Best of Both Worlds: A Conversation with Joe Smith, Director of Animal Programs at Fort Wayne Childr

Since it opened in 1965, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo has blossomed into one of the best medium-sized zoos in the nation. Few understand the zoo's power to connect its community with wildlife than Dr. Joe Smith, Director of Animal Programs. Smith was promoted to the position after serving as Veterinarian at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo for several years. Outside of his responsibilities at the zoo, Smith has a passion for orangutan conservation and serves as an Advisor on Veterinary Issues for the Orangutan Species Survival Plan. Here is his story.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

When in high school, Joe Smith took part in the zoo explorer’s club at the Baton Rouge Zoo. This helped set him on the course for a career in zoos. “The explorer’s club was part of the Boy Scouts and focused on different careers,” he explained. “This one was hosted by the Baton Rouge Zoo and, as part of it, I got to volunteer at the zoo and work alongside the staff. That got me hooked on zoos and I knew I wanted to work with exotic animals.” Additionally, Smith owned a variety of birds at home.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Smith would go on to study veterinary medicine, focusing on zoos. “Through vet school, I got experience with different zoos,” he remarked. Among the places he did externships were the Fort Worth Zoo, Dallas World Aquarium, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Baton Rouge Zoo. After graduating, Smith got an interim position at the Dallas Zoo. “They had a hiring freeze at the time and were in need of help,” Smith recalled. “I needed experience and my wife lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area so I worked with them for several months. Then, a colleague of mine shared with me the position at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. The first thing I had to do was to figure out what state Fort Wayne was in.” After visiting and interviewing, he really liked the zoo and has been there ever since.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

At 38-acres, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a medium-sized zoo. “Our zoo is an interesting one in that we straddle the bridge between small and large zoos,” Smith elaborated. “In my perspective, we have the best of both worlds. We’re right smack in the middle of zoos in budget, attendance, number of animals and acreage. Some people get thrown off by the name [including Children’s Zoo] but, when they come to visit, they usually come with lower expectations and leave blown away.” The zoo is one of very few in the nation that is financially self-sustaining and receives no tax support.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Although the name Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo might evoke images of merely a petting zoo, the zoo is home to giraffes, lions, tigers, orangutans, zebras, hyenas, leopards, kangaroos, sea lions, penguins and other charismatic megafauna. However, it has always prioritized being kid-friendly and interactive for youngsters. “Earl Wells (the zoo’s late founding director) thought all zoos were children’s zoos as the main audience was children,” Smith noted. “He was very conscious of designing experiences with a child’s perspective in mind. [He focused on things like making sure] the barriers and landscaping did not obstruct the kids’ view of the animals, they could experience exhibits from their short perspective and have fun and interactive things to do. One of those philosophies was to incorporate rides into new areas because it provided fun entertainment for guests and revenue to stay self-sustaining.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“I originally thought I might just be here a couple of years but, as I settled here, I realized this zoo is one that has great community support and does a great job with animal welfare, guest experience and raising the bar,” Smith said. “Fort Wayne has been a great place to live so I’ve sort of settled in and have been here for 15 years, the majority of that time as Director of Animal Health. Then, the general curator retired and the zoo put together a plan to merge administrative responsibilities to a new director of animal programs position. I gave up all my clinical responsibilities, took that position and hired a new veterinarian.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Since starting in 2003, Smith has observed the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo grow in terms of quality and programs. “What I’ve seen over the last 15 years is a great progression from a small zoo mentality to a bit of a larger zoo mentality and the growing pains that come with that,” he articulated. “That has been a very positive experience. As we continue to grow and expand our programs, we’re always going to be trying to improve. We haven’t tried to increase quantity and acreage as we’ve grown to the size that’s the right fit for our community. Our focus now is on improving quality.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Part of raising the zoo’s quality is looking at existing exhibits with new eyes. “For the first forty years of the zoo, new areas were added every decade- Africa in the 70s, Australia in the 80s and Indonesia in the 90s,” Smith said. “Then we started going back to those areas, updating them and replacing things that have aged. We make sure it’s fresh, clean and made for a positive experience.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Smith learned a great deal about animal care and problem-solving as a veterinarian. “Being a veterinarian at a zoo is a very competitive position,” Smith commented. “The analogy I always use is that there are more seats in the U.S. Congress than zoo veterinarians. You have to be really dedicated and focused [to be a zoo vet.] No two days are the same and they’re filled with fun, new challenges. If you don’t like routine and enjoy random new things, zoo veterinarian is the perfect job for you. You’re never going to run out of new challenges and new questions. It’s a field that is rapidly evolving so it takes effort to keep up with current practices.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

The zoo’s vet hospital was built two years prior to Smith’s arrival. “It isn’t the biggest zoo hospital you will see but what we have is quite functional,” he added. “We’ve made sure it’s equipped with up-to-date equipment. What we did do was build a brand-new quarantine facility to increase the versatility of what animals we can move through. We also created systems, protocols and policies that allow staff to plug into positions and succeed.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

A number of programs have been added to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. “We’ve developed a new commissary and nutrition program for the animals,” Smith elaborated. “We’ve started a research and conservation committee, which has grown rapidly each year. Last year, we invested a quarter of a million dollars in insitu conservation.” Smith has been able to help these programs grow as Director of Animal Programs. “Since that’s the sort of thing I enjoy doing, it’s one of the reasons I made the leap into administration and left the clinical role behind,” he said.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

One of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s focuses has been on animal behavior. “I was involved in setting up our zoo’s first behavioral management program,” Smith said. “One of our vet techs was interested in putting together an enrichment committee. That got one of our hospital keepers interested in enrichment and we started sending her to conferences to build up her skills and abilities. We created our animal training position, which our hospital keeper took. Then we brought in outside consultants to help us further train staff and grow the program. We created that program because there was a void to fill with something more formal.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Recently, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo renovated its Australia area. While it kept the best parts of the original area including the kangaroo walkabout (home to the largest mob of kangaroos in the nation), some others changed. “We did away with the large walkthrough aviary and replaced it with smaller ones that made the birds easier to manage, let us participate in more SSPs (Species Survival Plans) and set those breeding pairs up for success. We also replaced a portion of the aviary with a play stream that engages our guests with opportunities to explore and play in water. We have an interpreter who facilities that area. It was a change in philosophy to have plenty of opportunities for kids to engage in that area.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

A strategic plan keeps track of the zoo’s variety of animals. “One of the things I think is important is creating a strategic plan for the animal department,” Smith elaborated. “I want everyone one the team to know what we’re striving for and how best to do that. For the last year, we’ve been putting in a lot of effort [into our programs] and all 59 members of our animal department are giving input. We’re preparing for our AZA inspection this summer and are making sure all our policies have been updated. [Accreditation is] a good reminder to have those things buttoned up. We pride ourselves in being inspection ready every day.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Smith’s responsible for determining what programs and animals the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo focuses on and implementing that process. “I spend a lot of time on project management,” he remarked. “That entails the construction of new exhibit and what our animal collection should look like.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Currently the zoo is doing a massive renovation of its monkey island, home to white-throated capuchin monkeys. “It’s one of the original exhibits in the heart of the zoo and it’s become sort of a local icon,” Smith stated. “People remember seeing it as a kid and enjoy showing it to their own kids. It’s very popular as capuchins are such an engaging species.” However, the facility was not tied to an indoor holding facility and the capuchins had to go to an off-exhibit holding area at a different location at the zoo during the winter. “We’re building a holding area adjacent to the island where they can be shifted on and off on a daily basis,” Smith remarked.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Monkey Island will also become more naturalistic and modern. “This will improve not only our management but also our theming,” Smith added. “We’ll add waterfalls and some natural looking features.” Nearby, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is building a new river otter habitat. “Our current otter exhibit is old and small by today’s standards and we want to make sure our otters have plenty of space to roam and be in a more engaging exhibit,” Smith noted.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

One of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s most popular exhibits is the one for orangutans, one of the most sophisticated indoor habitats for them in the nation. “Everyone is used to seeing outdoor exhibits for orangutans but the folks who know orangutans really well love our exhibit,” Smith explained. “As a professional, we often have exhibited orangutans in ways that aren’t typical for how you’d find them in the wild. [For example,] they don’t like bright sunny areas [as] they live in the forest of Sumatra. I’m the vet advisor for the orangutan SSP and have been to Sumatra. It’s a densely canopied habitat and [the orangutans] are usually under the canopy in the shade. They don’t typically go into direct sun or go into grassy areas. To have these manicured lawns might appeal to us as people but it isn’t natural for orangutans.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“There usually is a flooded floor but orangutans don’t come to the ground as they’re an arboreal species,” Smith continued. “In our exhibit, which was built in the 1990s, we took into account their natural biology and our climate. Our orangutans get to swing through the trees and vines of their exhibit. The arboreal nature and flooded forest of our exhibit gets them to use their upper arm strength, [which is important as] orangutans can be incredibly lazy and will do the least amount to get by. Our orangutans seem to be thriving in our habitat. What most people don’t realize is we have huge skylights on the top that are retractable so we can have them open in the summer but close them [during the winter] to maintain the heat and have a tropical day. The orangutans can sit in the sun, get fresh air and get rained on if they want to.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Smith is heavily involved with orangutan conservation in the field. “I help teach orangutan medicine worldwide,” he stated. “One of the groups we support is the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group, which provides training to vets who work with orangutans in sanctuaries and in the wild. I’ve gone there to teach at their meeting.” Two other species the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo supports are Javan gibbons and hellbenders. “Javan gibbons are one of the rarest primates in the world and we have a researcher we support in Java,” Smith said. “[As for hellbenders,] the population in Indiana is in serious trouble with them remaining in one river. We’ve taken some of the last Indiana hellbenders and helped head start juveniles for release back into the wild.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

The zoo has a specific approach of using its expertise to help conservation partners in range countries. “My general philosophy is I tell our conservation partners we can provide expertise in three areas- veterinary care of exotic species, animal management and husbandry and education and outreach,” Smith reflected. For instance, the zoo can use its animal management and husbandry knowledge to help conservationists if they need to temporarily move an animal into human care.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

During his time at Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Smith has learned a lot from the zoo’s longtime director, Jim Anderson. “Jim has been quite supportive of the things I want to do,” Smith commented. “We talk frequently about the philosophy of where we want to take things with the animal collection. Jim provides a fair amount of autonomy to the animal department as long as we stay within the vision and mission. We make a great team.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“For zoos of the future, I think we’re going to continue to have a lot of challenges regarding public perception and our role in society,” Smith articulated. “For so long, people have viewed zoos as an entertainment venue and, for a long time, zoos would have to get guests in the door and sneak in a conservation education message. We need to do a better job of focusing on the fact we’re conservation organizations. We need to make sure the walk we walk matches the talk we talk. We need to take it up a notch. For Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, we have to continue to do things that work well for us. That’s keeping the zoo clean and green, providing a very natural experience and letting guests gain an appreciation for animals. Our mission is to connect kids and animals, strengthen families and inspire people to care.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“The personal achievement I’m most proud of is being able to share knowledge and experiences to train the next generation of zoo professionals,” Joe Smith concluded. “Hopefully I’ve made them better than I was. If every generation can improve on what we already know, we’ll just continue to get better and better. I take pride in teaching others and providing them an environment to grow professionally.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

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