Zoos have taken on even more importance now that the public is becoming increasingly aware that so many species are becoming extinct and others are losing their habitats. The United Nations recently reported that there are one million species of plants and animals that are threatened with extinction. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, The Louisville Zoo is at the forefront of implementing innovative changes and creating new programs that are impacting wildlife not only in Louisville, but around the country.

“I believe there has never been a more important time in the history of civilization for the role of a modern, accredited zoo. If you look at our lives today, technology is a wonderful thing but it has also made our lives more complicated and fast moving. We have become connectedly disconnected. The heart of the zoo is providing a place for visitors to relax and enjoy. The soul of the zoo is reconnecting people back to the natural world and sharing scientific information so they can begin to contemplate what is their planetary responsibility, says John Walczak, Director.

The Louisville Zoo is home to more than 1,100 animals on 134 acres and welcomes over 800,000 visitors a year. Its history boasts incredible advancements and additions. The HerpAquarium has particular meaning for Walczak as he was hired to design and staff it, and brought in species from around the globe. When debuted, the HerpAquarium, with residents such as snakes, bats, frogs and Gila monsters, boosted zoo attendance from about 400,000 guests a year to more than 560,000.

Gorilla Forest and Glacier Run have become two of the most beloved areas of the zoo but Walczak says the Islands installation actually was one of the most pivotal exhibits that has influenced the entire zoological profession. In the years they opened, Glacier Run, Gorilla Forest and Islands were the highest scoring award winners honored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“With 233 accredited zoos in the world, Islands was the first multi-species rotational exhibit in the world. We have five species of mammals that include tigers and orangutans. They have a beautiful bedroom suite. Behind the scenes the mammals are rotated multiple times throughout the day. Islands was a triple win. It’s an incredible environment for the animals. The keepers have to use positive reinforcement to get them to move through the area. That develops important relationships between the keepers and the animals. And, guests are able to see more active animals,” he explains.

The director gives much credit to former mayor William Cowger and philanthropist J. Graham Brown for having the vision to realize that a zoo is critical to a community that cares about culture and conservation, and provides citizens a place to learn about amazing beings and places thousands of miles away from Louisville. He also names Ivo Poglyan, the zoo’s first director, as being instrumental in setting the zoo on the path of becoming a pre-eminent zoo in America. “He created the panorama from giraffe to lions to zebra. That was hot stuff in 1969,” says Walczak.

When Walczak moved to Louisville in 1985, he felt “Louisville must be the cultural center of the universe.” The Kentucky Center had just opened, the city had hosted the Mondale-Reagan debates, the first artificial U.S. heart transplant had been performed at Audubon Hospital, and the zoo had successfully completed the first embryo transfer from a zebra to a horse mare, a procedure in which Dr. Bill Foster, the zoo’s first veterinarian was heavily involved. He still thinks Louisville is a city of excellence and he has a passion for his work that only increases with each of the zoo’s milestones of growth.

His role allows him close interaction with the animals. He has known Qannik, one of the polar bears, since she was six months old. “She knows and recognizes me. That’s an incredible honor. And all of our orangutans are brilliant in their own way. Teak is extremely bright. He can accomplish problem solving like a third-year college engineering student. There might be a crowded Saturday when there are 20 of us standing in front of the glass enclosure. He may be in the far corner but when he sees me, he comes down to acknowledge me. I try to figure out every way I can to enrich him,” he says.

Everything we have done for the last 25 years has included a human element. That’s because it’s important to help everyone understand that humans are a key element of the planetary balance. If we don’t include that in every exhibit, we’re not telling the whole story.

Illustrating how every type of animal has its own social dynamic, he refers to Jelani, a gorilla who has had 8 million hits on You Tube. Jelani will visually connect with someone in the crowd. If they have a phone or tablet, he loves to look at the pictures.

Walczak and his staff respect all the animals for who they are and base relationships with the animals on empathy and respect for them as individuals and as a species. The goal is to provide the animals everything they need and to expand their welfare.

Much of what has transpired at the Louisville Zoo is little known to the public. Walczak relates a story that has had a profound effect globally. While Gorilla Forest was being built, in 2001 National Geographic broke a story on coltan, which is used in the manufacture of cell phones. It can be found in a mineralized form in Australia and Congo, although it is much cheaper to get out of Congo. The forest in Congo was being penetrated by logging in order to access the mineral, and the money from mining was fueling the civil war in Congo. In the process, gorillas, elephants and bongos were being killed. “A Louisville entrepreneur, Eric Ronay, heard the story here at the zoo. As a result, he formed his company, ECO-CELL, to recycle coltan. What he learned at the zoo influenced the industry to change,” says Walczak.

The Louisville Zoo has ambitious plans that include conservation projects such as the Crocotorium, which will delight visitors with the predators’ surprising displays of crocodiles’ athleticism, and a Shark Conservation Institute that will educate visitors about the shark population being threatened due to overfishing for their fins as a food delicacy. That exhibit will also promote a conversation about the health of oceans, and will address how oceans affect human health.

Walczak recounts his early days at the zoo. “We said let’s take the zoo and turn it inside out. We have done that and are going to do it more and more. A next undertaking is a formal ambassador program in which staff will work with animals as part of our guest encounter educational program that will offer more engagement experiences with the animals. As someone has said, ‘In order to save something, you must love it; to love it, you must understand it; and to understand it, you must be taught.’”

Also integral to the zoo’s 2016 Master Plan is the creation of a Safari Base Camp Education Center that will be like a zoo within a zoo, interspersing interactive experiences and animal ambassadors.

“Everything we have done for the last 25 years has included a human element. That’s because it’s important to help everyone understand that humans are a key element of the planetary balance. If we don’t include that in every exhibit, we’re not telling the whole story,” says Walczak.

Visitors to the zoo form very personal, and very different, bonds. “Years ago, I led a group to Churchill, Canada. One of the ladies from Louisville on the trip was retired and her husband had passed away. I asked her what drew her to the zoo. She said it just lifts her up. Somedays when she was feeling down, she’d come here. There are so many stories from so many people about how the zoo has impacted their lives and brought them peace,” says Walczak.

Even as it looked to the future, in May the zoo kicked off its 50th anniversary with a variety of animal enrichment activities, the display of a community mural, visits by zoo mascots, the zoo float that was featured in the Kentucky Derby Festival Parade, and games and giveaways. The celebration will continue throughout the year at festivals around town and at zoo-sponsored events.

Posted on 2019-06-13 by Nancy Miller | Photos by Danny Alexander, Courtesy Archival Photos