The face of the NEW Zoo calls it a career after 30 years
By Jim Paul
SUAMICO – In the Greater Green Bay community, the name Neil Anderson is about as well-known as his face.
Serving in some capacity at the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park for just about three decades – minus a short stint in 1997 – Anderson will retire as its director at the end of the month.
He said he always had an interest in animals, but living in the Town of Ishpeming in Upper Michigan meant there was no zoo nearby.
Anderson said his exposure to zoo animals was watching Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom, an American documentary television program that features wildlife and nature, with Marlin Perkins.
Following his own path
Growing up, he said becoming a zookeeper never crossed his mind, assuming he would end up working in the iron ore mines like his father.
However, Anderson said the thought of working with animals always did sound like an awesome job.
After high school, he made that dream a reality, enrolling in the zoology/animal biology program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, graduating with a Bachelors of Science degree in 1985 – which he said came as quite the surprise to his father.
However, over time, Anderson said his father became the biggest fan of all he accomplished in his career.
He began his career as a mammal keeper at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
Soon after, Anderson took a position as an aviculturist, a person who keeps and rears birds at SeaWorld in Orlando.
From there, he moved to Indiana to assume the role of senior keeper at the Indianapolis Zoological Society.
Up next, a position as general curator/associate director at Wildlife Prairie State Park in Peoria, Illinois – the position Anderson held prior to coming to Brown County.
During that time, he obtained a master’s degree in business from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
After earning his master’s degree, Anderson made his way to Northeast Wisconsin, assuming the role of curator of animals in 1992, a position he held until 1997.
He said he moved to the west coast briefly in 1997, where he worked as the director of Animal Husbandry and Life Support for the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, before returning to Brown County six months later.
This time, Anderson took on the role of curator of animals in 1997, a position he held until 2004.
Over the next several years, Anderson said he transitioned into various roles, including zoo director, interim park director, zoo and park management director and his most recent and longest tenured position, director.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to find my passion, what I wanted to do in life, and then be able to do it and give back to the community and bring a zoo up here to Northeast Wisconsin,” he said. “That was as close as I could get to being back home. To be able to do this and bring an accredited zoo here it’s been a dream of mine. And we were able to go ahead with the community support staff and volunteers of the zoo society, the county, everybody, we got that done.”
Anderson said he’s proud of the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park’s many accomplishments over the last three decades.
Arguably his most proud, he said, is the accreditation the zoo received from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), a nationwide organization that sets the highest standards of animal care in the industry.
Under Anderson’s helm, the NEW Zoo was able to achieve accreditation in just four years and has been able to remain consistently accredited for 25 years now, an amazing feat in his eyes.
“I think accreditation has probably been the most important part of zoos now and into the future, because it is strict,” he said. “It’s really the gold standard of zoos and aquariums, and you subject yourself to an inspection every five years.”
Anderson said the AZA accreditation standards are the highest of the industry.
“There are only (about) 214 accredited zoos and aquariums in the country,” he said, “and we have one of those. We just received the quarter century award for the zoo in its 25 years of continuous accreditation.”
Anderson said the AZA accreditation was one of the first things he looked at when he arrived at the zoo in 1992.
“It’s like ‘let’s get the place accredited,’” he said. “We wanted to move from a roadside zoo, small to medium small sized zoo, basically, to an accredited zoo. And now we’ve got a major regional zoo that’s been credited for 25 years.”
When asked what he enjoyed most about the job, Anderson was quick to reply with the animals, obviously, but said it was a people business, too.
“Working with so many different animals has been, of course, a wonderful experience,” he said. “But, it’s really the people that I’ll remember the most. What I love is being able to have a visitor come to the zoo, experience the zoo and be touched in a certain way so that maybe there’ll be a better conservation steward.”
Anderson said he’s also proud of how the community has embraced the zoo.
“I remember when I first started here, we ended up working on certain projects and you would hear visitors come in and they’d say ‘look at what they’re doing over here,’” he said. “And then it kind of changed, and you would hear them say ‘look what we are doing.’ That is community ownership, and then I knew we had really something special that was happening out here.”
Anderson said he’s always believed zoos are a reflection of their communities.
“We wanted to make sure we had a zoo that wasn’t going to be a burden to the community from the financial end of it, but also to truly be a reflection of that community and their support. So, as long as they continue to support the zoo, there will be new experiences.”
Though a supporter of all animals, Anderson said penguins hold a special place in his heart, because it was the first animal he worked with out of college.
He said he also likes the giraffes and other large animals, and is proud of the habitats the NEW Zoo has been able to provide for them.
When asked what the hardest part of his job was – Anderson was quick to respond with “leaving it.”
“So many incredible employees, volunteers, donors, Society board members and more have contributed to the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park,” he said. “I know I’m leaving it in good hands.”
Anderson said his time in the zoo industry has provided him with experiences he’ll never forget, but feels like the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park is in a good enough place now for him to leave.
Anderson said he will also miss his weekly segments – “What’s New at the Zoo” – on Fox 11’s Good Day Wisconsin where he promoted the zoo and showcased its animals, which he’s done for nearly as long as he’s been with the zoo.
What is next for Anderson?
Anderson said he plans to continue his work to help the facility open its treetop canopy tour this summer before he goes.
Once he wraps things up, he said he plans to move to Florida, where he’ll lend his skills for a few more years at The Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs, a botanical garden and refuge for more than 300 rescued, rehabilitated and non-releasable birds and reptiles.
Eventually, Anderson said his plan is to become a snowbird, dividing his time between Florida and Northeast Wisconsin.