Curiosity and Humility: A Conversation with Mike Sulak, Retired General Curator of the San Francisco

Mike Sulak began his career in zoos working in the Farm-In-The-Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He soon fell in love with the profession and would go on to be a zoologist at the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana, where he would serve as interim director for a time. In 1979, Sulak was recruited by director Saul Kitchener to be a curator at the San Francisco Zoo and would spend most of his career there. Here is his story.

@ Zoo and Aquarium Video Archive

Mike Sulak’s career in zoos began in 1967 at Lincoln Park Zoo, located in the heart of Chicago. “Each summer the Zoo would hire half a dozen college students as zoo laborers in the outside section of the Children’s Zoo which was opened seasonally,” he remembered. “All the kids who got the job had parents who knew someone who worked in the city. I lucked out as my dad knew the CEO of the park district and they gave me an animal keeper position even though I was only 17.” Sulak was assigned to work at Farm-In-The-Zoo, a replication of a Midwestern farm that gave a taste of farm life to Chicago residents. “I loved working at the farm,” he remarked.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The young man fell in love with the zoo and would spend the next four summers working there. “I always wanted to work in zoos,” Sulak reflected. “I wanted to be a veterinarian but couldn’t handle chemistry. [At the zoo,] I loved everything they gave me. There was nothing I didn’t want to do.” He would even ride the zoo’s horses around the surrounding park area. “I’d ride the horses two-three hours a day,” Sulak added. “It was a great way to meet girls. They would let us ride in the evening after works.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In 1971, Sulak started full time as a keeper in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Reptile House. At the time, the zoo’s director was Dr. Les Fisher. “Les Fisher was an icon in Chicago,” Sulak recalled. “He was like everybody’s dad. Les was a skilled politician.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In 1973, Sulak moved to the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana as Zoologist. He found his new zoo to be very different from Lincoln Park. “Mesker Park Zoo was too big of a zoo for such a small community [as] it’s expensive to run a zoo,” Sulak remarked. “Much of the zoo was WPA infrastructure and had a little bit of everything- elephants, hippos, chimpanzees, lions, tigers, hoofstock. The Kley Building housed the mega vertebrates, small mammals, birds and a few reptiles in one building while another building had cages for cats and primates; which unfortunately had no outside areas. I felt back in the day zoos were run for zoo people as people didn’t know much about animals and primarily came to the zoo to see them. I remember the Graphics Department said that studies that indicated that people didn’t read graphics over fifty words so you have to just get your points out."

@ Mesker Park Zoo

"Collections in those days were amazing, even a zoo as Mesker Park," Sulak remarked. The zoo even had pangolins, a species that would become almost non-existent from American zoos for many years as they became harder difficult to import. “The Endangered Species Act and CITES changed everything,” Sulak explained. “Prior to 1978, if you wanted an animal, you just sent a telegraph or called an animal dealer and several months later the animal(s) would be arriving. That is greatly abbreviated but it was quite easy to acquire animals in those days.” Animal care was also not near as sophisticated, as it would be in later years. “Animal enrichment wasn’t common back then,” added Sulak. “It was just basic care.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

Changes soon came to the Mesker Park Zoo. “Several major things happened,” Sulak recounted. “Federal funding became available thru the CETA program that gave cities [and therefore the zoo] money to give people jobs. John Zara hired Frank Kish from Topeka as Zoologist. Zara then promoted me to General Curator." Shortly after, Zara shortly left the zoo to work with an importer of tropical fish in Florid and Sulak become Interim Director of the Mesker Park Zoo for six months. “I just tried to keep the zoo afloat so to speak,” he commented. “The budget became my highest priority during that time as we were way over budget. I tightened the belt and stopped anything unnecessary.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

In 1978, Saul Kitchener, Director of the San Francisco Zoo, recruited Mike Sulak to become Zoologist at his zoo. “I worked with Saul at Lincoln Park,” he stated. At the same time, Sulak’s position at the Mesker Park Zoo was eliminated. “CETA let us hire additional stall but the city was having financial difficulties,” he explained. “Under the rules of CETA no employee could be laid off if they had a CETA counterpart; if som the CETA counterpart had to be eliminated too. With all the hiring done at the zoo, all positions at the zoo except the Director and General Curator had CETA counterparts. My position was eliminated because I had no equivalent.” In 1979, Sulak came to the San Francisco Zoo and the rest was history.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Sulak arrived at the San Francisco Zoo during a crossroads as several, more naturalistic exhibits were being developed. “The zoo was in the process of opening up a wolf exhibit, gorilla exhibit and Musk Ox Meadow exhibit,” he recalled. “San Francisco had a long history with musk ox and had 17 born. However they did not have great luck for the herd, as fifteen of the births were males. Musk ox were tough as nails to work with.” One of Sulak’s first tasks was to acquire animals for the new facility. “Initially, we were planning on importing musk ox from Alaska but had difficulty with the Department of Interior, and Department of Indian Affairs and the State of Alaska” he elaborated. “We had to make a right turn and modify the exhibit to house Tule Elk, at the time a threatened California subspecies. Then suddenly things fell in place and we were able to acquire the musk ox. I went up to Alaska to work with officials to acquire two males and seven females. In the end the animals from Alaska didn’t do as well [as the original Canadian subspecies the zoo had before.]”

@ Frederic Larson

Opened in 1980, Gorilla World was one of the very first naturalistic habitats for the iconic apes. “We were right behind Woodland Park Zoo in opening new gorilla exhibits,” Sulak stated. “We went from a concrete exhibit to this large space with live trees, grass, waterfalls, a stream, glass viewing areas and 270-degree viewing. It was truly wonderful seeing the gorilla family on grass and climbing up trees.” The vision of the habitat came from Kitchener, who is often credited with elevating the quality of the zoo. “Saul was built like a gorilla with big chests and Jersey accent,” Sulak remembered of his late boss. “He said the zoo would change by evolution, not revolution when he arrived as the new Zoo Director in 1975. Saul would listen, support you and let people make decisions.”

May Woon @ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

During the 1980s, Species Survival Plans (SSP) began managing collections. However, it created a new layer of red tape for animal management. “It got to a point with the SSP,” Sulak commented. “They’d drive you nuts as it created difficulty in managing your animals.” It also meant phasing out certain species in zoos to concentrate on ones that could have a more profound impact. “I had a professor who used to say part of evolution is extinction,” Sulak remembered. “Some species had to go away. Is your goal to keep animals in zoos or return them to the wild? Unfortunately returning animals to the wild is usually a lost cause. In the late 70s and early 80s we had great success breeding this endangered species, a Laysan Teal from Hawaii, we were literally inundated with them, we couldn’t place them in zoo and contacted the State of Hawaii to see if they would be interested in them but although highly endangered in the wild they chose not to work with us and had to stop breeding them.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

In 1985, the San Francisco Zoo opened the Primate Discovery Center, a major capital project. “Initially, we had a donor who was the widow of a major local builder,” Sulak elaborated. “She loved primates, and personally owned many primates and donated the money to San Francisco Zoological Society. The Primate Discovery Center was the first major fundraising project the zoo society did. At the time its design and technology was cutting edge, we introduced touch screen monitors in the educational component where our visitors could learn what a primate was responding by touch on the monitors. We had sixteen species of primates and wanted to show what a primate was, the diversity of primates and how they lived.”

May Woon @ San Francisco Zoo

“One of my biggest contributions was acquiring the primates for the center,” Sulak continued. “We already had several species of lemurs, Colobus monkeys and Guenons but needed to acquire addition species importing Francois langurs and acquiring a group lion-tailed macaques from zoos. The new mandrill habitat was the old gorilla exhibit- we kept the walls [but redid everything else.]” Other than that exhibit everything else was new construction.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

The same year, the San Francisco Zoo opened exhibits for penguins and koalas. It also housed a pair of Giant Panda on loan from China for six months. “In 1983 the zoo did a survey and asked our visitors what were the animals that the zoo didn’t have that they most wanted to see," Sulak remembered. "The top three animals were giant pandas, penguins and koalas. We wound up having acquired all three in 1985. We had the pandas after [they were in Los Angeles for] the Olympics. It was amazing having them. The attendance at the zoo was stunning. The animals were exhibited in one of the big cat grottos in the Lion House, to see the animals, they were allowed three minutes to see the animals and then the next group was 'moved; in. The lines went all the way to the bird house, at times people waiting over three hours to see 'the south end of a north bound sleeping panda.' We also brought back penguins that year after an absence of many years. In the 1970s we sent our male okapi to the Brookfield Zoo. We used the credit to acquire a large group of magellanic penguins. We also got received the permits to import the koalas.” Sulak regarded 1985 as the banner year in San Francisco Zoo history because of these arrivals.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

Sulak was candid about some of the challenges the San Francisco Zoo faced, particularly in terms of public perception within the community and maintaining infrastructure. “The zoo was famous for building something and not maintaining it,” he articulated.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo began to embrace behavioral enrichment and more modern husbandry. “Hal Markowitz, a Professor at San Francisco State University (often considered the father of animal enrichment in zoos) was hired by the San Francisco Zoological Society and worked with us to build and use mechanisms for enrichment,” Sulak explained. “He’d build these big things like a fish flinger that would randomly dispense live goldfish in the water for the otters to catch.”

May Woon @ San Francisco Zoo

In 1989, Saul Kitchener retired and David Anderson, General Curator at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, was hired as his replacement in 1990. “David Anderson came on very strong and he was the last of the ;animal people; [to direct San Francisco Zoo],” Sulak remarked. Anderson would remain director until 2003.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

In 1991, the San Francisco Zoo privatized and operations of the institution shifted from the city to the zoo society. However, the privatization did not necessarily make things at the zoo easy. “Privatization had made a lot of promises,” Sulak reflected. “They said private money would be much easier to acquire. A $50 million bond passed and built the African Savanna and Lemur Forest and rebuilt much infrastructure. However it was supposed to have also built [new exhibits for] elephants, lions and chimpanzees. These unfortunately were never built."

@ San Francisco Zoo

In 2002, the San Francisco Zoo opened Lemur Forest, an immersive habitat for the Madagascar primates. “David Anderson was big on lemurs and added them to the primate center,” Sulak stated. “We built wonderful outside exhibit and but the holding areas weren’t that great. I remember Saul once saying that we always put all the money in the exhibit and with whatever is left we use for the animals night quarters which he felt was wrong, since the animal may spend most of their time in the night quarters. He thought we should design the holding first and with what is left design the outdoor exhibit.” Lemur Forest turned out very well and let guests see lemurs at tree level in a beautiful environment.

@ San Francisco Zoo

In 2004, African Savanna opened on the land that was once used for Musk Ox Meadow. However, plans for the project were significantly striped down. “The savanna was supposed to have elephants, rhinos and lions but essentially became a $18 million giraffe exhibit,” Sulak stated. “Mixed species habitats are difficult to manage as animals don’t necessarily get along without space. We had to separate the giraffes and some of the hoofstock from each other.” What was built was very well done for both people and animals. “It was nice that one could walk around the perimeter of the exhibit and right through the middle,” Sulak added.

May Woon @ San Francisco Zoo

@ San Francisco Zoo

Around this time, the San Francisco Zoo made the decision to phase out both African and Asian elephants, which were kept in substandard exhibits and social groups. “Many animals did very well at our zoos but elephants weren’t one of them,” Sulak articulated. “We had a history with elephants but had multiple injuries and illnesses. They were getting old and having food foot problems.” While he acknowledged the facilities for the elephants were not up to standards, the curator wished they stayed at the zoo in improved facilities. “I would have kept them,” Sulak remarked. “There’s nothing like seeing, and smelling and experiencing an elephant right in front of you.”

@ San Francisco Zoo

From 2004 to 2008, the San Francisco Zoo’s director was Manuel Mollinedo, who Sulak acknowledged he did not always see eye to eye with. “He spent $75,000 to get acquire 3 male giant eland, which is was crazy; as most zoo people couldn’t tell a giant eland from a common eland,” he mentioned. On Christmas Day 2007, an unbelievable tragedy hit the zoo as an Amur tiger notoriously jumped out of its habitat and killed a guest. “I was out of town for the tiger incident, but however in the 57 years that the Lion House was open prior to this we never, ever had a tiger jump out," Sulak claimed. "This should never have happened, it was a horrible incident. Those kids did something to the cat. It should have never happened! That changed the zoo [forever.]”

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

The tiger incident led to significant changes in the zoo’s operation. “We beefed up the shooting and security teams,” Sulak said. “Prior to that when 5:00 came around staff just left the zoo. One of the major changes that was made was to have one animal keeper from each section of the zoo, a designated shooter and a curator on the grounds until the security staff has cleared the zoo of all visitors.” More secure, taller barriers were at the Lion House. Additionally, the incident hurt the zoo’s image and encouraged the sentiment of zoo detractors who did not understand the zoo’s merit.

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

However, during the final years of Sulak’s tenure, animal wellness continued to improve drastically and reach new heights. “Twenty years ago, I would have laughed to your face if you said you could condition a big cat to do blood draws,” Sulak elaborated. “The stuff they can do now is truly amazing. Animal collections have subsequently become smaller so time per animal can increase [as well as] hiring staff that can specialize and be taught conditioning procedures. Before you didn’t have all these specialties available to you.” In 2011, Mike Sulak retired from the San Francisco Zoo after 32 years as General Curator. “I had spent worked 43 years in zoos,” he commented. “I was a dinosaur living in modern times, my time had come.” However, he viewed his success much more humbly. “A great curator is someone who has great support above and below.” Sulak stated.

@ San Francisco Zoo

Marianne Hale @ San Francisco Zoo

“I hope zoos will be with us until the end of time [as] man has always had relationship with animals," Sulak concluded. "[Guests connecting with animals] is electric. It raises curiosity and humility.”

@ Grayson Ponti

#SanFranciscoZoo #LincolnParkZoo #MeskerParkZoo

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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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