After 21 years with the San Antonio Zoo, Chris Vanskike is taking over as director of the Cameron Park Zoo.

Vanskike served as vice president of operations, facilities and capital construction in San Antonio, where he oversaw $75 million in capital improvements and managed zoo operations, human resources and information technology. His official first day on the job in Waco was Monday. Vanskike said he started out working in human resources, and once he started at the zoo in 1998, he had found his passion.

“It kind of gets into your blood,” Vanskike said. “It’s a career in which you do many things in a normal office environment, but after doing emails and meetings you can come out and walk around, see animals and be outside.”

Originally from central Missouri, Vanskike attended the University of Missouri. He moved to Texas in 1993 and worked in human resources before joining the San Antonio Zoo.

“Growing up in the Midwest in a small town, I always had an appreciation for wildlife and for being outdoors in nature,” Vanskike said.

During his time in San Antonio, Vanskike oversaw renovations of the zoo’s elephant and rhino exhibits, the addition of a giraffe feeding station and zebra barn, the expansion of the tiger exhibit, and the construction of a restaurant complex to commemorate the zoo’s 100th anniversary and a $11.75 million parking garage.

“In the zoo environment you’re always working on developing great habitats for the animals,” Vanskike said. “At the same time, you’re creating a positive experience for all of your visitors and keeping them safe.”

Vanskike was heavily involved in the construction of a nature-based preschool near the zoo completed in 2018 and in the discovery center, an educational center in the zoo for young children.

“They learn the curriculum that prepares them for school, and they also spend the majority of their day out in nature, learning about animals and conservation and working together in groups,” Vanskike said. “It’s an amazing concept.”

While the 57-acre San Antonio Zoo is only slightly larger than the 52-acre Cameron Park Zoo, it is denser, with less room for expansion after more than 100 years of development and renovation.

“We were always tearing things down or relocating a habitat,” Vanskike said. “You make it work.”

He also oversaw the expansion of the zoo’s animal hospital by 1,000 square feet in 2017 to meet accreditation requirements set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Cameron Park Zoo will be up for its AZA evaluation next fall.

“I’m looking forward to working with the zoo staff and society to prepare for that inspection,” Vanskike said. “That’s also a big goal.”

Bond passage

Just before Vanskike’s arrival, McLennan County passed a $14.5 million bond to fund an expansion of the zoo, which includes plans for a $4.5 million black foot African penguin exhibit. Along with plans to renovate existing buildings, the zoo will construct a veterinary and educational complex with plenty of space for visiting school groups.

“My children grew up at the zoo,” Vanskike said. “It was such a wonderful, healthy experience for them to be outside, to learn about animals and their habitats. I would just want to see that continue.”

The zoo has been without a director since 2018, when Jim Fleshman resigned from the role after city officials raised issues with the zoo’s management. Earlier this year, the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society signed a new contract with the city of Waco that makes the zoo director a city of Waco employee and removes the society from the zoo’s day-to-day operations. Longtime zoo employee Terri Cox started as zoo society director in August, and Deputy Zoo Director Johnny Binder, one of several zoo staff members who served as interim director, will continue to oversee animal operations and facilities.

Cox said Vanskike’s experience with construction and planning will make him a great asset to the zoo, especially when the planned expansions start.

“We all bring unique skill sets to the table that are going to make the zoo and the planned expansion run successfully,” Cox said. “We’re all on the same page. It’s always nice to have that sense of camaraderie right off the bat.”

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