Conservation Engagement: A Conversation with Alan Varsik, Director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aqu

The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma is unique in the zoo and aquarium world as it concentrates almost exclusively on animals from the Pacific Rim. Its sister facility, Northwest Trek, is even more unique as it only features wildlife from the Pacific Northwest. Its centerpiece is a 450-acre free roaming exhibit for North American hoofstock. Both facilities are on the cutting edge of environmental education, conservation and sustainability. In 2017, the Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek got a new leader in Director Alan Varsik. Here is his story.

@ Alan Varsik

Varsik wanted to be a veterinarian until “the zoo light bulb went off” during his junior year of college. “I took a class on zoo biology and learned the diverse role of modern zoos,” he remembered. “I applied to just about every zoo in the country. I got rejected by half and never heard back from the other half.” In the meantime, Varsik volunteered at the Oakland Zoo while he cared for the langurs and spotted hyenas at the University of California Berkeley. Soon, he was hired to work in the Children’s Zoo at the Oakland Zoo, which had a combination of domesticated species and more exotic animals like tamarins, macaws, bobcats, river otters and squirrel monkeys. “This was the time when the Oakland Zoo was just starting some of its major improvements under Joel Parrott,” Varsik recalled.

@ Oakland Zoo

After a year or two, Varsik’s desire to work with primates dragged him to the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago. “I did a college paper on gorillas that got me thinking about them so I applied to be a primate keeper at Tropic World in the Brookfield Zoo,” he stated. “I got the job. At the time, [Tropic World] was the largest indoor exhibit at a zoo. I went from a California kid who had never been to Chicago to working at the Brookfield Zoo.” Opened in the 1980s, Tropic World was a “big departure from the more traditional primate house.” “I got to work with gorillas as well as 23 other primates,” Varsik remarked. “It was a very diverse collection and the people I worked with were really top in the field. The keepers were inspiration as they were all very professional and sought to gain a better understanding of their animals. It was a fun group to work with and a big step for me.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

During Varsik’s seven years at the Brookfield Zoo, it opened several state-of-the-art new exhibits including Habitat Africa and Seven Seas Panorama. At this time, he began to become interested in having increased responsibilities. “I realized I wanted a more expanded role in zoos,” Varsik said. “I came across this program at DePaul that used your profession as a basis for learning. That allowed me to interact with a variety of folks at Brookfield who without that I might not have.” He then got hired as Assistant Curator of Mammals at the Lincoln Park Zoo, also in Chicago.

@ Brookfield Zoo

“That gave me a large variety of experience including working with gorillas (the zoo had the largest group in the nation at the time), elephants, rhinos, polar bears, Andean bears and the farm in the zoo,” Varsik remarked. “Since I only had experience with primates and children’s zoo animals, Lincoln Park was an eye opening experience for me. When I came, they were managed by the Chicago park district but shortly after I came the zoo privatized. That was a significant transition which accelerated the growth of the zoo. We did a variety of projects including improvements to the Lion House and the sea lion pool. They were very early on in the design phase of the new great ape facility. Kevin Bell (the zoo’s director) is very visionary and has done amazing things with Lincoln Park Zoo.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Next, Varsik joined the opening staff of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which coincidentally was where one of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s groups of gorillas moved as well. “I followed a group of our gorillas down to Disney,” he elaborated. “I had the opportunity to go to the site and provide feedback for their gorilla habitat before it opened. I was in awe of the scope and scale of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and thought it would be fun to be part of that opening crew. It was really an amazing experience being part of a billion dollar project. Disney had done a great job at hiring top players in our field to work with them on this effort.”

@ Disney

However, there was something Varsik found missing about the experience. “One thing I didn’t realize was important to me is that strong community connection and there just isn’t that there at Disney,” he reflected. “Disney is different than every other place I’ve been. They do great work from an animal management and conservation perspective but it’s a tourist-based operation. I missed making relationships with the community.” While at Disney, he was the Zoological Supervisor of the Tree of Life region of the park. “There was no central zoogeographic theme to that space,” Varsik stated. “It’s somewhere where you encounter wildlife as you make your way through the park. It wasn’t as structured as the Asian experience in that way.”

@ Disney

@ Disney

Next Varsik became General Curator at the Santa Barbara Zoo, the zoo he has spent the most time at in his career. “The Santa Barbara Zoo is among the most beautiful zoos in the world,” he commented. “It’s located on a hill across the street from the ocean.” He worked closely with Rich Block, the zoo’s CEO. “What I appreciate most about what Rich Block did is he let me organize the department,” Varsik explained. “He gave me a lot of freedom to facilitate the animal care department in the way I felt would be most effective.” Eventually, he would be promoted to Director of Animal Care and Conservation and later Deputy Director of the Santa Barbara Zoo.

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

Varsik played a role in shaping the Santa Barbara Zoo’s approach to conservation. “We decided that, rather than sending bits of money around the world, our conservation focus would be on local conservation stories,” he noted. “That’s where we used the bulk of our conservation resources. I was involved in the recovery of the Channel Island fox. As a native Californian, I wasn’t even aware there were these foxes who lived on these islands and that there had been a massive decline of these animals mainly due to golden eagle predation. We had a great relationship with the park service there and helped them facilitate captive areas of the island for breeding.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

The conservation work done by the Santa Barbara Zoo is showcased in California Trails, which opened in 2009. The centerpiece of the exhibit would be California condors but the zoo had to prove themselves worthy of housing them first. “We decided we really wanted to tell the story of the California Condor,” Varsik said. “Back then, it was basically just the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo involved in the recovery of the California condor. It took the California Condor Recovery Program a while to believe we wanted to become a partner and support the reestablishment of the species. We sent staff out locally to work with release sites and it finally turned out we were able to bring California condors to the zoo. Being part of the California condor study and bringing them to the zoo is probably one of the biggest achievements of my career. Santa Barbara certainly has a special place in my heart.”

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

@ Santa Barbara Zoo

In 2010, Alan Varsik was recruited by then Director of the Oklahoma City Zoo Dwight Scott (now Director of the San Diego Zoo) to be Chief Operating Officer at his zoo. “It was a bigger step in my career as I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the entire facility,” he stated. “Not only was I overseeing animal care but education, maintenance, safety and horticulture. It was very participatory in the strategic development of the zoo.” Among the projects he was responsible for were the new state-of-the-art Asian elephant habitat and the new animal hospital.

@ Gillian Lang

@ Gillian Lang

The Asian Elephant Habitat, opened in 2011, turned out to be one of the biggest and nicest facilities ever built for the species. “It had natural substrate and large acreage,” Varsik commented. “The biggest challenges [with the elephant exhibit] were involved in the interpretation- making sure folks went away with the right messages on elephants. We had to make sure the animals presentations where we showed off how we cared for the elephants weren’t interpreted as training to do tricks. As we do more interpretation of training processes in facilities, we need to emphasize we do this for the wellbeing of animals physically and psychologically. Showing the outcome of behave is important."

@ Gillian Lang

@ Gillian Lang

In addition to new facilities, Alan Varsik also refined the organizational structure with the departments he oversaw at the Oklahoma City Zoo. “I like to emphasize the strengths it takes to be a strong leader,” he remarked. “That’s something I brought to Oklahoma City. As a manager, you’re responsible for the work of others. Directing other people is a skillset that should always be refined and built on. Of course it was the animals that got me into this field but it’s working around the people that’s been truly inspirational. Everyone who works in zoos is so passionate and dedicated to our mission. That’s easy to see with our animal care staff but it’s true in all of our staff.”

@ Gillian Lang

@ Gillian Lang

A lover of the Pacific Northwest, Varsik became Deputy Director of Northwest Trek in 2014. “Northwest Trek is very unique- it’s not a traditional zoo by any means,” he elaborated. “The signature experience there is to take a tram through 435 acres of Northwest habitat that varies from grasslands to woodlands to marshes. you’re look at large herds of Northwest hoofstock- bison, elk, moose, mountain goat, bighorn sheep. They all live in one space so it’s a dynamic, ever-changing experience. From a welfare perspective, it’s probably the best animal welfare I know of in a zoo.” The naturalistic conditions of the animals seen on the tram give Northwest Trek a rare opportunity to provide in-depth education on the lifecycle of animals. “There’s the calving season in the spring and rut in the fall, which allows guests to see unique behaviors and experiences,” Varsik commented. “It’s very nicely interpreted by our staff.”

@ Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

@ Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

For the rest of Northwest Trek, carnivores and small animals can be seen in naturalistic habitats were the barriers are well hidden. “We get to use the forest as the habitat and we don’t have to create an exhibit as the exhibit is already there,” Varsik said. About two years into his time at Trek, Gary Geddes, the Director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek, was getting ready to retire. “Gary Geddes taught me a lot,” Varisk said. “It was almost his plan from the beginning to create a transitional plan for me. He provided me exposure to a broader array of experiences than I would typically have as Deputy Director of Northwest Trek. He was setting the stage for me and opened doors in Metroparks so the transition could happen as smoothly as possible.” In early 2017, Alan Varsik became the Director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek.

@ Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

@ Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

Varsik was quickly inspired by the strong conservation messages of both facilities and their connections to the local environment. He soon became motivated to push the zoo’s conservation agenda. “I love the location here,” he stated. “At Point Defiance, we’re looking over Puget Sound and I can see Mount Renoir from the other side. It’s a great environment to share stories about nature and animal connection and an opportunity to inspire action to create better stewardship in the Northwest. Our conservation initiative Conservation Engagement is an effort to bring out true brand to the audience rather than what a zoo is in the past. We’re going to emphasize the storytelling component of what we do a bit stronger. We’re going to walk our talk in an even bigger way.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

One of the main initiatives of the Point Defiance Zoo is to become greener and more sustainable in its practices. “We’re deciding what we’re not going to do,” Alan Varsik explained. “We’ve decided not to provide single use plastic water bottles at the zoo because they’re detrimental to our planet. As we talk more about plastic in the oceans and are in the process of building a brand new aquarium, we don’t want to do that anymore. We recognize it is difficult for a lot of people not to use single use plastics but it’s a concept to appreciate. We might have a bit of a financial hit as we no longer have the revenue from the sale of water bottles but we think this better reflects who we are and perhaps it will make our audience appreciate their use of plastic.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Since coming in, Varsik’s biggest task has been “creating the means to a strategy to help influence of paradigm of how our audience sees us as a zoo.” “That’s the biggest part of what I intend to do,” he remarked. “I’ve always been pleased with what zoos and aquariums do but I’m not satisfied with how our audience perceives us. We’re dealing with years of history of what a zoo was that create preconceived notions of what a zoo is today. We really get animals from the animals and there’s no dollar values associated with the animals we have. We consider them all to be priceless. We need to do a better job of relaying what we truly are.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

Varsik credited Gary Geddes as an important mentor. “Gary taught me a lot,” he elaborated. “Gary has a real focus on local stories and has been able to provide a lot of insight into the dynamics between the different organizations associated with our facilities. The zoo has a nonprofit support organization in the Zoo Society while Trek has the Northwest Trek Foundation. Those societies support us with private dollars which is nice.” Varsik will be continuing to carry out the growth and improvements that went on at the Point Defiance Zoo during his long tenure there.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In September 2018, the Point Defiance Zoo opened a new $52-million, state-of-the-art Pacific Seas Aquarium using cutting edge technology and interpretation. The Aquarium is the largest project in the zoo’s history. “We’re really excited about the new aquarium,” Varsik said. “It has a big arching half tunnel experience where we will have part of the Baja Bay exhibit featuring hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and eagle rays.” All three of these species are brand new to the Point Defiance Zoo.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Pacific Seas Aquarium takes guests through the habitats of the Pacific Ocean from the Northwest by Alaska to the tropical waters of Baja California. It features experiences such as beautiful tanks for a variety of jellyfish, a touch pool, a massive 280,000-gallon Baja Bay habitat for green sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, eagle rays and other animals and a kelp forest. Guests leave with a stronger appreciation for the story of the Pacific ocean and its creatures as well as the conservation work done by the Point Defiance Zoo to help oceans.

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Pacific Seas Aquarium was an ambitious undertaking. “Aquariums are among the most complex buildings to construct and, like any large project, there will be some additional pieces to get just right,” Varsik remarked. “We’re so excited about the extraordinary experiences our guests will have inside.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In spring 2017, the Point Defiance Zoo opened its renovation of Rocky Shores, which features sea lions, harbor seals, walruses and sea otters. “The renovation provided us greater spaces for the animals as well as the ability to accommodate sea lions,” Varsik explained. “We couldn’t have sea lions before because the edges weren’t high enough to confidently contain sea lions. We enhanced the facilities and gave more shaded spaces for our animals and guests. When keepers would do presentations, it would often get very crowded so now we have bleacher like areas for our guests to watch the animals leisurely and experience facilitated programs.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

In Fall 2017, a high school opened on zoo grounds. “We have a relationship with the Science and Math Institute of Tacoma Public Schools and now people can go through all four years of their high school at the zoo,” Varsik commented. “It puts students right here on campus. It allows us to build strong relationships with young people and hopefully some future naturalists and zoo people.”

@ Point Defiance Zoo

@ Point Defiance Zoo

The Point Defiance Zoo is determined to stay on the forefront of zoo conservation for generations. “What really makes this place special is we have so many great people,” Alan Varsik concluded. “I’m talking not just about the staff but Metroparks as a whole. They have a lot of positive energy for it. We’ve seen some really great attendance at the zoo in recent years. We have the 2014 bond initiative so the public is supporting our efforts. I think we are poised to push the evolution of what a modern zoo and aquarium is and that’s what I’m most excited about. it has a lot to do with conservation engagement and embarking on rewriting the definition of what a modern zoo is.”

@ Metroparks Tacoma

#PointDefianceZoo #NorthwestTrek #BrookfieldZoo #SantaBarbaraZoo #OklahomaCityZoo #OaklandZoo #LincolnParkZoo #DisneysAnimalKingdom

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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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