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Secrets at the Zoo

USI Alumni are the Keepers of the Zoo

Nested on a hill on Evansville's west side is one of the city's jewels: historic Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden. Venture through the entrance gates for a journey through exotic animal kingdoms and you'll find more than penguins and jaguars. At the heart of the lush and leafy jungle are a band of USI alumni working in various capacities. "Most people think we are all taking care of animals," says Erik Beck '94, biology, Executive Director of Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden and the Executive Director of the Zoological Society.

Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—the gold standard of zoos for animal welfare and fun, safe, educational experience for everyone—is both a city government entity and a nonprofit.

Alumni working for the city, in addition to Beck, are Deputy Director Paul Bouseman '99, art; Zookeeper Loretta (Werner) Manning '93, biology; Botanical Curator Misty (Voelker) Minar '00, geology; Registrar Dana Bae '04, sociology; Zookeeper Lisa (Kaetzel) Merrick '12, biology; Guest Services Molly Mayo '21, public relations and advertising; and Zookeeper Tristan Baughn '20, biology. Alumni working for the nonprofit are Beck, who wears both hats and Volunteer and Program Coordinator Daytona (Williams) Begle '19, psychology.

Together they bring a combined work history of more than 155 years. Over those years, they have seen the Zoo expand, shift directions and create homes for scores of animals from around the world. Now, they are revealing some of their insider secrets of the Zoo.

Animal King: Decoding Overall Operations

by C. L. Stambush

Exotic animals were not part of the work environment Erik Beck '94, biology, imagined he'd spend his career immersed in. He envisioned it would involve microscopes, not monkey biscuits. While a student at USI, he saw himself working in a pharmaceutical lab. Then he took a few ecology and environmental biology courses that turned his plan upside down. "I thought, 'I don't want to be stuck in a lab wearing a lab coat all day and be [hunched] over a test tube. I'd rather be outside. Whether it's wildlife biology or nature conservancy.'"

For the past 29 years, Erik has done just that and more in the many roles he's held at Evansville's Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden. As both the Executive Director of Mesker and the Executive Director of the Zoological Society (the Zoo's nonprofit arm) since 2017, Erik has overseen every aspect of running the city zoo and nonprofit. From employees to capital projects, his name and reputation are on the bottom line. Erik says it was USI Professor Emeritus of Biology Dr. James Bandoli who suggested Erik apply for the position of Zookeeper. "I kind of got lucky and never left," he says. "It's different every day here. You never know what each day will bring."

Erik's rise to the top started at the bottom as a second shift Zookeeper, something the Zoo no longer has, although it is open 365 days a year. "We used to be here around the clock, making deliveries, taking care of animals, making the diets for the next day," he says. After six years, he moved up to Animal Curator, supervising 18 Zookeepers, managing the logistics of caring for the animal collection, overseeing their diets, living environments, travel and mating partners.

In 2006, Erik was promoted to General Curator where he took on his first leadership role, managing the operations of the Zoo with the Animal Department, Facilities Department and Guest Services reporting to him. As General Curator, he was responsible for the Zoo's largest capital project in its history, the $13 million Amazonia Rainforest. In 2010, he became Director of Operations and managed the nonprofit Zoological Facility—Guest Services, Facilities, Horticulture, Concessions, capital campaigns, construction planning and more.

Zoos—short for zoological parks—have evolved since their Egypt and Mesopotamia origins where rulers and aristocrats created menageries as early as 2500 BCE. They were circuses that never left town and places people went to feed and ride the animals. Erik says zoos began to radically change 30-40 years ago. So much has changed since he began in 1995. "It's pretty much unrecognizable from where it started." Today's zoos are focused on animal welfare, education, science and conservation. "In the 1960s, visiting a zoo meant seeing animals in cage after cage," Erik says. "We don't do that anymore. Today's habitats are places where these animals live their entire lives. They get extraordinary care from birth, life, geriatric, to passing. Our jaguar, Beliza, has been on cancer medications for three years now. She is doing great. It was an expensive decision, but it is one we would make every single time." 

Erik and his team devote a lot of time and energy to determining what animals will be best suited for Mesker Zoo. When they look at species to add to the collection, they consider the conditions of southern Indiana, their knowledge of the species, and what they will take on in terms of space and resources. Will they need to build a state-of-the-art facility? What can they afford to do?

A good example of this, Erik says, is the Rhino Program. "There are five species of rhinoceros in the world—Africa's White Rhinoceros and Black Rhinoceros, and Asia's Sumatran rhino, Javan rhino and the One-Horned rhino. "Asian rhinos are solitary. Our space, the old elephant habitat, allows us to house one rhino. Since [our zoo] can only house one rhino, we need a species that likes to be alone, as opposed to the herd-centric African rhino."

As a young Zookeeper, Erik was part of Mesker's longtime resident elephant Bunny's team charged with transitioning her from zoo life to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. "I trained her to get in the trailer and took her down to the sanctuary." Bunny, an Asian elephant who'd arrived at the Zoo as a baby in 1952 and remained for 40 years, had developed chronic foot disease and other conditions associated with elephants in captivity. "It was emotional, and it divided the city. People were either for it or against it."

Erik says the Zoo today strives to tell complex stories of the interactions between animal welfare, conservation and humans. "The Penguins of Patagonia exhibit is a great example," he says. "Our interpretive plan—the graphics and story [in front of the exhibit]—talks about water, water quality, pollution, climate change, plastics and how decisions humans make, whether it is in the grocery store, our recycling programs, buying a soda in a can versus plastic bottle, impacts these birds."

To ensure the Zoo remains true to its mission, Erik and his team develop a new Master Plan every seven to 10 years, seeking to balance the needs of new animals with those of the current animal collection. In 2023, the undertaking of a new plan began. "The master plan does the hard exercises of what needs to be taken care of to keep these species in our Zoo and then what can we bring in new," Erik says. "We look at the entire Zoo campus, prioritize areas we want to develop, and start looking at the Zoo's story being told to visitors as they walk in."

Looking back over his nearly three decades at the Zoo, Erik can't help but be thankful for those few ecology and environmental biology courses redirecting his life. "We do some incredible things at the Zoo. Not only do we get to deal with the animal side of it but people too. We get to see families engage as they step away from their screens, get outside, enjoy the animals and learn about them from our zookeepers."

Watch an exclusive interview with Eric here.

Cagey Compiance: Revealing Registrar Workings

by C. L. Stambush

As a former enforcement agent for a prosecutor's office and a detail-oriented person, Dana Bae '04, sociology, is uniquely suited for Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden's Registrar's position. A Zookeeper for big cats and carnivores for 10 years, she shifted to management 15 years ago. As the Registrar, she is responsible for keeping the Zoo compliant with animal regulations, overseeing the data zookeepers record daily into a global animal database system (ZIMS—Zoological Information Management Software), obtaining permits for endangered and rare species, securing loan agreements between zoos, tracking funding sent to various animal conservation initiatives and more. "Most people don't know how zoos are run," she says. "People think they are places where animals are displayed or bred, but it is so much more complicated than that."

During Dana's decade and a half as the Registrar, the role has morphed from data entry to management and compliance. "When I started out, it was considered more of an office and recordkeeping position that handled permits," she says. Zookeepers used to turn in daily handwritten records of the animals they cared for and she would type it all into the Zoo's computer system.

Her skill as an accurate recordkeeper means she's called on to help the veterinary team during surgeries or when an animal dies. "Sometimes we have to knock down a big animal, they have me take notes because I'm good with data and making sure everything, such as time of an injection, is precisely recorded," she says. 

Keeping the Zoo compliant is what keeps it open to the public by ensuring the necessary permits are obtained and kept current. "The USDA/Animal Welfare permit is a big one. If we don't have that or don't renew it on time, they can shut our whole Zoo down," Dana says. Other necessary permits for the Zoo are for waterfowl, composting, plant sales, depredation and more. "We have permits that allow us to trap birds of prey and relocate them, so they don't harm our animals." The Zoo also has a permit for the conservation work it is doing to restore the Eastern hellbender salamanders to Indiana. "We have a 'special purpose-possession permit' because they are endangered and we are breeding them, even though they are all owned by the State."

While a passion for animal welfare is in Dana's DNA, finding her footing in the animal world was not so straightforward. She began at USI as a traditional student studying biology, changed her major several times then took a series of jobs without finishing her degree before being hired at Mesker in 1999. It was the Zoo that allowed her to finally earn her degree in sociology. "When I started at here, I could only go to school part-time. [My boss] worked with me [to attend classes], allowing me, as a Zookeeper, to leave in the middle of the day to finish my degree," she says.

Today, Dana's sociology education plays a role in her work as the Zoo's Registrar, especially in dealing with people from cultures around the world to save some of the planet's rarest animals. "I do a lot of animal shipping and when you study cultures you study a lot of things around the world, and that understanding helps when shipping to other countries," she says. Studying sociology also inspired her love of travel. Every few years she heads out to immerse herself in a different culture: Kenya, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, Jamaica, Nepal and more. "People ask, 'Do you go to all these countries just to look at animals?' I go to all those places to visit the culture, but the animals are tied to it."

Wild Success: Divulging Conservation Efforts

by AmyLu Riley '93

There are so many forms of life in the world. You really couldn't make up anything more fantastic than what's already here," says Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden's Paul Bouseman '98, fine arts, who started at the Zoo part-time during college in 1991. "I couldn't imagine living in a world without those incredible animals and places."

He means it, too. As the Zoo's Deputy Director, Paul helps oversee its conservation work locally, regionally and internationally, to ensure the world won't be without them. "Everything we do leads back to conservation," he says. 

Since Mesker Park Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums* (AZA), it is required to not only care for animals, but also invest in operational best practices, participate in conservation work in the wild and at the Zoo, engage in education and outreach, and give direct monetary support to conservation projects and organizations. "We try to focus on the animal conservation programs that relate to the animals people see at [our] Zoo. On almost every one of our signs you can find something you can do to help the species that you're looking at, like reducing plastic waste and protecting water quality. It's a high priority for us, to enable people to act to preserve nature."

In one conservation success story, the Zoo's staff have been working with other partners in the state since 2014 to help prevent the extinction of the Eastern hellbender salamander in Indiana. "This completely aquatic species is the third largest salamander in the world and is susceptible to poor water quality in the rock-bottom streams it inhabits," Paul explains. "By the early 2000s, the whole state population was limited to a handful of individuals in one watershed, the Blue River. The population was too small to be self-sustaining."

Visitors can see how the Zoo raises and conditions the salamanders for successful release and survival in the wild in a public exhibit. "We have an artificial stream here at the Zoo, where we condition juvenile animals to living in a stream, because we can recreate the currents."

The Zoo also worked directly to improve the natural habitat of the salamanders in Indiana, by "doing a lot of education about water quality and pollution control through our streams," says Paul. "In 2023, biologists captured a juvenile hellbender in the Blue River that had resulted from natural breeding. This was proof positive that the hellbender population had recovered to the point that natural breeding was again occurring in the state of Indiana."

The Zoo's work has also made a difference to a wolf subspecies in the Southwest United States, helping bring the Mexican Gray Wolf "from the brink of extinction back into their role as elk and deer predators in their natural habitat. In 2019, three wolf pups born at Mesker Park Zoo were cross-fostered into the wild population through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Program," says Paul. "The first step in cross-fostering is locating a den with pups of a similar age. Then the pups born at the Zoo are placed in the unattended dens of the wild mother. When she returns to the den, she will raise them as her own. It makes for a very smooth transition to the wild for those animals." 

The Zoo's involvement in several other conservation initiatives is also helping both far and near—from Humboldt penguins in Peru, to the local salamander population in Evansville's Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve. Zoo staff serve on over 30 AZA Taxon Advisory Groups as expert advisors on conservation needs and other issues for animals from amphibians to xenarthra. Direct financial support for the conservation of range country and to AZA's SAFE (Saving Animals From Extiction) program helps protect African lions, cranes, cheetahs, giraffes, gold frogs, ground hornbills, jaguars, langurs, lemurs, North American Songbirds, North American Monarchs, penguins, red pandas, rhinos, tigers and vaquitas.

The Zoo also participates in 51 of the AZA's 500 Species Survival Plans to manage genetically diverse, demographically varied and biologically sound populations of animals in human care.

Plant life is another conservation focus. Staff members are currently working on a project to preserve Indiana's only known location of the Ovate-leaved Catchfly plant, by reducing competition from invading poison ivy and maple saplings, and are growing "an assurance population" of the plants at the Zoo's Botanic Garden from collected seeds "as a safeguard against local extinction."

Another of many conservation success stories is happening at the Gift Shop, where visitors' basket purchases help protect rainforests. "We developed a partnership with Dr. Daniel Bauer [USI's Professor of Anthropology] to help support conservation in South America. The sustainable baskets that we have in the gift shop through the Chambira palm project is a way for [Peruvian] people to support themselves in a way that doesn't harm the native wildlife."

The project is an example of how local individuals and organizations can innovate to support global conservation. Paul says Zoo personnel are always looking for ways to integrate conservation in all of their thinking, and to provide interactions with visitors that create empathy for and interest in conservation.

"At the heart of what we do every day is to look after the animals in our care, but also to hopefully impact positive change and measure that change both in the region and globally."


* AZA accreditation is the gold standard for animal care, conservation, education, guest experience, safety, facilities, staffing and operations.

Watch an exclusive interview with Paul here.

Ground Zero: Unmasking Botanical Forces

by C. L. Stambush

Misty (Voelker) Minar '00, geology, Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden's Botanical Curator, does not mind that two of the Zoo's tortoises (Aldabra tortoises named King and Koopa) winter in one of the three greenhouses she supervises, since she's had two leopard tortoises (Cleo and Herby) of her own for the past 25 years. "I've had them longer than my children who are 18 and 21 this year," she says. "[The tortoises] live outside in the summer and inside a heated room in the garage in the winter with our rescue hermit crabs. We also have three dogs and two cats, along with a fish tank. So not only do I work at the Zoo, but I also live in one!"

The Zoo has been Misty's home for 30 years, starting part-time on the grounds maintenance crew while attending USI. As a student, she changed her major five times before finding her roots in geology. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," she says. "In the Geology Club people were so cool and so fun and camped all the time, I was like, 'Oh, maybe this is me.'"

Misty's enthusiasm for the program came from Dr. Paul Doss, Professor of Geology. "I went on a lot of trips with him [and my classmates], and we had some great times camping and learning and having fun," she says. "Some of the professors [in the program] had different expertise, so it was nice to get a little bit of every discipline. I just loved it all enough to know that's what I wanted to do versus biology. Plus, I'd have had more math with biology so I'm like 'no thanks.'" 

As the Botanical Curator for the Zoo's 45-acre campus, Misty's responsibilities include greenhouses, a staff of four full-time and 12 seasonal employees, plus many volunteers. "We do everything from cutting down trees to maintaining the trees to keeping the pathways clean, the beds clean," she says. "We take care of all interiorscapes that have plants in them, from Amazonia to the Komodo Dragon. We also coordinate and provide plant material from a special browse list that serves as part of the diet for some animals and as enrichments [to enhance] their natural behaviors."

Aside from maintaining the grounds and exhibits, Misty and her crew propagate plants for the Zoo's annual plant sales—24 years and going—as well as the orchid shows—15 years now. "We love to use native plants in our sales because they have an important relationship with native birds and bugs that is vital to the food web," she says. "We like to throw in some fun, more exotic plants, too. We've got some cool things here like a caladium that came from seed on the Amazon River. You won't find it at box stores or even some of the nurseries."

While Misty's past is rooted in her passion for the Zoo, it is the future she's most excited about. "I want to be sure the Zoo continues to move in the direction we are going and help to achieve our mission. I am excited for [the Zoo's] 100-year anniversary coming up in April of 2028. The history is fascinating and it's crazy to see what it has evolved into [during the past] 100 years! I am very passionate about this place and want to make sure everyone else is
as well!"

Elusive Insights: Confessing Zookeeper

by C. L. Stambush

Built seamlessly into the rockface of Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden's Amazonia exhibit is a secret door. Zookeeper Loretta (Werner) Manning '99, biology, who oversees the fish tank area, free-flight birds and the toucans (who were rescued from an animal smuggling ring in Texas), opens it and leads us through. "This area is what we call the mezzanine area, it houses reptiles (boas and lizards) and insects. I also have a breeding pair of lesser Madagascar tenrecs. They are not Amazonian, obviously, but they are in my area because we have [some of] the best temperatures," she says.

The tenrecs, along with several tortoises, winter in the Amazonia exhibit for the warmth. In addition to these visitors are Caribbean giant cockroaches that don't so much fly as "fall with style" and a pair of emerald tree boas born in the same clutch. "Their camouflage is that they look like an unripe pile of bananas on a tree," says Loretta.

Loretta knew as a young girl watching the graceful stingrays at SeaWorld that fish were in her future. "I have always loved and been fascinated by fish and the underwater world. There's so much to explore and wonder about." An Evansville native, Loretta majored in biology and participated in a student research trip to Belize her senior year at USI. The trip was amazing, but the Biology Program was no walk on the beach. "Dr. Jack Marr [Associate Professor Emeritus of Biology] really made me work for my grades in his classes," she says. "It taught me to work harder than I ever had to in high school or even some of my other college courses." 

After graduation, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, for her first zookeeper job with the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. "I had the job before I graduated but I came here in 2007," she says over her shoulder as we descend a staircase into the 10,000 square foot Amazonia underbelly. As I follow her down into secret passageways, a macaw's screech rings out. "She hears me, so she knows I'm here," says Loretta.

Crackers, one of the Zoo's two blue and gold macaws, loves Loretta. The other one, Gandy, not so much. "Macaws are very particular about who they like and trust. Crackers likes me but no one else. Gandy likes everybody but not me," she says.

Both Crackers and Gandy were previously someone's pets before the Zoo took them in. "Macaws can live up to 80 years old. A lot of people don't know that when they get them as pets. They are still, unfortunately, very popular as pets." Gandy did not deal well with being rehomed to the Zoo. "Crackers used to live with Gandy, who was completely stressed and plucked her head bald," Loretta says, adding she makes sure he has lots of enrichment toys to keep his mind busy and his beak off his feathers. 

Like Crackers and Gandy, some of the Zoo's animals have names, but not all. Some are simply known by their gender and species. Others get named by the public, such as when the baby penguin was born in April 2023: Louie Pickle. The two names were strong contenders, so the Zoo christened him with both. "I like to give things names when they earn them, or if we have a tradition of naming them," says Loretta. "The lesser Madagascar tenrecs all have Star Wars themed names because that's what the original pair had as names, so I've given all their offspring Star Wars names." 

In a cage near the macaws is Eve, a South American prehensile-tailed porcupine born at another zoo on Christmas Eve. Porcupines are nocturnal and 5-year-old Eve is not interested in Loretta's pleas to come down from her perch high on a branch in her cage. "This is the difference between hand-raised and parent-raised [animals]. She was parent-raised, and these guys are nocturnal, so they don't tend to want to be awake during the day," she says, noting Eve's uncooperativeness.

Eve may not want to engage with us, but Crackers does, and lets out another screech as we turn to leave. I wonder, what confessions is she making?

Hidden Wildlife: Exposing Educator Roles

by C. L. Stambush

Secreted out of sight in a barn and/or private room lives a team of Mesker Park Zoo Ambassador Animals, a collection of 23 species ranging from a striped skunk to tortoises to hissing cockroaches, specifically selected to teach and bring awareness to the public about the importance of protecting ecosystems on our shared planet Earth.

Daytona Begle '19, psychology, is the Zoo's Volunteer and Program Coordinator and de facto "booking agent" for Meadow (striped skunk), Clarence (miniature horse), Naya (Kenyan sand boa) and others when it comes to organizing and presenting educational events at schools, nursing homes or large corporations. "Ambassador animals are ones that can be used for programs. We mostly acquire ours through other AZA* accredited zoos," she says. "When determining if an animal would be a good Ambassador, we look at its size, temperament, personality and the conservation message they can bring to guests."

As a USI student, Daytona knew wildlife would one day be part of her career, so she trained as a Docent for Mesker. "I always knew I wanted to go into the zoo world, I just wasn't sure what I wanted to do in that world, so being a Docent was my first step into getting a job at one," she says. Today, her role at Mesker involves training and managing its 80 Docents as well as its 40ish Zoo Teens, a program that teaches high school students ages 14-18 life skills through an immersive volunteer program. 

Working with so many diverse people, she relies on her USI education to help her read people. "Being a psychology major has helped me understand people a bit better. I need that in this role because I am the face of the Zoo's Education Department," she says. "Whenever someone contacts us for a program, it's me [who helps them]. When groups come, I greet them and present programs. All the volunteer communications are through me."

Daytona developed her event planning skills at USI, but she was born with an enthusiasm for it and all things education. "I loved USI. I was very involved when I was there. I was part of the Activities Planning Board my whole USI career and that got me involved in doing many events on campus. There was never a dull moment for me; always something to do."

The events/programs she plans at the Zoo include animal encounters, biofact tables, games and activities for children. "I think people really love our more exotic ambassador animals—like our three-banded armadillo that [people don't see in this area]. He (Bocce) is very active and runs around the whole [program]. The younger kids love our lionhead rabbit. She (Bella Bunny) is very tame, easy to touch and very cute." For the adults, Daytona likes to bring out Meadow. "They really love seeing her. She is great, especially since we have skunks in our area, so we get to teach people why they are not harmful."


*Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Spooky Sightings: Decrypting Guest Experiences

by C. L. Stambush

Every time Molly Mayo '21, public relations and advertising, Guest Services Assistant Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, looks at Clementine, one of the Zoo's two giraffes, she sees Frankenstein's monster. Not in Clementine's face, but one of her spots. "One of my favorite things about Clementine is she has this little spot at the base of her neck shaped like Frankenstein's monster," says Molly. Since she likes scary movies, it's no surprise she sees a classic spooky figure, even if it does not come from her favorite film: Halloween

In the eight years Molly's worked in the Zoo's Guest Services, she's worked her way up from attendant to senior attendant to assistant manager as one of four Guest Services Leads. "I started here in high school. It was a great little summer job. I could work weekends only, and they were so flexible with my hours through college," she says. "I've always loved it here. It's like a little home away from home."

Being creative and fun has always been central to her roles in Guest Services. She has planned parties for guests who wanted them hosted at the Zoo, designed whimsical displays in the gift shop and led guests to giraffe feedings. "I always try to make the guest experience the best I can," she says. "Some people go to Disney World twice a year, but some people come to the Zoo once a year in the summer and that is their big trip. So, I try to make it a good, fun experience." 

Molly's USI education prepared her well for her current role. "The PR [background] really helps when working with people—to have strong communication skills, people skills and to be able to sell the Zoo in a good light. Marketing helps in the Gift Shop when making displays and putting things where they will sell the best."

As a traditional student, she commuted 10 minutes to campus. "I really enjoyed USI. It wasn't too small, but it wasn't too big. My USI professors were very helpful. There were a few that really made an impact and I still use things I learned at USI every day, especially from John Morris [Instructor in Radio and Television] and Mary Beth Reese [Instructor in Communication]. They showed me different ways to do things and outlets for me that I did not know existed."

Molly continues that tradition of helping others see things in a new light with the Zoo's clients today, showing them the unique things she has discovered. Like the monster-shaped spot on Clementine. "Whenever people ask, how do you tell [the giraffes] apart?, I always point out the little Frankenstein [monster] shape on the base of her neck." 

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