Mesker Park Zoo & Botanical Garden is at a crossroads, and Director Amos Morris is hoping to keep it going in the right direction. It’s been more than six years since Amazonia, the zoo’s most prized exhibit, was built, and Morris hopes to embark on another soon.Morris first came to Evansville in 2009 after leaving his position as curator of mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. He looked forward to nurturing a zoo in a smaller city, one closer to the size of his hometown Jefferson City, Missouri. We sat down with him to talk about his hopes and dreams for Evansville’s beloved city zoo.
City View: What were some of your first priorities when taking over six years ago?
Amos Morris: The zoo was facing some challenges right off the bat. Following the construction of Amazonia, there was some earth failure; one of the slopes next to the building was sliding off into the lake. And we had legal issues to go along with that. But after a couple of years, we got that resolved and those things repaired. We did some restructuring from a staffing sense and put more management in the hands of the zoo managers. We improved how we performed daily care and built a new commissary from the ground up. We looked at areas of opportunity where we could improve the well being of the collection and make it more efficient to care for them. We made changes to present the zoo to the public in a more modern zoo exhibit format.
CV: What do you think people find appealing about smaller zoos like Mesker?
AM: They can call it their zoo. You can see the whole facility in a couple of hours. And that makes it easy.
CV: How has attendance been at Mesker over the last few years?
AM: Attendance hopped up 65 percent after Amazonia was built. We sustained that for four years, but it’s starting to drop. And in most statistics with zoos, when you build a major exhibit, you get good attendance for five years. It’s a consistent model. So when you want to grow, you want to try to do something significant every five years. We need to figure out a way to get a major project going in the zoo.
CV: What would you like to see added to the zoo?
AM: Two, three years ago, we asked the community what it wanted. We had some community discussions about where the zoo was headed, and it was all positive. We put together an action plan that includes major renovations for the African exhibits, bringing a carousel back to the zoo, and adding a penguin exhibit. Not necessarily in that order; obviously, bringing the carousel back will be the most doable of the three.
CV: What’s the next step in doing so?
AM: Mesker is one of the few municipal zoos in the country that is accredited. Most are public/private partnerships, although we do have a nonprofit that does fundraising for us. But the city administration has a huge challenge in figuring out what is going to be best for the community. My belief is that the zoo is an economic driver for the community, and it can be the rock star of that community if you invest in it. A zoo is a huge tourism draw for any community, and the economic impact is 2.9 times the amount you put in.
CV: What is your personal dream for Mesker’s future?
AM: To be an exceptional zoo does not mean you have to be a huge zoo. My dream for Mesker is for it to be world class with exceptional care for the animals and plants that are here. I want people to be engaged and excited and not just look at the zoo as a recreational place but as an institution of learning.
For more information about Mesker Park & Botanic Garden, call 812-435-6143 or visit meskerparkzoo.com.