Interview with Jeff Ewalt, ZooMontana

Transcription: Interview with Jeff Ewalt, ZooMontana

Jeff Ewalt, ZooMontana’s current Executive Director, got his start in the zoo business in Columbus, Ohio serving hot dogs and Pepsi, just waiting for that moment to move up the ladder and begin his dream of working with the animals. His first step in that direction was with goats, “of all things,” and after finishing his degree at Ohio State University he began working in the bird department at the Columbus Zoo, creating a lifelong love of birds from that point forward. Jeff went on to work as the Animal Ambassador Manager in Tampa, Florida for ten years before he and his wife decided to “slow things down,” moving their family to Montana.

Initially the Ewalts would spend three years at the Nature Center in Red Lodge when an opportunity arose in Billings. Jeff made the transition to ZooMontana in the midst of a tumultuous time for the zoo; in fact he would make his official start, literally, the day after ZooMontana lost its AZA accreditation in May 2011. It might not have been the slowing down that Jeff and his wife had anticipated, but it was a move that provided a much-needed fresh direction for ZooMontana.

Let’s start with your background and how you came to ZooMontana:

Sure! My background is I started at the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio. I served hot dogs and Pepsi for two years to get my foot in the door, finally landed a job with animals; working with goats of all things. As I finished up my degree at Ohio State University, I finally got a job working with the birds in the bird department at the zoo, and I’ve had a love birds from that point on.

 Once I graduated and got my degree, I went down to Tampa, Florida – I was there for about ten years. I was what we called the Animal Ambassador Manager. Basically what we did was a lot of training of animals for different reasons: Educational purposes, media, and we also did a lot of training for medical procedures – meaning we would keep the stress level down of an animal to, instead of capturing an animal to give a vaccine, we would train the animal to come over to us, present its hindquarter and then give the vaccine. It just kept the stress level down for the animal and for the keeper as well.

 I was there for about ten years and then my wife and I had a son and we wanted to slow things down, Tampa was a little too busy for us, so out to Montana we came. I spent three years up in the Nature Center in Red Lodge and then the opportunity came here at ZooMontana – and I like a good challenge - so I decided to come on over here to Billings and try things out at ZooMontana.

 In 2011 the zoo lost its accreditation, has the zoo regained that yet?

It hasn’t yet, we’re certainly working towards that. That’s what we spent the last two years doing, is really working towards the day that we do apply to become re-accredited again. Basically we feel that we are in a really good spot right now to reapply, with the exception of the financial aspect, which is always gonna be the case. And it’s not just us, a lot of zoos fall into that same category.

 We need sustainability, that’s what we’re working on right now – finding long-term sustainable solutions and how to ensure that our operating costs are covered for 5, 10, 15 years down the road. Then we can focus, not just on accreditation, but starting to grow the zoo, starting to do capital projects and making capital improvements here at the zoo.

 You came when, then?

I came, literally, the day after accreditation was taken away, so May 2011.

What was that like, coming in, you’re trying to slow things down for your family, yet you’re coming into this major challenge?

I like a good challenge, but holy cow…It was tough, a lot of time spent here at the zoo. My family and I have dedicated our lives to turning this organization around. It has been just that, it’s a family affair. You know, we live here – literally we live here – my wife works here. It is a family affair; we are dedicated to making this work. We have both agreed that we want this to happen, we want to turn this around, we want to see it prosper because we know how important zoos are to communities. We think that Billings needs this organization and we want to make sure that happens, and so, yeah, it’s a little more than we bargained for when we came out here, but it’s been wonderful, I’m certainly am not complaining in the least bit.

 If you could have absolutely any animal be at the zoo – Montana climate not taken into account – what would it be?

You know, for me, personally my favorite animals are condors, Andean Condors, which are incredible animals found down in South America, up in the mountains. They’re just so spectacular because they’re an 11-foot wing span, they’re a 30 pound bird, they’re just striking to see. So for me, personally, I think certainly have that would make me very happy. I know on a public front, we get a lot of people saying, “Why don’t you get this, why don’t you get that?” and it seems like I would like to have a moose here one day. I think a moose would be incredible because you just don’t see them that often and they’re right here, I think to see one up close would be spectacular. And there’s a couple of unique animals, there’s an animal called a Takin, which is a really cool and unique animal found up in the mountains and nobody even knows they exist, let alone know what they look like. And they’re a very unique looking animal, so something like that would be pretty unique for us to have as well.

 Does that fall into the category of animals that you genuinely want to see here at the zoo eventually?

Yeah, sure, absolutely. One of the things we have committed to here at the zoo, is we want to be a Northern Latitude zoo, which means we want to focus on animals that are on the 45th parallel and north. With the exception of our education animals, that’s a little bit different. But for the most part, our collection will be 45th parallel, north, but around the world. So we want to feature 50 percent exotic animals, 50 percent native animals, and I think there’s a real need for both of those; a real need to educate our guests about the animals that they can find in their backyard. You’d be surprised how many people have never seen some of these animals in their life that are right here in their backyard. You know I can probably count on one hand how many times people have seen a mountain lion in the wild, so few people have seen an animal like that. So I think there’s a real need for bringing in animals of that sort, you know, a native sort to talk about what’s right here. But there’s also a need to talk about some of those exotics, and the reason being - prime example is our Siberian Tiger – that’s an animal that’s just being decimated out in the wild and we have the great opportunity to help educate people about that and how rare these animals are and why we need to keep them around, and obviously, out in nature. There’s a real need for that as well. So, I think we have a master plan that we have and that we’re working on currently, and a collection plan to kind of keep moving forward with bringing new animals in here to keep the interest alive, but also have that education, conservation message stay alive as well.

 Seeing the commercials about the tigers on TV and you don’t even realize how dire their situation is…

Oh, it’s unbelievable…Yeah, there’s only 400, if that, left in the world – and that includes wild and in captivity. So it’s amazing, it’s such a rare animal, and unfortunately it’s not getting better for them. We’re doing everything we can – not only in zoological parks, but in field research to save the species, and it doesn’t look good, you know, and that’s terrible. Especially with such a large, incredible powerful carnivore.

 We’ve talked a little about the animals; tell me about the people side of things and how it all comes together:

Obviously we love what we do here – it’s not just that we love animals – we love the education aspect of it, and for me personally, and I think most of my staff, it feels the same way: there’s nothing more rewarding than taking a snake out and letting a kid see or touch this animal. It creates an unbelievable connection for that child – and adult, for that matter - it doesn’t have to be a child. We really enjoy interacting with the kids, but to make that interaction and to make that connection and to make them care that much is incredible…And it’s something that kid’s going to remember for the rest of their life. And I know, me personally, that’s how I got my start. I remember it vividly, I was in the 6th grade, I did a shadowing project with a science education organization in Cleveland, OH, and at the end of the day the guy let me hold an owl, and that’s the moment I knew, that’s what I wanted to do. And I know we’re making those impacts out here, and that’s just unbelievably powerful. So for me, that’s why I do what I do – I can guarantee you, most everyone here says the same thing. It’s those connections; being able to see those smiles on the kids’ faces, and on a deeper level, a lot of my keepers do what they do, not only for that reason, but for the conservation effort – knowing that we’re making a difference. The human side of it, the visitor side of it is incredibly powerful for us, and that’s why we do what we do.

 At the zoo it’s not only about the animals, as you have the beautiful gardens…Is that all maintained by volunteers?

Our gardens, I’m so proud of our gardens, the Botanical Society of ZooMontana is a volunteer organization that takes on all those gardens for us. It is a group of incredibly dedicated individuals who are out here a couple of times a week, doing the weeding, dead-heading, planting, the watering, and they do it all because they love the gardens. The gardens and the grounds are just as important as the animals are here at the zoo. We actually have folks who come to the zoo just to see the gardens. On top of that, the sensory garden, which is where our main garden is, is a huge wedding area for us – it’s where we do most of our weddings there. It’s a big business for us, it’s a big piece of our operating budget that we receive every year and we couldn’t do that without the Botanical Society, so we’re so grateful for them and the help we receive out here for that.

My daughter, who is 6, really wants to know, how do you feed the animals at the zoo?

Good question! You know, very carefully with some of them! But all the animals have specialized diets here, so all their diets are researched. They’re weighed out, they’re measured out…It’s a science, it really is. What we have to do is, we have to research what the animal is and what they have to eat in the wild and we try to mimic that as best we can here at the zoo. For example, the birds of prey, the eagle, we know that one of their main diets is fish, they’re also a rodent eater so we have to make sure we have the right amount of rodents here – mice and rats – we have to make sure that we have fish here for them as well. Now, when it comes to actually physically feeding them, what we do is, for the big carnivores like the bear and the tiger, we let them out – we’ll go out to their yard in the morning and we’ll hide food in their exhibit, and that kind of mimics their natural desire to forage and look for food. And then what we’ll do, when they’re out in the yard their evening diet – their dinner, so to say – will then be placed in their night house, which is where they go and sleep in the evening. So what we do is we kind of rotate animals and then rotate diets to wherever they’re at and where they’re not. We do, everyday, hide that food, which is pretty fun to watch them looking for that food. Some of the animals we do go in with like the Big Horn Sheep, the eagle, things like that that don’t rotate out, and we’ll just go in and place the food. Most of them are trained and know where their food’s going to be and as soon as they see that keeper walking over, boy, they’re down there getting that food. But we’re very careful with the carnivores, the keepers have to be very mindful of where that animal’s at all the time. It’s a pretty dangerous job being a zookeeper, you’ve got to do everything you can to make sure your safe and the animal is safe.

 Which animal that you currently have here at the zoo has the best personality?

Best personality…I’m very partial to Bruno our big Grizzly Bear. He’s a big softy. You know, he’s a big giant Grizzly Bear, but boy is he something else – he’s just a big softy. I think a lot of keepers would say the same thing, that Bruno’s the animal with the best personality here.  

 Of course, Prince, is, he’s a cat, he’s a stubborn cat just like any other cat that you’re ever gonna know. A cat’s, a cat’s, a cat doesn’t matter if it’s 400 pounds or a housecat, they’re all the same, and he’s no exception from the rule.

 And the otters, of course, but we can talk more about them.

Who has the prickliest personality here at the zoo?

I would say, when we had the female tigers here, they were nasty…I’d say, our Sika Deer, which is a deer from Asia, has been known to be a little sassy from time to time. Luckily, knock on wood, we have some pretty good animals here, none of them are too…

 So, no divas?

We don’t have any divas, surprisingly enough. Even our wolves are not too bad, but those female tigers certainly fit that bill. I’d say, Rocket, the Sika Deer is probably the biggest diva we have.

When the zoo was in the midst of its rockiest time in ’11, there was a lot of talk and fear about the zoo losing some of the big-draw animals like the tigers and bears – some of those more exotic animals - how did the zoo manage to keep them?

I think it was a lot of rumors going around…Losing AZA accreditation certainly was a black eye for us, and certainly we want to get it back, but it’s not the end all, be all. I think that’s the important thing to remember, is that, certainly a lot of the animals we had here because they belonged to other organizations, it was up to them: Did they want the animals to stay here or were they comfortable with the care they were getting. And because – and I’m not just saying this because I’m the Director – but we have very good, high standards of care here; it’s just something that we all believe in and we want to make sure our animals are as healthy as they can be. So because our care was such good quality, other organizations whose animals we have, recognized that, so they had no reason to remove them. Because of the loss of accreditation the only animal that we actually lost were the three grizzly bear cubs because federal law mandates that any endangered species has to be at an AZA institution. However, I think one thing I tell people, it was sad to lose them, but to be quite honest, as we are trying to get back financially, three less carnivore mouths to feed, not a bad thing. We were sad to see them go, certainly, but it helped our bottom line, which is certainly important while we try to get our feet back under us. It was not the end of the world, by any means.

Which animal do you think is most underappreciated at the zoo, and why?

Again, I’m a vulture guy, so certainly the vulture’s top billing for me. Vultures are seen as ugly animals, and I think that’s a sad thing because they’re so incredibly important for us to have around. And, I think the wolves too. The wolves here, we certainly know, and we like to combat it head-to-head, wolves are controversial, we get that, and so I think unfortunately sometimes they’re underappreciated because of that. We like to put forward that we understand the controversy and why they’re controversial and we like to talk about that with the kids and the adults when they come here. But, when push comes to shove, wolves are important to the ecosystem – we saw that first hand with Yellowstone Park, and so I think because of the controversy, they are not well-liked animals. We see that a lot, when we put stuff on Facebook about the wolves, sometimes we’ll have comments, and that happens, and that’s okay, but I think they’re underappreciated because they have this controversy that surrounds them, but, like I said, when it comes down to it, they have to be in the ecosystem, they’re important for balance.

What is something about the zoo the average visitor might not know?

I think that we are a 24 hour, 7 day a week organization, it never stops here, we are always on-call, we are always dedicated to making sure these animals are safe and healthy. If that means being here at three in the morning to bottle feed an animal that is sick, we will do that. I think that’s the amount of dedication that the staff has, I think is remarkable. The average person maybe doesn’t realize – how much time is really spent making sure things here run smoothly. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that surprises a lot of people. And I think the amount of cost that goes into running an organization like this. Believe me, we want to start adding to the zoo, but we just can’t slap up a couple of fences and call it an exhibit. We need to do it right. We have safety obligations that we have to make sure we follow to make sure it’s done right.

As far as expanding, is all of the property here already designated zoo land?

It is, yeah, we have 70 acres total here, and we’re utilizing maybe 25 of those acres, so we’ve got a lot of room to expand. We have an incredible piece of property here, and our master plan does allow for that expansion and make a world class zoo. One of the big things we’d like to think about working on next is our High Plains exhibit, which essentially would be a ‘Plains of Change,’ so basically it would be a historical journey through the plains of Montana, talking about starting at the homestead era, going back through the fur-trapping era, the Native American era, then back 10,000 years ago when there was a land bridge coming over here. So that’s kind of the big thing that we’d like to work on, and what’s neat about that is that it’s a story, it’s an interpretive story for our guests to enjoy what they have in their backyard, and the tourists would enjoy as well. But we want to cater to both: we want to cater to the locals, we want to cater to the tourists as well and I think an exhibit like that will do just that – schools will love it! 

You mentioned the otters, and they seem to be a pretty exciting thing…

It is!

And they’ve got babies…

We are so excited, you know, 20 years that we’ve had otters and never been successful at breeding them and this year, they did! And what’s amazing about that is we were one of only a few zoos in the country that were successful with River Otter breeding – it’s a big feather in the cap, we’re very proud of that. What’s so amazing is that this mom, Mia is her name; she’s a first time mother and doing a spectacular job! You know, anytime it’s a first time mom in a captive setting, you’ve got to be a little wary and you have to be ready to intervene if you need to, so we were ready to intervene with those babies and we never had to. And she’s unbelievable – they’re already 8 pounds a piece – and we’re talking - we’re three months in - and they’re unbelievably active and healthy! She’s teaching them how to swim – it’s pretty fun to watch, she dunks them under the water and holds them underwater, it’s great. They’re starting to swim on their own, and she’s got them out quite a bit now so you can see them when you come to the zoo. They’re just growing like weeds! We’re pretty excited. They’re spending more time with dad, which is kind of new; mom wasn’t letting dad get near them, she’s starting to get a little more open with that. It’s such a huge milestone for us, we do think it’s going to have great ramifications on our attendance as well – we’re already starting to see that our attendance is up. It’s great news, it’s great stuff – and so we’re excited that things are going really well in our animal care that they were comfortable enough to breed and have their young, and she’s raising them so well that obviously she’s pretty comfortable and things are going good. It’s a pretty exciting time for us.

As far as animals and personalities go, they have some pretty great ones?

Oh my gosh, they do! They are just little rascals; it’s fun to watch them. They have such a fun dynamic with their family and it’s pretty fun to watch because I think a lot of people can relate with them when they watch. You know, mom’s crabby raising those babies, dad tries to go and have fun and wrestle with the kids and he gets all the fun – but mom’s the one—you know, so it’s fun to see her get angry at him a little bit. They have really fun personalities and with these babies, it’s just really ramped that up. You can just stand at that exhibit for hours and watch them because they’re so entertaining.

How many animals are there at the zoo?

Right now we have a 102 animals of 56 different species – somewhere in there, it’s always changing. Now, that does not include all the cockroaches – everyone’s always like, ‘Well, you’ve got a hundred cockroaches,’ no, we only count it as one cockroach. So our animal collection is really starting to boost up and we’re doing really well. We’ll keep adding and improving it and doing more as we go into the future.

Is it a preschool that you have here, what can you tell our readers about that?

It is. I absolutely love this preschool – my son went to it this year, and I couldn’t have been happier. What’s so neat about this preschool – it’s one of the most unique preschools in Montana, I think – these kids get to do some unbelievable things. They do all the typical preschool stuff: they learn their letters and their numbers and all that kind of fun stuff, but there’s a lot of heavy zoo animal curriculum worked in there. What’s really neat is that these kids, they’re kind of our little experimental kids – that probably doesn’t sound right – but what I mean by that is: when we get new animals, when we’re training these animals and we want to see how they’ll do in front of a class or new individuals, these kids are the test subjects. They come in, they sit in a room, we’ll bring the animal in and we’ll kind of monitor how the animal is so they get to meet the animal first, they get to see these animals up close. Then they get to do things on ground, such as going into the grizzly yard and placing food for the grizzly to actually find.  So what can do, they can go out there, they can place the food, walk back around and watch the bear come out and eat the apple that they hid. I mean, what an amazing experience! I think those reasons alone make it a really fun preschool. So we have 3 year olds and 4 year olds and this year we added ZooSchool Plus, which is an extension to the ZooSchool for a couple of hours a day. It’s a really heavy, kind of science-y, zoo animal curriculum that’s added on. So they eat lunch here, they go out and do science experiments and really cool stuff. And it’s growing! It’s growing to the point now where we’re looking to actually build a new education building to actually house them because right now they’re in our little area here and they’re just outgrowing it because it’s so popular.

How’s winter around here?

Slow. Certainly slow, but what I like to put out to people is that it is one of the best times to come and visit the zoo, it really is. Not only do you have the park to yourself, but animals are really active. We feature northern latitude animals that do very well in the cold weather; they really enjoy the cold weather. The bears don’t hibernate, so you can see the bear. The animals like the tiger and the big horn sheep are out, and not only are they active in that time of year, but they look the best they’re going to look all year because they’re in they’re full winter coats, they’re not shedding – they look big and fluffy – it’s a good time to come out here.

In my brain, it seems like the tiger should be tucked away during the winter…

Yeah, not at all. Siberian Tigers are just that, they’re northern, they’re Siberian, they’re built for cold weather, so they do very well in the snow. They’ve got built in snow shoes, it’s just what they do and so it’s the perfect time to come out to the zoo and see their activity because it’s pretty fun to watch them play in the snow as well.

Do you get many teens volunteering?

We do in groups, and what I mean by that is, church groups, school groups, things like that. We couldn’t be where we’re at if it wasn’t for these volunteer groups; they do so much for us. The teen market is a market we want to hit more of because we have some great opportunities to mold these teens and really give them something to spend time on and focus on and get ready for their careers if this is something they’re interested in. It’s an area that a lot of zoos have trouble capturing, you know we’re not the only one. It’s kind of the old mentality that the zoo is cool for smaller kids, but maybe now that I’m a teen, it’s not so cool anymore. But we did have a program here years ago – prior to me being here – called YaZoo, which was kind of a program to teach teens how to be a zookeeper; kind of like a zookeeper class. It was a wildly successful program, went really well, a lot of kids were involved, and it got them in here. We’d like to bring that back eventually now that we have the education director here, we’d like to work on bringing that back over time because it was a good way to get them in here. They’re a tough group to get in here, but it’s a group that we love to be able to interact with, so anytime we have the opportunity to go to a career day at a school or at a function, we’re there because we want to be able to tell them that this is a career option and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun career to be involved with. I think we can do a little better in that realm, and we will.

What are your personal top 3 things you’d like to see at the zoo?

Number 1 is sustainability. I would love to have the day where we are not a hand-to-mouth organization, we are comfortable and we can really start improving the exhibits.

Number 2 for me is the AZA accreditation. I have high hopes that that will happen, so that’s high for me, that we will become re-accredited.

Number 3 is being an organization that Billings is proud of. And we’re seeing that, I don’t want it to sound like they’re not because we’re seeing that – the support is coming through. We’re getting the support of the City, the Chamber, and of course the residents. But I want the entire town of Billings to understand and be proud of what it is we can offer to them, to the community, and to the state of Montana. I dream of the day that people want to bring their guests here and be proud of what we are. And we’re working towards that, we certainly have a long way to go, I’ll be the first to admit that, but those are the top three that I’d like to see.

Is there anything else that you really want people to know about – what’s going on at the zoo or what will be going on at the zoo?

Patience. I’ve said it before, I ask for patience. We feel we’ve come a long way in two years and it takes time and we want to be very systematic with how we move forward with the zoo. We want to hear what people would like to see out here, we certainly have listened. I hope that folks have seen that we are listening and we are providing what they want to see, but it does take time. So that’s the biggest thing, we are working really hard to provide a great service to the city of Billings, to the state of Montana. We want you to be proud of the zoo, so just give us a little time and we’ll get to that point. I think that’s the biggest thing that we ask for, is patience, and letting people know that we are so thankful for believing in us again and helping us move forward and getting to where we’re at today.

One thing I always like to say is, look what we’ve done with a small amount of money in the bank, imagine what we can do when we start getting some of these bigger sponsors and on a sustainable level – imagine what we can do. I’m hoping that we’re proving ourselves – that we’re doing it right, we know what we’re doing and we want to make this bigger and better for everyone involved.

Jeff’s favorite story of his career:

My favorite story of my career, we did the Conan O’Brien Show a couple of times when I was in Tampa, and we took a 900 pound pig one year. Driving this pig up to New York, and then getting it into the studio…We had to put it in an elevator; it was not pleasant, it was hard—it was hilarious, though.

One of Jeff’s memorable kid moments at ZooMontana:

Some of the best stories we have are the kids who mean so well and want to help the zoo. One girl in particular, I remember, came in with her allowance; it was $6.92 or something and donated it to the zoo. And that’s just amazing to me – not just that they think of that, but that they do that. I will never forget her, we gave her a stuffed otter, and it meant the world to her, you know that she got this otter. She meant so well, and I think the lesson there, for all of us, is that there is no donation that is not appreciated here, it doesn’t matter if it’s $6 or $100,000, it all means the same to us. And to see the look on her face to see how appreciative we were, we gave her this experience that, to me, is what makes it all worth it. And she cares that much to do that, it’s remarkable. So she sticks out in my mind. In fact, she gave me a picture that she took at the otter exhibit holding her otter, and I still have that picture to this day because it just means so much to me.

I keep thinking of the Disney movie, Meet the Robinsons, “Keep moving forward,” as we talk…

Yeah, ‘keep moving forward,’ exactly. And that’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re not looking in the past – we want to shed the past. We want to get rid of it, we want to move forward, and we want to be a new organization. We’re re-inventing ourselves, and that’s why we have the new logo, we have the new philosophy here because we want to re-invent ourselves and be a new organization. We’re a young group here, but we’re a young group that has got a lot of experience, and we want people to know that we want what they want as much as they do; it just takes some time to get there.

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