.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

Wild Africa featured giraffes, zebras, colobus monkeys, mangabeys, red river hogs and a variety of African antelope and birds. The exhibit brilliantly replicated the environment and culture of the continent. “I had visited scores of zoos and visited Africa twenty times so I knew what the feel and look was,” Geise elaborated. “We developed a process by which we scored different species based on conservation value, education value, public appeal and what we could afford.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

“Having spent a lot of time in Africa, I realized things hundreds of yards away are green stuff,” Geise continued. “We made no effort on the far side of the savanna to do anything but allow the trees and shrubs to continue to naturally grow. It gave a green background in the far distance. We made an effort to identify plant species that looked like African species and used those heavily close to the path. There was also the emotional impact of standing on the village plaza looking at animals in the valley.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

Wild Africa retained a very natural feel. “There’s no fake rock or gunite anywhere in Wild Africa,” Geise noted. “It uses the natural landscape, careful design of sightlines and a lot of space.” The exhibit was originally going to include white rhinos and lions although both were cut from the plans. Since then, the zoo has added lions.

@ Binder Park Zoo

In fact, the zoo acquired animals for Wild Africa long before it opened. “Three years before we opened Wild Africa, we built the African barn with 60 units for animals and large exercise yards connected,” Greg Geise stated. “We started putting the collection together and brought animals in. We increased staff so they could be fully trained and know the individual animals [ahead of time.] We started introducing the animals together and had howdy pens at the top of the hill where a new group could come in and bond. When we’d add a new species, we’d do it again.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

In 1999, Wild Africa opened to universal critical acclaim. It also led the zoo to doubling in attendance. “Battle Creek is a very small city with 50,000 people and only three or four deep pockets,” Geise recalled. “You’re not talking about Chicago or New York here. Still, attendance went from 125,000 a year to 300,000. Wild Africa was one of the major factors in making us credible as a leading small zoo.” The zoo also completed other projects such as a new Children’s Zoo and an education center.

@ Binder Park Zoo

Even though resources were limited, the Binder Park Zoo attempted to become more involved in conservation. “Conservation was always part of our mission and something I was personally dedicated to,” Greg Geise elaborated. “We became involved in a large successful program for reintroducing trumpeter swans to the state of Michigan. We became involved in several state sponsored conservation efforts and others.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

“The knowledge of animal care was developing rapidly,” reflected Geise. “When I started in the zoo business, there weren’t any books on exotic animal care. It mostly was transferring knowledge of domestic animal care into exotics. Now there’s a rich resource of that knowledge available. I always participated in AZA and encouraged my staff to as well. That’s how we developed our professional animal management skills. I felt and still feel we have a moral obligation to our animals to do the best we can since they 100% depend on the folks caring for them. That’s why we didn’t have things like gorillas and Amur tigers as we didn’t have the resources to care for them properly. I was very active in the development of Species360, then called ISIS. I was vice chair of that. Our understanding of animals is way different now. We designed our giraffe barn to be heated to 50 degrees but we learned that giraffes really needed to be a lot warmer than that. We had to put in more boilers in the building to increase the heating potential. We modified that rapidly and found the giraffes were doing better.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

After Wild Africa, Binder Park Zoo opened an exhibit for snow leopards. “We did a very good snow leopard exhibit,” Geise recalled. Additionally, the zoo provided extensive education programs. “We were one of the early ones to develop camps and overnights,” Geise claimed. “We developed a program here we did an annual herps inventory on our property. We also had our volunteer program charge ahead. We did safaris with people all over the world and developed programs with the math and science center. We participated in cooperative programs with a number of local community organizations.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

@ Binder Park Zoo

Off exhibit, the Binder Park Zoo had a breeding facility for red pandas. In fact, the zoo was invested in the species way before they became common in American zoos. “It used to be very hard to get red pandas until zoos figured out how to breed them,” Geise commented. “We imported two red pandas from China, which were part of the original stock. We then built a substantial red panda facility off exhibit and had a lot of breeding success.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

Greg Geise built the Binder Park Zoo to being the “big dog in town.” Much of its success he credited to his high standards of professionalism. “I had very high expectations of people,” he explained. “ My job was not particularly to be their friend but to treat everyone fairly and make sure they understood what was expected to them and that they frankly performed well,” Geise explained. “I expected everything to be done well. If you were emptying the trash, we expected it to be done properly. Long before many zoos, we developed an employee handbook that gave our expectations and limitations of behavior. I always thought ethics were important.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

“We also have a responsibility to the world,” Geise continued. “One of the primary functions at Binder was to change the knowledge and beliefs of people in a semirural area. I feel that has happened. During my tenure, our attendance went from under 20,000 visitors a year to over 300,000 visitors a year. We served millions of people in such a small county. That was beyond expectations.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

On April 1, 2012, Greg Geise retired as Director of the Binder Park Zoo. “I decided to retire on my 35th anniversary at Binder,” he recounted. “I started on April Fools Day and retired on April Fools Day. As you go through life, it takes a piece out of you.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

“Certainly the Binder Park Zoo is my legacy,” Greg Geise concluded. “I think I’ve had an impact on the industry, especially as I taught zoology at Michigan State. I always mentored as much as I could because that’s the future. The whole organization of Binder Park was my life’s work. AZA is a whole different world today. When I started, it was an old boy’s club. The first conference I went to was in Baltimore and it had 200 people there. I attended the AZA conference in Indianapolis [this fall] and it had 2,000 people. AZA has made huge strides in developing its professionalism through training and communication.”

@ Binder Park Zoo

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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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