Summer 2005

Quoted: Jim Marlett

Jim Marlett
Jim Marlett ’69 shares his love
of frogs, childhood fear of snakes,
respect for prairie-dog smarts and
the importance of Charlie and his

"I’m the assistant director at the Sedgwick County Zoo. I watch over all the animal departments, the veterinary department, the education department, the graphics and exhibits department, am responsible for human resources issues, and when the zoo director is gone, I watch over the whole operation."

"The best part of my job is walking around the zoo and seeing how people interact with our animals, plants and exhibits. My highest high is when I see something we created really getting its point across to our guests."

"I can tell you who are the two smartest prairie dogs. They’re the two that are still in the pronghorn yard after nearly a year of our trying to gather up all the free-ranging ‘dogs.’ We’ve caught many, many prairie dogs, but these two have outsmarted us at every turn. Maybe they’ll just jump into the remodeled prairie dog exhibit when it’s finished."

"The best time to visit a zoo is Monday, Tuesday or Sunday morning on beautiful days. These are times when the crowds are smallest and animals are most likely to be active. Animals are just like us when it comes to pretty weather: They want to frolic."

"Three major changes have come about since I started my career. The first is a trend toward naturalistic exhibits. The second is a trend toward immersion exhibits, where the attempt is to make you feel like you are in the habitat with the animal. And the third is a much greater emphasis on behavioral enrichment for all kinds of animals rather than a select few."

"One change under way right now is how we house and manage elephants. American Zoo and Aquarium Association requirements for accreditation have been changing. In the not-too-distant future, zoos will either have to house larger groups of cow elephants with a bull or two, house groups of bull elephants or stop working with elephants altogether. Those larger groups will require much more space and more money for maintenance."

"I suppose the tactful thing to say is that I don’t have a favorite, and that’s almost true. But the real truth is that I like frogs."

"I’m tempted to respond, “What can’t we learn from animals?” But I figure someone might come up with something. I believe that we aren’t much different from the other animals, so if we are observant, the possibilities are endless."

"I used to be snake phobic. I couldn’t look at snakes. I couldn’t look at pictures of snakes, and if I did see a snake, I couldn’t eat spaghetti for weeks. On my first Boy Scout Camporee, a friend of mine caught a little garter snake. He asked me to touch it with the advice that it wouldn’t feel like I thought it would. If you thought I was going to appear to be a coward on such an auspicious occasion, you would be sadly mistaken. I touched it. My friend was right — it didn’t feel like I thought it would. After that, I was hooked on snakes."

"Zoo operation is so specialized that much of it is learned on the job. There are few zoo-oriented degrees in our institutions of higher learning, but I’m not sure that is an impediment. If zoos are to interpret nature for the non-scientist, and I believe they are, then a good basic understanding of nature is important."

"One way my time at Wichita State prepared me for a career in the zoo field was by introducing me to my wife Patty. She was the only woman in my vertebrate zoology class and, at the time, the only woman I knew who had caught a venomous snake. She was obviously the woman for me. Her moral and financial support allowed me to work my way up a relatively low-paying ladder. The only thing I can promise someone who follows this career path is that you are not likely to get rich at it, so you had better do it because you love it. And I do."

"Zoos exist to create an interface between people and animals. So no matter how wonderful an exhibit is for an animal, if the people can’t see the animal, it may as well not be there. The challenge is to build exhibits that make the animals feel comfortable and that are large enough to meet both physical and mental needs of the animals, yet small enough and laid out well enough for people to have a satisfying experience. We use some tricks to help with this. Warming areas with hot water coils in the rocks helps put animals where they can best be seen in cool weather. Putting shade in good viewing areas in the summer can bring animals close."

"My closest call was in my college days when I was a part-time zookeeper at the Riverside Park Zoo back when it had exotic animals. One morning after cleaning, I left the female lion’s door unlocked and slightly ajar. As is standard in the business, the door was constructed such that pressure from the animal’s side would close it, but only if the slot that caught the tab of the latch and the tab were lined up just right, and most mornings they weren’t. As soon as I noticed my mistake, I tried to let the lioness back into her holding quarters, but she would have none of that. Charlie Dyer, a long-time zookeeper, was stripping the water from the lobby floor with a squeegee, which was the ultimate weapon at that zoo. Charlie knew just what to do: ‘I’ll keep her busy with my squeezer while you close the door.’ I knew I had only one chance to line up the tab and the slot and slam the door shut. Luck was with me. The tab caught and the lock went in the hole. As soon as the door was secure, my knees turned to jelly and it was all I could do to stay upright. I’m forever grateful for Charlie and his squeezer."


Quoted: Jim Marlett

Jim Marlett ’69 shares his love of frogs, childhood fear of snakes, respect for prairie-dog smarts and the importance of Charlie and his “squeezer.”