The Zookeeper’s Tale

Thane Maynard spends his days telling stories: about conservation, about fascinating animals, and about how he’s working to make the Cincinnati Zoo a nationally recognized powerhouse. But it’s the precious few stories he doesn’t tell that reveal the most

Add a comment

The first time I met Thane Maynard, he tried to convince me to bike downtown with him. We were sitting in his corner office overlooking the Cincinnati Zoo’s Swan Lake, where our conversation was punctuated with the gurgly trumpeting of nearby red-crowned cranes and the hooting hello of the zoo train’s whistle. Maynard had been spilling out stories from his boyhood in Winter Park, Florida, back in the days before widespread air-conditioning, when kids played outside all the time because it was too dang hot to be inside. (Except in the town library, which was air-conditioned, and where Thane, the youngest of the five Maynard kids and a feverish bibliophile, would find relief all the time.) Most nights, though, Thane and his buddies would lurk around lakes, looking for the tell-tale reflection of ’gator eyes, or peek under palmetto bushes for snakes, or they’d canoe down the Little Econlockhatchee River, their oars poised over the still water, hoping not to stir up water moccasins.

At some point in all the storytelling, Maynard came up with the idea that we should bike downtown to WVXU together on some Tuesday afternoon when he would be recording sessions for The 90-Second Naturalist, the nationally syndicated science snippets that for the past 25 years have made his voice as recognizable outside of Cincinnati as his khaki zookeeper outfit is to anyone around town. Maynard dresses as if he might, at any minute, need to sprint off on a spontaneous safari, or help wash an elephant, or strip off one pant leg to make a tourniquet for a wounded baboon. At 58, he’s tall and fiddle-fit, with a narrow-faced, toothy grin that he flashes easily and often. And wherever you might see him, he’s bound to be surrounded by people who can’t seem to get enough of his stories.

I tell him that riding a bike from Avondale to downtown, in Cincinnati traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, might be a perfectly normal activity for a guy who routinely bikes to corporate meetings and who’s run nine marathons, but I’m not sure I’d survive it. He tells me it’s downhill all the way there; I note that it will be uphill all the way back. I politely try to swat the whole notion away by saying I don’t actually have a bike, or the appropriate shoes, or a helmet, or whatever. He cheerfully says he can loan me all that stuff.

I quickly learn that nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility to Thane Maynard, and his stories are testament to his perpetual optimism. Even when he’s talking about endangered species, disappearing habitats, climate change, and massive deforestation, there’s a bright side, a point in the story where he’ll put a positive spin on the doom and gloom and say, “The good news is….” Alligators have bounced back in Florida. Eagles are nesting in Ohio. Injured manatees have been rehabilitated and released in the wild. Cheetahs still run free in Africa. People actually care.

There is good news in wildlife conservation, if you listen close to Maynard’s stories. And he’s always telling stories, so much so that you can hardly separate his own life story from the zoo’s; his tales are rife with rhinos, alligators, gorillas, and giraffes. The only stories, it turns out, that are hard to squeeze out of Maynard are the ones that reveal the most about him.

His stories, along with his bull-headed optimism, have served him well. And not just ideologically, as a conservationist in a field plagued by news that can be quite sobering, but practically, too, especially in his five years as director of an 80-acre land-locked urban zoo with a modest $30 million annual budget and the unlucky position at the bottom of the heap, in terms of tax subsidies, among Ohio’s zoos. Despite its challenges, the facility welcomes nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, and is consistently ranked among the best in the nation. In recent years, it has been recognized as the nation’s greenest zoo, too—with a number of LEED-certified buildings, the largest publicly accessible urban solar array (in the parking lot), and emerging partnerships with eco-friendly enterprises like Green B.E.A.N. Delivery, which recently inked a 50-acre lease on some offsite property, where it will grow organic produce, generating a harvest that will help feed families throughout the Cincinnati area.

But all that (and a whole lot more) hasn’t come easily. When Maynard became the zoo’s director in July 2007, the budget had been bleeding red for years. “We did some serious belt-tightening,” he says. It takes money, lots of it, to maintain a 140-year-old zoo—the country’s second-oldest—and to care for thousands of species of animals, birds, and plants, plus employ more than 200 full-time staff (and up to double that number when seasonal help and part-timers are tallied up).

“Thane has recognized the value of a budget, but he also recognizes the enormous mission the zoo has in this day and age,” says Ed Maruska, 78, the Cincinnati Zoo’s director from 1968 to 2000. “The zoo’s mission is the community’s link to the wild world. Getting that message out to the public is one of Thane’s greatest strengths. He’s a great communicator, and it was very evident from the beginning.”

That beginning was in 1977, when Maynard—straight out of an environmental-studies graduate program at the University of Michigan and freshly married to Kathleen Stewart, a Cincinnati native whom he’d met when they were undergrads at Rollins College back in Winter Park—showed up outside Maruska’s office, looking for a job. “Here’s this good-looking kid outside Ed’s office, with a marvelous head of hair, and he looked up rather shyly from a book, and said, ‘Hi there, I’m Thane Maynard,’” remembers Cathryn Hilker, 81, the founder and initial director of the zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program. “And I thought to myself, What a nice, lovely, young man. I hope he gets a job.

Maynard, too, recalls his first encounter with Maruska, who has a reputation for being a bit gruff. “He comes in and starts yelling at me: ‘Why do I need you?’ The good news is, it all worked out. Procter & Gamble helped build the education center, and the zoo needed people to tell folks about [animals], so I got a job.”

Maynard worked in the zoo’s education department for the next 16 years, and then served as the education director from 1993 to 1999. “Eventually he became a spokesman for the zoo, our best spokesman,” Maruska says. “When we needed to pass a levy, we would send Thane out and he would do great PR work for that. When we needed someone on TV, we’d send Thane. He was very articulate and very personable.”

But when Maruska retired at the end of 2000, Maynard didn’t step into the zoo’s director position—a move that perplexed community members who had long seen him as the public persona of the Cincinnati Zoo. Earlier that year, Maynard had “gotten a job offer that was too good to be true,” he explains—as executive director of a new 255-acre outdoor education center in Seattle. The Maynard family, now with three daughters who had grown up at the zoo, had already packed up and relocated across the country. It was meant to be a permanent move, Thane’s wife, Kathleen, says—“We took the damn piano!”—but it didn’t last more than a year and a half. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” Thane explains. “The center is phenomenal, but once I got out there, I realized that you can take the boy out of the zoo, but you can’t take the zoo out of the boy.” He had spent nearly 25 years at the zoo, and they’d been happy ones. He needed to go back.

Kathleen tells it this way: “He had worked under an administration [at the zoo] and an individual who was truly brilliant with animals and was good at what he did, but they had different mindsets, and there was going to come a time when there would be a leave-taking. Sometimes you have to leave to be able to come back.”

In August 2001, the new director, Gregg Hudson, re-hired Maynard. When Hudson left five years later, Maynard finally stepped into the role that many people had long thought he should fill. “He came back as a much more mature individual, a person who was more focused,” Maruska says. “And I think he’s done a tremendous job.”

With Maynard at the helm of the ark, the zoo is a different place than it was under Maruska’s reign. “Ed Maruska ran this place like a baboon troop, top down: ‘It’s my place, and if you don’t like it, get out of here,’” Thane says, while quickly acknowledging that the former director faced different challenges during his long tenure. “Today, we run it like a Montessori school, letting people have autonomy in their area of expertise.”

As an example, Maynard mentions Mark Fisher, the zoo’s senior director of facilities, planning, and sustainability, whom he credits with greening up the zoo. “We use less electricity, gas, and water than we did six years ago, we’re greening up Vine Street, we compost all of our animal poop now—and all that used to go to landfills,” Maynard says. “Parking lot by parking lot, we’ve moved cars out to make more room for exhibit space. None of that happens easily. And none of it would happen without the absolutely terrific people we have here.”

Maynard routinely applauds the zoo’s employees, board of directors, and corporate partners, and they all seem to genuinely love him right back. “Thane’s a very motivating guy, and that rubs off on everybody,” says Gary Denzler, the animal show manager who has worked at the zoo for 45 years. “The whole community has embraced him. He’s the kind of guy, when you walk into work every day, you just want to keep going forward, improving on things. And Thane may be the public face of the zoo, but he doesn’t make it about himself.”

Hilker says the Cat Ambassador Program—which has grown to be one of the zoo’s most celebrated, innovative outreach endeavors, replicated around the country—would have never evolved into what it is today without Maynard’s leadership. “He listened. He negotiated. He was willing to take a chance,” she says. She also credits his laser-sharp ability to zero in on a clear mission that everyone shares. “Thane brought a vision of wilderness to this little funky zoo in a Midwest river city,” she says.

Maynard boils that vision down to a simple goal: inspire every visitor with wildlife every day. Which is why animal handlers walk around the zoo with ambassador creatures perched or carried or coiled on their arms, interacting with the public. And why the zoo has moved away from animals in cages and toward animals in habitats. And why on any given night the Otto M. Budig Family Foundation Manatee Springs exhibit might be filled with a scout troop, snug in their sleeping bags, ready to spend the night with the manatees. “It’s what has helped turn the zoo around, has helped re-engage us with our visitors,” says David Jenike, the zoo’s chief operating officer and Maynard’s right-hand man, who has worked with him for 22 years. “As educators, Thane and I both believe in that ‘wow’ moment when you’re educated, engaged—when you’re so excited.”

Maynard’s optimism is not a one-size-fits-all getup for everyone in the field of wildlife conservation, so he’s had to learn when to push back, and how hard—or how gently. “Particularly among smart people, among college professors, optimism doesn’t always play,” he says. Maruska often called him out on that run-amok optimism. “I used to tease him at times, telling him you can’t always look at the world through rose-colored glasses,” Maruska says, “because there are definite problems, and people have to be made aware of them.”

But there are plenty of smart, college-professor types who do see the value in Maynard’s rose-colored perspective. “Yeah, OK, we live in a really sucky world in a lot of ways,” says Dave Russell, who teaches zoology at Miami University, and who practically grew up at the zoo, as part of the junior zoologist club (JZC) in the 1970s. “Things are going to hell in a handbasket, and species are going extinct and rainforests are being cut down and all that. You can become very cynical and bitter. Or you can be like Thane: always optimistic, even in the face of bad things.”

Maynard readily admits his willingness to look on the bright side but notes that there’s a substantial difference between being positive and being Pollyannaish. “I am not a theoretical scientist. I’m a zoo director,” he says. “Zoos are in the business of sharing a positive message. You can’t open any publication anymore and not see something bad about the condition of nature, or a species in trouble, disappearing habitat, whatever. While those stories are true, there also are, more than ever, people working hard to figure out those problems.” Then Maynard quotes one of his favorite poems by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

Among the facts that Maynard faces on a daily basis is the financial reality of having to operate in a tough economy. A large part of his job is building awareness and courting public and private donors, both through personalized tours of the zoo and through the hundreds of community engagements he agrees to every year. He effectively plays to a wide range of audiences, from CEOs to scout leaders to potential investors. “He has really reached out to the corporate community, in a genuine and empathetic way,” says Michael Prescott, president of U.S. Bank and a five-year zoo board member. And he’s figured out how to walk the delicately dotted line that exists between conservation and corporate America, whose proverbial belt has been tightened so severely in recent years. “Thane can walk down the middle of those two sides and effectively talk to both of them,” Miami University’s Russell says. “He is that very rare blend of person who can stand in this arena that is very contentious, where you’re competing for money, and have the capacity to work the deal so that everybody gets to win and yet conservation still gets done.”

Maynard depicts this skill as a trait he’s had since boyhood: “I’ve just been a big hot dog all my life—that’s true when I was a kid, too. I was always talking, always working the deal.” It explains how, on an October morning in the Frisch’s Theater (inside the Harold C. Schott Education Center, next to the P&G Discovery Forest), he is able to step on stage in front of a group of zoo administrators from all across the country and frankly lay out how business gets done in Cincinnati. As Maynard talks about the zoo’s sustainability efforts, a slideshow of birds of prey flickers behind him: bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, snowy owl.

“If we can pull off sustainability in our little zoo, smack-dab in a non-touristy, bad-weather town like Cincinnati, you can do it at your zoos, too,” Maynard says, full of his usual swashbuckling swagger. “We’re stuck here in the belt buckle of the Tea Party when it comes to local politics—not like those lucky liberal ‘socialists’ up there in Columbus who get all kinds of tax support to run their zoo. My job is to keep the money rolling in.”

Later, Maynard explains exactly how he does this: With lots of help from the board of directors and development staff, who raise enough funds to keep the zoo operating in the black. “In terms of fund-raising, it’s all about relationships, especially long-term relationships,” he says. “We are very fortunate to have more private funding than any other zoo in Ohio—about 20 percent of our annual operating budget comes from incredibly generous individuals, families, foundations, or corporations, and that’s very significant to us. Additionally, though, we have to raise our capital dollars, and that’s where I play a bigger role.” This is where Maynard the Hot Dog enters the picture. He likens fund-raising to fly-fishing: “You need to go out and throw your flies on the water, but you don’t need to splash all around [and] make a big fuss. Eventually you can reel in enough money, but you’ve got to be willing to stand in the water a long time to develop those relationships.”

It’s a part of the job Maynard seems especially well-equipped to do. “Unlike many people who are perceived to be environmentalists or tree-huggers or animal lovers, Thane doesn’t come across as negative, critical, and antagonistic. He’s exactly the opposite,” says Wym Portman, a member of the University of Cincinnati’s Board of Trustees who also happens to be a brother of U.S. Senator Rob Portman and whose wife, Jan, used to serve on the zoo’s board of directors. “Because of that, Thane’s able to not only be a talented educator, but is able to raise money and everything else. He has re-spun the mission of the zoo so it’s not just about animals, but it’s about conservation and education and building awareness of the world.”

Thane Maynard’s lanky frame looks ridiculous folded up in the front seat of my Toyota Corolla, with his knees pressed against the glovebox and his khaki ballcap brushing against the roof. It’s a cold and rainy Tuesday and we are on our way down Vine Street (thankfully not on bikes) to WVXU, where I’ll be sitting in on his recording sessions for The 90-Second Naturalist and Field Notes, the 10-minute interview segment that airs on Sunday mornings during Cincinnati Edition.

Inside the station, we’re greeted by producer Kevin Reynolds and head into Studio B, where we’re joined by Rick Andress, who runs the control board while Maynard, seated in the studio, conducts a 10-minute phone interview about tsetse fly lactation with Josh Benoit, an entomologist who recently joined the faculty of the biology department at UC. “Thane rarely comes in with notes, and he’s never a showoff despite all he knows,” Reynolds says. “He just wants to share.”

After the interview, Maynard records a series of Naturalist episodes, sharing trivia about Australia’s coastal-plains skink, the Diplodocus dinosaur’s unique physiology, and the dangerous lack of gene diversity in manatee populations. Andress trails his pen across a typed script while Maynard speaks into the mic, delivering his sunny spiel with step-right-up pep. “He writes all of these himself,” Andress says, “and we all have our favorites.”

In one of his most memorable Field Notes sessions, Thane interviewed his youngest daughter, Lily, who had spent the previous six months working with a community of Maasai tribesmen in Kenya as part of a lion conservation project. “It was a really powerful interview,” Andress says. “Thane almost teared up at the end. You could hear it in his voice.”

Later, over a pile of family photos in the living room of the Maynard’s east side home, Lily and her mother describe how all three Maynard daughters grew up at the zoo. Several of the black-and-white images spread out before us show Kathleen and Thane back in the ’70s, looking every bit the classic hippies they were: Kathleen with her long, blond Joni Mitchell-esque hair, sitting beside a bearded, plaid-shirted Thane. Thane with thick, muttonchop sideburns. Thane with a banjo on his knee. “He is, exactly, this day, the way he has always been,” says Kathleen, who married him 35 years ago.

The zoo, and everything Maynard stands for, has defined his family. At their dinner table, the Maynard girls would hungrily ask their dad to share his favorite stories every day. Sometimes, he’d have animals with him.

“He’d come home with a hedgehog in his shirt, or pull millipedes and tarantulas out of his pockets,” Lily says. “It was a lot of fun to see what magic he’d bring home.” At least once a year her dad would show up at the girls’ school with animals. “Sometimes we’d have to say things like, ‘Dad, when you come this time, can you not, um, you know, do the howler monkey call? Because I know you think it’s funny, but it’s kind of embarrassing.’ ”

The girls are all grown now: Caitlin Braitsch, the oldest at 32, is knee-deep in a doctoral program in developmental biology at UC; she works at UC’s Children’s Medical Center, studying how heart cells grow. Shailah, 28, lives in Brooklyn and works as a buyer for fashion designer Marc Jacobs. And Lily, who is 24, recently returned from another long research stint in Africa, living among the Maasai, and is applying to graduate programs in environmental studies.

“I guess I do follow in his footsteps,” Lily says about her father. “I wanted to be like Dad every day. I loved him, and I loved learning from him. How could I grow up in the zoo and not fall in love with all of those animals, not want to work for conservation, or not want to participate in all those stories?”

The family certainly has their favorites. Bedtime epics that he dreamed up for the girls, tales of Gretchen and Sammy, the fictional elephant and mouse, whose adventures were sometimes based on real-life events—like the time boxes of grasshoppers destined for the zoo burst open at a local post office, requiring zookeepers to save the postal workers from the hopping green plague. “That was my favorite—‘Gretchen and Sammy Save Christmas,’” Lily says, launching into the whole story, complete with animated intonation.

Lily’s childhood was filled with stories like that, where all of the animals were friends who got along, went on adventures, and worked together with people to solve problems. There is one story, though, that Lily says her dad rarely tells, because it’s a sad one—about her. Beautiful, vibrant Lily, with her thick dark hair, her father’s narrow face and her mother’s soulful eyes. You almost don’t notice the scars on her face, even the thick red one that slashes across her right cheekbone.

It’s Cathryn Hilker, the founder of the zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program, who first tells me about Lily and the tiger.

“The cat just grabbed her,” Hilker says. “They had to pry each claw out of her face with their hands. And that big wad of hair she’s got, they pulled all of that hair out of his mouth.”

Hilker wasn’t there in the hallway of the Channel 12 studios that day in July 1996 when the 100-plus-pound male tiger that was about to appear on a feature segment with Maynard reached out and swiped young Lily as she came around a corner. “It was a really bad mistake—that little 7-year-old girl just ran out right in the face of that tiger, and it just turned and grabbed her,” Hilker says.

Maynard was in the other room getting mic’ed up for the live segment when it happened. Later, when I ask him for details, they trickle out.

“We had to wait an unusually long time that morning, because the story of the bomber at the Olympics in Atlanta had completely screwed up the news,” he recalls. Maynard’s friend, Harry Dates from the Cincinnati SPCA, was there for his segment, too, along with a bunch of dogs that were barking relentlessly in their kennels. “My opinion was, what got this tiger—I mean, this was the friendliest tiger you’d ever seen in your life, you could put this tiger on your shoulder and take it into a nursery school. But I think the barking must have gotten that tiger riled up. So, when we got the tiger out, even though he was on a leash, and the trainers were with him, I think he was just raring to go.”

It only took a minute, seconds maybe. They called 911, but “we just needed to go,” Maynard says. He carried Lily’s limp body to a car driven by a Channel 12 staffer, and they drove like mad to Children’s Hospital.

“It shook Thane, shook him terribly,” Hilker says. “It nearly killed him.” And it got a lot of publicity, too. “The whole zoo got creamed for that. And Thane got creamed for it the worst,” she recalls.

But Maynard doesn’t dwell much on the media’s coverage of the event. “She could have been blinded. She could have been killed,” he tells me, his voice low and soft. “We were very fortunate those things didn’t happen. There’s not a day that I think about it that I’m not incredibly thankful that it wasn’t worse.”

The good news is Lily recovered. “Oh, Lily thinks it’s a wonderful story,” Hilker says. “She loves those scars. She’ll tell you, ‘They’re who I am.’” (And Lily did, in fact, say exactly that.)

“But you see, Lily is just like Thane,” says Hilker, who has traveled around Africa with Maynard’s youngest daughter. “There’s no such thing as what you can’t do, or ‘Oh, it’s too hot,’ or ‘Oh, it’s too cold,’ or ‘Oh, I haven’t eaten for a week.’ It’s just like, ‘CHARGE!’ Oh, Lily is a mad woman, and she’s just like her father.”

Maynard says it was Lily’s resilience, her unfathomable optimism, that helped him get over the tragedy. “She never let that or anything else hold her back,” he says. “She wasn’t like, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ She’s not that way at all. It was through her strength that I was able to say it would be all right, that I was able to be all right.”

Last summer, there was another story—a really good one—about Thane Maynard. But it’s not one you’ll find archived in the podcasts of The 90-Second Naturalist. Or in the Cincinnati Zoo’s online feed, where you’ll find coverage of National Geographic’s visit to film one of the zoo’s cheetahs setting a new speed record…and the birth of a baby cheetah…and how UC awarded Thane with an honorary doctoral degree. It’s not a story Maynard broadcasts. But on June 27, 2012, in a small Maasai village in Kenya, Maynard was named a Maasai elder, in recognition of the work he’s done to help with wildlife conservation efforts in the Maasai villages.

“There was a huge ceremony, and the Maasai walked around us and prayed and sang and blessed us and made my father a Maasai elder, and welcomed him into the community as someone they respect and are thankful for,” Lily says.

“It was a truly remarkable moment to witness,” Kathleen adds. “I’ve never seen him speechless, but he was that day.”

Among the African bracelets that encircle Thane’s left wrist is a brightly colored one made of native beads that reflect the tribal colors of that village in Kenya. It goes great with the khaki.

In late October, a debate was brewing at the zoo about the new uniforms. They’re not khaki. “These new golf shirts, I don’t know what’s going on here…they’re sustainable, made out of bamboo fiber or something…. Do you know what chartreuse is?” Maynard asked me. “It’s a color that makes you look like you’re in an Easter parade, or a foo-foo spa or something.”

It’s one of his funnier stories, about how he’s harassed the zoo’s marketing director, Chad Yelton, about this blasphemous change of routine for the man who always wears khaki. “Hey, I’m a one-trick pony,” he jokes.

Maynard likes to pretend he’s that simple, but in reality, his stories suggest something different. “He’s a visionary,” Hilker says. “I look at Thane as a harbinger of the things to come.” And when it comes to the future of conservation, Maynard is going to keep telling stories that suggest it will get better—because it has to. He thinks corporate America has the potential to lead the way. “When companies like Procter & Gamble or Toyota reduce their carbon footprint, we’re talking about billions, a global scale,” he says. “Here’s the best news: People are incredibly tenacious. People will solve these problems. I have no doubt about it.”

He sees zoos as models for conservation. But the challenge now is that if conservation is going to work, everybody has to get on board. “Anybody can make decisions every day that support conservation,” he says. “It’s about hundreds of individual choices we can all make.” Biking, he says, is a perfect example.

Ah, the bike thing again. It’s hard to derail him. The thing is, he’s right. Anybody can make a simple change like riding a bike instead of driving a car. So sometime on a Tuesday afternoon in the not-too-distant future, I might just borrow a bike and cruise down Vine Street with Thane Maynard. If I fall off, or get my tire stuck in a grate and go sailing over the handlebars, I figure it will be worth it, since Thane will be able to say something like, “The good news is…she survived,” when he tells the story. Which he undoubtedly will.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue.
Photograph by Michael Wilson

Related Content