Monday, January 22, 2001
Maruska still talks with the animals
It's tough for former zoo director to leave the creatures that made his career
By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
You call this retirement? Ed Maruska, the 66-year-old former Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden director, retired Dec. 31 after 39 years at the zoo. But he's still there every day.
Ed Maruska cuddles with Sungura, an Okapi.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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Cleaning out my office.
Yeah. And driving around in his golf cart, checking the grounds, offering advice, visiting favorite animals, visiting longtime staffers who are by now longtime friends.
There's no real rush to get out, so I'm taking my time and enjoying the pace and the place, he says, sprawled behind the heavy wood desk in his book-lined office overlooking Swan Lake.
An oval table with two boxes is the only sign someone might be leaving.
The search for a new director has been in the works for 15 months now, but the search committee, says chairman Stuart Dornette, isn't ready to leap. Maybe in February.
Maruska shows an indigo snake to Crosley and Madeline Brammer of Westwood.
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No, it's true. I'm retired. It's been a wonderful, wonderful life. I feel very fortunate to have been here. I'm a happy, lucky guy. But now it's time to go.
Yes it is, says wife Nancy. I've waited 46 years; now I want him here with me (at their home in College Hill). He's been so wrapped up, so involved with the zoo. You know, in his first year at the zoo he didn't take one day off? Not one.
Ah, that first year. He remembers it, but not all that fondly.
He had just spent six years at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, starting out sweeping the reptile house the ad said, "A job, if you're not too choosy' rising through the ranks to Children's Zoo keeper under Marlin Perkins.
Then Cincinnati happened.
It was 1962 and Bill Hoff (then director) hired me at $7,200 a year to be general curator. He brought me in to be the heavy hand. The hired gun. He was a great guy, but he couldn't be tough.
I had to make some tough decisions. Some people thought I was too tough. No one liked me, but I wasn't here to be liked. I was here to do a job, and that meant terminating a lot of people who were working here only because it was a job.
Working here has to be more than a job. It has to be a vocation and an avocation and it has to be so strong that you don't mind jumping out of bed and rushing up here in the middle of the night. That's the kind of staff we have now.
Despite retirement, zoos will continue to be both vocation and avocation for him.
Because he's not retiring from the zoo world. He already has two consulting jobs, one in Nashville, one in New Orleans.
The best thing I did was hire the people I hired. They're going to carry on the mission, they have the experience, and they know what's expected of them. |
Our research program. By that I mean CREW (Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife) and the huge successes it has already had. It's a tremendous contribution to the future. CREW really is at the forefront of the industry.
Our education department. The department goes out to people, people come to them. They all get a lesson in conservation. And that's the future.
The insect house. It was the first ever and everyone said it couldn't be done. I remember one colleague telling me, "Maruska, better men than you have tried it and failed.' We worked on it five years, and all the while had the U.S. Department of Agriculture on our backs about showing a building full of insects. We had no end of trouble figuring out how to display them, we had cultures dying right and left. But we persevered, and today it's a huge success.
Jungle Trails, because it's a whole new concept. We were going to spend $2 1/2 million renovating the old Ape House, and I thought, why? We'll still have animals in little steel cages. One day I was at the bottom of that parking lot and thought what a hell of an orangutan display that would make. Total immersion. I sold the board on it, we scrapped the renovation and spent $8 1/2 million but it achieves exactly what we wanted. Sometimes, late in the day, I go down there and just sit.
In Nashville, I'll be working on a new master plan for their zoo. In New Orleans, I'll be reviewing the master plan and maybe suggesting revisions.
That's going to suit dad just fine, says Donna Oehler, his oldest daughter and the zoo's marketing director. There's nothing he loves more than looking at something, seeing possibilities and finding ways to make them happen.
This kind of work is his passion and always will be. It's in his blood.
Then comes the voice of reason: We're going to do a lot of gardening, we're going to tend our trees, Nancy says, although I won't touch his bonsai. The first thing we're going to do is just sit down and enjoy each other.
And travel. There's a trip to Africa in the works, a going away gift given him by a travel agent friend. Then there's the Civil War tour: I got interested in the Civil War watching the Ken Burns series. Now I'm itching to go walk Gettysburg and other battle sites.
He'll be a good retiree, daughter Linda Nephew says from her home in Bloomington, Ind. He's more suited than most men because he has so many interests. The zoo's his life, but he has a zillion hobbies and collections.
No slowing down
Busy retirement, 'eh?
I assure you I won't slow down, he says, adding that he's about to launch a serious writing project conservation and is thinking of becoming more active in conservation field work. I think I can contribute to the profession while I still have a sound mind and fit body.
I also plan on getting more involved with rhino conservation, perhaps on the AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) level, maybe with rhinoceros breeding programs.
Rhinoceros breeding is a pet project.
I always had in the back of my mind a very large African display. It would be an immersion display with underwater viewing for hippos and everything. But we're landlocked here, and there's just no way without disturbing the entire neighborhood. |
I think we could have handled the levies better than we did. We left it to too many outside elements. Had we gotten the staff and our volunteers more involved in the effort, I think we would have had more success.
Sometimes I step on toes. We have 300 employees in the summer, 2,000 volunteers and 1.3 million visitors. To keep all those people happy, sometimes you have to step on toes. I'm goal-oriented, and that goal is what's best for the animals. Some toes got bruised pretty badly.
The first time I went to Africa, it was 1967, there were 70,000 black rhinos. Today, there are 2,500. They've been on this earth 30 million years. Man has been here maybe five, and we've pushed them to the brink. If we don't help them, who will?
Rhino breeding is also his proudest moment: Emi, our Sumatran and one of the last 200 in the world, is eight months pregnant, getting progesterone and doing well. We're thinking she'll deliver maybe in July. It will be only the second Sumatran born in captivity. The first and last was more than 100 years ago in Calcutta.
It's a sad, scary part of my job. When I came here, I didn't think about extinction. Now I face it daily.
That's where a zoo comes in to play.
There have been profound changes in zoos in the past 15 years. When I started here, zoos were for recreation. Now they're for conservation. We can do it by educating, lobbying if we must, but mostly educating.
Convincing the board
Educating was his first mission after coming to Cincinnati. The board. When I came here, the collection was not the board's focus. Things like the Zoo Food and Home Show were, and I couldn't change their minds.
But then we had two gorillas born in January of '70. We were on the front page 13 days, we packed the house and I finally was able to convince the board that animals could draw a crowd.
That was the turning point in the zoo's life. Today, the board is in complete agreement that the collection is our No. 1 priority.
The gorillas, he notes, have been breeding ever since, 46 times, earning the zoo the U.S. record.
It's one thing I'm really proud of. To get the kind of reproductive track record we have, you need sensitive keepers, sure, but more than that, the animals won't reproduce if they're unhappy or unhealthy. That says a lot about the care they get.
Care has always been high on the Maruska hit list. In his first years at the zoo, before it had a nursery, he took babies home and put Nancy in charge of raising them.
You do it whatever, all of it, for the animals' benefit, Mr. Maruska says. Always, they are our No. 1 priority.
I would hope whoever they hire to succeed me is an animal-person as well as a people-person and feels that way too.
If he does, maybe someone will say about him what retired elephant keeper Cecil Jackson Sr. said about Mr. Maruska: The man who follows Ed Maruska is going to have to be a good man because he has a great big pair of shoes to put on.
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