Turning Things Around: A Conversation with Ralph Waterhouse, Retired Director of the Fresno Chaffee

Ralph Waterhouse began his career at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and learned a lot from the zoo's director, the late Earl Wells. He then went on to be the first general curator of the Minnesota Zoo, dubbed the zoo of the future when it opened in 1978. Waterhouse would then direct the Blank Park Zoo (1982-1987), the Kansas City Zoo (1987-1991) and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo (1991-2003.) He is credited with improving all three zoos he directed and setting them up for the future. Waterhouse also served as Chair of the Accreditation Commission of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Here is his story.

@ Ralph Waterhouse

When searching for a summer job in the 1960s, Ralph Waterhouse drove by the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. “I went into the office, put in my application and, with extraordinary luck, the zoo supervisor was in the other room talking to the zoo director about how they needed someone to dig up broken sewer lines,” he remembered. “He said no one was available to do it and then I said I would. That’s how I started in the zoo field.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

While at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Waterhouse learned a lot from the late Earl Wells, the zoo’s director for decades. “Earl was fantastic to work with and my mentor in the zoo world,” he stated. “I learned everything I could about zoos from him. Earl showed me by example the importance of having a zoo that the public was interested in and how you shouldn’t have exhibits the zoo can’t support. The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo did not have many big animals as it didn’t have the space or budget to exhibit or care for them well. That’s an important lesson I learned and followed that same philosophy in each zoo I directed.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

While Waterhouse started as a seasonal laborer digging up broken water and sewer lines, he would segue into working with animals. “The Fort Wayne zoo received a baby elephant from an animal dealer that was very close to death,” he recalled. “The elephant smelled very bad and had severe diarrhea. It was so skinny and sick. They needed a volunteer to stay overnight and get the elephant to drink from a bottle. That elephant didn’t stink as much as the sewer lines so I volunteered. I went to the library and checked out books about elephants to read while staying with the baby.” The baby elephant only stayed a season before going to a larger zoo but the experience launched Waterhouse’s love for zoos.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“I started doing educational shows in the zoo’s amphitheater,” Waterhouse recalled. “When I graduated college, I had a teaching degree in biology and chemistry so Earl asked me to become the zoo’s first education curator. I started a zoomobile program in area schools. We selected third grade as our target audience and each school year I visited every elementary school in the county (about 100 schools).” Eventually Waterhouse was promoted to General Curator of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

The variety of animals at the zoo grew as new exhibits were built. “When I started the zoo had a walkthrough aviary, fallow deer, llamas, a large contact area with goats, sheep, calves and piglets, squirrel and spider monkeys, capuchins, baby bears and seasonal exhibits like a lion or tiger cub,” Waterhouse remembered. “The zoo also had a baby bonobo named Amos which had been acquired from another zoo. The other zoo thought that he was a runt chimpanzee as the baby was smaller than the other baby chimps and was all black. That zoo acquired him as a donation from a family that had purchased him as a pet.”

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

In 1976, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo opened African Veldt, which greatly increased the size of the zoo and diversity of animals. “The new veldt exhibit gave me experience with hoofstock animals,” Waterhouse elaborated. “The exhibit was a big open mixed species exhibit with rolling hills and grasslands. There was an elevated boardwalk along the periphery and a cultural area. We had giraffes, zebras, oryx, impala, wildebeests, ostriches, cranes and flamingoes. Earl had experience from other zoos with those animals so I learned a lot from him and the zoo’s supervisor, Jim McGowin."

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

@ Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

In 1977, Waterhouse left Fort Wayne to become the first general curator of the Minnesota Zoo, which was dubbed the Zoo of the Future when it opened in 1978. “I was there for the completion of the construction of the new zoo in Apple Valley - it was the second state operated zoo to open in the country,” he remembered. “I was there for the first four or five years and it was a very enduring experience. We put together a staff of some of the best zoo people and met with a variety of wildlife officials from around the world. We fostered close relationships with a number of researchers including Dr. Ulie Seal (founder of ISIS, now Species360.) ISIS’s first office was at the Minnesota Zoo.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo was a combination of indoor spaces for tropical animals and outdoor exhibits for cold-weather animals. “The Tropical Building was unique at the time as it enclosed 1-½ acres under one-span roof, it housed animals primarily from Southeast Asia,” Waterhouse recalled. “The zoo also had the largest salt-water exhibit for beluga whales at the time. The other animals were from Minnesota or northern Eurasia. We had the Minnesota Trail and Northern Trek, exhibiting animals from Asia on parallel to Minnesota. That’s where the Siberian tigers, Bactrian camels, Mongolian wild horses, musk ox and moose were.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo was unique at the time for its naturalistic habitats and bioclimatic organization. The design and construction team brought together some of the best talents in the business. “The design was finished when I was hired, but construction was still underway. I had a role in monitoring construction and looking for anything in the finished construction that could be an escape route,” Waterhouse remembered. “I was hired by Brad House, the Associate Director of Animals and Plant Sciences. He was incredibly knowledgeable and also was another of my mentors in the zoo world. There were five curators each with responsibility for different sections of the zoo. John Lewis (future director of the John Ball and Los Angeles Zoos) was in charge of the main tropical building, Sandy Friedman was in charge of the Minnesota Trail, Austin McDevitt was in charge of the aquatics exhibits including the belugas, Nick Reindl was responsible for the Northern Trek, and Ron Johnson curated the bird collection.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

A number of innovative technologies and practices were put into the Minnesota Zoo. “The zoo had a closed-circuit television system throughout to monitor the public and the animals,” Waterhouse explained. “There was a system built into the zoo’s physical plant that was intended to be the backbone for remotely monitoring animal body temperatures. For instance, a telemetry receiver in the tiger exhibit could monitor the tigers body temperatures to help predict estrus cycles and monitor their health. The system was designed incorporating several computers which, at that time, were very simple. The computers were intended to alarm when body temperatures fluctuated from preprogrammed normals so that the keepers and veterinarian could watch for any health problems that may not as yet exhibited in the animals behavior. Unfortunately, the zoo’s funding from the state was reduced and utilization of the monitoring and telemetry programs were not realized. That was really groundbreaking research and unique in the zoo world. Dr. Ulie Seal and other researchers had a large role to play in the design of the zoo. We experimented with training and enrichment in the animal exhibits at the zoo that which was not being done in many other zoos.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

Notably, the Minnesota Zoo was instrumental in starting the tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP), the very first SSP. “The tiger SSP came because Minnesota Zoo put a high priority on making sure SSPs would proceed and provided our curators the resources they needed to develop the plans,” Waterhouse articulated. “My recollection is that several SSPs for other animals like the zoo like Mongolian wild horses and crested macaques.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo received acclaim for its progressiveness and naturalistic exhibits. “The public fell in love with the zoo,” Waterhouse remembered. “It also had a very strong education program with outreach across the state. The zoos mandate was not just to provide recreation for residents of the state but also serve as an educational resource for the state.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

In 1982, Waterhouse moved to Des Moines, Iowa to direct the Blank Park Zoo. “I wanted to be zoo director and, in order to move up, you had to move on as there was not much turnover in directors jobs,” he remarked. At the time, the Blank Park Zoo was one of the worst zoos in the nation. “It was the first zoo kicked out of the AZA because of mismanagement,” Waterhouse claimed. “It was a grossly deficient facility.”

@ Blank Park Zoo

@ Blank Park Zoo

It was decided the entire zoo would be rebuilt. “I went there very purposefully to turn it around,” Waterhouse elaborated. “We moved all the animals out to better zoos, closed the entire zoo, raised funds, built an all new zoo, hired new staff, and acquired new animals. That was a community effort and several community leaders were instrumental in guiding the fundraising. We had to do a lot of media presentations and talks at service clubs to generate interest in funding construction of the new zoo. We talked about the importance of a new zoo and what it could do for Des Moines. Great cities tend to have great zoos and the only way for Des Moines to have one was to start over.”

@ Blank Park Zoo

Waterhouse was practical about what would be in the new zoo. “The animal collection had to be animals that would do well in the Iowa climate and what we could afford in our operating budget,” he recalled. “The crux of what we did was what the community could support. Some of the most memorable species we exhibited were a troop of Japanese macaques and an African veldt with giraffes, zebras, antelope and a variety of birds. The zoo had lions and tigers for years and years so it was a given we kept them. We built much larger enclosures than they had in the past. We renovated a monkey island, expanded that greatly and turned it into a sealion exhibit. A walkthrough Australian outback with wallabies and emus and a walkthrough Australian aviary was another larger exhibit in the new zoo. We also had a large contact area with minor breed domestic animals.”

@ Blank Park Zoo

@ Blank Park Zoo

In 1986, the brand new Blank Park Zoo opened. “The opening was fantastic,” Waterhouse remembered. “Zoo attendance before renovation was under 10,000 annually while we had 180,000 guests the first year we reopened. There were three zookeepers who were the only full-time staff left from the old zoo who became supervisors of the new zoo keeper staff - they grew into their new positions well. I hired an education curator who was very talented at increasing community interest in the zoo.”

@ Blank Park Zoo

Having created drastic change in Des Moines, Waterhouse moved on to direct the Kansas City Zoo in 1987, an antiquated zoo that needed change. “The zoo was under intense scrutiny from animal rights and humane organizations and the community,” Waterhouse explained. “The Kansas City Star did a series of investigative reports for several weeks about all the problems with the zoo. I went there because I wanted the challenge of turning around another zoo.” Soon enough, the Kansas City Zoo would be much larger and much better.

@ Kansas City Zoo

A $50 million bond was passed to make the Kansas City Zoo world-class in 1990. “We started a community campaign and passed a huge bond that gave the zoo nearly 60 million dollars for zoo construction,” Waterhouse elaborated. “There was a vision video produced by a local public relations firm funded by the Junior League of Kansas City. That video was the cornerstone of presentations in the community and did an excellent job presenting our vision of the zoo. We raised millions of dollars privately for the new master plan, which included a massive African exhibit, an Australian walkabout, and renovations of the remaining zoo. I was there through all of the master planning and the design for most of the exhibits.” However, neither Australia nor Africa opened before Waterhouse moved to the Fresno Zoo.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

A major task of Waterhouse was improving the staffing of the Kansas City Zoo. “We provided more resources and guidance for the staff,” he recalled. “We made sure everyone knew our highest priority was the health and welfare of the animals. When I arrived on the job staff cared about the animals but some of the staff were not well trained. We provided them the resources to do a better job.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

A number of antiquated exhibits were closed. “I moved out animals in grossly deficient exhibits like polar and grizzly bears in concrete grottos and behind recurved iron bars,” Waterhouse added. “It was a matter of moving animals out of really poor exhibits and either demolishing them or putting in more appropriately sized animals.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

During this time, the Kansas City Zoo doubled in size and obtained the land that would eventually become the 95-acre Africa. “That land was parkland including picnic areas and a boat ride on the lagoon,” Waterhouse remembered. “At night, it was an area readily used by drug dealers. When I walked out into the woods adjacent to the zoo, I would see things ripped apart by bullets. It was a very dangerous place to be. We incorporated that area into the zoo where it could be a protected environment, which was important for the park and adjacent neighborhoods. Initially, it was very difficult to convince the park department and others that the area should be part of the zoo [but we did it.]” This addition gave the zoo room to make the African expansion.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

Waterhouse and his staff examined the area and thought of creative ways to turn it into Africa. He began to have the vision for how Africa would be like. “We looked at the landscape [of that area] and the huge expanse, which is now Africa,” Waterhouse articulated. “I could just see the African veldt as it was the perfect location to do something where large groups of hoofed animals co-mingled. We also had enough room for off exhibit holding areas where we could bring animals off exhibit to diminish hoof traffic on the grasslands when the zoo was closed. It was my objective to keep it all green.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

“Africa also had to be interpretive,” Waterhouse continued. “I wanted an African village and interpretation through presentations and live actors. Each area was going to be themed and have staff wearing appropriately themed uniforms.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

The crown jewel of Africa was going to be a 3-acre, state-of-the-art forested chimpanzee habitat. “The old great ape house was like a cathedral and built for architecture awards, not animals,” Waterhouse recalled. “It had a closed viewing area for the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans and the outdoor habitats weren’t very large and didn’t provide them much natural activity. Chimpanzees were the animals that we could display dramatically in a the new African area. We asked Jane Goodall if she would be involved and she loved our concept. She let us use the name Gombe Stream for our exhibit and use her name for approval. The concept was to be a fantastic display of a couple of groups of chimpanzees which was also educational.” Since it opened in 1995, the chimpanzee exhibit has often been called the best of its kind.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

Similarly, the Kansas City Zoo decided to do Australia, another immersive experience. “The Australian walkthrough exhibit with the kangaroos and wallabies Earl Wells built in Fort Wayne turned out exceptionally well,” Waterhouse commented. “That was really the inspiration for our large walkthrough Australian exhibit. We added a large Australian aviary and an Outback sheep station.” Australia would open to the public in 1993 followed by Africa in 1995.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

In 1991, while the future of the Kansas City Zoo was secured, Waterhouse was frustrated by the parks department. “They key that tipped me to look anywhere else was getting discouraged by the parks administration in Kansas City,” he reflected. “If that hadn’t been the case, I would have stayed as I loved living there and was excited with what we were doing. Then the opportunity in Fresno came up. I knew Doc [Paul] Chaffee from the accreditation commission he and I served on. Doc passed away and I had never been to his zoo so when the director job became available, I applied for it thinking I would be able to go to Fresno and see Doc Chaffee’s zoo. I heard from the search committee inviting me to see the zoo and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The parks staff and city administration were very supportive of turning the zoo around and improving it.” Waterhouse became Director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo was in need of great improvements. “Things had slipped after Doc Chaffee’s death,” Waterhouse stated. “My objective was to make sure the staff was trained to do their jobs properly and give support to get better training. Those that weren’t able to be trained and interested in improving were replaced by new staff. There were a number of business controls not in place that I brought to the zoo.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

A number of antiquated exhibits were replaced. “From the day I arrived, I talked about the need the bulldoze the old exhibits as there were some really awful ones,” Waterhouse noted. “The lion and leopard exhibits were really small and terrible, as were the polar bear and grizzly bear exhibits. Chimpanzees and orangutans were in displays that were all concrete with no enrichment. They were very, very poor exhibits so I moved animals out to other better zoos. We moved out the gorillas and orangutans to other zoos which allowed expansion of the exhibit by three times for the chimpanzees. We put in climbing and enrichment to make it a more comfortable home for the chimps. It was not a great exhibit but much better than what they had.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

A number of improvements were completed at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo during Waterhouse’s first few years there. “We redid all the African exhibits by turning a series of large pens into one large hoofstock area,” he remarked. “We built the new Australian aviary, which was designed by Doc Chaffee but the fundraising wasn’t complete when he died. We went ahead with the designs he had done and added some features.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

From 1992 to 1994, Waterhouse served as the chairman of the Accreditation Commission for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a commission he served on for several years. “During that time the commission created the first written standards for accreditation. That was a great experience - it gave myself and the other commissioners the opportunity to have real influence in improving zoos all over the country,” he elaborated. “That program continues to be strong to this day and maintains a high level of quality in zoos. The accreditation process was very important to improving zoos. Staff of the zoo being inspected have the experience of other professionals looking at their institution and giving suggestions on how things could be improved.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

In 2001, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo opened Sunda Forest, an Indonesian-themed area for tigers and orangutans. “Sunda Forest brought orangutans back into the zoo in a very large exhibit with a variety of climbing opportunities,” Waterhouse recounted. “I designed it so the orangutans would never have to come down to the ground. They could spend all their time on the vines moving through the forest canopy. There also were siamangs who shared the exhibit with them.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“The orangutan exhibit was covered with stainless steel mesh,” Waterhouse continued. “I hated exhibits for great apes exhibited behind moats and concrete walls with one tree in the middle. Here you looked through a light mesh, which gave you the opportunity to get much closer to the animals and feel like you were part of the exhibit.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Waterhouse did his best to constantly move the Fresno Chaffee Zoo forward. “I provided opportunities for staff to have the resources they needed to do a better job,” he explained. “We had a staff that cared very much for the animals but didn’t have the resources to do that. We changed that by sending them to conferences to get exposure to the greater zoo world.”

During Waterhouse’s tenure, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo was limited by its funding. “The zoo needed to have major new exhibits [for a modern zoo] but the city was cutting all the funding and not supporting it with capital dollars,” he elaborated. “While Doc Chaffee was there, the city covered one hundred percent of zoo operations. After he died, they took away the revenue from admissions to use for the city and took away all capital improvement funds.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Waterhouse helped set the stage for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to become much bigger and better years after he left by laying the foundation for a sales tax dedicated to the zoo. “I was instrumental in getting the groundwork laid for Measure Z, a countywide tax,” he remarked. “We approached the public twice on the ballot with an arts to zoo combined sales tax but that failed. I continued to talk within the community about the need to improve the zoo with a dedicated zoo sales tax. That was the impetus that led toward county residents overwhelmingly supporting the zoo sales tax - Measure Z passed. The zoo went out on its own and county residents overwhelmingly passed the sales tax measure.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Measure Z would allow the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to evolve into a world-class zoo. One of Waterhouse’s visions for the zoo was to build an African exhibit in an expanded area, which did happen. “I directed the first the master planning of the new zoo and new African exhibit, although they didn’t use the same plans we had completed,” he mentioned. “However, the layout is very similar to what we did in the original master plan.” African Adventure opened in 2015 to strong acclaim and greatly increased visitation. “The zoo improvements have been done spectacularly,” Waterhouse praised. “Scott Barton and the staff have done a fantastic job.” Ralph Waterhouse retired from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo the end of 2003.

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“I think zoos are going to continue to improve their exhibitry so visitors feel more and more immersed into the areas where the animals live,” Waterhouse reflected. “The animals will have a much better opportunity to express a greater variety of natural behavior. An exhibit doesn’t have to be really big as long as it provides the animals everything they need to behave naturally. I felt very strongly about creating exhibits where the animals felt comfortable and the public could get a better understanding of what those animals were all about.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Waterhouse’s favorite accomplishment was simple. “I’m most proud of turning around the zoos I worked in,” he concluded.

@ Ralph Waterhouse

#FresnoChaffeeZoo #FortWayneChildrensZoo #MinnesotaZoo #KansasCityZoo #BlankParkZoo

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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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