When I was a young child and my family would come to Fort Wayne to visit relatives, our most anticipated event was visiting the Fort Wayne Children‚Äôs Zoo with our grandparents. Each summer we would go to the zoo and spend the day ‚Äď animals, rides, lunch, souvenirs. It‚Äôs was the highlight of every visit, every summer, every year. Living here as an adult and raising three children of my own, that annual outing was a huge part of their lives, and my grandparents were always the ringleaders. When my sisters would visit with their children, we knew a trip to the zoo was mandatory.I now have a granddaughter, and we‚Äôre taking a somewhat different approach. Instead of the one-day, all-day blowout, we have a grandparent membership which allows us to take her for an hour here, an hour there, taking as much or as little time as she can handle on any given day. It‚Äôs a new way to experience the zoo, and as thousands of families in and around Fort Wayne know, there‚Äôs no bad way to experience our Children‚Äôs Zoo. It‚Äôs a landmark and a treasure, and it‚Äôs provided joy to generations.
One of the many who have a lifetime of memories of the zoo is its director, Jim Anderson, whose entire academic and career plan was altered by a summer job. A graduate of South Side High School, Anderson played trumpet in the band and decided to pursue a major in music at Indiana University.
In 1976, home for a few months after his freshman year, he applied for a summer job at the zoo. That was all she wrote. Within a few years Anderson was graduating with a degree in animal science from Purdue University instead of the music degree from IU. He‚Äôs been working for the zoo ever since, for the last two decades as its director.
As the zoo celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Anderson is only the second director in its history. Founding director Earl Wells preceded him and laid the groundwork for Anderson‚Äôs own vision of the zoo.
‚ÄúWe have 250 employees this summer, and we give them each a piece of responsibility,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThat also gives them a piece of the success of the zoo. I‚Äôm here, but I‚Äôm not going to be driving the train today or flipping burgers or feeding the giraffes or selling tickets. All of those things are an important part of what makes this zoo successful, and we can all take credit for making that happen.‚ÄĚ
Giving each person at the zoo a stake in its success ‚Äď and understanding their importance to the zoo‚Äôs mission ‚Äď has made it a happy place to work and to visit for half a century.
‚ÄúYou have to understand that no one person is more important than the newest employee,‚ÄĚ says Anderson. ‚ÄúEach person is part of something big. We tell them ‚ÄėWe can‚Äôt do it without you.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
That sense of team spreads beyond the zoo‚Äôs borders and into the city and region as a whole, with Anderson understanding that there‚Äôs a great relationship between the zoo and the community which has so embraced it.
‚ÄúPart of what we‚Äôre trying to do with this 50th birthday celebration is to get our message out to more people, to share our zoo with the community and to thank the community for all its done for us. We don‚Äôt get money from the city to keep this all going. We‚Äôve been built by donations, admission and memberships, and we use that money to pay our staff and feed the animals. We serve the community, but the community has served us. It‚Äôs been a very circular thing.‚ÄĚ
Although open for guests April through October, the zoo is maintained all year long and hosts school field trips which help youngsters learn about zoology and animals in a fun and interactive way. Anderson says that even if you drive by the zoo on Christmas day, you‚Äôll see 30 cars in the parking lot, since staff are always checking on the animals and the facilities. A walk around the zoo quickly demonstrates the sense of teamwork Anderson touts, with everyone working diligently to serve the thousands of visitors that come through the gates each year. (That numbers 20 million visitors in 50 years.) Anderson feels strongly that the zoo‚Äôs greatest goal is in the experience they give their guests.
‚ÄúOur founding director Earl Wells said ‚ÄėPeople don‚Äôt want to see things, they want to do things,‚Äô and we try to provide an interactive experience. I want to provide an enriching experience for families that come here. It really is a higher purpose. It‚Äôs a pretty big thing.‚ÄĚ
Two directors in 50 years is a fairly remarkable accomplishment for any organization and demonstrates the stability which has made the zoo successful. Always moving forward with new attractions, the updated reef aquarium recently reopened and the stingray exhibit is set to open mid-summer. There are more plans to expand and grow the Australian Adventure with a new aviary and reptile house along with improvements to the boat ride. There are always possible projects in the offing.
‚ÄúWe have two lists: the ‚Äėwant to do‚Äô and the ‚Äėhave to do,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Anderson. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs always a matter of time and money what gets done. For example, the Mother Goose which has been sitting there for 50 years is on the ‚Äėhave to do‚Äô list. It‚Äôs a great need of a cleaning and update. I want everything to be perfect, and it‚Äôs just a matter of making sure we have the money to do all of it.‚ÄĚ
The father of five children, ranging in age from 14 to 23, Anderson has turned that summer job 39 years ago into a lifelong career and passion. He says there are some zoo directors who hopscotch around the country moving from zoo to zoo. That isn‚Äôt his career path.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve seen about 150 zoos all around the country, and I think the experience we offer our guests is as good as it gets. In the almost 40 years I‚Äôve worked here, I‚Äôve had other opportunities. But it‚Äôs a hometown thing, it‚Äôs a family thing, and I‚Äôve always felt this community and this team here is headed in the right direction. It‚Äôs fun to be part of it.‚ÄĚ
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