Jim Fleshman

2013 Wacoan of the Year

Wacoan of the Year 2013

By Megan Willome


Photography by Rachel Whyte and Marlo Collins

If you haven’t been to Cameron Park Zoo in a while, you should go with a 3-year-old. To appreciate the genius of its layout, you need a little kid in tow. I don’t have a little kid of my own, so I recruited a friend, her 3-year-old son, her 7-year-old daughter and her parents to come up from Austin on a Saturday morning in October.

The day we went was hot and muggy, but we were comfortable. The trees have grown a lot in two decades. When we did find ourselves at a sunny exhibit, right around the corner was a covered or an air-conditioned area.

The walkways were spacious and easily accommodated the stroller the boy’s mother brought along in case her son got tired, which he did from all his running. He and his sister climbed on the animal statues as if they were mini jungle gyms, providing great photo ops for their mom. She kept saying things like, “It’s such a beautiful zoo,” and “It’s so natural feeling.”

This particular 3-year-old really, really wanted to see the bears. He’d whine, “I wanna see the bears! Oh — giraffes! Hi, giraffe!” and then he was happy again. I bet he’s not the first kid to yell, “Hi, lizard,” to the komodo dragons and “Hi, chipmunk,” to the meerkats. He said it was “awesome” getting to see Riya, the 16-month-old Sumatran tiger, eat. We did not make it to the herpetarium, but he was perfectly enthralled with the snakes in the freshwater aquarium in the Brazos River Country exhibit. He also said he liked the walruses. Walruses? Eventually, we figured out he meant the otters. He spent a good 15 minutes on the otter slide while we adults cornered the rocking chairs.

Cameron Park Zoo turned 20 in July. The man behind its success is Jim Fleshman, who has been the director since March 2000. You may not know Fleshman, and that’s all right with him. He just wants you to know the zoo, which has developed a national and international reputation for excellence during his tenure.

Dr. Steve Corwin, longtime board member of Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, has seen the zoo grow in prestige under Fleshman’s leadership.

“Jim Fleshman is a major player,” Corwin said. “I’ve always kind of looked at it as ‘from what zoo to the zoo.’ Suddenly, we’re hot property. We built the nation’s leading natural habitat zoo. The Cameron Park Zoo has the finest orangutan exhibit in the U.S. We’ve hosted the international orangutan conference. We’ve become so prominent that we were invited — you have to be invited — to become a member of the international zoo society.”

Fleshman might not agree that he should get credit for the zoo’s prominence, but he feels genuine pride that when leaders of the world’s zoos gather, Cameron Park Zoo has a seat at the table. The reason it does is because Fleshman is one of those leaders — he is the chair of the board of trustees of the International Species Inventory System, the largest global network of zoo and aquarium professionals. That organization works closely with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which Cameron Park Zoo was invited to join a few years after Fleshman arrived. Only 300 zoos and aquariums worldwide belong to this prestigious organization. Fleshman is also on the board of directors (as past chair) of the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group, which is affiliated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“I tell the story that when I first came here, you’d go around the room and make introductions, and I’d have to say, ‘Cameron Park Zoo, Waco, Texas.’ Now when I meet colleagues and I say, ‘Cameron Park Zoo,’ they go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ They know exactly where we’re at and who we are and what we’re doing,” Fleshman said. Jim Fleshman is our 2013 Wacoan of the Year.

Exhibit J: Jim Fleshman

2013 Wacoan of the Year, Jim Fleshman

2013 Wacoan of the Year, Jim Fleshman

Fleshman was hired to take the zoo to the next level, remembers City Manager Larry Groth, who ran the zoo from 1993-’95.

“My experience down there was as a guy that loved animals but not an animal professional. But it was time for us to have a true zoo professional, and Jim brought that in. He brought the academic standpoint and the experience working in other zoos and taking the Cameron Park Zoo to where it needs to be,” Groth said.

Fleshman graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in life sciences. He started as a volunteer at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas, then served as a zookeeper with elephants at the San Antonio Zoo and worked his way up. He was the director of the Abilene Zoo from 1992-2000 prior to coming to Waco.

“He started as a volunteer and then was a zookeeper and then a supervisor, so he knows all the aspects about the zoo, instead of coming in from a business perspective,” said Connie Kassner, education curator. “When I interviewed with him, he told me he hires people so they can do their job because he doesn’t have time to micromanage.”

Programs and exhibits curator Terri Cox appreciates how far the zoo has come under Fleshman. “I can’t think of a better supervisor for the zoo and for me. He’s really brought it to where it is today, an institution that is renowned worldwide for our excellence in animal care,” she said.

Johnny Binder, the zoo’s general curator, has known Fleshman for years and was instrumental in getting him chosen for this job.

“The cool thing about Jim is he is an animal man but also a numbers man. He’s a real bean counter. We got a really good combination when we got him,” Binder said.

Fleshman is a rare leader — he who doesn’t care who gets the credit. Or rather, he’s quick to give credit to others. He’s always talking about his great staff and the great colleagues he works with internationally.

“He does not like to talk about himself at all. He downplays his role,” said Ben Lacy, president of Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society. “What he brings is just the experience. He’s been doing this not his entire life but pretty close. Getting a guy like that with his experience and his work ethic is a real coup for a city our size. He could quite easily be doing this same job at the San Diego Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, much larger facilities. I’m a big fan of his.”

So are we! I sat down with Fleshman in the zoo’s boardroom, and while we talked, we could hear the sounds of children making happy noises as they began their zoo outing.

WACOAN: You’ve told a story about being attacked by an elephant. Would you tell that story again?

Fleshman: It was 1986-‘87, and I was working at the San Antonio Zoo. I tried to make the matriarch of the herd — San Antonio had five elephants at that time — and I tried to make her back up. This was in free contact, so you’re sharing the exact same space with the animals. She basically disciplined me. She brought her trunk along my back, knocked me to the ground, picked me up in her trunk and put me into her mouth, and then I was across her front legs, and she pressed her head and mouth down on me. Another elephant slapped her, and she let go of me and stood up, and I rolled underneath that other elephant and came up not too much worse for wear. But it was kind of a defining moment in my zoo career.

WACOAN: Where were you in your career at the time?

Fleshman: I was a keeper. I had only been a full-time keeper for a few years. It was all my fault. It was my error that caused the whole thing. We had a two-person rule. I didn’t wait for a second person. We had a truck that had to go into the elephant yard. I needed to back this female up so she didn’t hurt the truck. Hindsight is I should’ve waited and had the other person come over with me to help me, and everything would’ve been fine. I was a little bit more brash and thought I could handle everything. I quickly learned that there’s an art to doing certain things.

WACOAN: Tell me about your career. I know you graduated from Kansas State.

Fleshman: I was in architectural engineering at Kansas State University, and I received a bad grade on a final project. I tried to get the dean of architecture to change the grade, and he said there were several complaints that year about this one professor, but they had decided not to change grades.

I decided I was gonna go do something that I enjoyed. The thing that kept popping into my head is when I was a little kid, my mother and I used to walk the creeks in Kansas City, Kansas, and we would look for frogs and turtles and watch wildlife.

And growing up as a good Catholic boy, during the Lent season, we had to give stuff up. One of the things my parents made my sister and I give up was television, [but] we were allowed to watch ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ and ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.’ I thought, ‘I think I’ll go into biology,’ and the goal was to do wildlife biology.

I met some people who were volunteering at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. They said it was fun. I volunteered and then ended up — along with another gentleman who’s now with the Sedgwick [County] Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and then with a gentleman who’s the mammal curator of the Sedgwick Zoo — the three of us put together an internship that involved education and animal management. It was basically a way for us to get experience in a zoo, and they got free labor. And from that I went to a part-time children’s zookeeper during the summer. I hand raised several white-tailed deer, a couple of bears, helped hand raise a chimpanzee. We had baby tigers that we raised. There was just a lot of experience rolled up into an internship and a part-time job.

Cameron Park Zoo Elephant Exhibit

Cameron Park Zoo Elephant Exhibit

Then from there I went to San Antonio as a full-time keeper. At San Antonio, obviously brash and pressing to have more responsibility and wanting to do more, I moved up from a keeper to a senior keeper and then finally to a supervisor position there. In looking at the managers at that point in time, they were only a few years older than me. They were probably 10-15 years older than me. I knew the succession plan would be long and drawn out. I was basically told that if you want to be a zoo director, you need to go and find your own zoo. I went and applied at [the Abilene Zoo in] Abilene, Texas.

I don’t know if it was their misfortune, my misfortune or both of our fortunes, but they hired me, and I had no director experience, just a smattering of management experience. My wife and I talked that we would give it five years. If I didn’t like the zoo director thing, then I could step back and probably be a curator at another facility.

I found out I liked it. I liked doing the budgets. I liked being the leader, the one making a lot of the decisions and helping staff elevate the way they looked at things and how they got involved and their professionalism and just really, really enjoyed it. Stayed there for seven-and-a-half years. I finished off a $1.5 million facility that the previous director had started, and then we built exhibits for jaguars and ocelots. At that point, I pretty much felt I had done all I could, and they needed someone who could take it to another level.

And this opportunity arose here in Waco. I had never passed a bond issue. We didn’t do a lot of marketing in Abilene; we had a firm that did it. Coming here, we worked with the board real hard and put together a marketing plan and a communications plan and were able to pass a bond in 2000. And we’ve just been growing ever since.

I’ve been here 13 years, and in that 13 years, we’ve done about 10 years worth of construction. It’s been fun to watch this place grow from a nice, well-thought-out community zoo to now, where we’re a regional attraction. We have more than 50 percent of our visitors come from outside McLennan County. That’s just huge for us. Hopefully, we continue to make it grow and get bigger and better as we move forward.

WACOAN: Why do you think Cameron Park Zoo has enjoyed so much support from the community?

Fleshman: I think it stems from a vision that the zoological society board of directors had as well as the zoo staff at that time. The first director of the zoo, Tim Jones, envisioned a place that really wasn’t zoo-like in a traditional sense. It was more of a park or wildlife setting that as you moved through it there were animal exhibits that matched the environment that was around you.

I think that vision of the community leaders and the board members who sold that to the community, I think they either had great, great vision or they got super, super lucky.

One important thing is that we’ve been successful. [The citizens of McLennan County] voted to tax themselves to put the facility here. I think, rightfully so, the community was disappointed when the zoo opened because they opened with 58 animals. So, there was some backlash there. But I think the board and the city at that point made a smart move in order to invest. They started adding animals and slowly building the collection.

In 2000, when I came, I came with the idea to double the size of the zoo. And just running the math, the cost of exhibits in the United States versus the attendance increase you can look at, I was able to figure out that we can do 200,000 people here without a problem. I think our maximum attendance rate is probably gonna be 350,000 at some point.

But what we promised the city council is that we would change our revenue versus expense ratio from 15-20 percent, earning what it costs to operate us, to 50-50. I believe last year we generated 56 percent of what it took to operate us, just on city operations. It jumps to 66 or 68 percent if you combine the society’s revenue versus expenses in that.

And the fact that we’ve got great people! We’ve got great staff! I have nine direct reports, and they are all just spectacular people, and they bring a lot of talents and skills to the job that are phenomenal. A lot of our staff could go to other larger facilities, but their dedication to Cameron Park Zoo is really top notch, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to capitalize on those talents and skills from people.

WACOAN: You’ve had a lot of people stay with you for a long time.

Fleshman: We’ve been very lucky. Our general curator, Johnny Binder, has been with the zoo 40 years. Terri Cox [programs and exhibits curator] has been here since the zoo [reopened in Cameron Park in 1993]. We have animal care mangers that have been here — one that has been here since the zoo opened.

We’re sort of a training facility. We push a lot of responsibility as far down the chain as we can. If a keeper comes in here, they’re not gonna make very much money, but they’re gonna get a lot of experience. They’re gonna be involved in a lot of different things, and we’re gonna prepare them where if they want to go to the next level at another larger zoo, they’ll be ready to do that and usually in a supervisor and a lead role, which is something we’re very proud of. Now, would we like to be able to keep those people? Obviously. But the realities of it are, just from an economic standpoint, our market just doesn’t drive that right now. Hopefully, down the road it will.

In the zoo field, we all have mentors. I’ve been fortunate to reap the benefits from several — a piece of advice [or] just being able to work under them and watch what they do, to learn different things about animals or how you go about managing animals.

WACOAN: Can you share some advice you received from mentors?

Fleshman: Yes, a gentleman by the name of Steve Kingswood, who was the curator of mammals at San Antonio when I was there. I was cleaning some pens, and I was always there early, and he was always walking the zoo, making rounds, checking on the collection. I got to talking with him about careers. He said, ‘You can always learn the animal piece. You can learn that from books. You can learn that from people. The ones who are gonna be successful zoo managers are the people who can mange people.’ And I had never thought of that before, and that’s always resonated with me.

And then, a gentleman by the name of Raymond Figueroa, who was the superintendent of mammals in San Antonio, he had, like, 40 years of working at the zoo there. I really learned the animal management side from him. He was the animal guy. He was the elephant man. I learned to get into his back pocket really quickly and watch how he did things and learn from him.

Then you also learn what not do. I won’t give you their names! I learned a lot. Over the years, you get small pictures of how not to treat people. The old advice that you get from your parents all the time — ‘Treat others how you want to be treated’ — that is absolutely true, no matter what business you’re in.

You know, I walk around, and I pick up a lot of trash in a day. It’s expected. If any of our staff walk through — it doesn’t matter if you’re a custodian or a manager or a supervisor — everyone needs to pick up trash when it’s on the zoo grounds because we want it to look a specific way. It resonates through the entire culture of the organization.

WACOAN: How many employees do you have?

Fleshman: Including the society, it’s probably close to 72 in our peak season — 72-75.

WACOAN: And peak would be during the summer?

Fleshman: Typically, our busiest months are March and April and May. March is our largest attendance month. As it heats up, it slowly dissipates. If we have a warm fall or a nice, cool fall and it’s not too cold and it’s not raining, then we got another bump in attendance.

WACOAN: Today seems like a perfect zoo day. It’s cool and sunny.

Fleshman: The animals are active. This is the time to be here.

If we hit that week between Christmas and New Year’s, it’s not uncommon for us to have sunny skies and temperatures in the 50s or 60s. That can make our winter. Because that one week, kids have been out. They’ve done Christmas. Boom! Now it’s time to get everybody out of the house. That week we can just be flooded while kids are out of school.

WACOAN: Cameron Park Zoo was most recently accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the AZA, in 2010, and the next review will be in 2015. What is involved in the accreditation process?

Fleshman: To be a zoo in the United States, you have to be licensed by U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are about 2,500 animal exhibitors [in the country]. Within AZA, there are only about 223 accredited facilities, so you figure less than 10 percent [of animal exhibitors] meet the accreditation standards that are set.

The unique thing about AZA is those standards change every year, so they continue to raise the bar. New commissioners roll onto the accreditation commission every three years. So, this group of 12 commissioners grill you.

I’ve been doing this a long time, and the last time I went before the commission — and I sat on the commission for six years — I said, ‘You know, after sitting on this commission and coming through this process about five or six different times, it’s still intimidating to sit in this room with you and tell you we should be accredited by inspection.’ They kind of laughed at me. But it’s intimidating. It’s meant to intimidate. It should intimidate. This is very prestigious. Accreditation is something you obtain. If you don’t meet that, it’s a professional sore, a professional slight that your organization didn’t meet the standards.

WACOAN: Cameron Park Zoo is also a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, WAZA. Do you have to be invited to join WAZA?

Fleshman: Within that 223 [AZA-accredited zoos], I believe there are less than 80 of those that are members of the world association [WAZA]. That was one of the things I wanted when I came here was I wanted the board’s support to join the world association. And in 2003, I did a presentation in Vienna, Austria, to the world association, and we were granted institutional membership at that time. We’ve been members ever since, and we have slowly increased our involvement with WAZA.

They meet annually in a different region of the world. Typically, it comes to the United States- Canada bucket (I think Central America is included in that) once every four years. Last year, it was in Melbourne, Australia. The year before that, it was in Cologne, Germany. This year, it was at Disney’s Animal Kingdom [at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida]. Next year, it will be in New Delhi, [India]. [The 2015 conference] is Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. Then it goes to Pueblo, Mexico, in ‘16. Then in 2017, it goes to Barcelona, Spain. You get all these zoos from around the world that come together to listen to technical papers and conservation work and discuss how we’re gonna protect wild animals and wild places. Lots of diverse opinions. It’s unique how different regions attack the same problems.

WACOAN: Do you have any idea how many countries you’ve been to on behalf of the zoo in these last 13 years?

Fleshman: Let me see if I can count — it’s not a lot. Seven to 10 countries? Some of that is for research purposes. Maybe 15, now that I think about it.

WACOAN: Cameron Park Zoo is very involved in conservation, as you’ve mentioned. What are some of the projects you’ve been involved in?

Fleshman: The most exciting one we’re doing right now is the bald eagle nest project. That’s very exciting from the standpoint of it’s local. When you can pull all that together to try to help a species locally, that’s a conservation story. That is really what we live for.

Internationally, we’ve been involved with a tiger survival center in Indonesia. Some staff have worked on sea turtle projects in Mexico. We’ve done some snake natural history work with Dr. Neil Ford in the Nariva swamps of Trinidad and Tobago. We’ve worked with Chipangali [Wildlife Orphanage] out of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on leopard, cheetah and brown hyena projects. We’ve been pretty active for a small-to-medium-size zoo.

What we look for in projects are those that we believe will have high impact, and we continue to search for those. A lot of times, we’ll end up making donations to organizations that are already in the country and already established a footprint rather than us try to go do the project ourselves. We’re able to do a lot of support work.

The Nariva swamp and the Zimbabwe project are stuff we participate in personally. I go to Bulawayo. Johnny and Terri went to Trinidad and Tobago. I probably did that wrong. I probably should’ve gone to Trinidad and Tobago! It’s nice to get out into the field and do research and get to your roots.

Between the four of us — Johnny, Terri and I and our education director, Connie — we probably know somebody at every zoo in the U.S., and we’re getting more of a reach on a global [scale].

WACOAN: Isn’t part of that global impact due to your participation on international zoo boards?

Fleshman: There’s ISIS, which is the International Species Inventory System. I was vice chair for two years, and then I took over as chair in January. There’s the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group. I just rolled off as past chair of that in September and sit on their board of directors. I’ve been on their board of directors for eight or nine years, I think. Our involvement in WAZA and ISIS has really helped put our footprint on the international scene.

The ISIS board meeting was just last week. It dawned on me, I’m sitting next to the gentleman from Poland on my left, and he’s participating in conversations with me about how we’re going to make ISIS better and directions we need to move and how we’ll set up a strategic plan. On my right is the director of a zoo in Sweden. Around the corner was the executive director from the Pan-African Association. As I kept going around the room, it was like we really have our hand on the pulse of what’s going on with animal welfare, with animal management, where zoos and aquariums are going into the future. That makes you proud, makes you glad that you can be a part of it in some small way.

I was in Prague in the Czech Republic and went into an ISIS board meeting (the incoming WAZA chair is from Zoo Leipzig in Germany). He said, ‘I need to speak with you. I would like for you to sit on the finance committee for the world association. Would you do that?’ How do you say no? ‘Uh, yeah, in a heartbeat! What’s my time commitment?’ And it’s miniscule. I’m reviewing financial statements. The idea of being asked by a foreign colleague really made me happy.

That allows [the zoo] to be involved on a global basis, which is where the vision originally was. The vision of hope was that we would be that involved. To be able to show the community how successful we’ve been by telling them about the different projects and giving them the information about the projects we’re involved in, it lets them be proud of our facility as well because they don’t consider it Cameron Park Zoo; they consider it ‘their zoo.’ That’s the ownership you want.

I wish we could make that sphere of ownership grow a lot more to include Temple, Killeen, Copperas Cove, Bryan-College Station and to get our growth pattern a lot larger. And I think we’re getting there. I’m not quite sure if the ownership piece is there yet. Our attendance from those areas is growing. The fact is that we’re getting more and more people from outside of 100 miles coming to us. Our visitation from Austin and north Austin, the Round Rock-Georgetown area, is starting to grow. Getting our name out there is gonna get more and more important as we try to improve ourselves at every turn.

WACOAN: Do you have a dollar figure for the economic impact of the zoo on Waco last year?

Fleshman: When I ran the numbers, it was $13.8 million, and we base that off of the number of people who travel outside of McLennan County into our community.

That’s one reason why at the front gate that we ask everyone where they’re from. There’s a dollar value assigned by the state based on how far you drive to a regional destination. By utilizing that number, that’s how we come up with the economic impact. And that is not rolling in any multipliers. This is direct dollars. They assume that someone who drives more than 50 miles, between 50-100 miles, will spend about $65 dollars in your community. If you are outside of 100 miles, it’s $125 dollars. Tracking where our visitors come from allows us to generate that number. If you talk to an economist, there can be a [multiplier]. I like using the hard dollars because it’s a more of an apples-to-apples kind of thing.

WACOAN: So, is that figure only money spent in the zoo?

Fleshman: No, that’s the money they spent in our community. It wouldn’t include the hotel, but it would include if they ate breakfast, lunch or dinner here, if they went shopping, if they purchased gas — that type of thing.

WACOAN: What are your plans for the zoo in 2014?

Fleshman: We’ve been getting the word out that we’re trying to figure out how to fund an education building and a veterinary complex, and we’re looking at what the plan would be for the next animal expansion. We don’t want to do an individual species exhibit. I think we’re looking at doing another complex, large thing, similar to Asia and with Brazos River but probably not on that grand of a scale as Brazos River. Plus, we don’t have a whole lot more land to develop. I’m hoping by the first of the year we will have a better idea on how we plan on funding that.

WACOAN: In order to expand at all, you’ll have to hire more staff, right? You’re maxed out.

Fleshman: We are. We were fortunate that in the beginning, we were probably a little bit overstaffed. We’ve been able to be very frugal with the additional positions we’ve been able to get from the city in order to care for our animal collection. Right now, we’re stretched when we have someone call in sick. Any expansion with the education facility and with the veterinary hospital would require additional staff, and obviously, if we add more animal displays, it would require additional staff as well. We have a lot of departments of ones and twos and one-and-a-halfs. We press those pretty hard. We maximize the potential we have.

WACOAN: Before you add another animal exhibit, two of the things on your priority list are an education facility and a veterinary hospital. How will those projects impact the growth of the zoo?

Fleshman: If you break them out, individually, the veterinary hospital is the easier one to attack.

Our current clinic that was built in 1993 was a clinic that would allow you to examine and care for [a zoo with] less than 100 animals. Now that we have close to 2,000 animals and we’re not so mammal-centric — we have a large fish and reptile collection — we truly need a place where we can do sterile surgeries, where we can bring sick animals in or injured animals in and care for them in a sterile environment and then have them managed separately rather than managed with the rest of the collection. We need a place where we can modernize our equipment instead of getting things that have been donated. [We need] digital X-rays, MRIs that are not as invasive. Having that equipment to allow Dr. [James Kusmierczyk, the zoo’s full-time veterinarian,] to better manage the animals’ health and welfare is just critical. It’s what’s gonna allow us to sustain our populations.

It also allows us to grow our research potential. When you have a one-person shop, it’s really hard to do all the medical care, dispense all the medications, make sure all your records are complete and accurate, and then while you’re doing that, be able to do a little research. That’s just too much for one person to do. The ability to have a hospital would allow us to expand our medical care and allow us to teach and help educate a new group of veterinarians coming up.

WACOAN: And what about the education building?

Fleshman: As the state is starting to require more focus on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], I think it is critical that zoos as an education facility maintain and increase their influence into the sciences, and we don’t do that to the extent that we can. We expose them to wild animals. We expose them to some natural history. But we’re doing it passively. It’s as a walk-through. We’ve made our educational graphics tie in with TEKS [testing standards] so teachers can utilize some things that we have, but we don’t have the ability yet to be very impactful on the education of young people. To me that’s the key piece.

If you can utilize technology and use a satellite hookup here for kids to experience what a wildlife biologist does in the Andes Mountains in attaching a radio collar to an Andean condor and then releasing that animal. And then on the computer screen, kids can watch where this animal has gone for a month — in real time. They’re tracking No. 10842, and it flew 10,000 miles in a month, and it’s back here at this nest location, and they can go and find that animal. We can have them hooked up to talk about spectacled bears in Ecuador, or track cheetahs in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Or watch forest elephants in Liberia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Jump over to Thailand and show these kids, ‘This was a species just discovered five years ago.’ You get them excited about seeing something that’s neat and cool and different than anything they’ve ever experienced.

I think smaller independent school districts throughout Central Texas would utilize this tool at the zoo in order to expand the knowledge base of their students. What better way to build your resume if you’re a high school student and you want to go into the sciences than to be able to say that you’ve participated, although passively, you know what field research is like. You can find out how this biologist or researcher developed their hypothesis and what effect it’s having. You can open doors to kids in Central Texas to experience that firsthand. But it also gets them introduced to people — different researches and wildlife folks, conservation folks — to help steer them and help mentor them as they move through their careers so there’s that one-on-one connection. It makes science cool. And if it’s not cool, it ain’t happening.

For zoos to survive and for animals to survive in wild places and for people to seriously care enough 1) to take an interest and 2) to support it and support protection for animals and kind of know what that is, there’s gonna have to be that one-on-one connection. If we can continue to create those different animal experiences, that’s gonna come home to those folks — ‘Did you see that giraffe’s eyes when I was able to feed it?’

WACOAN: How does the zoo fit in with the other cultural opportunities in Waco?

Fleshman: I went to grade school and high school with the director of the Topeka Zoo’s children. He was one of the first ones to make this statement: ‘You can tell the health of a community by the health of their zoo, by looking at the museums in the community. You can tell they have really invested in trying to make their community the best it can be.’ I find that true.

The 2013 December Issue of the Wacoan magazine.

The 2013 December Issue of the Wacoan magazine.

I think we have a phenomenal zoo. But then you look at the Mayborn Museum — it’s great. And I just learned this not too long ago, the Texas Collection on the Baylor [University] campus — phenomenal. The Armstrong-Browning Library — the collection they have is unbelievable. The Dr Pepper Museum — what a fun place. It’s just great. The Texas Ranger Museum — I still go to that quite a few times a year just from the standpoint of it adds a part of Texas history that movies are made of. And a lot of Texans brag about the Texas Rangers, but once you meet a real Texas Ranger, you get it. When something has to be done perfect, they call the Texas Rangers because they’re so good at what they do.

When I first got on the ISIS board of directors, the incoming director was from the London Zoo, David Field. David’s a super guy. The board was going through lots of changes. I was named vice chair, and I went to the ranger museum, and I bought a ranger’s badge — a little toy thing. I sent it to him with a note: ‘Congratulations, there’s a new sheriff in town.’ He still has that to this day. He just loved it!

WACOAN: Tell me about your family.

Fleshman: I married a West Texas girl. Sue grew up in Midland-Odessa. She went to Permian High School. She did her senior year in Victoria [after her father’s job moved the family there]. Every once in a while the West Texas accent comes out. That’s when I know I’m in trouble.

When I was working elephants at San Antonio, she worked elephants with me at one time. She ended up moving over to the sea lion area and then raised a lot of the baby animals at the San Antonio Zoo. She worked at the Victoria Zoo at one time; that’s where she started. We got married in 1990.

We’ve got two children. Our son is 22. He’s a senior at Texas Tech University. Our daughter is 18, and she just graduated high school, from Midway.

WACOAN: How does Cameron Park Zoo inspire people?

Fleshman: What zoos need to do is make a personal connection with everyone. There’s nothing better than seeing a kid’s face light up, no matter what the age — if they’re 80 to 4 — when they can come nose to nose with an animal. When you see that light go on that there’s something larger than them. They just get engrossed with it.

In my one-on-one with Fleshman, he shared a little bit about himself, but it’s obvious that he prefers to talk about the zoo and its projects. He wants you to come to Lemur Island and get engrossed watching the critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur, also known as the Sclater’s lemur, a species held in only 14 institutions worldwide. He wants you to know about the zoo’s conservation work not only abroad but also locally with snakes and eagles. He wants you to see how far the zoo has come.

Exhibit P: Park

Before the zoo was built, that section of Cameron Park looked, well, pretty much like it does today. That’s a compliment. It means the 52-acre zoo was designed to save what was beautiful and build over what wasn’t. So, the main parking lot was previously a parking lot for the parks and recreation department. The overflow parking area by Pecan Bottoms was a Kiwanis pool. And the African Savanna was ballfields.

When the zoo staff designs exhibits, they work hard to maintain the natural beauty of the park while putting in the infrastructure necessary to run a modern zoo. In the African Savanna, there’s an underwater barrier that keeps the elephants away from the rhinos; all that guests see is a pond. The not-sopretty utilities are buried underground, out of sight. The Treetops Café has that name because the trees in the area were incorporated into the design. Keeping the native flora and fauna healthy makes the animals feel more at home and contributes to the pleasant experience of visitors — both local and international — that spend a day at the zoo.

“We have a fabulous horticultural staff. They work hard to maintain 50- plus acres and over 4,000 sprinkler heads. It’s a labor of love,” said Johnny Binder, general curator. “It’s rewarding for me when colleagues come from all over the world and are just blown away by our landscape and water features and plants and so forth.” Binder said the primary trails and paths through the zoo were once public roads.

“One of the things I was real proud we were able to do is maintain the natural tree lines. We tried to design exhibits around [tree lines] as well,” he said. “I hate cutting trees worse than anybody.”

Except, perhaps, Terri Cox, programs and exhibits curator.

“Johnny, Jim and me as the management team have felt very strongly about keeping the natural beauty of the park, and as we develop exhibits we literally tag trees that are 12 inches in diameter or more and try to save those trees and build around them to keep that wildness and the greenery in the park,” she said.

Exhibit H: History

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to criticize the old Central Texas Zoo, established in 1955, but that’s not fair.

“It was not very sophisticated, but they did have a wonderful animal collection, just a very poor presentation. That was true of a lot of zoos,” said Dr. Steve Corwin, who has been involved with the zoo since 1970, and he’s proud of its progress.

“We’re doing all the things that are the right things. We’re doing some research. We’re doing education. We’re doing recreation, obviously. We’re a huge economic draw for the community,” he said.

Corwin remembers the long, winding road the old zoo traveled to become the new zoo. The process involved the cooperation of the city, county, state and federal government. It included the Junior League and other movers and shakers in Waco. It required the voters, who taxed themselves twice. It also needed the cooperation of the Cameron heirs, who Corwin said were “tickled to death” to support building a zoo in what was once known as the Green Lake area.

“When we were picking that land site, formally, we brought down some consultants from the Kansas City Zoo, two zoos in the Boston area. We toured them around,” Corwin said. “The Boston guy, he said, ‘I will trade you both of my zoos for this land site.’”

In 1983, city voters rejected the proposed 9-cent tax increase, but the bond issue passed when it went before the county in 1988. The cost: $9.6 million.

The original bond issue paid for infrastructure, which doesn’t sound exciting, but it makes all the difference in the long run, like having a good foundation for your home. The architects designed the zoo around the park’s natural beauty.

“There’s not a week that [goes] by that we don’t have some national zoo, some zoo whose name you would recognize, come visit and ask, ‘How did you do this?’” Corwin said.

The zoo has grown slowly and deliberately, still drawing from the master plan, updated in 1996. The signature exhibit, Brazos River Country, did not open until the money could be raised following a second bond issue for $9.5 million in 2000. That exhibit opened in 2005, and attendance doubled.

“Every zoo has their thing, their focus, like a golf course with a signature hole. Ours is Brazos River Country,” Corwin said.

The zoo followed up that exhibit with the $3.3 million Asian Forest, adding komodo dragons and orangutans. Corwin brags on the zookeepers who have been able to get such amazing cooperation from the orangutans for medical exams. Corwin, who is also a local urologist, appreciates good patient care. He said the orangutans probably receive even better medical care than most humans.

Exhibit E: Enrichment

Cameron Park Zoo’s first priority is the health and happiness of its animals. That goal is achieved through enrichment, which is a key part of what is known as “husbandry.” Terri Cox described husbandry as the physical, emotional and mental care of the animals. It’s a field that continues to develop as zookeepers work to elicit natural behaviors from every animal in the collection and to eliminate boredom.

An Ocelot in the Brazos River Country exhibit at Cameron Park Zoo.

An Ocelot in the Brazos River Country exhibit at Cameron Park Zoo.

“Enrichment is a large part of our husbandry program. Our enrichment program is zoo-wide. We give it to just about everything,” Cox said. She added that animals need enrichment because in a zoo, “all of their needs are met. They don’t have to go out and hunt. They don’t have to expend a lot of energy just trying to survive, so they have a lot of time on their hands. We want to keep them from becoming overweight and keep them mentally stimulated.”

Enrichment involves a variety of activities, some with obvious applications and some which need a little more explanation. For example, keepers will spray stock urine on the trees in the big cat exhibits as a type of olfactory stimulation. In the wild, big cats need their sense of smell for hunting, but in a zoo, that sense can go largely unused.

“We often give them puzzle feeders, in which they have to manipulate an object to get food out. Some have TVs in their night houses. They have different wind chimes. The [big] cats have huge log chimes in their night house, so they can bat those around, like they would trees in the wild. During the day, a lot of their enrichment comes from watching people,” she said. “[The animals] get the option of whether they want to train or not. We use only positive reinforcement.” Many of the ideas for enrichment come from the keepers themselves, who develop close relationships with the animals.

“That bonding with the keeper is also a form of enrichment,” Cox said. The zookeepers are a dedicated group or professionals. They plan enrichment activities for the animals and present their successes to conferences both in the United States and overseas. “Most of our keepers have a background in animal management, either biology, wildlife management or zoology. We have some that have a master’s,” Cox said. “We sent probably about 20 people to different professional development trainings this year.”

Fleshman said watching the staff’s involvement in national and international projects gives him a sense of pride.

“Two of our keepers were honored at an international giraffe workshop for a presentation and the work they did with our female giraffe, Julie. We just had a staff member come back from presenting — it doesn’t sound glamorous — but a fecal output study on orangutans at the international orangutan workshop in Los Angeles. We have an animal care manager who has gone to the Principles of Elephant Management II workshop to get certified,” he said. “The fun thing is that whenever staff is involved in something, it always benefits the zoo. It gets our name out there. It gives us exposure to different things. It allows us to show off what our community has supported over all these years.”

Increasingly, enrichment includes technology — “That’s gonna be the wave of future,” she said. The orangutans have Skyped with zoo staff, and it’s clear they recognize the human they see on the screen. Cox hopes that Skype will allow the animals and keepers to become familiar with each other, either before a move to the zoo or possibly after an animal has moved to another zoo, so they can keep in touch.

“In particular with elephants and great apes, they’re so highly intelligent,” she said. “It’s beneficial if we’re moving a social, intelligent animal, to have keepers Skype with the animals so they can hear voices and see faces prior to arriving. That’s one of the things that could come out of our internet investment.”

The decision about what types of animals to bring to the zoo is made with input from the Species Survival Plan, which is administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Each endangered species has its own program.

“Each program has geneticists, they have field biologists, they have experts in husbandry for each of the animals. All zoos coordinate their collections. The goal is to have genetic diversity in endangered species in zoos for 100-plus years,” Cox said.

This spring, the zoo will be getting two new giraffes, both from Southern California zoos. They will be Masai giraffes instead of the reticulated giraffes held previously because that’s what the Species Survival Plan currently recommends. The zoo will also be getting a male African lion — another species with its own survival plan — from the Honolulu Zoo.

Exhibit O: Orangutans

The Orangutan exhibit at Cameron Park Zoo

The Orangutan exhibit at Cameron Park Zoo.

Cameron Park Zoo’s orangutans — KJ (Kerajaan), Mukah and Mei — are celebrities. They’re featured at blogs.skype.com in a post titled “Orangutans using Skype? Quit monkeying around,” posted April 22, 2013. They also did an interview with Fuji TV in Japan. They’re even in a TED talk from July 2013 called “The interspecies internet? An idea in progress.” The talk demonstrates how the orangutans used the internet to interact with elephants from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand and dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s all done with an iPad.

The zoo didn’t just get some orangutans so we could watch them do all this neat stuff. The zoo got them because they are endangered.

There are two main types of orangutans — Sumatran and Bornean. The Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered, and the Bornean is endangered. (Mei and KJ are Bornean; Mukah is a mixture of both types.) The orangutan exhibit was designed with input from experts in five different countries. The exhibit is so good that in 2011, the zoo hosted an international orangutan workshop. Last year, the zoo received certification to breed orangutans.

Fleshman hopes Mei will get pregnant in a year or two with her partner, KJ. Both orangutans are undergoing pre-parenting classes.

“He has sired offspring before, so he’s a proven breeder. Mei has watched her mother give birth and raise offspring. She’s held infants before and watched her aunts give birth. We want orangutans to be mother-reared because they’re healthier babies and they socialize a lot better,” he said. “Since Mei has been around awhile [at the age of 15], we think the probability of her raising her own offspring is high, but if she doesn’t, we want to be able to surrogate that infant back to her at some point.”

With that in mind, Mei is working with a plush orangutan “baby,” learning to place it in a box that keepers can move into and out of the orangutan habitat so the keepers can do well-baby checks or even perform supplemental feedings if necessary.

“It’s all to ensure the success of an offspring. If there is a hitch, by having her go through the training, we increase the opportunities for her to be successful,” Fleshman said. “There’s been documented evidence of males, if a female rejects an offspring, where a male has gone and brought [the baby] to them.”

An orangutan birth will require a lot of medical care. Last December, the zoo hired its first full-time veterinarian, Dr. James Kusmierczyk, better known as Dr. K, who works closely with the orangutans.

“They’re trained for sonograms — males on the heart, the female for pre-maternal care training. She will sit for a breast pump now. She gets a [gynecology] exam. We train with her every Monday on that with retired OB-GYN, Dr. Dianne Sawyer,” Dr. K said.

So far, Mei has proved to be a super smart patient.

“Out of the orangutans, she’s one of the more suspicious. She’s very, very intelligent and knows when things are different,” Dr. K said. “So, she’s good in that respect [to question us]: ‘What’s going on here? What are you trying to do?’”

The orangutans have been trained to present their arms for blood draws, and Cameron Park Zoo is the second institution in the country to begin getting voluntary blood pressure readings on them. This is cutting-edge stuff.

“Time-wise, we’re one of the quickest. Between the time they started the behavior and got them trained, it was two or three months. One of the other institutions, it took them two or three years,” Dr. K said.

Exhibit V: Veterinary Care

Dr. K and the zoo staff prepare the orangutans and other animals for medical procedures because it makes exams and treatments less stressful for both the animals and the doctors. Gone are the days when virtually every aspect of veterinary care was done under sedation. With such cooperative patients, the zoo is including more human doctors in animal care.

Dr. K said human doctors can easily be used on the primates because their anatomy and physiology is so close to that of humans. The zoo also enlists human specialists for animals with very different anatomies. Dr. Richard Hansard, a dentist in Valley Mills, worked with a bear named Donna.

“Veterinary dentistry is a specialty. Unfortunately, it’s one of the smaller specialties, so there aren’t a whole lot of those around. So, having someone with more specialized training — obviously, a bear mouth is different than a human mouth, but a lot of the procedures that can be done are pretty similar,” Dr. K said. In Donna’s case, they feared she would need a root canal, but after a course of antibiotics, the infected tooth cleared up.

With all of these animals and medical procedures, the zoo needs something it doesn’t have: a veterinary hospital. Currently, the zoo has a veterinary room — a room that was built for a zoo with 100 animals and now serves a zoo with over 2,000.

“What we have now is a room where we perform the majority of the procedures. We would like to have a dedicated surgery room, a dedicated X-ray room, a dedicated hospital ward where we could hospitalize animals. If we had a hospital, potentially, we could have a pharmacy and other cool stuff,” Dr. K said.

Currently, when an animal gets sick, it is kept off exhibit in its night house. Occasionally, quarantine space must be found when an animal’s condition is contagious.

Dr. K graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, but he learned about Cameron Park Zoo through an internship at Texas A&M Veterinary School’s Zoo, Exotics, Wildlife Medicine Group department. He maintains a strong partnership with A&M.

“We have the current intern and vet students. They come up every other week, sometimes once a month. They follow me around the zoo. Sometimes they’ll shadow me on a procedure,” he said. This fall, the zoo began welcoming students for externships as well. Similar to medical students, veterinary students in their last year do rotations through a number of specialties.

Fleshman sees great potential in the externship program to further develop the zoo’s partnership with Texas A&M.

“If we could actually have a [hospital] where we could keep two or three externs or interns on the property, they would allow Dr. K to perform better medical care, but it would also allow Texas A&M to have a new arm and something else they can offer veterinary students,” he said.

Exhibit S: Snakes

Conservation takes many forms. Yes, it’s about breeding endangered orangutans. It’s also about reintroducing the checkered garter snake to the Lake Waco Wetlands.

“People kind of go, ‘Ugh, snakes.’ But we were able to headstart some animals here [at the zoo] and then reintroduce them back into the wild, and then those animals have had offspring,” Fleshman said.

Johnny Binder headed up the project since he’s passionate about snakes. Texas’ Blackland Prairie region, where Waco is located, used to be the most abundant habitat for the checkered garter snake back in 1917, but by the 1970s, it had disappeared. When the wetlands were created, it provided the perfect habitat for this particular garter snake, with “little frogs, little fish,” Binder said. The zoo worked with the University of Texas at Tyler’s Ophidian Research Colony and Texas Parks and Wildlife on the project.

I asked Binder why we should care about snakes.

“They are an important part of the food chain. Millions of rodents a year destroy property and crops and spread disease. Rattlesnakes been depleted or exterminated in several areas, and in one of those areas bubonic plague has come back for the first time in almost 100 years because of fleas on rodents, such as prairie dogs. Reptiles, many of them are indicator species, kind of like the canary in the coal mine. If they disappear, what’s going to be next? At some point it’s gonna be humans,” he said. “And they’re cool.”

He said the herpetarium and herpetariums in general are among the most popular exhibits at any zoo. Going to the snake house is a little like going to a haunted house.

“They love to come see what’s big and bad and dangerous,” he said. “Some people don’t like the snakes. I can’t imagine that.”

Exhibit L: Lake Waco Eagle Nest Project

When I asked Fleshman about the zoo’s conservation work, the first animal he mentioned was the eagles at Lake Waco. This fall, the zoo worked with several organizations to build an artificial nest for the bald eagles that make their home at Lacy Point. In recent years, the eagles laid eggs, but the nests were destroyed.

The nest project was instigated by the Central Texas Audubon Society in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Cameron Park Zoo. The cottonwood trees, in which the eagles build their nests, were weakened after the lake level was raised in 2006. So, all three organizations worked together to raise money for the $35,000 endeavor. The Corps of Engineers deeded the land by the lake to the city, and now the zoo maintains the site. The zoo worked with Dr. Steve Sherrod, executive director of the Sutton Avian Research Center in Oklahoma, who has successfully built artificial towers that bald eagles have used to build nests and raise young. Each tower is equipped with a webcam.

Photographer Brian Boyd first spotted the eagles in 2009.

“I hiked in there on a cold February day, exactly where the new tower is gonna be, and that’s when I saw the male and female above the nest. They were getting ready to lay an egg there. I’ve been going in and documenting them ever since,” he said.

The tower was built where the eagles made their first nest.

“A lot of people say the eagles mate for life, and they do, but really, an eagle’s fidelity is to the nest. They’ll be very loyal and very faithful to their nest,” Boyd explained. “The thing an eagle likes is access to the water. Their primary food source is fish. They like a perch above the water where they can dive down and get the fish.”

The tower was completed in time for breeding season, which falls in late November and early December. Joe Nemmer of Nemmer Electric and his crew constructed the 6-foot round steel basket, which serves as the basis for the nest. Currently empty (other than some starter sticks), the steel nest weighs 500 pounds; it will weigh up to 1,000 pounds when the eagles move in and make a proper nest. The 50-foot pole is anchored deep underground in order to withstand 90-mile-per-hour winds.

The nest’s high-tech camera system, which was donated by Coyotemoon Security in Dallas, is worth between $8,000-10,000. A separate tower about 100 to 150 feet away holds the solar panels and batteries that power the webcam.

“If we get eagles in that nest — there’s no guarantee — there’ll be buzz around that internationally just because of the camera system that’s up,” Fleshman said. “We’ve committed long term to care for it — maintaining the fence lines, keeping blinds there for birders and photographers and also maintaining the nests and the cameras.”

If you want to see the eagles without trekking out to the site, soon there will be a button on the zoo’s website, www.cameronparkzoo.com, that will allow you to view the nest cam or at least view a still photo if there’s no action yet.

Exhibit K: Kids

Fleshman gets excited when he talks about how the zoo can be involved in the education of kids, especially through the use of technology, such as the nest cam.

“That’s where the zoo’s role in education is gonna go. We can tie technology in and have the realization that there’s a real animal and or a wild place that is affected by that technology, and I think that could be a very good thing for us,” he said. “You can teach anything by utilizing the zoo. You can teach physics. You can teach chemistry. You can teach math. There’s nothing more important than seeing a child’s face light up because they learned something. It’s very easy to show them how to learn about just about anything through the eyes of an animal.”

Plans have been drawn up for an education facility that could cost between $3 and $4 million. Currently, the zoo has only one classroom, and it seats about 40 kids. Larger groups meet in the Special Events Pavilion.

“We’ve met with an architect and have plans for a multiroom facility with places to house the education animals,” said Connie Kassner, education curator. “What we’ve looked at designing is a building with six classrooms, but make the walls so they could fold up and have one large area.”

The zoo’s education department has grown over the past 20 years. It used to be that a teacher would schedule an individual tour for a class. Now, a group of classes will converge for an event like World Rhino Day.

“We’ve got one zookeeper that is passionate about rhinos. That way we reach a lot more people with conservation messages,” she said. “I’m fortunate in that our keeper staff is fabulous. They have great ideas. I coordinate it, but they head up certain days.”

Another education program that has grown over Kassner’s nine years on staff is Zoo Snooze, an overnight activity for groups.

“As of today, we’re booked every Friday through the end of next June [2014]. We do take off December and January because of weather,” she said. “We get great feedback from people who have done a zoo snooze elsewhere, and they come back to us at the Cameron Park Zoo.”

Some groups camp out in the Meadows area and others sleep in one of the indoor aquariums.

“We can fit 35 people in an aquarium. Most people prefer to sleep in the saltwater aquarium,” she said.

During the summer, the zoo runs three types of camps, each geared to a different age group. Kassner said Keeper Shadowing, for ages 12 and up, and Zoo Tales, designed for preschoolers, always sell out quickly.

Fleshman believes each of these educational experiences is about inspiring children so that they grow up and become adults who care about animals and their environment.

“That inspiration is gonna be with them as they start to make decisions in life. That can trickle down from wildlife and wild places to abandoned pets to humane societies. We don’t want the empathy and the sympathy. We want you to be uplifted from being able to be this close [to an animal] or to have this experience,” he said.

Exhibit W: Waco

It’s hard to imagine Waco without Cameron Park Zoo. It’s important to Boy and Girl Scout troops from Austin who come for a Zoo Snooze. It’s integral to the lives of local families, whose playgroups meet at Grammy Nell’s. And it’s an essential item on a vacation to-do list. More than half of the zoo’s visitors come from out of town, and when they do, they spend money.

City Manager Larry Groth said the zoo is an anchor for tourists.

“They try to start stacking up two or three things to do, and then they add the zoo, and they have to stay overnight in one of our great hotels and do it the next day,” he said.

One reason for the zoo’s success is its unique arrangement with the City of Waco and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, the nonprofit arm that supports the zoo.

“It’s just two parts of the zoo coming together to make the zoo function well,” Fleshman said. “We have a management agreement with the city that really creates a true public-private partnership between the city and society. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to maintain that over these years.”

The zoo’s current annual budget is between $4.5 and $5 million — a combined total that partly comes from the city and partly from the society. Cameron Park Zoo is a department of the city, and most of the staff members are city employees. The city money, most of which goes toward animal care and facility maintenance, is supplemented by financial support from the society, which raises funds for the zoo and receives tax-deductible donations on its behalf. The society oversees the management of the zoo, and its board of directors is Fleshman’s boss. The society also handles marketing, memberships, volunteer recruitment and fundraisers and runs the Zootique.

“The society does fundraisers because those go to help do various things that the city would not be able to pay for. It helps with staff travel, helps with conservation work that we do and helps build new projects. The zoo staff comes up with the idea, we get the board’s buy-in, and they help us go raise the funds,” Fleshman said.

When you hear an announcement about a new exhibit, the society has been working hard behind the scenes to secure funds before the general fundraising opens to the public.

“You don’t want to announce too far in advance,” said Ben Lacy, board president. “You want to have done the heavy lifting [of fundraising], then get it built quickly. That’s been the history of Brazos River Country and Asian Forest.”

The society puts on the fundraisers that Wacoans enjoy, such as The Mating Game, held on Valentine’s Day, and Grapes with the Apes, a wine tasting dinner. The zoo has switched to smaller, more targeted events spread throughout the year instead of one big fundraiser, which was Zoobilee.

“It had been going for 20 years, and it had become such a large event that we would close the zoo for two days for Zoobilee and KidZoobilee. Closing our zoo at its size now with 240,000-250,000 visitors per year, and over half of those come from out of town, it became unfair,” Cox said.

Who would it be unfair to? Little kids — the zoo visitors who matter most to Fleshman.

He is still that boy who liked to look for wildlife in Kansas creeks. For Fleshman, Cameron Park Zoo’s sterling reputation comes down to one thing: seeing kids make a connection with wildlife.

“I’ve watched it at our lion exhibit. I’ve watched it at komodos and orangs. You see it in the aquarium daily because of Nemo and Dory. Kids come running through, and that’s what they’re yelling,” he said. “They see something that amazes them. That’s the aha moment.”

During our zoo outing, the 3-year-old had an unexpected aha moment. It was past lunchtime, and we’d skipped Gibbon Island and Brazos at Night because the little guy was getting tired. But as soon as we reached Grammy Nell’s, he was ready to play again and do the nature trail. On our way out, we stopped to see the Galapagos tortoises and all of a sudden, he yelled, “He’s peeing!” Sometimes moments of connection happen in unexpected places.

We spent two-and-a-half hours at Cameron Park Zoo on that October Saturday, and we did not have nearly enough time. I guess we’ll just have to come back.

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