Contact and Discovery: A Conversation with John Chapo, Executive Director of the Lincoln Children&#3

John Chapo has directed the Lincoln Children's Zoo for over thirty years. During this time, he has brought the zoo back to its roots of providing guests lots of encounters and contact with animals. At the moment, the Lincoln Children's Zoo is in the process of doubling in size and adding several new animals such as giraffes, tigers and spider monkeys. Here is his story.

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

John Chapo knew he wanted to “be a zoo guy” when he was in the sixth grade. “I knew because of the books I was reading,” he recalled. “I was particularly inspired by Gerald Durrell’s books.” He soon ended up working at a zoo. “I started volunteering at the Potawatomi Zoo [in South Bend] when I was fifteen, became a zookeeper when I was 18 and worked my way up to zoo director,” Chapo said. “I was there for ten years and was director my last year. I learned that one person could have a profound impact and your actions need to be planned, especially for the best welfare of the animals.”

@ Potawatomi Zoo

However, at the time Potawatomi Zoo was run by the city and Chapo decided he would prefer to work at a zoo run by a non-profit. This led him to coming to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in 1986. “Lincoln Children’s Zoo was a private, nonprofit zoo,” he explained. “[Working at a privately managed zoo] gives you the ability to better connect with your community, better advocate for your institution and take politics out of decision making.” At the time, Chapo was one of the youngest zoo directors in the nation. “I was so busy with my career I never thought about being so young,” he remembered. “I was busy having great opportunities and kept moving forward and achieving improvements. I never reflected on that.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

Chapo worked to ensure the Lincoln Children’s Zoo lived up to its mission to give guests as much contact with animals as possible. “The original concept of the zoo was to have lots of encounters and contact but the zoo fell away from that for about twenty years,” he reflected. “When I stepped in, I discovered its original mission and reason for being. I interviewed and spoke with every community member I could about the zoo, its history and why it exists. Everyone kept telling me the zoo that engages children and encourages contact and discovery is our Lincoln Children’s Zoo and we want more of that. Those guiding words led us to giving guests more opportunities to be engaged, learn firsthand and have encounters. Those were my marching orders and I’ve followed them for 32 years.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

One of the first objectives Chapo carried out was improving animal care year-round. “The zoo was built as a seasonal zoo where animals were acquired on Memorial Day and picked up on Labor Day,” he explained. “It would literally sit empty for the fall, winter and spring. There were no heated building, efficient electricity or year-round water service. Then, after twelve years, the Animal Welfare Act dictated the zoo had to house animals year-round but the buildings were still designed for summer use only. it was like building a summer cabin and deciding to live there year-round. We needed to address issues of heat, water and infrastructure.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

Chapo and his staff worked tirelessly to make the zoo’s facilities equipped for all seasons. “We began addressing all the physical needs we could,” he remarked. “We increased our professional staff, built up our infrastructure and gave our animals better care.” Additionally, the zoo became better for people. “The community wanted more engagement with the animals and learning opportunities so our education director became full-time and we added more education staff," Chapo said. "We increased the professional animal staff and grew our education programs, which grew engagement with our groups and different animals, programs and classes.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

Chapo changed the zoo’s animal collection to better fit its mission of engaging, small animals. “We had some very dangerous large animals like a Kodiak bear in a very harsh exhibit,” he mentioned. “We got rid of the bears, Clydesdale horses and other animals as we didn’t have space for them. We downsized the animals we had to be more engaging. We also changed the collection to address endangered species and their propagation. Our animals now have large indoor and outdoor spaces, special heating and humidity, natural skylights, heated floors, central air conditioning and year-round water.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

A number of exciting new animals have been added to the zoo including Humboldt penguins, ring-tailed lemurs, white-handed gibbons, fruit bats, red pandas, Galapagos tortoises and tree kangaroos. “We greatly ramped up our propagation programs for endangered species,” Chapo elaborated. “The challenge was raising the funds but our community has always been very supportive of the zoo and helping improve it. [These new animals and habitats] gave us greater diversity and more ability to do education programs. It also increased our visitor interest as they were intrigued by the new animals.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

The Lincoln Children’s Zoo was reimagined to give as many opportunities as possible for children to connect with animals. “When you see a kid touch an animal for the first time, you know you’re connecting with that child,” Chapo reflected. “That’s what gets me up everyday. When I see a child connect with an animal, I know I’ve done my job whether they’re petting giant Flemish rabbits, feeding a camel, watching a serval leap in front of them, meeting a kookaburra, having butterflies fly on them, riding ponies or hatching out of eggs next to flamingos. We allow those kinds of great encounter opportunities.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

Another essential component of the zoo’s success was its animal ambassadors program. “The animal ambassadors go out to nature nights and school groups but we try to do it mostly at the zoo’s as it’s better for the animals and the rich guest experience,” Chapo explained. “Guests get to meet Johnny the serval, feed lemurs their special diet or present bamboo to a red panda. We’ve been doing encounters for several years and it generates revenue. Every day, one of our keepers tries to find a child to give them a special experience. The kids can play a game called Eat That Fish where they count the fish the penguins eat and at the end they get to ride the train.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

The Lincoln Children’s Zoo has been instrumental in saving the Salt Creek tiger beetle from extinction. “It was the most critically endangered insect in the U.S. and located just north of Lincoln,” Chapo remarked. “We’ve worked with the government to save the tiger beetle from extinction. We’ve actually hatched them out there and released hundreds of them into the wild. We’ve worked on that program for seven years.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

The zoo has had the most success of any zoo in the country at breeding Matschie’s tree kangaroos. “Our keeper is the international studbook keeper for that species and she’s done presentations about our husbandry in Australia and Papua New Guinea,” Chapo articulated. “We were the first zoo to videotape the development of a tree kangaroo. We used a fibrotic camera and trained the mother to present her pouch to the keepers. We’ve done some great natural history learning [on tree kangaroos] here and have shared it with folks around the world. Our red panda propagation program has also been extremely successful. With our expansion, we’re going to triple the size of the red panda program.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

The Lincoln Children’s Zoo is currently undergoing a $16 million expansion that will double the size of the zoo. “We’re growing our species, conservation and education and going year-round,” Chapo elaborated. “The expansion will feature giraffes with year-round feeding, an amphitheater with program areas, a natural play splash area for children, a new red panda habitat where they can walk over guests, a habitat for Sumatran tigers and an education center with classrooms, labs and offices. We’re even taking an old WPA zoo building and retrofitting it. We’re going to put spider monkeys in there and have a climbing apparatus where kids can learn how to ‘be’ spider monkeys.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

“The community will now have a year-round zoo with more endangered species,” Chapo continued. “We’ll have the opportunity to breed these species, engage more with our guests and increase our conservation opportunities. It will help us economically as zoos are a big part of tourism. The zoo will serve low-income families by giving them passes. Animals are winning, kids are winning and education is winning. Everyone is winning.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

“What makes our zoo special is our focus on engagement and up-close discoveries,” Chapo reflected. “What else makes our zoo special is the phenomenal community support we cherish and how we’re very much a part of the community. The biggest challenge is having enough money to manage and grow the zoo and be attainable for all our guests. We’re completely private and don’t get tax money for operating the zoo. Our finances are 100% earned and donated. Our community always rallies behind us and we’re very smart fiscally. We’re all about intimate discoveries, experiences and leaning. We can do that since we’re a smaller zoo in a smaller community. That’s what makes us different and successful.” Additionally, Photo Ark, a project featuring photos of zoos animals all over the nation, started at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

John Chapo has shaped the Lincoln Children’s Zoo into a special one that touches people, provides excellent care to animals and contributes meaningful to conservation. “Zoos have to have a better ability to connect people to wildlife,” he concluded. “We can connect people and make them more passionate about wildlife and wild places. What I’m most proud of is all the success we’ve had with enriching the lives of people at all ages and having them be amazed at the animal world. I wish to light the fire for people to care about critters and our environment.”

@ Lincoln Children's Zoo

#LincolnChildrensZoo

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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