I Believe in The Wilds: A Conversation with Jan Ramer, Vice President of The Wilds

After years of experience in animal care and zoo medicine, Jan Ramer came to the Wilds in 2015 and became its Vice President in 2017. At over 9,000 acres, the Ohio-based, Columbus Zoo-affiliated safari park and conservation center is renowned for its large herds of animals and breeding success with endangered animals such as white and Indian rhinoceros, takin, cheetah and African wild dog. The Wilds is a member of Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), which is determined to build sustainable populations of endangered animals in human care. Ramer is responsible for the park, its animals and its conservation programs. She has also served as a regional manager for Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda. Here is her story.

@ Gorilla Doctors

Dr. Jan Ramer’s career in zoos began as a keeper at Indianapolis Zoo prior to its move to White River State Park. Then she moved to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, where she served as a primate keeper from 1980 to 1990. "I loved my work as a keeper at the Brookfield Zoo," Ramer recalled. “I learned so much and one of the best parts was working for Dr. George Rabb. “ What an honor!" Ramer credited the late Rabb, the Brookfield Zoo’s longtime director, for helping to spark her passion for conservation. “Dr. Rabb was an inspiration to me,” she added. “His passion for conservation was great motivation for all of us at the Zoo.” Ramer also learned a lot from Ben Beck, Anne Baker and Joe Erwin during her time at the Brookfield Zoo. “I learned from all of them to have an appreciation for all animals and their ecosystems,” she said.

@ CZS

While at the Brookfield Zoo, Ramer was able to go to Madagascar three times to study lemur behavior. “The Brookfield Zoo supported me in my drive to do more conservation work including these Madagascar trips,” she noted. One time, Ramer took a detour to Rwanda, where she met gorilla expert Dian Fossey shortly before her death. “Since that time in March 1985, I knew I would go back to Rwanda one day,” she remarked.

@ CZS

Wanting to be a veterinarian, Ramer attended veterinary school at the University of Wisconsin. She would return to the zoo community as an associate veterinarian at the Indianapolis Zoo in 1999, which had been rebuilt at a new location in 1988. Here she would work with everything from snakes and fish to elephants, orangutans and marine mammals. “That is where I learned zoo medicine for a wide variety of animals,” Ramer stated. At Indianapolis, she would continue to be involved with insitu conservation. “The zoo supported my love of conservation medicine and I worked in the Dominican Republic with endangered rock iguanas,” Ramer recalled. “I also served on the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group for rock iguanas and on the International Iguana Foundation.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Ramer took a leave of absence from the Indianapolis Zoo to return to Rwanda in 2009. “I served as Regional Manager of Gorilla Doctors for three and a half years,” she elaborated. “It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had on many levels. It is physically demanding when you head into the mountains to help a gorilla in need! Gorilla Doctors work in 3 countries that have experienced some cultural and political challenges for many years, but our team always came together for gorilla conservation. Even with all the challenges, this was hands down the most fulfilling job of my career. The veterinarians, rangers and trackers who risk their lives for the gorillas and ecosystems they work with are some of the most brave and dedicated people I know. Gorilla Doctors and their colleagues do cutting edge work in conservation, and it was my honor to serve with them.”

@ Gorilla Doctors

In 2015, after coming back from Rwanda, Ramer moved to The Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio as the Director of Conservation Medicine. “I had always been intrigued by The Wilds,” she stated. “When the position became available I applied, knowing I would have to leave Africa if I was selected. As serendipity would have it, the day I was offered the job my daughter announced that I was going to be a grandmother! Decision made.” In June 2017, Ramer became Vice President of The Wilds, putting her in charge of the entire park. “I love The Wilds, I believe in The Wilds and now I can give even more to The Wilds to help fulfill our mission,” she stated. Ramer reports to Lewis Greene, Senior Vice President of Animal Management and Conservation for the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds.

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

At almost 10,000 acres, The Wilds is very different from traditional zoos. “We are a really unique place where we can have very large herds on enormous pastures,” Ramer continued. “We have about 1500 animals with a small but mighty full time team of 35 dedicated staff.” Part of the reason less staff is required is that the large spaces allow the animals to be managed in a more hands-off fashion. “The herds are out in our large pastures, which eliminates the regular cleaning that is necessary in other zoo situations,” Ramer explained. “We have heatedbarns for those species that require them during the winter.” The Wilds is open to the public from April to October, when it hires close to 200 seasonal employees such as tour guides and overnight staff.

@ The Wilds

As Vice President, Ramer oversees animal management, health, science, education, infrastructure and finances. Conservation science is one of the hidden treasures at The Wilds. “We have a Departments of Wildlife Ecology and Restoration Ecology, and some really great conservation science has been accomplished here,” Ramer noted. “We held our first Conservation Science Symposium this spring and hope this will become a semi-annual event. We also have an apprentice program where we bring college-age students or recent graduates to The Wilds for three to six months to learn about wildlife and restoration ecology, animal management and wildlife medicine. We are training the next generation of wildlife biologists! We also do some great work in assisted reproduction with collaborators from all over the country. In collaboration with Dr. Mandy Shook, The Wilds was the first zoo to successfully artificially inseminate a nondomestic equine (the endangered Persian onager.) That is a significant contribution! ”

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

The immense scope of The Wilds, which includes restored prairies, wetlands, over 100 lakes and 30 miles of interior roads, requires immense maintenance. It also requires animals to be managed differently. “We practice herd management, but still keep the best interest of each individual animal as a priority,” Ramer explained. “Our animal management and veterinary teams are phenomenal. They know these animals extremely well and are good problem solvers in tricky situations.”

@ The Wilds

The Wilds’ animal care staff has adapted conventional husbandry training techniques into this management style. “While many of our animals are in pasture year round, we do some positive reinforcement training,” Ramer stated. “We do blood collection training with rhinos and giraffes, and and rhinos have been trained for ultrasounds. We do subtle training with the pasture animals, using positive reinforcement to move animals between pastures. Food is sometimes a good motivation, so we can get them habituated to the feeding truck so they will follow it to the desired pasture.

@ The Wilds

The Wilds has become well known for breeding several endangered species in large herds. “Animals that are adapted to live in large herds really thrive here,” Ramer noted. For instance, the park has the largest herds of Père David’s deer and takin in the nation. The park is also known for breeding southern white rhinos, dholes, African wild dogs and cheetahs.

@ The Wilds

The Wilds is a member of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a consortium of zoos and breeding facilities committed to maintaining sustainable populations of endangered species in North America. C2S2 is primarily made up of facilities like The Wilds, which have ample space to house large numbers of a particular species. “We have the ability to work with large groups,” Ramer articulated. “If we want to do research, we have a large sample size and an even larger sample size between the other members of C2S2 to do great science.”

@ The Wilds

One of the focus animals of C2S2 is the cheetah, a species challenged by limited genetic diversity. The park has an intensive breeding facility for cheetahs off exhibit as cheetahs breed best with lots of space and privacy. “Cheetahs can be very difficult to breed,” Ramer stated. “We understand the genetic challenges of cheetahs and are part of the Cheetah Breeding Center Coalition as one of 9 cheetah conservation breeding centers in North America.

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

The Wilds is particularly well known in the zoo world for its success breeding southern white rhinos. “We have the only fourth and fifth generation rhinos outside of Africa,” Ramer noted. In 2017, The Wilds received the prestigious Bean Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for its success breeding southern white rhinos. “We love seeing our herd grow” Ramer elaborated. “We have the space for them to exhibit a very wide range of natural behaviors. They get to be as natural as they can be outside of Africa.”

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

The Wilds has also had success breeding Indian rhinos. “While Indian rhinos are not as social as southern white rhinos, our pastures are large enough that our Indian rhinos are comfortable sharing pasture with each other," Ramer stated. "They love to swim, and they really enjoy our large lakes. We’ve had a number of successful births here.”

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

At the core of everything The Wilds does is wildlife conservation. “From assisted reproduction in onagers and Banteng to breeding scimitar-horned oryx to be part of a source herd for reintroductions in Chad ,we feel very good about our contributions to wildlife conservation” Ramer mentioned. “The things we learn about animals here at The Wilds can often be applied to animals in their natural habitat.”

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

The guest experience at The Wilds is through open-air buses rather than on foot like a traditional zoo. “What’s great about that is we can give them our conservation messaging while they are enjoying our animals and great vistas,” Ramer said. “It is a 2.5 hour open air bus ride and our driver/guides are well trained in presenting our story.” ”Our animals are well habituated to the busses.” she added. In addition to the typical bus, the park also has a premium safari called the Wildside Tour that goes off the road – up close and personal to the animals. They also have fishing safaris, horse riding safaris, and a zipline experience over the pastures. “Even the zipline guides talk about conservation,” Ramer added.

@ The Wilds

The Wilds also has several overnight accommodations for rent, including a lodge on a private lake, yurts above the main pastures, and the new Wilds’ Cabins at Straker Lake. “We’re partnering with an organization called The Mighty Oaks Foundation, that runs a program at our new cabins for veterans facing challenges as the result of PTSD to help them reintegrate into life after serving. We are very honored to be part of this program,” Ramer stated.

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

Like the Columbus Zoo, The Wilds is renowned for its excellent education programs. “We have a great overnight summer camp program during which kids stay for 3-5 days and have fun camping, but also learn about wildlife conservation,” Ramer elaborated. “One of my favorite camps is Dirty Wild Jobs during which high school kids spend the morning with the veterinary or animal care team and afternoons doing camp stuff. Some of those kids have gone on to animal positions at The Wilds and other zoological institutions. We just received grant money to start an outreach program that will help with science education for the middle schools around us. It is so great to teach the next generation the importance of science and conservation!"

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

“I firmly believe zoos and aquariums contribute to conservation of endangered animals. Through breeding for assurance herds, learning about species specific health issues, research into ecosystem health just to name a few of our contributions ,” Ramer reflected. “One of the biggest contributions is that we engage people. We are engage our visitors, our apprentices, our campers, and students from grade school to university. It’s so important to engage and teach people, so we have another generation to take responsibility for our planet. One of the things that makes The Wilds unique is we have the ability to not only conserve animals but restore local ecosystems. The bottom line for zoos and aquariums is to get people to care, right? So maybe that visitor will make a lifestyle change that will make a difference.”

@ The Wilds

@ The Wilds

“I’ve been so fortunate in my career to work with the people, organizations and animals I’ve worked with,” Ramer concluded. “It has been an honor to work with these fantastic teams – it takes a dedicated team to effect positive change in our world."

@ The Wilds

@ Jan Ramer

#TheWilds #BrookfieldZoo #IndianapolisZoo

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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