Brad Byrd In-Depth: New Mesker Park Zoo Executive Director Erik Beck

On Saturday, Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden received reaccreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This comes as the zoo recently named its new executive director, Erik Beck.

Brad Byrd sits down with Erik Beck to discuss the importance of Mesker Park Zoo receiving reaccreditation and what he sees as the future for the Evansville zoo.

Transcript of interview:

Brad Byrd: "Welcome to In-Depth. We're luck in Evansville. It's right here at home, Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden, and it's almost been 90 years. It's seen changes, has been home to thousands of animals throughout the world. And a new era is upon us with a new leader at Mesker. I'm joined tonight by Erik Beck. He is the new Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden executive director. Erik, thanks a lot for joining us tonight and congratulations on your new threshold you have just crossed. But you didn't just stumble into Mesker yesterday. You've been there for 22 years. Started as a zookeeper I believe?"

Erik Beck: "Yeah, I was a fresh out of school zookeeper at Mesker Park Zoo, got a great opportunity to start in there, work with lots of great animals while as a zookeeper. And since then, I've been everything from an animal curator, to what's called a general curator, and a director of operations for the last six years, and now have the opportunity to be the executive director. So, I've been very fortunate."

Brad Byrd: "You're very involved in some of the major projects too in the last 20 years or so including the Amazonia exhibit, which was a huge investment."

Erik Beck: "Yeah, thanks in 2003 we got a bond and I was one of the project managers for that project, so we got to work with architects to bring the South American Rain Forest to Evansville. So, that was very exciting, and it was five years in the making of planning, construction, and opening the exhibit."

Brad Byrd: "What sparked your love in animals? I guess you kind of got bitten by a zoo bug you told me on your very first trip to the zoo. Tell me about that."

Erik Beck: "Yeah, I remember going to the zoo. I guess it was with a daycare or a school trip. And I remember getting stung by a bee out there by the animals, and they got to take me behind the scenes where a zookeeper helped treat my bee sting. And years later, I got to work in that same area and that same barn, so it was pretty unbelievable. But having this in our community is really a great place to visit as a kid and then being able to work at it as an adult is a dream come true."

Brad Byrd: "And operating a zoo in this day and age a lot different than it was in the 20's when the connect building went up and all of that vision started at Mesker. Reaccreditation is so important. You're well aware. You were there when Mesker lost accreditation about 20 years ago as I recall. Why is that so important to get that back? And it did get it back, and it's just been reaccredited again."

Erik Beck: "Yes, Saturday we got the great news we're accredited for another four years by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and it is the gold standard for zoos. It sets us apart from the places that exhibit animals. There is over 2,800 facilities in North America that have a license to exhibit animals, and only 240 of those are accredited by the AZA. So, it is the gold standard of animal care, conservation, education. So, to really get that is a great thing for Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville."

Brad Byrd: "Erik, you've seen so many changes, and there have been incredible changes at Mesker especially in the last 50 years. You know, a knee jerk reaction perhaps from people when they see Mesker, it has a very unique layout. You've told me it's a plus and it can be a minus at the same time. But with that said, the big animals, there was Bunny the Elephant, there was Donna the Elephant, the lions. When those were first brought in, we were in a different world. It is so much more difficult now to get those big animals, and big cats, bears, lions. Why is that?"

Erik Beck: "Well, the level of care has evolved over the years. And zoos made that choice about 30 plus years ago to not just be maginaries or a stamp collection of having one of each animals. They decided to do what's best for the animals, and every zoo has to make a choice on what species they exhibit. And some zoos like Mesker choose to exhibit a tiger versus a lion or a bear versus a polar bear, and a lot of it has to do with resources, space, money, but a lot of it has to do with are you able to do the absolute best. So, when we choose an animal or a species, we look at can we provide it the best space we can, and can we provide it the best care we can."

Brad Byrd: "And you've rattled off a lot of zoos across the nation in the big cities similar to the fact that many of those zoos may not have these big animals in addition. But how many species are at Mesker right now?"

Erik Beck: "We have over 200 species of animals, and that constitutes over 700 animals. So, it's a really diverse collection, and we're very pleased to have South America fish to an Indiana rhinocerus."

Brad Byrd: "And, Erik, you're driving the boat now. What do you see as the biggest challenge on getting those dollars. I know the city of Evansville, the mayor has been a big cheerleader of Mesker. But there is also this situation in which the city right now, there is a lot of pressure on the current administration with a budget and the city council. How does a facility like Mesker fit into that, and how is that a challenge for you?"

Erik Beck: "I mean it is a challenge. We're vying for the same dollars that everyone else is in the budget, and we understand that public safety, good waters, good roads, sewers are always going to be more important than the zoo. But what makes the zoo different is we're mission based, we're tourism based. Over half of our attendees who visit our zoo are from outside Vanderburgh County. So, people are coming into the county to visit the zoo, and whether it's filling up the gas tank, eating out for dinner, or staying at a hotel that night. So, it's a really economic driver for tourism, and the city recognizes those quality of life issues are not only important for residents of Vanderburgh County, but also for the economy when you drive people in."

Brad Byrd: "Okay, very briefly, what is you vision for the future? What do you want that zoo to look like in say 20 years? Very briefly."

Erik Beck: "Sure, I want us to do the best we can for the exhibits we have. When you see an exhibit like Amazonia, we were able to take a small footprint, put some money into it, and do an absolutely stellar world class exhibit on small acres. We can take those small pieces and do them, and specle them throughout the zoo and with all different varities of species."

Brad Byrd: "Erik Beck, we'll follow this up with another discussion, but we appreciate you being out here and best of luck to you with Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden."

(This story was originally published on September 14, 2017)

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