New director aims for community pride at Spring River Zoo


Spring River Zoo’s new director, John Wright, stands near the outdoor grounds of the zoo’s new cougar exhibit on Thursday. Wright focused on small community zoos during his career and said the leadership and support of the Spring River Zoo attracted him to this role. (Photo by Juno Ogle)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

“I want to be better today than yesterday and I want to be better tomorrow than today” – this is the philosophy that John Wright said he lives and brings to the Spring River Zoo as a new one director.

The change in leadership at the zoo and support for those changes is what Wright said drew him to the Roswell Zoo. He has been in office since last month.

He was most recently curator of mammals and birds at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Salt Lake City and worked at larger zoos, most notably in Kansas City – his hometown – and Baltimore, but Wright said it was at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a city of about 46,000 people, he has grown to appreciate what small community zoos can offer.

“There was a feeling of ‘our zoo’, a sense of community pride that I never really felt with large zoos. There was always that sense of belonging and connection, ”he said.

“In a small community, I was able to reach a larger percentage of the community than I potentially would in a larger zoo, and that really captivated me,” he said.

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Wright said Spring River Zoo visit records since he started charging admission in March show that between 52% and 72% of traffic is from out of town, but the zoo is playing always a role in the culture of the community with museums, the planetarium, community theater and local sports.

“Small towns deserve as much cultural growth as a big city,” he said.

Wright said he is aware that the zoo has its detractors among residents of Roswell, but he hopes all members of the community will feel that sense of belonging for the Spring River Zoo and appreciate the staff and their work.

“I want our community to know the people who care for the animals,” he said. Zoo staff – curator Andi Cole, chief caretaker Ayrin Meeks and zookeepers Amy Younger and Scott Sherwood – are doing their best with the resources they have, he said.

“I want the volunteers to help us get in and beautify the zoo,” he said.

It comes down to his philosophy to do at least one thing every day to make things better tomorrow, he said.

“One thing, one person at a time, it doesn’t get overwhelming,” he said. “Help us do this thing. If it’s not the zoo, then the library, if not the library, then the museum, if not, then on your street, ”he said. “If you do this, instead of an opponent, you make the world a better place.”

The changes that have already been made at the zoo – from the new mountain lion enclosure to smaller changes like more natural fences – show the dedication of zoo keepers and staff, he said, and Wright said that he hopes to maintain these changes in his experience in zoo administration.

“I’m here to lead this change, to help them with rules and policies and try to solve some things using my 25+ years of experience to come up with creative ideas to solve problems that don’t always cost a lot of money. . money, ”he said.

He also plans to use the connections he has made in his career to get feedback and help.

“The beautiful thing about the zoo world is that we all work together. We all share information. We all want the best for every zoo, ”he said.

That doesn’t mean there will be big changes at the Spring River Zoo just yet. The government does not act as quickly and continues to learn to control local and state processes. But there are some big plans in the near future – a new entry for the zoo and an educational exhibit on local agriculture.

The agricultural show will be funded by a $ 2 million donation from Leprino Foods, as part of the recent round of industrial income bonds the company received approval for in June. Funding for the entry will come from the city’s expected allocation of $ 7.4 million from the U.S. federal salvage law passed in March.

The farming experience will be more than just a petting zoo, Wright said. It will offer visitors a farm experience.

“We’re actually starting to move forward with what we call the concept design process,” Wright said.

“Obviously it will be a petting zoo with pets, but we also want to make sure that there are activities, games and educational aspects, so not only do you see a cow, but what does a cow do? other, “he said. .

He said he would also like the exhibition to show how farmers can also be conservationists and protect the land.

Wright said the zoo’s master plan is still useful as a guide, but his concern is that it sets high goals. The plan was adopted in 2018 and developed with help from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after the animal rights group approached the town with concerns about the welfare of bears and the mountain lion. from the zoo.

“I use it as an inspiration for what can be. The master plan called for $ 32 million in improvements and I think that was an ambitious goal, ”he said, adding that the design company that developed it may not have understood. the city’s economic challenges. He said for larger projects he would look for companies that work with smaller zoos.

A plan for a new bear enclosure will come, he said, but it’s a long-term, multi-million dollar goal.

“We are currently trying to come up with some creative ideas on how to improve their well-being with what we have until we have something better,” he said.

This could include adding soil to the enclosure so the bears aren’t always on concrete and giving them more space in a modified adjacent enclosure.

“The two bears themselves can go their separate ways. They will be able to share the exhibit or visually separate, they will have more range of motion now that we have changed the other side, ”he said.

Wright said he was proud of the staff reaction on July 7 when one of the bears housed for the Alamogordo Zoo was discovered outside the enclosure.

New Mexico Fish and Game agents and the zoo vet responded within 15 minutes, Wright said, about the same time at a larger zoo. The bear was reassured and returned to the enclosure, which was repaired.

“I am very, very happy with our staff. No one was panicking, no one was panicking, ”he said.

Making the workforce even better is also one of Wright’s goals. Two positions are currently open – the zoo will add another zookeeper and education coordinator Caitlyn Lenz recently left for another opportunity.

He’s looking for “new blood” to help staff meet the city’s goal of growing the zoo, but hires must also be tailored to small staff, he said. Current staff will be part of the selection process to ensure this, he said.

He also plans to ensure that staff can do an even better job than they currently do.

“My goal is to train and bring people to their highest potential,” he said.

“It’s just going to take a little while. I think there is a very good team here that needs mentoring, coaching, better facilities, but there is a lot of fruit at hand that we can make a difference with what we have ”, a he declared.

City / RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or

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