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L.A. Zoo's New Chief Emphasizes Education

June 16, 2003|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

He grew up chasing after flying squirrels and wild mice, started his career watching over primates, and graduated to the oversight of 1,183 animals and a $3.8-million budget as director of the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Nothing excites people more than having that personal contact with animals," said John Lewis, who was tapped last week by Mayor James K. Hahn to head the Los Angeles Zoo.

Lewis, 50, will leave a Midwestern city with about 200,000 people and fewer than 500,000 zoo visitors annually for the country's second-largest city and a zoo that drew 1.5 million people this past fiscal year.

"The L.A. Zoo offers me all kinds of opportunities for new experiences," said Lewis, who sees the zoo's mission as educating people about wildlife issues. "And it may be one of the last chances I get to move into the bigger arena."

After running an urban zoo for 17 years, Lewis is no neophyte at marketing gimmicks, such as overnight stays in the zoo and giving out free passes to lower-income children and their families. He has waded through the politics of municipal governments and zoo associations, serving as president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn.

"He's highly regarded in the zoo community, and I'm hoping he can make that transition from a small zoo to a large zoo," said Manuel Mollinedo, who was director of the L.A. Zoo until a year ago, when he left to head the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

Lewis was recruited by an executive search firm, Arcus, and faced an interview with a panel of city officials and a talk with the mayor the next day.

Zoo directors are generally businesspeople or animal people, and Lewis is from an animal background. "I think that's pretty important for Los Angeles," said Ed Maruska, the interim director at the L.A. Zoo. "That's where our emphasis has been placed -- on permits, dealing with foreign governments with acquisitions, issues in a world with shrinking wildlife resources."

Renee Weitzer, an aide to L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the zoo, was on the panel that interviewed four candidates. Only two -- including Lewis -- were currently running zoos, she said. Weitzer has worked on zoo issues for years and came away impressed by Lewis. "If you're a zoo director, it's in your heart. Does it make a difference if you're in charge of 100 animals or 200 animals?"

Lewis must be confirmed later this month by the City Council, which will set his salary somewhere in the range of $161,000 to $242,000. (Maruska's salary is $181,000.)

"He's a well-seasoned director," said mayoral spokesman Julie Wong. "We're very confident that Mr. Lewis is a great choice."

Lewis spent much of his boyhood in southeastern Missouri, in Fredericktown, where he poked around water meter pits for black widow spiders and trolled the woods for squirrels, wild mice and weasels. "Most of the animals I had weren't permanent residents," he recalled in a phone interview from Grand Rapids. "They were spending some time in the Lewis yard, then they would go back to whence they came."

As a young adult, he did some squirrel- and rabbit-hunting. "I'm not a fan of sport hunting," he said. "I'm OK with hunting for food." (He said the squirrels were eaten.)

'Hooked' on Zoos

He graduated from Northeast Louisiana University -- now called the University of Louisiana at Monroe -- with a bachelor's degree in animal science, intending to become a veterinarian. But when he began a job at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, he "got hooked."

He worked as a primate supervisor from 1974 until 1977 and then moved to Apple Valley, Minn., to be a curator at the Minnesota Zoological Garden. He oversaw mammals, birds and reptiles of Southeast Asia, working his way up to director of biological programs.

In 1986, he assumed directorship of the John Ball Zoo, which takes its name from an East Coast lawyer who settled in Grand Rapids in the 1800s and left 40 acres to the zoo, which opened more than 100 years ago.

Lewis was elected to the board of the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., known as the AZA, the nonprofit organization that accredits zoos, and was scheduled to kick off his term as president with a speech at an AZA convention banquet -- on Sept. 11, 2001. He never got to give his speech. "We spent the day focusing on helping people get home," he said.

Lewis is responsible for the entire 115-acre John Ball Zoological Garden, only 17 acres of which are covered by animal exhibits. The Los Angeles Zoo covers 120 acres, and 80 of those are devoted to animal habitats, concession buildings and walkways.

In addition to managing a bigger budget -- $17 million -- in L.A., he must deal with the zoo's powerful fund-raising arm, a vocal coterie of animal rights activists, and a competitive entertainment market. Visitors here can go to Disneyland, the beach, even another zoo -- the more famous, panda-displaying San Diego Zoo.

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