“This zoo is going places,” says El Paso Zoo Director Steve Marshall.

Still to come: Magellanic penguins, Komodo dragons, red pandas, otters and flamingoes. And the biggest project: the $14 million immersive Chihuahua Desert exhibit, now under construction.

On a recent Wednesday, Marshall strolled the zoo grounds with El Paso Inc. and talked about the zoo’s future, his 12 years there and his favorite topic: nature.

His last day on the job is March 5. He leaves a zoo that has been transformed.

Marshall has a way of making conservation palatable and a gift for passing on his passion for animals that his colleagues liken to Jack Hanna’s. The celebrity wildlife expert is one of Marshall’s heroes.

Perhaps more important than the multimillion-dollar projects Marshall has overseen, his staff says, is the work he has done to transform the zoo into a classroom – a place not just to look at animals but to experience nature with museum-quality exhibits and interactions with zookeepers and animals.

“We were kind of the ugly stepchild before, and now we are a gem in the desert,” says Renee Neuert, director of the El Paso Zoological Society, the nonprofit that supports the zoo.

Marshall has accepted a big a job with the Audubon Nature Institute, a Louisiana nonprofit that runs several properties in New Orleans, including the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas, an insectarium, nature center, city parks and a golf course. There, nestled in a crook of the Mississippi amidst giant oaks, Marshall’s responsibilities will include being the zoo director and operating two parks.

“My hometown is Chattanooga, Tennessee, but I really have a connection to El Paso because I felt like I was part of the community,” Marshall says.

At the El Paso Zoo, there were high points like the birth of Khaleesi the orangutan in 2015.

“That was massively important not only for the zoo but for the assurance colonies and genetic diversity of this highly endangered species,” Marshall says. “If there is going to be a great ape that goes extinct in the wild in the next 10 years, it is going to be orangutans.”

And there were low points, like the death of Wzui, a male Malayan tiger whose mate, Seri, turned on him in a rare attack in 2011.

“It was completely unexpected,” Marshall says. “That was a low.”

In 2007, Marshall moved to El Paso from Atlanta, where he was CEO of Zoo Atlanta, and jumped right into the El Paso Zoo’s Passport to Africa expansion effort. The new Africa area grew the zoo by a third and added animals, including lions, giraffes, zebras and gazelles.

When he arrived the zoo had about 250,000 visitors a year. Today, the zoo has about 350,000 visitors a year. It employs 125 people.

Much of the zoo’s work happens out of sight. Marshall and his team are often out in the field assisting in conservation efforts or passing on best practices to zoos in other countries.

Marshall is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums board of directors and has served as an instructor of “Managing for Success,” the AZA’s professional development course, and a member of the AZA Palm Oil Task force.

Marshall and his wife, Denise, have three adult children.

The city has appointed Leo Wilson, the zoo’s administrative services manager, as interim zoo director while it conducts a national search for a replacement.

Q: After 12 years at the zoo, why did you decide to take the job with the Audubon Nature Institute?

It was a tough decision. When is a good time to leave a place? 

The zoo is in a really good place. It’s got forward momentum. It’s got a great brand, which directly relates to the support and attendance, which is the only way we accomplish our mission.

It’s not about the dollars, it’s not about the number of people through the gate, it’s, are we fulfilling our mission?

We have turned the corner. People said it was a good zoo. It just wasn’t a great experience. People would say they hadn’t been to the zoo in a long time, probably were not going back and were not recommending it.

But I came because there seemingly was community support. Who gives their zoo $34 million to do something with? 

Q: The $34 million approved by voters in 2012 as part of the quality of life bond initiative.

Yes. One of the first things I did when I came was I rewrote the mission of the zoo. The mission now is to celebrate the value of animals and natural resources and to create opportunities for people to rediscover their connection to nature. The key words there are celebrate, value and connection.

When I first got in the business, there was this quote that every zoo educator knew. I’ve seen it stenciled on the wall. “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

That is what zoos used to do when we made the change from being just a menagerie to educators.

But that didn’t work. Just giving people factoids about animals thinking it would change their stewardship didn’t work. 

Now we’re looking at this whole experiential thing. We’ve got to hit people emotionally, not just with facts. We’ve got to hit them with experiences, engagement and enrichment.

Q: What work are you leaving undone? What’s next?

We’ve got half of our master plan still to do. And the El Paso Zoological Society is contributing about $7.5 million to help us do some stuff that is not paid for by the quality of life bond.

We’re working with animal services, and we are going to take one of our buildings and turn it into almost a cat café. It’s called Catz. Get it? Cats At The Zoo? 

We won’t serve food there, but we will have cats so people can have an experience with them. We will probably do things like cat yoga and some literacy programs with the library so kids can read with cats. 

And then if you find a cat that you like, you can adopt it and take it home.

Q: What’s the half of the master plan that’s not done yet?

Well, we’ve still got penguins to come – massively popular. We’ve got Komodo dragons and red pandas. We’ve got flamingoes and giant anteater. We are going to be revitalizing the fish tanks in the South American pavilion. 

Q: Have you always had an interest in animals?

Nature was a big thing for my parents. My mom grew up on a farm. My dad was always outside.

I’m going to date myself here. Jaques Cousteau specials and the Wild Kingdom television program, those were events at our house. When they came on, everything stopped.

I was always outside. The way my father approached it is nature is a foreign language and some people are out there to help interpret it for us. And he was one of those for me. 

I ended up at the Chattanooga Nature Center in Tennessee where I had interned as a teacher naturalist doing wildlife rehabilitation, and they needed some help with the school field trips every now and then. So I would do exactly what my father had done: take the kids outside. The curriculum was anything you see along the trail – grab that, ask questions about it, smell it, feel it and maybe even taste it.

Q: I don’t know how many kids today get that level of immersion in nature, especially in a city.

This is a great environment to do that in. I grew up climbing trees and jumping creeks, but you can do that kind of stuff here. With degrees in zoology and biology, I knew about the desert but had never experienced it. When I came here, I was absolutely fascinated.

Q: You’re an avid mountain biker, right?

I really enjoy it. I’ve seen a lot here, but I’ve probably been seen a lot more. Every once in a while the hair on the back of your neck goes up and you look back just to make sure that mountain lion is not watching.

Q: What will you miss most about El Paso?

Apart from the people, is the desert – that desert ecosystem. I really, really, really enjoyed the hidden diversity. At first glance out the car window, it looks like there isn’t anything out there. And from time to time, people get the idea that we should just pave over it because there is nothing there and we should turn it into something of value. But the desert is valuable. It has massive value, and it’s unique to El Paso – the Chihuahuan Desert.

We’ve had a whole lot of fun here, and I think that’s reflective of the staff and how they feel about our sense of accomplishment every day. I’ve jumped in the sea lion tank for a welcome back teachers video for the El Paso Independent School District. The water is 56 degrees. It was cold but fun.

We’ve done a couple of dance videos here. On YouTube, we’ve got a thing where I was showing everybody an “alternate fuel vehicle” – a three-wheeled bicycle.

Remember the Jurassic World Chris Pratt meme with him holding the raptors back? We did one here with zoo mascots.

Q: When I think of the zoo, it’s usually as a park and attraction – a nice morning out with the kids to see animals. But I suspect the zoo does a good deal more than house animals.

There are generally three things people don’t realize about accredited zoos. The first one is the extreme measures we go to to care for our animals. We do this 24/7. We have digital X-ray machines. We care for animals’ mental state and physical well-being – their social interaction. We go to extremes.

The second thing is we are actively involved in saving animals from extinction. We’ve sent staff members to Madagascar to help with confiscated illegal-pet-trade radiated tortoises. We have helped build cattle fences in Mexican wolf reintroduction habitat in the Gila wilderness. We actually heard one of the reintroduced packs howling at night. It was life-changing. I went along on a reintroduction trip to northern Mexico to release black-footed ferrets. 

The list just goes on and on, and people don’t always know that about their zoo in El Paso.

The third thing is everything we do is about a message to our guests to engage them emotionally so they will take responsibility for the stewardship of the shared resources of the planet.

Q: What quality of life bond projects are done and what’s next?

When we finished the 2000 bond and built Africa and turned the page on our master plan, it was finished. That was one of the most exciting things to start, with staff involvement, thinking about what do we want to do the next 10 years. So we created a very good master plan, and then the $50 million allocation came with the quality of life bond in 2012.

The big project – $14 million – is the Chihuahuan Desert. We think it is so valuable to interpret the desert ecosystem around us.

Q: Why a Chihuahuan Desert exhibit?

What we are trying to do is get people to have an emotional connection to the environment they live in. People here could effect change in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for wolves, but it would be a lot harder. It’s easier and something people can connect to to be able to effect change here in El Paso.

Q: What’s this structure rising in front of us?

This is a ropes course. Apart from the Hueco Tanks-style pile of boulders and the botanicals, we will have prairie dogs and thick-billed parrots, which are a highly endangered species – one of only two parrot species in the United States. One is extinct already.

We are also going to have a flash-flood experience. We will have breeding facilities for Mexican wolves. We will have quail, jackrabbits, mountain lions and jaguars.

Q: What is the status of the Mexican wolf?

Well, there are probably less than 200 that have been reintroduced and maybe that many in managed care – not good.

Q: Are the projects on budget and on time?

We set aside $14 million for the Chihuahuan Desert, and we are on track for that. We originally thought we could be done about Labor Day 2019. It looks like we will be a little bit deeper into the winter of 2019.

Q: I have to ask you. What is your favorite animal at the El Paso Zoo?

It’s got to be the Asian wild horses. 

Q: Why?

They are the only remaining wild equine species on the planet. I like the way they look like those cave paintings in France with the black mane mohawk kind of thing sticking up. They have never been domesticated. I kind of like that. And the conservation story! I could talk about that all day.

They were determined to be extinct in their home range – only known at zoos and private breeders. And for zoos to have bandied together and bred the animals back up, studied the environment they were in, changed the things that made them go extinct and then to reintroduce them back into the wild… To have the horses here in El Paso and be able to tell that story is just massively great.

Q: The unique treatment used on Juno, an elephant at the zoo with cancer, made national news and was featured on the Nat Geo Wild network in 2017. How is she doing?

Juno fared surprisingly well through multiple procedures under full anesthesia in our attempts to control her cancer. Those treatments were able to slow the progression of her tumor temporarily, but they were not curative. 

Since each procedure is risky and intense for her, we have not continued to perform the treatments indefinitely, and the tumor has been slowly growing again. 

Juno receives various pain meds to keep her comfortable and still enjoys a normal day of elephant activities with her keepers and enrichment every day. We are working with researchers on genetic characterization of her cancer, which may open up new personalized therapy options for her.

Q: Toughest question: How old are you?

I’ll be 60 this year. I’ve got a segue to that. In 2018, I had some health scares. I had a heart attack and I had a cancer diagnosis – March heart attack, April kidney cancer diagnosis and June kidney removal. 

I looked at my mortality right in the face, and I was pretty happy where I was actually – and so grateful to be able to move forward unimpeded.

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