The San Antonio Zoo has undergone an incredible transformation since Tim Morrow took over as the CEO in 2014. From their goals to the way they interact with our community, the Zoo is changing stereotypes. The mission of the San Antonio Zoo now includes much more emphasis on conservation, education and interaction. Tim could speak for days on these issues but I am glad we got one hour of his time.
Justin Hill: Hello, and bienvenido San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great, and unique, and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here. [applause]
All right. Welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Tim Morrow. Tim is the CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. He has previously worked with, and correct me if I get it wrong, but I think Fiesta, Texas, the San Antonio Spurs, and SeaWorld, basically all big hospitality groups in the city. Since 2014, he’s been the CEO of the zoo. In that time, you’ve seen a lot of the projects that have changed at the zoo. I mean, the Kiddie Park moved over, which a lot of people know about, the Will Smith Zoo School was launched. If you’ve been there lately, the rhinos Africa exhibit has become a whole new expanded habitat for animals to share space.
There’s a Jaguar habitat going in, the list is on and on, but some of the more interesting things that I learned about recently is the work they’ve done to bring animals back from the brink of extinction or endangered status. There’s a lot he’s done here. I was recently lucky to be appointed to the San Antonio Zoological Society or the zoo board. I’ve gotten to meet Tim, I asked him to come on. Thanks for being here.
Tim Morrow: Thanks for having me.
Justin: Tim, I do this with everybody. I start with just some general questions. The idea behind my podcast was to get to talk to people of San Antonio, share their stories, so some background questions. You’re running the zoo, do you have pets?
Tim: I do have pets. I have two dogs and a cat. Then I live at Leon Springs area, so we have random wild animals at all times, around the house, or sometimes in the house.
Justin: Nothing exotic?
Tim: Nothing exotic. No. I leave that to the zoo, to the professionals.
Justin: In your life have you ever had exotic animals?
Tim: I have had snakes and fish, and those kinds of things, but nothing crazy that you would expect maybe some of the workers at a zoo to have at their house.
Justin: Yes. I think that’s fair. When I’m at the zoo, I feel like a kid, do you have a favorite animal?
Tim: It really changes. It’s really whatever habitat we’re working on becomes my favorite animal, because you really dive so deep into learning about that animal because what we really try to do now with habitats is create natural spaces for them that are enriching, and so you need to learn as much about them as possible. Right now, we’re working on jaguar, a big overhead catwalk system so jaguar has become just an animal that I’m fascinated with. I mean they’re a big predator, they’re strong, they’re stealth, and just what they do is incredible. If you watch them hunt and grab crocodiles out of the water and pull them up in trees, it’s just an amazing cat.
The fact they used to be right here in south Texas, and that they’re still jaguars three hours south of the border into Mexico, it’s not unrealistic that someday Jaguars could make their way back in Texas.
Justin: I didn’t realize that, they came all the way up to South Texas?
Tim: Yes, they were here. They were in Arizona, really across the whole Southwest, and actually, they’re starting to spot one in Arizona that’s been going back and forth across the border-
Justin: No joke.
Tim: -that they’ve been spotting in Arizona. Not beyond the realm of possibility that Jaguars someday could show up in south Texas.
Justin: I thought they were more rainforest-y, they’ll actually go off into the desert?
Tim: Yes. They live in multiple areas, savannas, deserts, rainforests, which is another really cool feature about them. They really just adapt to whatever environment they’re in. We do some conservation work in Mexico with them in rainforest. Just three hours south of Brownsville, there’s rainforest in the mountains there, and it’s full of Jaguars and all kinds of amazing species.
We partnered with Gladys Porter Zoo and an NGO in Mexico to really do a lot of research down there on jaguars and tracking them and seeing how they are connecting with each other and connecting to other wild places as they move around.
Justin: Well, I mean, at the orientation, I was blown away at all that I didn’t know, and I think I’m going to learn a lot today. I always ask everybody and we always post about it, and I’ve learned a lot about San Antonio. What are some of your favorite places in San Antonio? I kind of say the hidden gem, so the first time I went to the like other Missions or the first time I went to the Tea Garden, I remember thinking, how have I not been here. These are great. Do you have any places in town like that, that you think are these off-the-beaten-path, really neat places?
Tim: Yes. There’s so many new things and old things people are discovering in San Antonio. I think the Trailway system that San Antonio is connecting is just really cool and underappreciated. I live up on the north side of town towards Leon Springs and there’s just such gems up on that side, around town like dance halls and old bars that have been there forever, and parks like Friedrich park is now very much discovered after COVID. I mean, there’s 500 cars up and down both sides of the street now for those parks, but there’s jewels all over this town.
You could explore San Antonio forever and not see everything. I was the chair of The Tourism Council here in San Antonio, and I’ve not even been to all the tourist attractions in town. Now, I do stuff with parks and I have been to probably 1/10th of the parks in San Antonio and across the South Texas.
Justin: Yes, so I had the Mayor on and he told me about Denman Estate Park, I think is what it was called, and I had never even heard of that-
Tim: Me neither.
Justin: -and then I looked it up and it’s got these like Japanese ponds, and there’s Japanese architecture. I didn’t even know it existed. Do you think Silver Fox would be a hidden gem?
Tim: I think Silver Fox is an iconic, legendary place.
Justin: I’m sure it has been a legend for many people. Same question about the zoo. What are the spots in the zoo do you think that, “Man, they don’t get enough attention or make sure you find this place.”
Tim: I think the really cool thing about our zoo is it’s not this big Boulevard, big wide pathway all the way through. It’s got these lots of little exploratory pathways that people can take advantage of. One of the areas which we’re about to revamp and redo next year is the Crunk Husky Tiny Tot nature spot. It’s an area dedicated to small kids. People just walk right past that area, but if you go in there and go around the back of the building there’s outdoor play for the kids, there’s exhibits back there that people don’t know about with tortoises. We had sloths back there at one point and we would post pictures and people were like, “Where is that? I go to the zoo all the time, I’ve never seen that.”
We have a lot of places in the zoo that people really don’t go to if they don’t get off the main pathways, and then within the zoo, we’re 107 years old, so if you really pay attention to the concrete and the architecture, there’s incredible architecture there and incredible hand-carved fir wood concrete throughout the zoo, which was, Dionicio, who’s a famous artist that did the benches around town that looked like–
Justin: Like the one in Alamo Heights that looks like a ferry.
Tim: He was doing a lot of work in Brackenridge Park. There’s a lot of his work in the park, and his apprentices were working in the zoo, and so we have this incredible connection to that artist, and so we had this really beautiful zoo with big trees and historic walls and historic buildings that layered on top of all the amazing animals and the things that we’re doing at the zoo now. It’s just really fun to explore our zoo.
Justin: Is the Tiny Tots area, is that where you can go feed the tortoises too?
Tim: Yes. We have a tortoise experience, we try to bring a lot of experiences now where people can get up close with the animals, so you can go in with the tortoises and feed the tortoises. You can go with kangaroos now, pet kangaroos.
Justin: I saw that
Tim: Feed giraffes, we have rhino behind the scene where you go down and touch our rhinos, or you can go hippo behind the scene. You could feed lorikeets, you could feed flamingos. We know, and zoos know that when people will have that personal connection with an animal, like one-on-one connection moment, like you’re staring at a giraffe face to face, then you really get inspired to care for that animal more because you’ve had that moment, and hopefully that translates to that person going home and doing things that can help the environment and help save that species.
Justin: I’m telling you, it’s kind of embarrassing to say, but I did the tortoise experience and I told my wife I feel like I connected with the tortoise. It was just all very strange, you were just eye-to-eye and petting it like a dog, and it was almost a connection. I think you’re right. It still sticks with me.
Tim: People remember the names of the giraffes, the names of the tortoises, and the kangaroos. There’s a connection formed for sure.
Justin: Sure. Your go-to food and drink spots in town?
Tim: Fralo’s pizza, number one, because I live out in Leona Springs, great pizza, you could sit outdoors, under the stars, and then he’s got a great little place next door that’s a jazz bar called bar 301. That’s my neighborhood area bar, and all the friends hang out there. One of the things I’ve learned quickly when I got to zoo was there’s just so many food choices down around the zoo in that area that it’s limitless. I could literally just drive down St. Mary’s and pick a new place every day probably for months. Bombay, of course, near the zoo is a great place to go. They do a lot to support the zoo too every month.
Elsewhere. I don’t know if you’ve been to Elsewhere Garden, it used to be the luxury, what Terrin and Nolan there has made that place. It’s a giant Instagram photo opportunity and a really cool vibe sitting on the river. The list goes on and on. I just enjoy hospitality industry, and right now supporting hospitality employees who have been through so much this year, so I try to get out to restaurants and those kinds of places, as much as I can and support them.
Justin: Did the grill get built back? I know it caught fire
Tim: Yes. The grill caught fire probably three, four months ago maybe now, and what I’ve read online is there’s insurance issues. I think the gentleman who founded Macaroni grill, which his name is escaping me right now, he still owns the building but lives in California or something now. The grill was chef-owned and operated, and I think there’s been some insurance challenges. I think he’s working through that process, but that was one of the other staples of food out there.
Justin: The food was so good.
Tim: People would come out there to eat from inside 410 and they’re like we had no idea there was a restaurant out here that had this level [laughs][crosstalk]
Justin: It’s one of the few places I would travel outside of inside 410 to go.
Tim: Yes, it’s great food. I hope it comes back.
Justin: You’re hearing more about it. I’ve heard from people that have worked with you on the board, you get a lot of accolades and a lot of attaboys for really being a transformational leader at the zoo. Is there any leadership advice or leadership books that you’ve found to be your guiding principles on how to lead people because it’s a hard thing to do.
Tim: Yes, well, really it’s not a book, it’s a philosophy. When I first started at Fiesta, Texas, that park when it opened, was owned by Opryland and USAA, did a joint venture to open that park. If you think about Opryland it’s all about shows so Fiesta, Texas was very show heavy when it first opened. It’s got the theme rounds of Germany and Crackaxle Canyon, ’50s.
Justin: I didn’t know that.
Tim: The philosophy in the theater world is management’s about backstage supporting the actors on the stage. That translated to everything I’ve done with management like my job is to support the staff. To me, my org chart is upside down. I’m at the bottom, supporting everyone else above me. That servant leadership is I’m here to make everyone’s jobs easier, point, “This is the direction we’re going to go, and then I’m going to help you all get there with what you need to do that.”
Then really just supporting each other and having a family environment I think is really important, and also hiring people that are smarter than you. I’m constantly the dumbest guy in the room which is not hard, and then I have great leaders that work at my vice president and director of management level that have just taken us to new limits very quickly in the past six years. People that in San Antonio or that visit us from out of town have seen that I think.
Justin: During the orientation, we’re talking about stuff in baskets for Easter and y’all were talking about how y’all were all doing it together, it didn’t seem to be a hierarchy like you said. There was no “I’m too good for this.” It was, “This is what it’s going to take.” Last two questions, favorite Fiesta event.
Tim: NIOSA, easy.
Justin: Yes? Man.
Tim: Yes, NIOSA, tradition.
Justin: I think you’re the first to say NIOSA.
Tim: [laughs] I know I’m crazy [unintelligible 00:11:10] Actually, I love all the Fiesta.
Justin: Me too.
Tim: I look forward to Fiesta more than Christmas. For it to be canceled twice and then be abrupted version, this time was painful, and I never get sick, and I was sick in the week of Fiesta. I made one night of NIOSA, I was not full strength but I plowed through, the rest of it, I slept through the whole thing. I think Taste of the Northside is a really great event now, and that benefits the Brighton Center, which is an amazing organization.
I’ve really become to love the parades too. The zoo had never had a float in the parades or hadn’t for decades, and so we have floats in all of the parades now. [crosstalk]
Justin: Yes, I saw the River last year.
Tim: This year the Cavaliers had raised $1,050,000 for Will Smith Zoo School with one of our donors matching that half.
Justin: That way, the Will Smith Zoo School was one of the beneficiaries of the River Parade this year?
Tim: The key beneficiary.
Justin: I didn’t know that.
Tim: The Grand Marshal was Susan Naylor who’s on our board and Will Smith was her son that was killed when he was eight.
Justin: Oh, I didn’t put that together.
Tim: The Cavaliers during COVID raised &500,000, Susan matched them with $550,000, she wanted to one-up them a little bit I think, because that’s Susan’s personality. We were the featured charity of choice this year. Actually, it was last year for the Cavaliers, and luckily, they let us ride through it because we really wanted to be part of that parade. The Grand Marshal was Susan Naylor who the school is named after her son, and then the third boat in line was Will Smith Zoo School.
It was fun to get the publicity for that school [crosstalk]
Justin: Does that event change beneficiary every year?
Justin: I didn’t know that. The zoo doesn’t have their own Fiesta event, do they?
Tim: Yes, we do. [chuckles]
Justin: What is it?
Tim: Festival De Animales. We are the last official Fiesta event, we go to last weekend, and it’s really a zoo-wide celebration of the animals, and the culture, and the food, and music of Latin America. It’s an event that the zoo has been doing for years. A couple of years ago, we applied to become an official Fiesta event, they’re like, “You’re in” and so we’re the grand finale of Fiesta and it’s just [crosstalk]
Justin: How long is it been official Fiesta event?
Tim: Official Fiesta event? Probably, three years now.
Justin: I don’t feel as bad. I was a little embarrassed before.
Tim: It’s a family fun event.
Justin: Which there needs to be more Fiesta events that are really family-centered.
Tim: We really enjoy and love being a part of Fiesta now. We’re such a big part of this community, for us to not have a big float was really a shame. Now, our zoo school kids are on there. We have an annual gala called Zoo Ball, Zoobilation Ball. Three years ago, we started one called Kids Zoo Ball. Kids can have a little kid’s version of our Zoo Ball so we have a kid’s version and an adult version.
The kid’s version, the kids raise money for the zoo, and the boy that raises the most and the girl that raises the most become king and queen of the jungle, and then we’ve added a court now for three or four other kids so we get more kids involved. Those kids get to ride on our float with our staff and things like that.
It’s just a really fun experience to see those floats going down the street.
Justin: I think everybody saw the April fool’s joke that the zoo was putting a dome over it, but in all seriousness, we’re going to talk about some of the big capital projects upcoming, but do you have a zoo pipe dream, the one that like, “I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but if I had unlimited money, here’s what I’d want to do.”
Tim: I think we would fully build out the zoo. People probably don’t realize how big our property is that we go under 281 to the other side, all the way over to Olmos tower. I think building that out fully, and then adding a safari park here in San Antonio or around San Antonio where we could do herds of rhino and herds of whole stock and I think zoos are moving that direction across the country.
The big ones we have at San Diego, Henry Doorly Zoo, and Omaha, and New Orleans is going in that direction. St. Louis is going in that direction. Texas has a perfect climate. There’s a lot of species from Africa and Asia that there’s more of here in Texas, South Texas than there is in their home ranges of Africa or Asia so it’s a perfect environment. Then we could do really more conservation work with some of those species and things like that.
Justin: How many acres for a safari park?
Tim: We would look probably 300 acres to have some big open spaces. Not all of it will be accessible to guests which gives you some flexibility and things like that.
Justin: How big is Brooks?
Tim: I don’t know how big that is. We should ask, we should Google that.
Justin: I have Leo on here.
Tim: [chuckles] Yes, we should Google that.
Justin: What they’re doing down there is so cool.
Tim: Yes, he’s building everywhere though, that’s the culture. [laughs]
Justin: Also, you talked about the trail system, they just connected their trail system to the city’s trail system. Let’s talk a little bit about what the zoo has going on and what is upcoming. Talk to us a little bit about some of the conservation efforts and really the way y’all as a zoo are trying to change the way it’s perceived. We’re not here for y’all to look at animals and beat on the wall, we’re doing a lot more to educate people and conserve. Let’s talk about some of the conservation efforts because it was really mind-blowing to me.
Tim: I was just talking to someone today about one of our biggest challenges is we have so much to tell, it’s hard to get out. First, we were trying to drive people to come to the zoo and make the zoo an incredible experience. The more people come in to the zoo, the more things like conservation and education that we get to do. When you come to the zoo, you’re helping fund all the things I’m about to talk about.
If you take the accredited zoos and the association of zoos and put all of them together, each year, they put over $200 million back into conservation all over the world and boots on the ground. We’re sending staff and we’re sending over $200 million to conservation efforts every year. If you put all the zoos together, they’re one of the biggest conservation movements on the planet, and it’s really funded by people visiting zoos. That’s how it’s being funded.
Our zoo, we work on almost every continent. We have projects all over the world that we either lead, fund, or take part in. The places we’re leading projects, we’re doing cave work in China. We’re working with Japanese giant salamanders in Japan, which they get 4, 5 feet long, very [crosstalk]
Justin: Do we have some in our zoo?
Tim: We do not anymore. We used to, and it was part of a really interesting trade many decades ago with the Kumamoto Zoo, which is a sister city of San Antonio. We work in Chile on amphibian research. We’re working in Mexico like I mentioned with jaguars. We’re in the Gulf of Mexico, the deep-sea research on the Gulf of Mexico, and all over the US doing a lot of subterranean work all over the United States.
Then even right here in San Antonio with Edwards Aquifer species, like the blind salamander. One of our coolest Texas projects is horny toads or horned lizards or horned frogs. Those are disappearing from across the state. It’s a good example of zoos collaborating. Dallas Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo, and our zoo are all breeding horned toads, they have different genes across different parts of the state.
We’ve divided the state up into three zones, and all three of us work with parks and wildlife to breed horned toads. We work for years to get ranches ready or big properties ready for rerelease. Last year, we had our first release of 82 baby horned toads back into the wild. We’re doing that with here, which [crosstalk]
Justin: They have trackers on them?
Tim: We have genetically tagged them so we can track their genetics. Their bellies have a fingerprint of dots on them. One really interesting thing about that because we want to go back and see how many we find and what’s the survival rate is, this is all new so we know that we’re going to make mistakes along the way. We have brought on somebody that trains shelter dogs to sniff out horned toads in the wild, so they could sniff out the toad or the sheddings of the toad or the scat of the toad.
These are rescue dogs from shelters. The gentleman who’s training them used to be a bomb-sniffing military dog trainer. We have that to go back now and start checking back because it’s been six months now so we go back and do checks on them.
Justin: Just by way of example, let’s talk about the horned toads because as a kid, they were everywhere. I caught them all the time. My understanding was the lack of red ants has a big part of it. We have an endemic or a local species that starts to disappear. Is it a zoo issue? Is it a university that reaches out to zoos and says, “Hey, here’s an issue that we need to address and y’all can help”?
Tim: It’s really a collaboration between all those universities are involved, Texas Parks & Wildlife has involved, US Fish and Wildlife is involved. Zoos are involved and other nonprofit groups that do animal things. The horned toad has not yet listed as endangered or extinct-
Justin: Is it not?
Tim: -but we’re trying to not be reactive to this, what’s happening. They’re gone from 40% of their range now.
Justin: Is it vulnerable? Is it listed as vulnerable?
Tim: Probably on the edge of vulnerable but we’re trying to get ahead of like, “Okay. We’re going to save this for extinction.” We’re trying to pump them back into the environment before what we call lizard factory. We’re literally about to quadruple our lizard factory, which is our lizard factory production to put more out in the wild. We all collaborate together on those things, and it’s a really close network working to save that species.
You mentioned, they used to be around the zoo, around every part of San Antonio and down south, and they’re disappearing from most of the places.
Justin: I grew up in north Texas and you drive down the road, you’d see them run across the roadway. Everybody generally understands how breeding works, but you also talked about, and I’m not downplaying it. Obviously, there’s a lot goes into that, but you also talked about, you all have tracks of land or ranchers that you’ll help get ready, talk about that process. Are botanists brought in, entomologists, because you got to have food for them, what’s the process of getting the site ready?
Tim: Our vice president of conservational research and our director are both PhDs, so they are that expert. Andy Gluesenkamp, Dr. Gluesenkamp, who’s our director came to us from Parks and Wildlife, he was the state biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife. Vast knowledge, lots of connections across the state with ranchers and landowners, and they want them back on their property as well. It’s often a multi-year process. You have to eliminate, fire ants are a big problem for the horned toads because they eat the baby horned toads, they push out the harvester ants, which is the natural ant for the toads, and so you have to eliminate that.
What we have found is land that’s managed for bird hunting versus deer hunting is much better for toads because they like sandy soils and kind of grasses, not a lot of shade and tree cover. Those kind of places are working best for us to do these releases, but it takes us years. We literally used satellite images to find the fire ant mounds and go eradicate fire ants. Hopefully, have they have harvester ants, probably already on their property, and those start multiplying again.
Justin: It’s hard to get rid of fire ants, like notoriously hard, right?
Tim: Yes, but the method we have, we can get them down to 5% of the population within one year on the property, and then you could just be in a maintenance mode after that.
Justin: I hate to ask, is it poison or is it a predator?
Tim: We use a pressure washer system with a wand and you put the wand in with hot water and some soap and it kills the mound, you can move on to the next one. You just do that process across the whole ranch using satellite images of a property, and then you make sure the harvester ants are goo. The ranch owner has to be committed to like, “I’m not using pesticides. I’m not doing all these things.” The benefit of that is if we get a ranch or a property that’s ready for horned toad release, it benefits every other native species because you’re taking it back to what it used to be. It’s a win-win for us.
The horned toad is almost our Trojan horse to get into these properties to really benefit every species or it’s our umbrella species to help everybody else.
Justin: Is there a harvester ant breeding operation elsewhere or will that just naturally reoccur?
Tim: We buy harvester ants, and we collect harvester ants. That’s interesting how we do that. We literally go out with dust busters to harvester. If you know ants in Texas, you see a mound, which is fire ants. Well, the harvest strands are the ones that clear a big circle, have one hole in the middle, big ants. That’s what they eat, though some horned toads will live their whole life at one mound, just live there. It’s a buffet all day long.
Justin: I remember as a kid, they just would stand in one spot and it looked like they were licking them and just eating them.
Tim: Yes, they’re not the smartest animal, which is probably part of the reason they’re having some problems and everything likes to eat horned toads. It’s like the chicken nugget of Texas. We’re working on that.
Justin: Sorry, horned toads. [chuckles]
Tim: Yes, we’re trying. We buy harvester ants from a certified harvester ant dealer.
Justin: Because they’re the same ants people use in ant farms, right?
Tim: Sometimes, yes. With COVID, we were starting to worry about harvester ant shortage. We’ve identified harvest ants all over the place where we go and vaccum [crosstalk]
Justin: Why in COVID?
Tim: Logistic problems, employees couldn’t come in where–
Justin: I don’t know if everybody will start ant farms–
Tim: That probably happened too, but we’ve tried growing our own colonies of harvester ants, it would just take so long to get colony started, that we’d have to basically dedicate 5 people and 10 years, 20 years. For us right now, it’s easier to go out and get ants with vacuums. Landowners are like, “Yes, I have harvester ants, come get some.” We do that, both of those things to feed the horned toads.
Justin: You get them set up, then there’s somebody who keeps going out checking. Are hogs part of this problem?
Tim: Well, maybe hog would eat horned toads, they eat probably everything. Coyotes eat them, birds eat them, snakes eat them. Cats, feral cats is a big problem. I know just wild cats are big problems. Literally, everything eats horned toads, especially when they’re born. They’re the size of a dime or a penny. They’re super tiny. We let them actually grow a little bit bigger before we release them out in the wild.
Justin: You said San Antonio, Dallas Fort Worth, have all joint ventured this project and split the state up. What is San Antonio’s state?
Tim: We have South Texas, so we do South Texas. Fort Worth has the Western and Northwestern sections of the state and Dallas has the northeast section of the state. Basically, in thirds, if you slice Texas into thirds.
Justin: I grew up in the Wichita Falls area, but you kind of get up in that area and a lot of people are big quail hunting ranchers. That’s all starting to come back, but that was also dying off for a little while. The quail weren’t doing good.
Justin: Okay, I wanted to just use the horned toad as an example to really show all the detail that goes into it, but y’all are also doing this with blind salamanders?
Tim: Blind salamanders, a couple of different places around the country. Dr. Fenolio, who leads our conservation department is world-renowned for his subterranean work, cave work and then species like salamanders that live underground. We have species in our care that are nowhere else in the care of man, live on two ponds on Earth. The feds have tried to do it. They can’t do it. They call us to do it. We do it.
We talked about breeding, people have had some of these species and have been able to breed them, like Texas blind salamanders from the Aquifer but nobody knows what makes them breed, like what was the trigger that made it happen. If you’re working to create an assurance colony or a colony where if you need to trigger some breeding, you can do it. Nobody knows how to do that. That’s really what we’re doing with the species here from the Aquifer. What is the trigger that makes them breed? We’re working on that.
The salamanders, some of the ones we’ve worked with that are almost extinct in the wild. They only live on two ponds now. We have figured out how to breed them and then they had a problem where they turned black and so Dante has figured out it’s a Vitamin B deficiency at some level and some other things. It’s really trying to solve the puzzle, get them back stable where we could start breeding again and then rerelease. We’re hoping that we can do with the flatwoods salamander, go to our first rereleased with the federal government this year.
Justin: Is the trigger typically diet and weather and temperature and all that?
Tim: Yes, as weather is changing around the world, it’s affecting the cycles of these salamanders. The salamander lays eggs in a dry spot that’s low. It used to always rain in the same month, the rains would come through the pond, so then patterns are changing now, so that’s hurting them. Luckily, the two ponds we work with are on an Air Force Base, and they’re very dedicated to saving that species. We’re working close with the Air Force.
Justin: Then you have to go out and look for eggs?
Tim: Yes, we go out and collect eggs when we can and then bring those back.
Justin: It’s not like turtle eggs where they’re big. It’s tiny.
Tim: No, it’s tiny. That was part of the problem too, the federal government was having problems collecting the eggs and getting them to hatch. Dante was like, “You’re doing it wrong. You can’t just scoop the egg. You have to take the whole ground around it.” Things like that. Those are the things that we’re trying to figure out. There’s sometimes, it didn’t work, but you have to go through that process to try to save this.
Justin: It’s not a Barry White CD. [laughs]
Tim: No, no. We do that for other species, like our rhinos and alpacas.
Justin: At the orientation, Frank talked about one of the first big conservation projects was the heron or?
Tim: Whooping crane.
Justin: The whooping crane. Y’all had two, at the time, there were 60 left on earth or something [crosstalk]
Tim: They were now less than 20. We took an injured bird from Fish and Wildlife who said, “Can you take one?” We had a breedable pair. You have to get permission to breed. They were already on the endangered species list. The Zoological World said, “Hey, we need to help save the species.” San Antonio Zoo said, “Hey, we have one and one that was just brought injured. We think we can breed them.” Fish and Wildlife said, “Go ahead and try.” We had a first baby named Tex. He was kind of the bird that spurred on the recovery efforts of that species.
If you remember the movie, there’s a movie where a guy’s flying a hang glider teaching birds how to migrate down to South Texas.
Justin: Is it called Birdman?
Tim: I can’t remember what it’s called. He was literally teaching these guys how to get back down to the coast. That all links back to the history of San Antonio Zoo and Tex.
Justin: Tex’s genetics would be in some of those birds.
Tim: Yes, for sure. Us, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, because whooping cranes are also in New Orleans, or Louisiana, the International Crane Foundation are credited for bringing that bird back. Now there’s almost 800, we think in the wild, but less than 20, 60 years ago.
Justin: That’s still pretty–
Tim: It’s still a low number, but they’re doing better.
Justin: If they were down to 20, y’alls DNA is going to be in a big chunk of those that are out there now.
Tim: Yes. Now what we do is we’re still breeding whooping cranes. We have a pair now. They laid four eggs this year, which we’re really excited about. Usually, we get two, but it’s a brand new pair. None of the eggs ended up being fertile. Now we look at, “Okay, do we need to do artificial insemination on her?” Because we want to keep bumping those numbers up. The zoos and the International Crane Foundation will decide, “Okay, does that bird genetically really valuable to go to another zoo to breed with these cranes or is it one we want to release back out in the wild to breed out in the wild?” There’s a lot that goes into all these conservations.
It’s very coordinated and not just like, “Okay, go fly away from the zoo.”
Justin: Yes, that was what was interesting whenever– I actually went and did one of those go pet the rhinos or hippos thing. I remember them explaining how y’all realign animals to zoos based on their genetic makeup so that there’s no crossbreeding or any of that kind of stuff. Is that a sort of a committee within the zoo world of all the different zoos that decide those types of things?
Tim: Yes. Within our association there’s what’s called the Species Survival Plan. We try to have 100 years of good genetics of the species that we have. I’ll just use rhinos, for example. Somebody runs the books, if ranchers know the books of their cattle, somebody runs the book for rhinos, it’s basically a match.com for animals. We’ve got a list of all the males in our zoos, all the females and all that ties to their genetics and a big giant map of genetics.
They will say, “Okay, this female rhino needs to go breed with this male rhino because those genetics are not represented, or these two rhinos have had too many babies. Now don’t breed those anymore. Too many of the genetics.” It’s a very complicated process, but zoos all work together to move animals around for that purpose. Recently, we’ve got three rhinos now, two females came in 2019, identified to be potentially bred, and then this march, a male came in that was tagged basically to breed with both of those because those genetics are not represented. We’re hoping that he does his job, which he’s been doing and very successful at it and we get back into the rhino birthing and conservation program. Because we were the first to do in the Americas to have a rhino born in 1972.
Justin: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Tim: We’ve had I think 19 since then, but not for many years. We’re excited to get back in that program and really contribute to rhinos.
Justin: Will these two females and males stick around here for a while or?
Tim: It depends if they tell us we could use more of those genetics, then they’ll stay there for a while. For example, the male came– One of our females came from Bush Gardens in Tampa. One came from a place called White Oak outside of Jacksonville and a new male just came from the North Carolina Zoo.
Three different zoos came here to breed. At his last zoo, he had four babies with one or more–
Justin: He is fertile?
Tim: Yes. He knows his job, he knows his role. At that point they’re like no more breeding at your zoo with this male because he had too many. He was picked to move here. It’s very complicated but the zoos work really well together to make that happen.
Justin: You talked a second ago about how outside of Africa, Texas ranchers or whatever have huge herds of these animals or bigger numbers outside of Africa here than over there. Do the zoos ever reach out to these private owners and try to spice up their genetics by getting these outside ranchers or private game breeders?
Tim: We don’t bring animals in from outside zoos usually because we don’t know their bloodline or if they have been inbred at some point. We don’t want to introduce that into the species, that pool that we have, so it’s very particular of animals coming in.
Justin: Got you.
Tim: Then surplus animals of zoos which not often happens because we have methods of birth control and those kind of things, very particular where they go, there’s a lot of agreements to sign with our association, “This can’t be put out on a ranch to be hunted,” and those kinds of things. The nice thing about Texas is there’s a lot of ranchers that just want those exotics on their property to watch them, to look at them, and enjoy them.
Justin: To look cool.
Tim: There’s thousands of exotic ranches in Texas. If you drive up through Bernie and Freddieburg you’ll see giraffes and zebras and all kinds of things.
Justin: I’ve also seen the ones where you go hunt them too. It’s like a menu.
Justin: In South Texas, you all are kind of the only show in terms of a zoo, there aren’t really any other South Texas zoos. Is there any sort of interest in moving into the valley or into some of these underserved communities to have, I don’t know, satellite zoos?
Tim: Yes, not [unintelligible 00:32:18] but those people come to San Antonio. One of the great things about being in San Antonio is we have 40 million tourists a year and some of those are commissioners but probably 80% are leisure travelers. We really are the zoo from Loreto up and over towards halfway to Houston, to Del Rio, to Austin, so we really want them to come to our zoo into our San Antonio to have an impact on our city and our zoo when they come visit here.
We’d love to have property outside of the San Antonio city limits or within the safari park but we would want to stay concentrated here in San Antonio. We do partner with other zoos. We do a lot of conservation work with Gladys Porter Zoo, we do things with the Fort Worth Zoo.
Justin: Where’s Gladys Porter?
Tim: Gladys Porter is in Brownsville, so that project we talked about there’s on there.
Justin: Okay. Oh, I didn’t know there was one there.
Tim: It’s a great zoo and we do that work in Mexico with jaguars. We also both have owned property along the coast in Tamalipa so we do sea turtle rescue and rehab down there. There’s so much happening around the world from the San Antonio Zoo and other zoos around the country the people just who have no idea that we’re doing that. When you visit the zoo it’s just really a small part of what’s happening at the zoo, it’s really behind the scenes which is the big engine.
Justin: For like a tourist how could they educate themselves on that?
Tim: We’re always trying to do a better job to educate people on the conservation efforts so we are doing videos now. Social media is huge for us to be able to tell our stories with videos and pictures. In the zoo we were featured in American Humane’s recent movie Escape from Extinction, they really highlighted our work with whooping crane, so we’re going to be running that movie in our main restaurant all day long.
Then we’re putting signage out on our conservation projects that you can learn more about the conservation work we’re doing, and really just in general as we design the zoo growing, turning the zoo inside out so they can see the things we’re doing. Right now, we’re working on an aquarium project, we do coral reef restoration work and coral reef breeding no one has any idea because you can’t see it. We want to bring a building in that you can walk in and see the laboratory happening.
In Africa live building where you walk through and see the hippos, we’re breeding species of fish that are extinct in the wild already and we’ve had some great births and those moments. Literally, it’s behind a wall that nobody can see. Going forward, we want to turn the zoo inside out where you can see everything we’re doing, our hospital work at our hospitals, our conservation work, our animal care in the barns, and those kinds of places. We want people to be able to see all of it.
Justin: I think those are the kind of things where kids decide at that point, “Oh, I want to do this.” They’re not going to look at just an animal in a habitat and think, “Oh, I want to be a veterinarian in the zoo.” I remember as a kid, I did the behind-the-scenes tour at SeaWorld. It had to be 30 years ago now and they had bird operations and all kinds of stuff that you would have never known that it were there, hospitals and stuff.
Tim: Way in the back.
Justin: Yes, and it really spurred an interest in me as a kid. Let’s talk about some of the future projects. One of the interesting things y’all talked about was the gorilla habitat that’s going to go in. Just some of the funny things that it stuck with me was the idea that y’all have quarry walls but y’all spoke with a different zoo and they said if those rocks fall, they’ll toss them through the windows.
Let’s talk about some of the other projects and honestly, I’ve always thought our elephant habitat was maybe the saddest part of our zoo. but that’s one of the things in the future project it’s going to be expanded and they’re going to get a lot more space. Let’s talk about some of the upcoming projects the zoo has planned.
Tim: Sure. We have a full master plan that we’re super excited about and we’re going to do that in phases. We got our first-ever bond money from the city of San Antonio in 2017 to build a parking garage so almost $12 million to built that beautiful garage on 281 which was really the foundation of our growth because without parking we could build whatever we want and nobody could come to see it.
Now, we’re working on a big plan and we’ll launch that out in phases and so people are going to see soon Phase 1, that’s going to be in it. It’s obvious what our zoo’s missing. Our group that does our master planning has done national surveys, what do people expect to see when they come to a great zoo and a big city zoo. Of course, great apes is top three and we haven’t had that for 30 years, and when we did have that it wasn’t a condition or a place where we are this time where we would have a gorilla in a space.
We’re really excited to work on things like great apes and better exhibits for all the animals and really take advantage of the land we have on the other side of the highway, which people do not realize is part of the zoo and just really grow that zoo.
Justin: For people that are listening all of that space behind the zoo school plus everything from the giant high rise all the way under 281 to the zoo is zoo property.
Tim: Yes. We’ll build that full out and we’re going to bring realms that will take you to different parts of the world. We’re really excited about the master plan and what it’ll do. We know it will be a big impact and a game-changer for the zoo but also for San Antonio. We used to be listed all the time top three zoo in the country, top three zoo. That was at a time when zoos were judged by how many animals you had and those kind of things. Our zoo has– We still have some of the monastery-style exhibitry with little spaces where the zoo of yesterday had kind of one of each animal. It was an assembly line you went down and looked at each animal, checked it off your list.
Now, we’re really judged by how much conservation work are you doing, not only here but around the world, how much education are you doing, and how natural enriching, and big are your habitats. For us, being in a quarry, it’s always been a historic challenge but really we’re going to bust out of these quarry walls onto the rest of the property and built some big amazing use of it for animals that are [crosstalk]
Justin: The quarry also gives I mean you have a big space and you also have built-in walls and a lot of things built in.
Tim: Yes, it’s beautiful. Other zoos would just come to our zoo, directors or whoever that comes, they’re just blown away by the beauty of these beautiful cliff walls, the river runs through, the San Antonio river run through the zoo. We have these cypress trees that are 50 to 100 years old probably and just a gorgeous zoo. The quarry walls are great because a lot of zoos have to pay a lot of money to build walls like that but at the same time, they’re very big so it’s very imposing also which makes everything feel a little bit smaller in our zoo versus a zoo that has a big open space behind an exhibit and things like that.
We’re kind of really even looking at flipping the script on where you view from, do you view now from the cliff wall side instead of looking at the cliff walls and those kind of things. We are really looking at every angle of the guest experience, first thing, animals to create natural habitats and very enriching and welfare is the focus.
Then you’re designing for the keepers and the people that are taking care of the animals they have to have access, be able to do the husbandry and the medical work they need to do. Then the guest, to create a great experience for them and also protect them from themselves. Because last week someone hopped a barrier at a zoo in Florida and put his hand in the jaguar’s exhibit.
Justin: Did his hand come out.
Tim: He’s lucky the jaguar clawed it and did not bite it because he probably would have pulled him through the mesh. Those kind of things, you have to take all those into consideration plus our associations have guidelines. USDA oversees our mammals, they have federal guidelines. There’s a lot that goes into designing every zoo exhibit and habitat. We’re really excited about doing bigger, more natural spaces.
People have been watching what we do in the last six years, it’s really been addition by subtraction, our whooping crane exhibit, for example, used to be three different cranes in that space with the two walls dividing the three spaces. We said let’s focus on whooping cranes, we took the walls down to open up a beautiful whooping crane exhibit and they’re laying eggs they’re happy, they’re breeding like crazy, that’s an example.
We have a historic monkey house that a lot of zoos in the country had. It’s this beautiful WPA building but it had square cages attached to it on concrete floors with small primates, gibbons and small monkeys. It’s just not the way zoos house and cares for animals anymore, so we literally just moved all those guys to other zoos, took the cages off the wall and it’s literally been sitting there empty for four years now but we’re not going to have animals in our care in that manner anymore, at the expense of having something in that space.
Justin: You’re going to do something with the space though.
Tim: Now, we’re literally in the middle of turning into a patio, we’ll make a scenic area with a little snack bar or a margarita bar, something fun but we’ve been addition by subtraction is opening spaces up to connect spaces together. Jaguar Walk that’s going to open in fall is a good example. There’s an existing jaguar habitat. 20, 30 yards away is the jaguar habitat that they used to be in. Now, we’re going to connect those two together with a big catwalk system that no one else in the world has done. We’re going to take it over the main pathway, which people have had catwalks over pathways, but no one’s taking one through another exhibit.
Our jaguar will go through the Amazon aviary across the river twice and then back up into the old habitat. We’re giving them 130% more space, natural behavior opportunities to be up high like in a tree, down by a river where they hunt. We’re really excited about that, that Jaguar Walk.
Justin: The cassowaries are all by themselves is that because they would kill each other if they get-
Tim: Sometimes in zoos and it’s hard to tell the stories, they’re solitary animals. Jaguars are the example.
Justin: -oh, are they?
Tim: Jaguars are solitary animals. People are like, “Why is there only one?” Well, that’s how they live in the wild. They only get together for breeding. If a male smells a female around that’s ready for breeding, they’ll get together for that and then they split back up.
Justin: I didn’t know that.
Tim: Tigers are the same way. We rotate our tigers in and out. One of the things that jaguar also excites us is we have a male and a female jaguar. The new catwalk system will have gate systems within it. We’ll be able to put both jaguars out at the same time and have them separated still. The old exhibit can have one and they can have access to half of the catwalk. The other jaguar could be in the old exhibit and have access to the other half of the catwalk. To be able to have multiple out of it at times instead of having to shift them back and forth, it’s good for the jaguars. It’s better for our staff, easier to manage. We’re excited about that.
Telling that story is hard because people want to know why is that tiger by itself and all those kinds of things, where the lions next door, there’s four or five together because that’s how they live in the wild.
Justin: Sometimes, people don’t read.
Tim: They don’t read.
Justin: Now, they read the science, but the cassowaries-
Tim: You’ll appreciate attorneys. When I lived in Theme Park World, the manufacturer gives you a list of 50 things. You got to put on the sign and I’m like, “I can’t have a sign with all these things on it. It’s going to be 12 feet tall.” The attorneys are always, “You’d have to have a sign. You’d have to have a sign.” Then something happens and the first thing that attorney says, “That’s fine, doesn’t matter,” because I’ll be like, “Look, they did this and it says on the sign, they can’t do it.” No, sign doesn’t matter.
Justin: -it’s like the [crosstalk] for pharmaceuticals may cause 50 things, sounds the way worse than what you’re treating. I think people maybe don’t realize a lot of the events you all do. You all have got Zoo Ball which is a formal event, you all have Zoo La-La which is Christmas?
Tim: Now, that’s in late spring and that’s a big food and wine festival. We do 50 area restaurants come in, they donate their food, and then we have all-inclusive food, bars, and five stages. Last year, we had the Spasmatics on the main stage, we had DJs around the zoo, we had Finding Friday up at the top by the lions, we had Dueling Pianos from Howl at the Moon inside the VIP areas, also VIP areas. Two years ago, 2019, we had some ’90s bands. We had O-Town and Aaron Carter [crosstalk]. Total blast. We just like to have fun with the events, but we do have a-
Justin: Just pay them with tickets.
Tim: -like a robust lineup of events. Almost year-round, there’s something at the zoo. That really comes from creating a good guest experience where the zoo of yesterday was like, “Ah, I went there. It’s the same every time I go.” Well, now there’s something different there. Right now, we have dinosaurs going for the summer. As soon as dinosaurs are over, we almost immediately roll into Zoo Boo for six weeks, which is our Halloween program six weeks straight. We have a two-week break there which we’re going to do a girls power weekend. One of those weekends, we’ll probably open Jaguar one of those weekends for grand opening, and then we go right into Zoo Lights for six weeks-
Justin: That’s what a Christmas thing is.
Tim: -come back around to January. Slower month, we don’t do events because the weather could be you know what, and then we go to spring break, Jungle Boogie Break, and then the whole cycle over. There’s events happening year-round, always something different.
Justin: There used to be an event with Current. Is there still?
Tim: They’d done here a couple of times. There’s Best Of they’ve done at the zoo. There’s a bunch of things that we’ve done.
Justin: One of the Current parties there back when they used to do a bunch of parties-
Tim: They don’t do as much as they used to, but we’ve done the best of event that they have for their readership thing, which this year, we won Best Place for Family Funs from the current and things like that.
Justin: -I think a lot of people have the misperception that there’s the zoo for everybody and then there’s the zoo for people that are part of the board or part of organizations. The zoo has got all kinds of memberships. Sir, what would you recommend for people that are just trying to dip their toe, but they want to be a little bit more involved in the zoo than just go in once in a blue moon. What are some options for people just trying to get involved?
Tim: We have five layers of membership that people can do and we’re running sales all the time. Usually, you can get a one-year membership for 30 something dollars and 10 cents a day. We also started last year a monthly membership program. You make a small down payment as little as $3 a month. You just pay $3 a month. It just keeps going until you want to cancel it. There’s ways to come into the zoo. That’s very affordable beyond just the one-day visit. Also, we do what’s called Locals Days. We do an $8-ticket about 12 plus times a year where locals can come, super affordable for everybody.
Our goal is to be accessible to the entire community. We have to charge admission because we’re responsible for our own budget and paying our employees and taking care of animals, but we want to still maintain ways that the entire community has opportunity to come visit the zoo and learn about what we’re doing.
Justin: We talked about the gorillas and we talked about the expanded elephant habitat. What is the hopeful timeline on some of these additional profits?
Tim: I think the whole master plan is probably 15, 20 years depending on how fast we can fundraise and get the cities to help us hopefully. Currently, we’re working with meeting with council members and the mayor and the city manager to try to get some city funding to help us. We’ll work with the county in the same manner. We’ll work with the state, the federal government. Our zoo really came to life during the WPA when we were coming out of the Great Depression. The government was flooding the market with infrastructure dollars, trying to put people back to work, get the economy steady again, kind of like exactly what’s happening right now.
We look at this as an opportunity, like, “Let’s have our second coming of San Antonio Zoo and try to capture some infrastructure dollars.” We have no infrastructure on the other side of the highway right now so that’s going to be a big cost for us. Then we’re just 107 years old so we have a lot of infrastructure challenges on a day-to-day basis and 1.2 million people visit us here. It gets a lot of love, and it’s very old. We had a construction project in 2014 in which we found wood pipe, still operating wood pipe at the zoo.
I didn’t know that was ever a thing.
Justin: It was clay.
Tim: This is before clay, so wood, then clay, then PVC. We have old pathways, WPA walls that were not built with a rebar, they’re just rocking, and mortar. We have a lot of maintenance to do and really, modernization and we’re doing that in small chunks. We’re one of the few cities in the country that’s probably operationally self-sufficient. We don’t get city budget money every year. We 100% depend on tickets sales and donations.
Justin: We could talk about that, but a lot of zoos in Texas get city government money and San Antonio’s unique in that they get none.
Tim: Right. For us to be able to be self-sufficient is pretty remarkable. We need donations to do projects, day-to-day operations the zoo is able to fund itself and that’s because we have smart people surround the room with smarter people. Those smarter people are doing great things to keep us going. If we make, in the business world would call them a profit, we call it reinvestment. It goes right back into the zoo, which is the beauty of a nonprofit.
One of my favorite things of coming from the for-profit world of SeaWorld Texas to the zoo is literally everything goes right back again, but we have so much to do. Probably a hundred million dollars of infrastructure work we could do in a snap of a finger. It’s just going to be a constant challenge, but we’re really just chipping away at it. People that have been coming the last six years, I’ve seen a lot of infrastructure changes and improvements at the zoo and we’re hoping with these big campaigns coming, which we’ve really timed with city bonds, to try to get city bond help, it’s going to be a game changer for the entire property and really get us up to [crosstalk].
Justin: Every time I’ve gone, there’s something new at the zoo. Has there been any study into what the economic impact of our zoo is?
Tim: Yes. It’s over a hundred million dollars a year now, as we are now. We’ve also done some research on if we open this first phase of this new project in 2024 after the next bond, if that goes through, exponentially grows to the impact for the city in Bear County because we put a lot of people to work during those five years and then we know the attendance jumped that we’re going to see by bringing us a mega species like gorillas. We’re one of the fuses in the country that doesn’t have great apes. We want to teach people about great apes and we want to be in the conservation conversation about great apes.
That’s a good example, something we’d bring that we know will be a big game changer for our zoo and we’ll see the attendance correlate with that. As fast as San Antonio is growing, we need to be growing the zoo and really getting ready for that attendance that’s going to come to see those animals. Zoos are kind of an arc now sadly, but we have a lot of species at the zoo that are extinct in the wild. There’s no more in the wild and we’re just breeding them, hoping that someday, we’ll be able to rerelease them. Micronesian kingfishers, there’s 144 maybe on the planet, all in zoos. They were wiped down in Guam during one of the world wars. We’ve had three bursts this year of that bird.
Justin: During the pandemic, at least one of them because I remember seeing them on social media.
Tim: Yes. [crosstalk] pandemic, we’ve had two cents and so there is groups working on those islands around Guam to get ready to put those birds back. What happened was worships came through there and staged during the war and snakes were stowed away in boxes, got on the island. Those birds have never seen a snake in their life so I’m sure just slid it up and ate it, wiped them out. Us and other zoos are working to breed those birds so that when they get the island eradicated of snakes, we can bring birds back out, rerelease.
Justin: That’s when we have both snakes.
Tim: If someone’s out there doing that, somebody who’s literally doing that as their job and then-
Justin: Send them to Florida next for the pythons.
Tim: -exactly. Florida’s a mess, but then we have these fish, two different species of fish from Mexico that are extinct in the wild, but their ponds are gone. We’re breeding those and the question at some point becomes, “Okay, what do we do with these guys?”
Justin: What happened to ponds?
Tim: They’re dried up or were developed so the ponds or the lakes are gone and they’re not there anymore or Dan was there, who knows, but it’s just nowhere to put them back right now. Our goal is just keep them going and keep growing the population so we can hopefully someday release them back into that [crosstalk].
Justin: That really is the arc. The great apes you talked about, are great apes just gorillas?
Tim: No, there’s a ring. Actually, we have gibbons which are considered a great ape. They’re long, couple of feet tall. Maybe 2 feet all the way stretched out. The plush animals, by the arm, goes around your neck-
Justin: Just think of the long arms.
Tim: –a couple of years ago, we had a little baby that figured his way out of the mesh. We have a beautiful gibbon exhibit, probably 40 feet tall, full of trees. He figured out how to get out of the mesh as a little baby. They’re pretty mischievous. Of course, he just sat there right on top. He wanted right back in as soon as he got out and mom sat right there with him. The headline on one of the stations the next day, it was like, “Great ape escape, San Antonio Zoo.” I’m like, “Well, that was brilliant.” He was this big, like the size of a Chihuahua.
Justin: Always, were the monkeys or chimps that escaped a Southwest research at that time.
Tim: Those guys were stacked up on the table.
Justin: In a neighborhood or something.
Tim: They’re smart. That’s the other part of designing for those guys is-
Justin: Do we have chimps?
Tim: -no. We did before. Back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, we had two chimps who were movie star chimps. You can google pictures of those guys and everyone knew them. There was a little chimp show. They wore costumes and sat in director’s chairs. They were movie star champs. Not what a zoo obviously would do this day, but it is an interesting part of our history.
Justin: I know the gorillas are part of the plan or orangutans or chimps or any of those part of [unintelligible 00:51:23].
Tim: Yes, we want multiple great apes, which exact ones we haven’t decided yet, but we know people expect to see those kinds of things at a great zoo. As we go through design process, and we’ve said the whole time, our master plan is organic. Things may change. If elephants are a good situation or a good example, there’s less than 35,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, they’re just being decimated.
African elephants are– 96 are killed a day, one every 15 minutes.
Justin: Good Lord.
Tim: Those numbers are dropping, dropping, dropping. At some point, there’s going to be no more elephants. Are you going to build an elephant exhibit and there’s no elephants with the zoos to support it, because they would come from other zoos. There’s a numbers game with some species. We have to be flexible with what we’re doing and we also want to have species that we’re doing conservation work with.
We’re not trying to have one of everything anymore or have everything anymore. We want to pick animals that one, draw people in and be that species, like talked before [unintelligible 00:52:14] to make them love the zoo, love that animal, what we’re doing. Then hopefully, we can serve all these other species with it, but you have to have those mega species or superstar species to get people to come visit you.
Justin: Like a lion or a bear? Before we end this, I want to talk a little bit about the Will Smith Zoo School, that I have a baby obviously.
Tim: Bee smell. On the list.
Justin: No, we’re on the list. We’re on the list. We paid her $25. I didn’t really realize the whole story of the zoo school. Tell us who Will Smith was. That’s who the zoo school’s named after, and then we’ll talk a little bit about the school.
Tim: I mentioned earlier, Kronkosky’s Tiny Tot Nature Spot. We were the first zoo in the country with the area for kids zero to five, focus, nature play, get outside, get muddy, play with bugs, touch things. From that was really born the zoo school. It used to be in the education building at the zoo. One classroom started with 4 kids the first year, got up to about 20 and it was full. For 15 years, we had 20 kids in a class doing zoo school every year.
We never talked about it because it was always full. Fast forward, 2014, I get here at the end of 2014. I’m learning the zoo, learning the neighborhood, and there’s a lot of talk among board members like, “Oh, that school was for sale a couple of years ago. We should have bought it.” Maybe the staff didn’t want to do it. The staff said, “We should have bought that school. Somebody on the board didn’t want.” I’m going out to meet all the neighbors-
Justin: On you first board, maybe you’re going to be on the board meeting with some board members. They had strong opinions about who kind of messed that one up.
Tim: -yes, I’m sure. I’m going around meeting all the neighbors as the new zoo guy. I go up to the KIPP Academy, they were having breakfast tacos. I’m like, “I’m just going to go crash their parent meeting, eat tacos.” I met Eric who was the director at the time of KIPP Academy. He’s like, “Hey, your property comes all the way over to the school. What are you going to do over here?” I said, ‘Well, some days, it could be elephants in your front yard. We’re going to build this way.”
He said, “Well, I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but we’re going to be selling the school.” First time ever, I played poker face. I’m like, “Okay, well, I’ll see if anyone’s interested.” Drove back down the street and got on the phone with [unintelligible 00:54:12], like, “They’re going to put that school for sale, we got to grab it.” We knew the universities are going to want that property. The school district would want that property, developers wanted that property. We jumped on it. The original family who built that school was the Sunshine Cottage School for the Deaf. Really wanted the zoo to have it both times so they were helpful with this.
We ended up getting it, leased it back to KIPP for a year and were built and get out. It was a traditional kinder through 12 school. We’re all in school in big hallway down the middle, one bathroom with three toilets for the boys, three toilets for the girls. We’re allowed to put in 200 plus preschoolers in this building. We’re like, “That’s not going to work.” We knew we had to do some bathroom work, but we went to Lake Flato and said, “Hey, what would you do with this campus if you could reimagine it?” The design they brought back just blew our minds. We’re like, “We have to do that.”
We really gutted the building down to concrete and built this amazing facility. We told them, “Don’t make it too nice inside because our kids spend 70% of the day outside.” It’s nature-based so they are outside, but Lake Flato has a really good understanding of bringing nature in and blending up those lines.
Justin: Kind of their thing.
Tim: There’s state parks, they’re doing those things. We bought it in 2015, demoed basically down to the bones and then reopened it in ’18. At that time, we had gone from four classrooms, we’d gone up to four classrooms in our education center, knowing we need to grow the school to make the move. Opened in 2018, with 5 and then to 8, and then now at 10 classes.
Justin: Oh, it was just 2018.
Tim: Yes. We’re starting to fundraise for it which is not the way you would usually do it, buy the school, and then build and then design it and build and start fundraising. It was one of the situations we you just had to jump on the opportunity. Susan Naylor, who was on our board at the time, have lost her son Will Smith at the age of eight. He was killed a car wreck. Loved the zoo, loved nature. Always went to Africa, loved Africa, loved the children of Africa, loved doing things for the children there that didn’t have what he had. She’s like, “This is made full for my son.”
Worked with Susan and she was our biggest donor of the project. Of course, we were so honored to name it the Will Smith Zoo School. Now, people ask us all the time, “Is that Will Smith, the actor?” yesterday. “Is Will Smith the actor?” It frustrates her sometimes, but I’m like, “Susan, this is a good thing because people ask and I get to tell the story of Will,” instead of you or whoever they ask because if it was the Tim Morrow’s Zoo School, nobody would be asking, “Is it Tim Morrow?”
Justin: I just assumed it wasn’t Will Smith, but I didn’t know who it was.
Tim: No, people think it is. We get to tell the story about Will, which has this incredible story.
Justin: There’s a big wall of Will there, with pictures of him and things like that.
Tim: We really tried to show the history of that campus is so amazing. The building, we’ve left it very raw. Where the little old hearing booth was in the school, we filled it with gel so we could tell the story, “Here’s where the hearing booth when it was Sunshine”-
Justin: Because it was a school for deaf.
Tim: -yes. Our street is named after the girl who it was built for so I can always access to the family still, they’re involved with the zoo still. It’s just an incredible campus. 240 kids go there. The waiting list gets up to 500 to 800 people. They go to the zoo every single day. They’re learning outside, Montessori-inspired, nature-based programming, 16 kids to a class with a teacher and an assistant. They have their own pond there. They could put their hands in with crawfish and fish.
Justin: They’re growing their own vegetables.
Tim: Growing their own fruits and vegetables, they’ve got their own butterfly house they can go in and play.
Justin: I don’t think that is fair. It’s a butterfly house, like you see at a museum, as butterflies flying around in a netted enclosure with their plants that they eat in there.
Tim: The kids get to watch that whole process. They release the caterpillars in, that whole process that kids get to watch. We’re really creating the next generation of conservationists there. Those kids go home and take those messages and learning some too and get their families outside. My first day and my daughter went to the zoo school. My older son did not. He wants to be on his iPad all day. She wants to go outside and play with bugs and catch lizards.
For her last birthday, everyone got her Barbies. I got her a bug catching machine. It has a big impact. She wants to go outside. We’re going outside to be with her. It has a great impact on the kids and funny stories. We’re building the parking garage next door. That whole side of the highway, one time, it had to be just a strip of land. I think it was part of an old city dump and incinerator out there. It was out in the middle of nowhere at that time. There’s no native species of trees on that side, one oak tree on that whole side of the highway thing. We have to clear the land to build the parking garage.
The three, four, and five-year-olds next door will switch to school. We’re in panic mode because deforestation was happening next to their school. The whole general public is driving by that every day, tens of thousands of people on 281, nobody says anything about that, about my kids. We had to go talk to the kids at zoo school and saying, “Here’s what happened. They were not native species. We’re going to come back and plant a hundred trees and screen screens.” I’m like, “We’re doing it right. If our three, four, and five-year-olds are using words like deforestation and worrying about those things, they’re doing it right.”
Justin: My wife’s friend’s daughter goes there and she said they have some of outbreak of some snail in their pool and the daughter won’t let them kill them. They got to watch them grow.
Tim: My daughter gets– If a doodle bug or something gets in the house, she picks it up, takes it outside and fends it outside.
Justin: It’s good. That’s how I was as a kid, but I was a kid who got to grow up in the country and grab everything and get stung sometimes, but learn all that stuff.
Tim: That’s really the concept of the school is when a lot of us grew up with, “Come home when the street lights come on. Go outside, you play in the creek, crawfish hunting and fishing and fishing and playing in the mud and building forts and work– Learning as a child, how to negotiate with your friends and work with your friends to build stuff, the school is all about that. They’re really learning how to be future leaders at the age of three, four, and five through their nature play.
Justin: Part of what I wanted to do on this was really discussed how the zoo is not what people think it is anymore. People know the Kiddie Park went over there and probably wondering why, but the zoo school is its own thing. The conservation effort, I know you all are making a big push for family, kid involvement, and these things. I hope this conversation gets some people at least look out and see what you all are doing. I’m going to ask you afterwards if I can share some of that stuff that you sent us about renderings of what’s going to be next. Tim, we’re at an hour, so it’s about time, but I was in these with– I used to do who are some of my guest wishlists and it’s always Popovich so he’s always number one.
Anybody else you think I should reach out to who you’ve met and you just think have an interesting story to tell about San Antonio?
Tim: Oh man, that’s a good question. There’s so many people that do so many amazing things in San Antonio. One of the things I love about this city is you see somebody in need and our community rallies to their benefit. Right now, you’re seeing Cleto Rodriguez who everyone knows from TV has COVID in the hospital and there’s fundraisers for him and people are donating to him because that’s just what San Antonians do. Part of what the zoo has been trying to do is really reach out and help other nonprofits.
You saw that what we did all through COVID with we took food to Haven for Hope that we didn’t want to go bad and those things. I think almost anyone in this community you could just tap and come on, you will get the most interesting stories.
Justin: I heard they got from the food bank on.
Tim: Eric, yes. He’s incredible.
Justin: Biblical. He’s just such a touching true believer.
Tim: He is not a person that’s just a talking head. He believes in that mission and you saw-
Justin: His dad was homeless. That’s part of his story. It’s just a different motivation.
Tim: -when you look at what happened during COVID, that picture of our food bank went worldwide. What they’re doing over there is-
Justin: That picture raised a lot of money.
Tim: -yes. We try to help, we do stuff with the food bank and we try to help raise the whole community. I think that’s part of what makes San Antonio so special.
Justin: Well, I’m going to bug Dante one day because I’m sure [crosstalk] talk science. My dad was a biology teacher so I grew up getting to play with things.
Tim: Dante is what I call the most interesting man in the world and I hate when I have to speak after him because first of all, people will talk to him for six hours because he’s so fascinating. He’s been out in the field all over the world. They have a great conservation project in Peru, he spent a lot of time in the Amazon and all over the world. He’s just a great, incredible person. You could go through the zoo staff for sure and the expertise and the dedication of the people that have worked there. Our animal care vice-president has been there for 45 years. His very first job was at the San Antonio Zoo and he’s been there his whole life so you can imagine what he’s seen and done.
Justin: Just some of the people I got to meet in that short amount of time and I’m doing my reptile thing and then the next week-
Tim: You’re going to have a blast.
Justin: -I’m really going to geek out about this stuff. Tim, thank you for doing this. I look forward to getting to be on the zoo board and learn more about the zoo and I’m going to have more zoo people on just because I think it’s fascinating, but thanks for doing this and I’ll talk to you soon.
Tim: Thanks for having me on just talking about the zoo.
Justin: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast, check us out on facebook @facebook.com/alamohour, or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
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