The Sedgwick County Zoo’s longest-tenured employee – Jim Marlett – is retiring Friday.
He has been at the zoo for more than 40 years, starting as a groundskeeper and working his way through almost every position. Marlett said he knew at age 14 that he wanted to work in zoos.
“I got into the zoo business because I wanted to spread the gospel of nature and why I love conservation,” said Marlett, now deputy director of the Sedgwick County Zoo. “I wanted to teach people about natural things, and that’s one of the best things I think zoos can do.”
Marlett specializes in the study of amphibians and reptiles, and he once was curator of herpetology.
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There was a time, though, when he was deathly afraid of snakes. He had ophidiophobia – just like Indiana Jones in the movies.
“I couldn’t look at pictures of snakes,” he said. “If I saw a snake, I couldn’t eat spaghetti for weeks. I was seriously phobic.
“But then, I had a born-again experience.”
He overcame his phobia when, at age 11, he and a friend went on a Boy Scout camping trip to Kingman County State Lake. The friend caught a garter snake and wanted Marlett to touch it.
“It didn’t feel anything like he thought it would feel,” said Marlett’s wife, Patty. “It was an immediate transformation.”
In 1969, Marlett earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Wichita State University. While a student at WSU, he worked as a zookeeper at Wichita’s Riverside Park Zoo.
After serving in the military, Marlett began working at the Sedgwick County Zoo in 1971. The zoo was less than a month old then. While at the zoo, he has been a zookeeper, senior zookeeper, zoologist, curator of herpetology and graphics, acting general curator and assistant zoo director.
“He is a person who has all kinds of hobbies and interests, projects that he will never get done,” said Patty Marlett, a naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center.
Nevertheless, she said, it is difficult to think of the man she met decades ago in a WSU vertebrate zoology class not going to work each day at the zoo.
“It has been his whole life,” she said.
Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo, said Marlett was one of the few people he knew when he started working at the zoo 30 years ago.
“Jim is the smartest person at the zoo,” Reed said. “He has unique talents.
“When we were getting ready to open the (Pride of the Plains lions exhibit), we were literally rolling up the final draft and sending it out to the contractors when he said, ‘No, wait a minute. I thought of a way to do this.’ And, it ended up saving us $80,000. He’s been invaluable.”
In his spare time, Marlett’s hobbies include drag-race photography and conducting group tours with Patty for the zoo. They have led trips to Kenya and Tanzania. He has been to the Amazon Rain Forest more than a dozen times.
And although Friday may be his last day, Marlett said he doesn’t expect to disappear from the zoo scene.
“I’ve considered volunteering.”