When Terri Cox retired from her job at Cameron Park Zoo for a week before becoming the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society’s new director, it was hard to tell if anyone noticed.
When she would take her great-niece to a camp at the zoo, Cox invariably got caught up answering questions, helping employees and visiting with the staff she has worked with for decades.
“On a good day, I left when she left,” Cox said. “But that’s just the thing, it’s more of a lifestyle than even a career now. I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t even know what it would be like to totally retire.”
Though much remains the same, Cox is taking over leadership of the zoo society at a time of change, with more potentially on the horizon. Last week, McLennan County called a $14.5 million bond election for November to expand the zoo, which is operated by the city of Waco. The expansion is not expected to change the city’s annual $2.7 million subsidy for operations, and officials have already secured a commitment for a $1 million donation to support the project.
The zoo society’s role in the zoo is also changing in response to inadequate cash handling practices and communication concerns among leaders, including zoo society board members. Indications of those concerns came to light as the former zoo director, Jim Fleshman, was forced out in April of last year. A new contract between the city and the zoo society removes the society from day-to-day zoo operations, transfers most of the society’s staff to the city payroll and cuts the city’s annual payment to the society to about $100,000.
The position of zoo director, formerly hired and overseen by the society, is also transferred to city oversight under the new contract, though the city has yet to hire a zoo director. When the new contract was presented late last year and adopted in April, officials said they expected to hire a zoo director before a zoo society director since the intent is to have the society director support the zoo director.
Under the new model, the zoo society’s focus is narrowed to conservation support, marketing, accreditation work and fundraising, which is a role Cox knows a little bit about. When she first started raising money for the Cameron Park Zoo in 1988 with the Junior League of Waco, she was raising money to create it, re-forming the Central Texas Zoo that had roots going back to a Heart O’ Texas Fairgrounds exhibit in the 1950s.
City of Waco voters rejected a tax hike to support the new zoo in 1983, but by 1988, a $9.6 million countywide bond issue passed. When the new zoo opened in 1993, Cox joined as a buyer for the Zootique gift shop, now under city control, and eventually became special events coordinator.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to shape the new zoo and roll it out to the community and help it grow,” she said. “I started learning everything I could about zoo management and progressed into very different positions over the years.”
Cox designed the herpetarium, the zoo’s reptile house, with current interim zoo director Johnny Binder. Cox, who has had a lifelong love of reptiles, became the curator of the herpetarium, which was built with $1.3 million in interest from the original zoo bond revenue.
“We drew it initially on cocktail napkins and took it the architect and saw it come to life,” Cox said. “I loved working in that building.”
Cox became programs and exhibits curator in 2004 and held the position until July of this year. She said in her previous position, she was free to spend more time in the zoo, visiting exhibits and working directly with other employees on the animal care side. Now her days are taken up primarily by meetings with everyone from staff to other zoos to conservation workers overseas, though she still spends time on the front lines.
“You can guarantee that if I wear shoes like this and forget to bring flats, I’m going to be going around the zoo at least two or three times,” she said, gesturing to her high-heeled shoes with a laugh.
She said the zoo has reached a new level of global engagement, hosting veterinary conferences for international guests and providing funding and equipment for conservation efforts in other countries.
“People don’t work in a zoo because it’s a good way to get rich,” Cox said. “They work in a zoo because they’re passionate about animals and our environment and conservation. It all goes together.”
Education Curator Connie Kassner said she has worked with Cox for 15 years. They met when Kassner was a zoo volunteer and Cox was curator of a different department, but she made an impression on Kassner.
“She was a good person to go to if you had questions,” Kassner said. “One thing about Terri is that she’s good at delegating to people to their strengths. It might not be something they normally do, but she knows they’d be good at it.”
Since then, they have worked closely together to plan events, meetings, workshops and conferences, and occasionally have found themselves working directly with animals.
When one of the zoo’s lion cubs was recovering from a back injury, Cox and Kassner were among the employees who came to the zoo early to let the injured cub, who could not be placed with adult lions until she recovered, visit with her brothers for an hour or so every day.
“She’s never going to ask someone to do work she isn’t willing to do, that she hasn’t done herself,” Kassner said. “Her knowledge of the zoo industry is just incredible.”
Cox said she sees the zoo as a family, celebrating births and deaths and new arrivals as any would.
“We had kids who attended those (first zoo camps) that are now working for us,” Cox said. “It’s really fun to see that now that we’ve been open for 26 years. We see a generation of kids that we’ve influenced and who care about nature.”
One new family member in particular, a baby orangutan named Razak, was especially close to Cox. After he was born, Razak was rejected by his mother Mei, and a team of about nine employees worked in shifts to bottle-feed him, including Cox.
“It was a long seven-plus months that we lived,” Cox said. “We hope we never have to do things like that, but sometimes you do, and it’s such a special privilege to care for an animal, especially if they get to go back to their mom.”
She said a recent trip to the island of Borneo, which belongs mostly to Indonesia, to help efforts to rescue endangered orangutans, was among her most rewarding experiences with the zoo. She said the center she and Binder worked with in Borneo designated for orphaned orangutans may have as many as 40 at a time.
“I never really thought I’d be that enamored with great apes,” Cox said. “I knew well how vastly intelligent they are, and I knew that they were a high-maintenance species, but I did not know I would fall in love with them like I did.”
Cameron Park Zoo, which opened a $3 million orangutan exhibit in 2009, has donated more than $10,000 in funding, equipment, training and manpower to help conserve orangutans.
Stephen Holze, former president of the zoo society board, said Cox was the society’s first pick for the position.
“As soon as we were under this new model, she was a perfect fit,” Holze said. “It’s amazing to just see what she knows about it all.”
Holze said while Cox’s experience at the zoo is unmatched, her talent for navigating the extensive paperwork necessary for Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation, conservation and the zoo’s work with endangered species made him confident she was the best choice.
“Animal care is special to her for sure,” Holze said. “She has a really positive, can-do attitude, she’s goal-oriented, and there’s never a negative connotation or thought. It’s never ‘we can’t do that.’ It’s always ‘how can we do it?’ ”