Animal Magic: Regeneration and a Radical Reptile House at El Paso Zoo

When Steve Marshall joined El Paso Zoo as its new Director in 2007 it was, he says, under-visited, undervalued, under-marketed and misunderstood.

Fast forward nine years and the zoo has been transformed under his leadership, beginning with the completion of the Africa project which increased the size of the zoo by a third.

Marshall also increased the admission price to cover the operating costs of the new exhibit despite advice to the contrary. It proved to be a sound move. Attendance rocketed – visitors clearly happy to pay significantly more for a better experience.

Blooloop spoke to Steve Marshall (left) and the zoo’s Owner’s Representative, Yvette Hernandez, about the new initiatives and exhibits that have revitalised El Paso Zoo including its one-of-a-kind reptile house.

Marshall came to El Paso Zoo from Zoo Atlanta where he had been Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for nine years. During his time there, he was in charge of the Giant Panda programme and team leader on a project that established a training academy in China for zoo educators.

Awarded the Tim O’Sullivan Award for Professional Excellence for his service to Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) members, he currently serves on AZA’s National Board of Directors.

“I grew up in a household where it was a very special event when a National Geographic or a Jacques Cousteau special came on TV, or a Disney animal special was on; our household stopped, and that’s what we did, ” he says.

“My father had me outside a lot, growing up, and I had a keen interest in biology and knew I wanted to do something connected with it. In college I got interested in the concept of interpreting science, the natural world and ecology to the general public.”

When he took up the reins at El Paso Zoo it was not, as he puts it, well regarded by its community.

“The zoo was ready to be better than it was, and I came at the right time, ” he says.

Marshall is typically modest about his contribution to its huge change in fortunes:

“I don’t bring any type of massive intellect or vision; I just surround myself with people that take their job seriously and understand that their inward profession is for an outward mission, and we were able to garner some resources that were sorely needed.”

This was largely thanks to the citizens of El Paso who wanted a better facility. When Marshall became Director, they had already voted for a $34 million bond initiative for the zoo, which was just coming to a close. The zoo was able to complete its master plan at that point and create a new one. Within two years the community had approved another $50 million to complete that new master plan over a 13-year period.

“There was an existing master plan with a final project that was planned, funded and ground-broken when I came, ” says Marshall.

Out of Africa

This was the Africa exhibit – a ten-acre complex that included a new entry, new gift shop and a new restaurant which was, Marshall says, “ …just a massive leap forward.”

“We finished that project: that was when Yvette came on as the City Project Manager.”

Marshall realised it would be necessary to increase the ticket price substantially in order to cover the operating costs of the new sector.

“We had had some people advise us that the increase may cut back on our attendance, ” he says.

In fact, the opposite was true:

“We actually had an 18% increase in our attendance when we increased our admission price. That was because we had a much better product to offer. We decided we were going to have really good food, the grounds were going to be clean, and the restrooms were going to be trustworthy.

“All those things came together. We finished our master plan, and were putting the finishing touches to the next master plan when the citizenry included us in a Quality of Life bond initiative. We received $50 million more to simply improve the zoo.”

Yvette Hernandez – Owner’s Representative

When the time came to execute this next 8-year master plan, Marshall decided that the zoo needed in-house representation – an Owner’s Representative.

“Yvette was always my first choice for it, and we were very happy when she applied, ” he says.

Hernandez (left) had previously spent seven years working with the Engineering Department for the City of El Paso. During this time she was responsible for managing the Fire Department portfolio.

She also successfully supervised the construction of the Saipan Ledo Park Pond. This was actually awarded Project of the Year for Emergency Repair/Construction by the Texas Public Works Association.

She has a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Southern California. She also has an MPA in urban planning from the University of Texas at El Paso.

According to Marshall, the zoo’s new Owner’s Representative hit the ground running:

“She did a great job; her learning curve was real short for the uniqueness of the types of facilities for animals, dangerous animals, guest experience, education staff, animal staff, maintenance staff, she really grasped it quickly. She has really led us in this march towards excellence with our construction.”

“The City’s whole Quality of Life Bond, of which the zoo received $50 million, was for $470 million. The City’s Engineering Department was acting as project manager. The projects would start and stop throughout the City, but the zoo’s was choreographed and scheduled with a master plan. This ensured there would be continuous building for the next eight years.

“The City allowed the zoo to control its own project management, bringing it in house and dispensing with a third party.”

Hernandez manages the 2012 Quality of Life Bond and the implementation of the El Paso Zoo Master Plan. She is responsible for the project scope, schedule and budget throughout the project life cycle. She also provides design oversight to the consultant through review of plans and specifications, and ensures that all departments within the zoo are involved.

Hernandez says, “Thankfully, when I came on board, the master plan had already been conceived. It was then a case of developing the idea, giving it to me to run with it, and implement.”

“So far, we’ve already opened two projects. The reptile house and the wild dog exhibit; we’ve just put the finishing touches up on our event tent – we’re about half-way completed with our wildlife theatre project, and then we have three more new construction projects coming on board within this next month.

“One is behind the scenes: an animal holding area which will be used temporarily for when we start our signature project, which is the Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit. Some of the animals that we have within our existing footprint will be placed into this animal holding area until the construction for the Chihuahuan Desert exhibit has been completed.”

Work began on the animal holding area on August 8th 2016.

“The next project is upgrades to our aviary, which will be the entire removal and replacement of our current netting. That will allow us to increase our aviary collection, with the third one being constructed at our red river hog exhibit, ” she says.

All Staff are City Employees

Buoyant visitor numbers are a testament to the success of the ongoing developments.

“We see about 378 thousand people a year here, ” says Marshall. “We have a staff of about 115; because we are municipally operated, everyone here is a city employee.

“The advantage is that we have the backing of a large, solvent entity, and that we do get an allocation to operate that isn’t our total allocation. We get most of the money for our salary and benefits. The money for all of our operating essentials, however, like animal food, vaccinations, rubber boots, vehicles, all that kind of stuff, we have to earn that money through the gate.

“The City does do our human resources, they pay our utilities, so it’s a good setting for our community.”

Radical Reptile House

Back in June, El Paso Zoo opened its highly anticipated reptile house, built to resemble a Texas tortoise.

“The reptile house was originally started back in the first Quality of Life Bond that Steve mentioned, so we had an existing building with exhibits along the longer side of the building.”

Steve Marshall adds, “The genesis of this idea was something one of our staff members had envisioned. Rather than just building a square or rectangular building where you viewed the windows from outside, why not make it a giant representation of a Texas tortoise?

“Portions of it were completed in the first Quality of Life Bond; we had to wait for the second Bond to complete it. And, when we finally got it complete it was very moving for her to see her original concept come to fruition.”

The staff member in question was Amanda Leverett, El Paso Zoo’s Collections Supervisor.

“Approximately 10-12 years ago we started talking about building a new Reptile House. Staff members (keepers, supervisors, etc.) were asked to contribute ideas for the new building, ” explains Leverett.

“I was sketching some ideas one day and one of my sketches ended up looking like a turtle shell. The idea then came to me to make the building in the shape of a turtle/tortoise with a sculptural head, shell (as the roof) and feet. I then came up with the idea to use the “feet” as larger, biome-type exhibits. I wanted the head so big that people could walk into it and have a photo opportunity.

“It took years of planning and waiting and it has finally come to fruition. I am beyond excited that my “crazy” dream has become a reality. I’m also very pleased with the construction, painting, and sculptural work that was done by many talented individuals to bring our tortoise to life.

“I can’t wait to see the looks on everyone’s faces, especially the children, as they walk up to the building for the first time. That, alone, will be worth the wait. El Paso will have a truly one-of-a-kind building.”

Marshall says, “Initially, we were a little concerned that something that big may turn out a little cartoon-ish. It’s actually extraordinarily lifelike in its appearance. It’s quite something to see.”

“I think a blessing in disguise was that we did not have the money to finish it all in one go, ” adds Hernandez.

“We quickly realised that although, conceptually, it was a great idea to use what would be the ribs of the Texas tortoise as a holding area for the different exhibits so that the guests could view the exhibits all along the walls of the building, one of the problems that we had was that the sun glared directly onto these exhibits.”

The hiatus between waves of funding afforded an opportunity to identify a solution.

“We had to do something to overcome the glare of the sun, and we were able to create anti-glare walls. So now, the public can walk through what is almost a tunnel to see the exhibits. A lot of the glare has been significantly reduced.”

COST of Wisconsin

The second project which has recently been completed is the Wild Dog Exhibit.

“The original Bond project list was very aspirational, for the first $34 million, ” explains Marshall. “Having Africa as the last project, not only in the zoo’s plan, but also as the last project of the Bond, there were certain things that had to be postponed.

“So, while we had COST of Wisconsin here doing a lot of our riverbank and rockwork for Africa, we went ahead and had them build the rockwork and backdrop for the wild dog exhibit, but held off on the holding building and some finishing touches.”

According to Marshall, the benefit of this approach is that the exhibits have the same finish. They therefore tie in stylistically.

“Instead of coming back five years later and having it look like it was an afterthought, this exhibit looks exactly like the rest of Africa. We just needed to finish the behind-the-scenes stuff, ” he says. “We’re very happy with the outcome.”

And then, just as the wild dogs exhibit was nearing completion, it was discovered that wild dogs were not available.

“There had not been the kind of breeding success through the Species Survival Plan that could supply everybody who wanted wild dogs last year, ” explains Marshall.

“So, we reached into our collection plan for a future animal we were building an exhibit for – the red river hogs.”

Thus, for the time being, the wild dogs exhibit houses red river hogs.

“They enjoy the water, they root around, and they have a good time: it’s a really good exhibit, ” he says.

“We are now building the actual red river hog exhibit, in Africa – and as soon as it’s complete we will move them. After that we should be in line to receive the wild dogs that will go in the wild dog exhibit. It’s very confusing to everyone who discusses this daily!”

AZA Accreditation

Marshall’s commitment to animal welfare is unequivocal.  “We are animal welfare extremists, ” he says.

He will not keep any species that do not fit well with El Paso’s hot desert climate. There are, for instance, no polar bears.

“We have never had to be told to do the best we can with animal welfare. We go to extreme measures to make sure the wellbeing of these animals is the best it can be, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

It is, therefore, not surprising that El Paso Zoo is AZA accredited. This means it meets a set of stringent criteria covering all aspects of animal management and care from living environments, nutrition and veterinary care to conservation and finances.  Marshall knows all about these exacting standards, serving as he does on AZA’s Board of Directors.

“Right now, we’re looking at about 230 members that we accredit with a very high level of standards. We’re well beyond any other federal permitting requirements to have a zoo.

“So, that does two things for us: one is it allows us to manage animals collectively. Our Species Survival Plan is like a management plan for each animal.  We collectively transfer some animals to keep genetic diversity alive. Some animals we hold, like we have an all-female herd of zebra without a male; we have three male giraffes without a female.  We hold these bachelor groups and then when we have a breeding recommendation for other animals, like orang-utans, or Asian wild horses or Malaysian tigers, then we do have males and females in a breeding situation.”

Collective Conservation – A Bigger Picture

“The second thing this accreditation allows us to do collectively is that we can be a part of a bigger picture on conservation.

“So again, when we’re breeding endangered species, or we’re holding animals, we can be part of a larger project. For example, donations are made for Lion Guardians through our conservation fundraising here at the zoo – we support one Masai warrior ranger that helps protect lions in Kenya.

“And, we’re part of quite a few projects that we’re contributing to. The thing that we’re striving for is to get more projects where our staff can be involved. It’s what we call ‘conservation boots on the ground’.

“Just recently, we’ve sent one of our veterinarians to the Baja peninsula of Mexico to take part in some hand-rearing of pronghorn young; we’ve sent staff to Colorado to help with population surveys of black footed ferrets; and we’ve also sent staff to Indonesia to work with orang-utan conservation. We do try to get boots on the ground.

“We’re working on one particular thing close to us, where a handful of staff will go and help erect and repair fences. It’s in conjunction with a reintroduction programme of Mexican wolves in New Mexico.”

Zoos Today – A More Expansive Experience

So, what message should a modern zoo be communicating to its visitors?

“The function of a modern zoo is to get the message out that our over-consumption has a negative impact on the planet, and that we, as stewards, can change that. I think right now it’s ignorance, not apathy. We have saved endangered species from extinction (the American alligator, the American bald eagle, the black footed ferret). The black footed ferret was down to twelve individuals. The California condor was down to fourteen individuals.

“Through the work of zoos and people changing the way that they were living, we were able to bring these animals back.

“That daily sharing of resources on the planet is really lopsided right now, but things can happen: we took CFCs out of propellants. There are new laws against micro beads. We’re moving towards marine debris reduction. Everybody’s looking at palm oil.”

“Zoos today provide a larger, more expansive experience than a passive walk-by exhibit; people can spend a longer time at zoos, families want their children to experience things.”

El Paso Zoo has come a long way from that under-visited, undervalued, under-marketed and misunderstood institution that Marshall joined nine years ago.

“We’re trusted, we’re seen as a value, we’re seen as a place the community, not only for families, but for single people, dating people, adults without kids, grandparents without kids. All can come to the zoo and have a grand experience that includes a connection to nature and animals, ” says Marshall.

“Our goodwill is at an all-time high.”