“Cruncher the alligator helps me tell the story of what a Conservation Comeback looks like.”

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Having grown up in central Florida, alligators were a big part of my childhood and remain one of my favorite animals to this day. That is why I so often travel with Cruncher, a young alligator that lives here at the Zoo. I have learned over the years that when I talk to people, of all ages, they are far more interested in live animals than they are in projected pictures and videos! Cruncher helps me show them what a conservation comeback looks like! And my Friend Cruncher also helps me share my story of growing up around the lakes and rivers of Central Florida.

My whole career, in fact, my whole darn life has been connected to alligators. Growing up in central Florida 60 years ago, before that area was heavily developed, my pals and I spent endless summer hours swimming and fooling around in local lakes and rivers. Our principal occupation was trying to catch animals. Snakes and turtles were the easiest, but the grand prize was to find a baby alligator. Fortunately for us, though at the time we didn’t know it, the American alligator was at its all-time low numbers in the 1960s. Ever since the Civil War ended people had been poaching gators for everything from European fashion to soup and golf bags. So, alligators were down to less than 6% of their historic population.

One of the challenges for alligators and crocodiles is that, as alpha predators, they really have no fear of other animals. So, once people got a taste for gators they were incredibly easy to just paddle up to and shoot. And their numbers fell like a rock, so that by the time we were out searching for them at night with our mom’s flashlights, they were very hard to find. Good thing too, since we spent much of our time swimming at dawn and dusk when gators are out to feed. We did not have a care in the world, but mostly we were just lucky in our timing. Today gators have made a tremendous comeback and it is now extremely dangerous to swim in many lakes and rivers in Florida and Louisiana.

Of course, gators didn’t bounce back by luck. It takes a ton of people and a ton of work to save species. The American alligator was one of the 12 species initially protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Thanks to the recovery plan implemented by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and a ban on the use of alligator meat and skins, they were the first species taken off the endangered list in 1987. Their fast recovery was due to abundant remaining habitat and a very fast reproductive rate in which a female alligator can lay up to 50 eggs per year.

My Friend Cruncher and I are telling this important story whenever we can.


“Daphne is the 19th manatee to be rehabilitated at the Cincinnati Zoo since 1999.”

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Daphne is one beautiful and lucky Manatee. She is at the Zoo because she needed some help! Since 1999 the Zoo has been partnering with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Sea World and other groups in Florida to bring injured, starving and orphaned baby Manatees to the Zoo’s Manatee Springs habitat to nurse them back to health and give them a second chance. Daphne is the 19th manatee to be rehabilitated here.

Manatee Springs is near and dear to my heart because I grew up in Central Florida knowing Manatees, referred to as Sea Cows when I was a kid, where I would see them when I was canoeing and fishing with my Friends. My friend Daphne is here until she is big enough and strong enough to go home! While she is here, she is teaching all our visitors about Manatees and their wonderful water world in the rivers of Florida because we can all see them, underwater in their pool, doing what they do in their river homes… eating, floating, sinking, sleeping in shimmering blue water. And, even more importantly, Daphne is helping us all learn how to live together.

Manatees were once an endangered species, but the good news is that manatees have staged a remarkable come back over the years. Current estimates are that the Florida population is around 8,000 animals, up from 1/8 of that 50 years ago. Manatees are still protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service because they are not considered to be fully recovered from the downturn that they suffered in the latter half of the 20th century.

Manatees are fascinating creatures. When you see them in clear water like in Cincinnati Zoo’s Manatee Springs habitat they appear to be some sort of marine mammal computer screensaver. And it is true that manatees are built for a slow-motion lifestyle. Big herbivores – adults weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds – manatees do not have a lot of specific needs. In order for a manatee to thrive it just needs green plants and warm water, – 76° or warmer. Manatees can live in salt and fresh water but always in shallow water because they rest on the bottom when sleeping. Of course, that is what leads to their conflicts with people since marinas, jet skis, water skiers, and other fast-moving boats share those same coastal areas.

Eventually, Daphne and her pool mates will be flown back to Orlando on a DHL airplane, where the folks at Sea World will get them used to eating native plants prior to releasing them back in the areas where they were rescued as orphans. But more manatees will need help and at least two will be transported to Manatee Springs to be welcomed, rehabilitated and become an important part of this ongoing story of what it takes for people and animals to share our world.


“Fiona is one-of-a-kind and a symbol of hope for people of all ages, all over the world.”

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My Friend Fiona is an inspiration and a joy. Fiona is the most famous animal in the world, and she is loved by millions of people. And, she sure deserves all of that love! She and her strong heart showed the world what a team of dedicated people who work hard and never quit can do. She showed the world that love wins! She inspires me every day.

Fiona’s captured the hearts of the World from the moment she was born, 6 weeks early and less than 1/3 her expected birth weight. At birth, hippos are typically very precocious animals weighing about 100 pounds, nursing underwater and climbing on their mother’s back. But Fiona looked like a deflated football lying on the straw in her barn. I remember standing there looking at her on that morning of January 24, 2017, wondering how we would handle this, when next to me one of our young keepers whispered to another, “We can do this.”

Honestly, I thought, “Those keepers are going to get their hearts broken,” because nobody had ever even seen a premature hippo before, and to raise one would surely be fraught with heart-breaking challenges. However, our keepers refused to give up. And so, the legendary Team Fiona was formed. In addition to her daily care provided by her keepers, dozens of people jumped in to take shifts holding her to keep her warm, swim with her and help keep her active and growing.
At about 6 weeks old we almost lost Fiona when she became dehydrated and was losing weight. Fiona needed fluids, but how do you put an IV in the vein of a hippo? Fortunately, someone on the zoo staff remembered that when her daughter was in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital they had a specialized team of nurses to put in difficult IV lines. And two members of the hospital’s “vascular access team” showed up with their special equipment and hit a vein on the very first try. Ever since that day, Fiona has gained both weight and notoriety.

Everyone at the Cincinnati Zoo agrees that we’ve learned a lot from Fiona. We feel like we are experts on hippo ultrasounds, hippo milk, and everything else you need to know to raise a premature baby hippo for the first time. But mostly we learned that love carries the day and makes the impossible possible. Fiona taught us all to never give up.

In my 40 years in the zoo field, I have never seen such massive interest and an outpouring of love and encouragement for one animal like I have seen for Fiona. Some of it is her “saved from the brink” story. And some is due to social media: But everybody who knows her will tell you that there really is something special about Fiona. She is one of a kind and a symbol of hope to people of all ages all over the world.


“Greta is a Royal Goliath Beetle from the Congo in Africa.”

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Greta is one great big, beautiful beetle. She’s a Royal Goliath Beetle, the largest of all beetle species and heaviest insect in the world!

Here at the Zoo, we have the first habitat ever built to tell the stories of insects and their importance on this planet. In fact, I helped build it when I first came to the Zoo in the 1970s. Our team in Insect World works with all these insects and their plants to show all of us just how vital bugs really are. And of them all, Greta is my favorite!

When the Cincinnati Zoo opened our insectarium in 1978 it really was a revolutionary habitat on biodiversity. It was the first major living insect collection in the world and the star of the show then, as now, was the Royal Goliath beetle. Adult males of the species are as large and heavy as a baseball and with their dramatic black-and-white coloration, they really are something to see! Even in their larval, or grub, stage goliath beetles are amazing. As big as a bratwurst and just as tasty.

No one had ever shown the royal goliath beetle before our Insectarium opened and as a result, it was unknown to science that they can fly. I discovered this amazing, and loud, ability by chance at a live broadcast TV show in Cincinnati. The bright lights and heat from the stage lighting warmed up the huge male beetle so much that he took off right in the middle of a “live” television advertisement.

Like many other beetles, this giant one is not a great flyer. They peel back their hard carapace revealing semi-transparent wings that beat so fast they sound like a Sikorsky helicopter on takeoff; and after just a few seconds of flight, they come crashing down. In the Congo, this is a way to escape predators. But it created quite a stir in a TV studio I can tell you! Clearly, animals teach me something new every day.


“John is a symbol of hope that enough room can be saved from both people and lions to thrive in Africa.”

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Let me tell you a story about John. John is one gorgeous dude. King of the Jungle indeed. My friend John came to the Zoo to help us focus on and share the stories of Africa. John came to the Cincinnati Zoo from the National Zoo where he was born into a now-famous litter of seven brothers. when the Zoo planned to open an area dedicated to the African plains, we knew we needed lions to tell the whole story. John has helped us do just that by working every day with his keepers to share the story of his wild kin.

He was a very shy lion at first but now he is front and center in a story that has huge global implications. Since 2006, the Cincinnati Zoo has partnered with the Maasai community living in the South Rift Valley of Kenya with a group called SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners). This area between Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks represents one of the largest unfenced stretches of land in Kenya and is home to a growing population of lions. What is truly remarkable is that thousands of Maasai people and their livestock share the same landscape. It’s a program which shows people and predators can coexist if we manage our activities and resources carefully.

Like Simba from the movie The Lion King, lions in the wild face many threats and challenges. But now people are lions biggest threats. At the Cincinnati Zoo we are hopeful for the future of lions in Africa. We are proud to team up with Disney’s Protect the Pride campaign to raise global awareness and help support lion conservation. We believe that working together is what can bring back lion populations. Since Disney’s The Lion King was first released 25 years ago, we’ve lost half of Africa’s lions. Only 20,000 now remain from a population of 200,000 a century ago. So the time to act is now. The Protect the Pride campaign is dedicated to helping the number of African lions to double by the year 2050. It’s an auspicious goal and here at the Cincinnati Zoo, our symbol of hope is my friend John and his beautiful pride.

“Kendi is Swahili for ‘the Loved One.'”

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Let me tell you a story about Kendi. Kendi is a powerful and important boy. He was born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2017, the newest black rhino in a long history of breeding rhinos at the Cincinnati Zoo, and he follows in many large footsteps. His Swahili name says it all, “the loved one.” With 18 successful births, the Cincinnati Zoo leads the world in rhino breeding and our logo has had a black rhino on it for almost 150 years. But in that time, the black rhino species has shrunk from nearly 100,000 to about 5,000 today. Kendi’s job is to remind all of us that his wild kin is beautiful, important and incredibly valuable where they live. My friend Kendi has an important life ahead of him.

Here’s the deal, rhinos aren’t going to be saved in zoos. but their populations can help make a comeback with all the zoos and visitors who get inspired by their majesty when they see them in person. That connection with individual animals is what zoos do best and many times it’s the beginning of getting people directly involved with wildlife conservation. For example, black rhinos are in trouble for illegal poaching for their horns. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but there is still a market for rhino horn products in places like China, Vietnam, and even Yemen. These medicines or trinkets from supposed aphrodisiacs to dagger handles are old traditions from when there were a lot less people, a lot more rhinos and a much smaller demand.

Today, poaching has to stop. And of course, like other animals from the African plains, rhinos also suffer from land that is subdivided and fenced. Basically, just as with the American bison on the Great Plains 150 years ago, when the number of fences goes up the number of animals go down. The Cincinnati Zoo has played a leadership role with the International Rhino Foundation for decades working to help bolster rhino populations.

The good news is, that a wide variety of wildlife efforts in east and southern Africa are working to protect entire landscapes and ecosystems so that where successful, what works for rhinos will also protect everything from giraffes to lions. And my friend Kendi’s connection with zoo visitors is where it all begins.


“Sam is a great symbol of American conservation success.”

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Let me tell you a story about Sam. Sam arrived here in 2001, young and recovering from an injury to his wing. He didn’t have his white feathers yet and it looked like he was never going to fly again. Sam had hit a high tension electric wire that broke his right wing. Luckily there are dedicated people all over the world who care for and place injured eagles and other amazing birds in new homes where they know these individuals can play a really important role. My friend Sam does that every day both at the Cincinnati Zoo and all around our area.

Sam’s wing was mended by the veterinarians at the Michigan State University and now Sam can fly. He flies to tell his own hopeful story.  He can be seen flying twice a day in the summer in the Zoo’s Wings of Wonder Bird Encounter and a number of times a year, Sam flies for fans at the Cincinnati Reds and FC Cincinnati games and he steals the show every time.

When I moved to Cincinnati in the 1970s there were zero bald eagle nests in the state of Ohio. That was a result of pesticides spray and pollution in Ohio’s rivers. Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, eagles have staged a huge comeback. This year there were 250 successful nests in Ohio. That means that these nests all had baby eagles. In fact, bald eagles are even nesting on the Ohio river again for the first time since World War II. That is why my friend Sam is the very best symbol of American conservation success. By protecting eagles and cleaning up our waterways we are also protecting the very water that all of us drink. Protecting eagles actually means protecting people. Sam shows us that we are all in this together.


“Samantha is the firstborn of the Cincinnati Zoo’s long and storied gorilla program.”

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Samantha is the grandmother of the Cincinnati zoo’s long and storied gorilla program. In 1970 she was our first-born gorilla, half of the famous duo of newborns, “Sam & Samantha;” so named because they were taken Good Samaritan hospital for special care. Back then zoos had an awful lot to learn about taking care of gorillas.

But this story begins a decade and a half before Samantha even showed up at the zoo. In 1955 a young anthropology graduate named Cathryn Hilker went to Africa to take a truck full of milk goats to Dr. Albert Schweitzer for the children at his orphanage in Central Africa. As was tradition years ago, Schweitzer showed his thanks by giving a gift. This time it was an orphaned, baby girl gorilla whom he had named Penelope.

Cathryn had Penelope transported to the Cincinnati Zoo. Eventually, Penelope mated with the legendary silverback, King Tut, and she became the very first gorilla to give birth here. And that’s how Samantha’s story began.

Today at 49 years old Samantha is one of the very few animals that has been at the Cincinnati Zoo longer than I have, and the oldest gorilla we’ve ever had in Cincinnati. Due to more sophisticated veterinary care and nutrition, gorillas live much longer today than they did 40 years ago. So Samantha has seen it all.

When zoos first began to breed gorillas their keepers were very nervous about their survival and so the babies were pulled from their mothers and hand-raised in our nursery. They were bottle-fed and wore diapers! Over the past 40 years, zoos have learned and changed a lot. The Cincinnati Zoo has played a leadership role over all the years with our outdoor gorilla center that opened in 1978. It is the world’s first outdoor site where gorillas can live in large family groups. Over time we came to learn that no one can care for a baby gorilla better than its own mama. Today the Cincinnati Zoo is proud to have had 50 baby gorillas born here, all of them under the steady, watchful and wise gaze of my Friend, Grandma Samantha.


“Cheetahs are fast runners; but are they fast enough to outrun extinction?”

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Let me tell you a story about Tommy T. Tommy T was the first cheetah to be born at the Zoo’s Cheetah Breeding Facility to be hand-raised to become a cheetah champion. He works every day to share with zoo visitors like you what cheetahs do to live and survive and how beautiful they are. In fact, my friend Tommy T is a poster boy for cheetahs running. He had a three-page fold-out photo in National Geographic magazine all because cheetahs are born to run like nothing else on this planet.

You can see Tommy T and all the cheetahs in the Zoo’s Cheetah Encounter demonstrate their speed twice a day, five days a week. These champions will take your breath away. Twenty years ago, the Cincinnati Zoo invented the cheetah running course where cheetahs get to chase a lure, run at top speeds and eventually receive a tasty food reward for all of their hard work (in case you were wondering how to train a cat to do something every day at 11:00 and noon). The bad news is that today there are fewer cheetahs, less than 10,000, in Africa. The good news is that for 30 years, the Cincinnati Zoo has played a major role in cheetah conservation throughout east and southern Africa. From Kenya to Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa, and in many of those protected areas and open landscapes, cheetah numbers are stabilized.

So why is Tommy T important? Well, the role of the Cincinnati Zoo was the inspire every visitor with wildlife every day. We do that by having an interesting and active park every day of the year. And you have to admit, seeing a cheetah run 50-60 miles an hour is inspiring. Every time you visit the Cincinnati Zoo you’re helping to support our ongoing conservation programs for cheetahs and other animals all around the world. As long as we are careful, people, livestock and cheetahs can in fact live together. And our cheetah champion Tommy T shares that story with his speed.


“In her 47 years at the Cincinnati Zoo, Mai Thai has touched the hearts and lives of millions of people.”

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Let me tell you a story about Mai Thai. Mai Thai has been a superstar her whole life. From sharing the stage at Music Hall with opera stars in Aida to leading the Opening Day Parade to throwing out the first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds game. Mai Thai has touched the hearts and lives of millions of people since she arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo at age two. Today at age 49, my friend Mai Thai is one of the few animals at the zoo who has been here longer than I have. Over the years we have shared a lot.

Mai Thai has helped me teach and tell stories for my entire career. The first time I ever saw an elephant was in the sandlot playgrounds behind my elementary school when I was seven years old. It was a great big female Asian elephant brought in for the annual Lion’s Club Fish Fry and I can still remember riding her with my dad. And 30 years later, my own kids grew up riding Mai Thai here at the Zoo. But things evolve and here at the Zoo, we don’t ride or go in with our elephants anymore. But we love them just as much.

Today, Mai Thai and her elephant family, Schottzie, Jati and the big male Sabu all live together in our one-acre Elephant Reserve. The Zoo has created a space that gives them freedom of choice and allows them to live more like elephants would in the wild. The exciting this is plans are underway in the next few years to build the Zoo’s biggest habitat in what is now our back parking lot. A 5-acre Elephant Trek habitat that really will give enough room for our elephants to be elephants. Over time we will grow a bigger multigenerational heard, and a robust Asian elephant breeding program so we can continue to share how important and vital each individual elephant is. And to share the stories of what it takes to live with animals that are this big and this smart. But between here and there, I will always marvel at my friend Mai Thai’s physical strength and her gentle demeanor. When I go and visit her to share a story or walk by her area on the way to my office every day, Mai Thai tells me a story every time I see her.

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