by Paul Swen

There are few things better than being an insider, getting to peek behind the scenes and being included in something special. It’s like being trusted with a delightful secret. 

There’s a place in north Tyler that is so familiar it’s like a member of the family. It’s been with us for close to 75 years. It’s just become part of growing up in East Texas. But most of us know very little about how it actually works. There’s far more than meets the eye. And it’s fascinating. So, allow me to take you on a journey through the miles of pathways and custom-built structures that make up our favorite zoo. 

The Caldwell Zoo is open every day, except for a handful of holidays and rare days of inclement weather. Our family is made up of over 3,000 animals from all around the world. They each have their own very specific needs and desires. So, there is no down time. It takes the expertise of nearly 100 team members to provide for the animals under our care and be ready when the first guests arrive every morning. There is always something going on at the zoo—24 hours of each and every day.

Imagine a family home that houses a huge variety of very different creatures. Some like it hot. Some demand coolness. Oh, the battles over the thermostat! Then everyone is a very picky eater. One group is strictly vegetarian, while others will only eat raw meat. Some will only dine on fresh seafood and others simply have to have their meals “delivered” with a mix of the most exotic ingredients. 

Then there’s the sleeping quarters. Comfy bedding needs to be provided for creatures that weigh only a few ounces and for those who top the scales at over ten thousand pounds. Each person, whether staff or guest, and every animal must be kept safe and secure at all times. And every need must be provided for.

This “home” has to have a heck of a kitchen, a hospital, an array of separate swimming pools, a variety of playgrounds and exercise facilities. What does it take? It takes a team of dedicated experts: medical, professionals, a fleet of craftsmen, horticulturists, technical wizards, clever artists and a lot of hard work. Let’s take a look.

One of the favorite areas of the zoo is the African Overlook. It offers expansive views across several acres and it’s the abode of an astonishing diversity of animals. This is the home of the world’s largest land animals, elephants; the world’s tallest, giraffes; and the “king of the jungle,” lions. Surprisingly, this area is a mix of “prey and predator”. In plain sight of the mighty lions, their traditional prey calmly grazes right in front of them. Elegant impalas, greater kudus, zebras, wildebeests, warthogs and even ostriches and crowned cranes intermingle safely and securely. But there are no fences between the pride of lions and their traditional prey. How is this possible?

Hayes Caldwell, the Executive Director explains, “We wanted to give our guests an incredible experience of seeing animals like they would be in the wild. The overlook area was built to provide a natural view of an African savanna. So, instead of fences, deep moats and slender guide wires are used to keep the animals separated. This gives guests an incredible view while making sure everyone is safe. Obviously, our construction and maintenance teams have to be top-notch to pull this off.”

It took months of planning, tomes of detailed schematics and expert construction to bring this vision to fruition. Since most of the animals go inside at night, including the lions, their barns and enclosures had to be built without interfering with the guest experience. So, now when you gaze across the field and see lions basking in the sunlight in front of a magnificent rock wall, just know that behind those carefully constructed rocks, that’s where they go to sleep. And every day and every night the facilities are checked by the staff members to make sure that everything is functioning properly.

Have you ever wondered how you give an elephant a physical exam?

“Elephants are super smart and of course, they are incredibly powerful,” says Jimmy Brooks, an animal care supervisor, who has worked at the zoo for over twenty-five years. “It’s our job to make sure that they have everything they need. That means nutritious food and a lot of it, plenty of room and intellectual stimulation. No one wants a bored elephant. If they’re bored or if they’re upset, they can really do some damage. So, we make sure they are kept active and in top health.”

An African elephant can stand over twelve feet tall at the shoulder, weigh well over five tons, and tear down a full-grown tree without much effort. So, keeping them fit and secure comes with a special set of challenges. Every member of the staff that works with elephants must have specific training for their care. Their habitat is built to offer them ample space to play and explore. Hundreds of pounds of food are provided for their daily calories. This nutrition isn’t just put in a trough. That’s not very interesting. A variety of hay and “browse” are carefully placed around the elephant yard in different vessels to make food gathering more engaging and natural. Some food is raised in special containers over 15’ in the air. This simulates gathering leaves and limbs from trees, like elephants would do in the wild. Other treats are placed inside customized, ultra-tough containers so the elephants get a combination of a treat and a toy.

Keeping three gargantuan elephants fit isn’t just about nutrition. Just like you and me, they need physical check-ups and they need to be intellectually engaged. Elephants are simply too strong to force them to do much of anything. The training with the elephants is designed to be interesting for them while allowing the keepers to make sure they are in top health. The facilities were built specifically to make this possible. Their barn is super reinforced to provide ample security and comfort. There are individual areas for each elephant and the whole thing has customizable heating and air conditioning. Specific verbal instructions and positive reinforcement techniques are used to communicate with the elephants. No animal at the zoo is ever forced to engage. 

The keepers work long hours with each elephant to earn their trust and teach them what they need to do for a medical check-up. We have to check their feet, their eyes, their ears and even their blood. By working with the elephants every day, the zoo team can make sure they are happy, healthy and content.

Health is top priority for every animal at the zoo and if something needs to be taken care of, it’s not possible to just jaunt down the street to the local clinic or pharmacy. We can’t just put an alligator or eagle in the backseat and go for a spin. That’s why there’s a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital right on campus. The medical facility is set up to care for all creatures great and small, from the most delicate birds to powerful reptiles, from newborn babes to geriatric matriarchs. This private clinic is packed with modern accoutrements like X-ray machines, centrifuges and surgery suites. Detailed records are kept on every animal along with a schedule for proper routine health reports. Besides monitoring the day-to-day health of the animals, the staff must be ready to treat any animal for a variety of conditions that comes with being wild.

“You never know what the day will bring you,” says Doctor Ann Buchannon, one of the two veterinary specialists that work with the zoo. “We could be giving a neonatal exam to a newborn cheetah in the morning and then administering vitamins and fluids to a sweet, old bobcat in the afternoon. We are constantly monitoring the animals that live here. Every animal has a health plan, whether it’s a two-thousand-pound buffalo or a tiny poison dart frog or an African parrot, we keep a close eye on all of them. Being prepared and ready for anything is just part of the job.”

Then, there’s the food. It takes a lot of food to provide for thousands of picky eaters. In fact, it takes tons and tons of 

ingredients every day. Feeding is such a monumental task there’s a full-time staff that is continually, night and day, preparing, stocking, distributing and reordering meal plans. The kitchen staff follows carefully constructed menus for their exotic clientele. Fresh produce is delivered daily. A rich variety of seafood and meat is acquired from around the globe. Hundreds of pounds of grains, nuts, worms, and insects are carefully mixed with scientifically formulated vitamins and minerals for the truly discriminating. Meals are prepared on a rigid schedule so they arrive fresh at specific times of the day. 

“It’s really important for the animals’ nutrition to arrive on time,” says Scotty Stainback, Curator of Mammals. “We need to be able to move the animals in and out of their habitats safely. Almost all the animals are brought inside at night. That’s how we can keep their areas clean and make sure they’re safe. For most of the animals, food is the motivator. They get accustomed to a pattern and we spend a lot of time training them to come and go based on a planned schedule. So, it’s imperative for all the meals to be ready at specific times.”

“You don’t just tell a lion or tiger what to do,” Scotty explains. “You have to motivate them.”

Coordination is key. The zoo opens at 9:00 in the morning on most days and everything needs to be ready before the first guests arrive. Habitats have to be cleaned. Meals must be prepared and delivered. And the animals need to be ready to greet the visitors. It takes three crews of round-the-clock staff to keep this finely tuned machine functioning like clockwork.

Along with the daily demands of being open for visitors, the zoo is constantly working towards the long-term benefits of wildlife. Many of the zoo residents are endangered species. Their numbers are declining in the wild. So, the Caldwell Zoo is a member of a program called SAFE, Save Animals From Extinction. This is an international collaboration of accredited zoos to responsibly breed endangered species. Every animal in the SAFE program has a detailed account of their genetic history. Zoos all around the country work together to match animals that could provide healthy offspring and strengthen the overall population of the species. 

Obviously, this takes a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge and resources. In order to breed, animals need to be healthy and comfortable. Participating zoos go to great efforts to provide comfortable habitats that are safe and comfortable for expecting mothers and newborns. These facilities are usually private areas that are not open to the hustle and bustle of normal zoo traffic. Once these areas are established, the zoo experts carefully introduce potential mates.

The Caldwell Zoo has constructed numerous facilities specifically for breeding endangered species including Atwater’s Prairie Chickens, Texas Horned Lizards and African Cheetahs. The staff compiles hour and hours of research and additional training in order to provide the best care for all the animals involved. 

A great example of this is the Breeding Center for the African Cheetahs. Cheetahs tend to be rather shy and need a lot of peace and quiet in order to breed. So, the Caldwell Zoo has built a special facility, tucked into the forest, in order to give these quiet felines, the privacy they demand. Right down the hill is another custom-built area just for Atwater’s Prairie Chickens. These native birds are so endangered that each egg is precious. So, the zoo has a “Brooder House” just for incubating eggs and caring for young birds. It takes immense focus and effort to prevent extinction of any animal. That’s why the zoo donates so much time and resources to the cause.

But a visit to the zoo also needs to be comfortable and beautiful. This is a celebration of nature after all. If you’ve ever walked the grounds of the Caldwell Zoo on a typical day, you may notice that rich color and pastoral beauty surround you. The gardens and pathways of the zoo are famous for the lush plants and flowers. The design and care of these eighty- five acres also takes tremendous effort and expertise. The horticultural staff cares for thousands of flowers, ancient vines and native plants. 

Bud Clayton, one of the team leaders, reminds us, “We take natural beauty pretty seriously around here. The natural way tends to be best. We grow many of our plants in our greenhouses and we use manure collected from the premises to fertilize the soil. We all work together to bring this place to life.”

Yes, it takes an army of dedicated professionals to make a visit to the zoo something fun, safe and memorable. For over seven decades the zoo has evolved to provide more and more cherished memories. It ain’t easy. But it is definitely worth it. This is a place built for smiles. Connecting people with animals is a wonderful way to inspire our community and directly benefit wildlife. So, remember the next time you take a stroll through the zoo, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And your visit helps to make it all possible.