Back in high school, in order to see if it might offer a possible career path, Waco native Manda Butler started working in the gift shop and cafe at Cameron Park Zoo.
“Most people that knew me as a child called me Elly May Clampett because any stray in the neighborhood or broken-wing bird, I would bring it in and want to keep it and want to mother it and make sure it got to proper animal care,” she said.
When she took the part-time job, the zoo had been open less than a year since it had been renamed and moved from its previous home near Lake Waco. For three years, Butler worked for the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society and volunteered in the petting zoo area. Then, during her freshman year of college, she began working for the city of Waco in a full-time entry-level position at the zoo. And she’s been there ever since. Over the course of her tenure, she’s moved from the petting zoo to working as a zookeeper to most recently serving as the animal care supervisor of mammals. In March of this year — the day after her birthday — Butler was named general curator.
Wacoan writer Kathleen Seaman spoke with Butler about road tripping to visit other zoos, her international involvement with gerenuk (a species of long-necked antelope) and why Tembo the elephant has a special place in her heart.
WACOAN: Your first job at the zoo was when you were in high school. Did you know at the time that you’d make a career out of it?
Butler: My mom was a big advocate of making sure that you knew what you wanted to do before you went to school and got the degree. My mom owned a day care here in town. It was called the Jack & Jill School, on 23rd [Street] and Colcord [Avenue]. It’s now the [Good Neighbor House].
I knew that I either wanted to work with kids or animals, and I had the kid part down because she owned the day care from the time I was 7 on. But I really thought I wanted to potentially work with animals, specifically exotics, so I started working in the gift shop and cafe [at the zoo] and started volunteering in my spare time.
WACOAN: What did you do as a volunteer?
Butler: At that time, we had our petting zoo area, and I would volunteer with our petting zoo collection. It was [before we had] our herpetarium, so we did have a small nonvenomous snake collection in our gift shop with a few snakes and an iguana. So I was providing husbandry for them and just helping out. I started doing a little bit of wildlife rehabilitation when we would have things come in like squirrels and just seeing what I wanted to do.
I knew that I knew I wanted to work with animals hands-on and that I definitely wanted to be able to work with children. I definitely love the engagement side and the education components of my role at the zoo. Being able to not only work with animals but being able to teach kiddos about the importance of wildlife and conservation and why these species are so important to our world is really important to me.
WACOAN: Since high school, what has been your career path at the zoo?
Butler: In high school, I worked the gift shop, cafes, special events and volunteered in the petting zoo. I went to a small Christian school here in Waco, so the idea of moving to a really large university and moving that far away from home was a bit overwhelming for me. Going to Hill College allowed me the opportunity to still come home on the weekends, do my volunteering and work in the gift shop and keep that connection here with the zoo, but it also fulfilled my desire to play softball collegiately and have a little bit of distance from the family.
December of my freshman year, I realized I really wanted to pursue the animal side of things versus playing a sport at a collegiate level. A petting zoo position came open here at the zoo, which was an entry-level position at that time. Because of my volunteer work, I met the minimum qualifications for it. I applied for that position and was hired on right after Christmastime of 1996, going into ’97. I started my zookeeping career in our petting zoo area.
I decided to work by day, go to school at nighttime. That went on into the fall or next spring, and by that time, I had started training in our hoofstock area and was a primary keeper in that area and was starting to learn the elephant area. And we had three baby springbok — which is a species of antelope that I was hand-rearing — and then we also had a few other animal medical management cases. And I was just finding that I was not having the time to give the proper attention to school. Since I was already in the field of what I knew I wanted to do, I elected to drop out of school and just pursue my career full time.
At that time, it wasn’t an uncommon thing. These days when we hire animal care staff, they come with a minimum of usually a bachelor’s degree and with usually some level of paid exotic experience in a zoo or related facility. Back then that wasn’t necessarily the case. Most of the positions were hired more on a local basis rather than it being the competitive market that it is today where we hire from all over the U.S.
WACOAN: You mentioned being trained in the hoofstock and mammal area. What are all the departments you’ve trained in?
Butler: When I started, animal care staff was animal care staff. We didn’t have the division of departments like we do now. But I want to say in the fall of ’97, when we opened our herpetarium, we added reptile — ‘herp staff’ — at that time, and then from there with the addition of the Brazos River Country [exhibit] in 2005, we then added bird and aquatic departments. Before that, we were more generalists. I worked pretty much most of the collection. I am somewhat trained in the herp department as far as I can be a secondary backup. I’m by no means a herpetologist by trade.
From the bird side, when I started, we were all one department, so I worked with most of that collection prior to development of the bird department. Then still during my career as a keeper, I would fill in over in birds. Pretty decent background in birds. But again, I would not say that I’m an aviculturist by any means.
My personality can sometimes be a little bit big and larger than life, so I think that I naturally just fall in line with mammals, specifically the elephants because I’m a big personality. They can be pretty headstrong, and I definitely identify with our elephants. When I started working with them, probably less than a year into my career, I just fell in love with them and knew that was definitely a species that I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my career.
Through my tenure, one of the biggest things for me is I love hand-rearing animals. I love fostering wildlife, whether that’s to be released or rearing wildlife to be here, part of the collection, and just really looking at those animals needs and tailoring their rearing to that. I’ve raised a fair portion of our mammal collection with the assistance of other staff members.
Anytime we’re hand-rearing, especially if it’s going to be for our collection, we want to make sure that they don’t bond or imprint too strongly with one person because they are going to have to interact with several keepers, and keepers are going to come and go throughout their life cycle.
WACOAN: How long were you a keeper?
Butler: I was a keeper for 12 1/2 years, from ’97 to August of 2009. In August of 2009, I took over the supervisory role of the mammal department. I was the supervisor from right when we were opening our orangutan exhibit to just a day after my birthday in March .
WACOAN: How did your role change from being a keeper to becoming a supervisor? Were you still involved with animals every day?
Butler: It was a change in the fact that I was overseeing the collection and overseeing staff members, but I still was very involved in the day-to-day husbandry. Over the years, I’ve slowly moved myself out of actually filling the [primary] role every single day. As the mammal supervisor, I would schedule myself a secondary person, but I wouldn’t take on the role of the primary caregiver of the animals. Just in case something came up in another area or I needed to take on more of an administrative supervisory role, there was someone there to continue the work and the animal husbandry in that area. I was the backup supportive role.
WACOAN: In March, you were named the general curator. What will that role entail?
Butler: We’re still transitioning into that. I started my position right in the middle of COVID-19. It’s been a learning curve for all of us. Right now, we’re still in the process of getting my [previous] position filled so I can take on more of the curator role.
I’m still doing the day-to-day husbandry, just not as often. If we have a staff member out and I need to help work elephants or we need to shift orangutans, our mentality here is kind of all-hands-on-deck, especially today. We’re waiting to see if the storm comes in, and if we have a storm roll in, then we all kind of assemble and go to our areas to get the animals inside. I’ll help shift the animals if needed.
But moving forward, I will move more away from day-to-day husbandry and move more toward the administrative tasks of overseeing the departments and making sure that we are meeting our [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] requirements and that all of our standards are up to code. More of a higher level of engagement than I was doing before.
WACOAN: What’s it like at the zoo right now while it’s temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions?
Butler: As far as the animal care staff, our day-to-day has not changed a ton except the zoo’s a lot quieter place. We realized exactly how much our public meant to us. That engagement level for not only the animals, but also for us as keepers. It’s just very quiet.
Up until [the zoo closed], we had to revamp our protocols with carnivores and their training because of the cases of the Bronx Zoo tigers [that tested positive for COVID-19]. We were just spending a little extra time in training and redoing the exhibits. We still are doing those things. We’ve added additional [personal protective equipment] for the safety of our cats, just to make sure that we keep everybody, staff, animals healthy and happy during this time.
WACOAN: According to the press release announcing your new role, you’ve worked for the society and the zoo a combined 26 years. Who has worked at the zoo longer than you?
Butler: Johnny Binder has. He was our previous general curator. He held that role when the zoo was built up until he moved into his position of deputy director. He’s been the general curator during that entire time.
Terri Cox who is now our executive director of the [Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society]. She has been here since the development of the zoo. She was actually on the board of the [Central Texas Zoological Park], and Binder was on staff at the Central Texas zoo. Binder’s career spans over 40 years.
WACOAN: Cameron Park Zoo opened in the summer of ’93, and you were hired in ’94, so you’ve gotten to see a lot of exciting changes.
Butler: Absolutely. I’m a native Wacoan, grew up in Waco, and so I remember in like fifth grade doing an essay on whether the zoo should be moved to Cameron Park from the old facility out by the airport. I remember being in support of it, and I never would have known — skip forward 10 years — that I would actually have the opportunity to be involved in that facility.
I’ve seen a lot of growth. I’ve seen a lot of change. And everything has been positive for our institution, positive for our collection, but our community engagement for the size of our zoo for the size of our city, we really have a good public backing. We’ve been able to do some really awesome things through not only our bonds that have been issued but also through our society and private donations funding exhibits. I have seen the zoo double, really almost triple at this point, from when I started as a keeper.
WACOAN: I know it’s quite a span of time, but are there any milestones that have really stuck out to you? Things you’re proud of that have been brought to Waco?
Butler: One thing that I’m proud of is our breeding programs. We have been able to breed several species. Not only on the mammal side, but on our reptiles side, our bird side, we have several [species survival plans], and I’m just really proud of the staff that we have and the level of talent that we have to be able to breed the species that we have thus far.
During my career, things that I’m proud of — I was a part of our first lion cub birth here, and then we had several other births. We have bred our tigers, our jaguars — I was a part of their birth management.
I’m very involved in hoofstock. Hoofstock is one of my loves. I serve as the vice coordinator for gerenuk [species survival plan]. That’s a species that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s here in our hoofstock exhibit. I’ve been a part of their breeding and management and developing new husbandry practices for them because they are a very challenging species to manage. They do come with a lot of health problems, and being that they’re hoofstock, they’re flighty.
WACOAN: Have there been specific animals over the course of your career that you’ve gotten more attached to? Ones that have a special place in your heart?
Butler: Absolutely. I always say I don’t have a favorite species, but I have favorite specimens of those species. I’m a very naturally loving person; I think every animal here that I care for gets a little piece of my heart.
I tend to like the ones that are more challenging. The ones that are easygoing and just really engaging and will do anything, I like those animals, but I really tend to like the ones that are the more challenging cases that maybe have a history that they’re not as comfortable around people or just by nature they’re a little bit more reserved or shy. Those are the ones that I tend to go for.
But anybody that knows me, if you ask, it’s Tembo. I’ve worked with her for over 22 years. I am 42, and she is 44; we’ve spent half of our lives together. She’s just, she’s my girl.
Tembo has been in Waco since 1979. She came in as a 2-year-old here, so she’s grown up in Waco, too. She’s just real quirky. She can be easily startled and just, she’s got her own personality. It’s really hard to put her into words. She can be obstinate but very engaging. I feel like we’re kind of peas in a pod. She can be a social butterfly at times, but other times she’s very reserved.
And then there’s other ones. Any of them that we are managing long-term. We had a giraffe named Julie that had a varus deformity of her hoof, so she required a lot of management, and she was one that I was very bonded to.
One of our lions that we have now, Shamfa, is 21. She’s getting up there in age, but I saw her come in as a 1-year-old. I saw her breed; I saw her raise her cubs and have been through every milestone in her life.
WACOAN: How did you become the vice coordinator for the gerenuk SSP?
Butler: In the role of mammal supervisor, we are institutional representatives for certain species, for SSPs. For most of the species I manage, I’m the institutional representative. There was a request put out on the [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] Listserv that they were needing a vice coordinator for the [gerenuk SSP].
We have managed gerenuk here in Waco since I think around early 2000s. It’s the species that I’ve been involved in not only working with but birth management and transferring them, also introducing them to mixed species exhibits, so I had a broad knowledge of the species. I just submitted my name with my curriculum vitae of my experience levels to the SSP when they put out the request. A vote was conducted of all institutions housing that species, and I was elected.
WACOAN: So, you’re not just working with Cameron Park Zoo. You’re also working with the other institutions that have these animals.
Butler: Correct. The coordinator for the species is based out of Denver Zoo in Colorado. I, as the vice coordinator, am here in Waco, so we work with our captive population of gerenuk in AZA zoos. She’s the main point person, and then she will assign me what needs she may have. But the SSP, which is a species survival plan, the goal is to keep the main kinship low within our breeding population to maintain as much genetic diversity so that way we’re able to have a sustaining population of animals in captivity, and we don’t have to go and remove specimen from the wild.
WACOAN: When did your general interest in animals start?
Butler: I’ve always been naturally drawn to animals, always been an animal lover. Growing up, most people that knew me as a child called me Elly May Clampett because any stray in the neighborhood or broken-wing bird, I would bring it in and want to keep it and want to mother it and make sure it got to proper animal care.
I had family members and friends that had farms, and my family is very much an outdoors family. I’m not a hunter. I don’t hunt, but being Texans, I have families that have large pieces of property, and that’s where we would spend our weekends. Just out in nature, fishing, camping trips or doing all those things.
I’ve always been very drawn to wildlife. In fact, after I got the keeper job my mom found a little journal that I did when I was 8 or 10, and it was like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And there was a picture of me holding a baseball bat and a giraffe, and it said, ‘I want to play softball, and I want to work with giraffes.’ I don’t even have that memory. But it’s just always been something that I’ve known I wanted to do — either work with animals or work with kids, and this is the best of both worlds. I get both.
WACOAN: Have you had the opportunity to visit other zoos in the U.S.?
Butler: Absolutely. That is something that’s kind of a passion of ours. It’s always a running joke with our family because I’m very close to my family — we’re all here in the Waco area — and anytime we’re traveling, I’m making my list of zoos that we’re going to hit. My little sister will be like, ‘OK, I’m only going to three zoos on this trip.”
My son is actually a senior at [Lorena High School] this year, and that’s something that we do as a family. He is very passionate about zoos, too. In fact, when they were moving the last Sumatran rhino from the Cincinnati Zoo a couple years back, Harapan — my son really loves rhinos — I said, ‘Hey buddy, you know, they’re going to be moving Harapan to [Indonesia]. It’ll be the last Sumatran rhino [in the western hemisphere]. This is a species that could go extinct in your lifetime. I feel it’s really important for us to go and see him.’ So, I look it up, I find airfare for less than a hundred bucks on Spirit, and we flew to Cleveland and then drove down to Cincinnati and then went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, because two tiger cubs I raised now reside at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Then we went back to Cincinnati to fly home, and we did that within three days. So, we’re known to do these kinds of monster family zoo trips. It’s what we love doing.
My mom says the first zoo that I visited I was 6 weeks old, and they took me to the Saint Louis Zoo. I’ve never been able to go back as an adult, but that was always part of our travels when I was a kid.
WACOAN: Are there any zoos you’ve visited that you’d especially recommend?
Butler: There are tons of zoos. If it is an AZA-accredited institution, they’re held to very, very high standards. They are not only meeting those standards, but they’re exceeding those standards. Anytime you’re traveling, definitely look at the AZA zoo list and visit those zoos. There are the big iconic ones, the historical ones, but so many people come to Cameron Park Zoo, and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, we never realized the zoo was here. It’s such an amazing zoo.’ We will get visitorship that will drive to our facility over Dallas or Fort Worth because those are larger zoos, and they love that our facility is a park setting. It has that park-feel. Our exhibits are immersion exhibits. It’s all about immersing them into the flora and fauna around them, and there’s tons of zoos like that everywhere.
Certainly, do your homework. Make sure that it is a reputable facility, that they are an accredited facility, that their standards of care are high and that their funding is going back into conservation, but there’s tons out there.
WACOAN: Can you tell me a little bit more about your family here in Waco?
Butler: My mom, she was a teacher and a day care director for almost 17 years. And then she went and worked and retired from the state. She worked for the state in the food stamp office. My dad was a city of Waco firefighter who retired after 38 years of service. My little sister is a dental hygienist here in Waco. Then I have a partner that I’ve been with for 12 years. She’s an educator, and my son, Shelton, is 18 and is a senior at Lorena High School.
The things that are really important to me are my family. Obviously, family’s No. 1. Also, my pets. We have dogs and cats, and not having an animal at home to go home to every day, my welfare would go down significantly. I’ve just always surrounded myself with animals.
WACOAN: What are some of your favorite spots in Waco?
Butler: As far as food, I love the local spots — Jasper’s [Bar-B-Q] and Dubl-R [Old Fashioned Burgers] and Cupp’s [Drive-Inn] and Lolita’s — all those Waco joints. If I had to say a favorite dish, it would be at D’s Mediterranean. Their Kibbe Plate. That’s probably one of my favorite things in the world.
I played a lot of softball out at Riverbend Ballpark. So many, many fond memories there. But also, Lake Waco and Lake Whitney.
Waco is awesome in the fact that we’re right in the transition area for so many different vegetational zones, so you can drive an hour to an hour-and-a-half in any direction, and the topography of the land is going to be so different. Growing up, we were always in Cameron Park. It’s one of my favorite places as far as going walking.
WACOAN: Which is your favorite sculpture in the Waco Sculpture Zoo that’s now in Cameron Park?
Butler: The ‘Gerenuk.’ It is beautiful, and it captures their elegance. He’s standing on his hind legs to forage. My second runner-up would be the elephant on the bench, [Wise Elephant]. I love how playful it is.
WACOAN: Do you have a favorite spot within the zoo? One that you find particularly calming or think is especially unique to Waco, etc.
Butler: I love our zoo in general. I believe that the park setting really allows you to immerse yourself into each of the exhibits individually. As far as calming, one of my favorite tasks to do if I am having challenging day is to clean the rhino barn. There I can hose down the floors and Zen out. If I had to choose a unique spot, it would be our Lemur and Gibbon Island exhibits. I love that you can sit on the shaded deck and watch the animals while enjoying the views of the water.