Director Mark Reed celebrates 30 years at Sedgwick County Zoo

Mark Reed is allergic to animals.

Chickens, parrots and pheasants make him sneeze.

Yet he spends 24 hours a day with creatures that have feathers or fur.

This year marks his 30th at the Sedgwick County Zoo, and his 18th as director. Reed, 60, says he has no intention of stepping down any time soon.

"There's a bunch of things I'd still like to do," he said.

The zoo has raised millions for exhibits for lions, gorillas, penguins and tigers, aiming to entertain and educate people about animals.

Its attendance has climbed from 484,086 visitors in 2000 to 650,000 this past year. It is the top outdoor family tourist attraction in Kansas and set attendance records for four months this year.

Up next: an elephant exhibit with a breeding population. "I want to be here to see the first baby elephant born in Kansas," Reed said.

"It will be a first-class exhibit with a boat ride for visitors in the same water the elephants get in. It will be the first walk-through elephant exhibit with elephants going up and over you and surrounding you on both sides."

Also in the master plan for the future: a new entrance building; expanded space for hippos; an expanded aquatic complex with sea lions, sharks, rays and coral; and a larger amphibian and reptile building, with an indoor/outdoor Komodo dragon exhibit.

'This is his baby'

Reed just likes animals, —despite the allergies.

Put him in front of Eugene the rhino, and his voice changes.

"Hi ya, boy, how are you?" he asks softly as 3,000-pound Eugene trots over to the holding area. Reed feeds him carrots and scratches him behind the ears.

Though Eugene is his favorite, he knows all the zoo's animals by name.

"He talks to the animals as he walks through the zoo," said Bert Castro, president and CEO of the Phoenix Zoo, who considers Reed a mentor.

"Sometimes, I've been a little embarrassed by it. He really has this personal relationship. I mean, I walk through the Phoenix Zoo and I appreciate animals but Mark is a very sensitive and emotionally giving guy. You can see that in how he treats them."

With people, Reed is businesslike— professional, amiable.

"He could have gone anywhere. He is so well respected in zoological societies. He likes Wichita. This is his baby," said Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton.

The zoo has become the benchmark for how other local cultural institutions are gauged, Norton said. When Old Cowtown Museum and Exploration Place struggled a few years ago for financial footing, officials turned to the zoo for a model.

"Personality, stick-to-it-tiveness, intellect, passion are the ingredients that make the difference. Mark Reed is that for our zoo," Norton said.

"Would the zoo be the same if Mark had not passed through here? All I know is that when Mark does something it's not a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-Let's Put-On-A-Tiger-Exhibit. It's the real deal. It's incredible," he said.

Lifetime near animals

Reed has been involved with zoos and animal conservation efforts all his life.

His father, Theodore, was director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and, before that, the chief veterinarian at the Portland (Ore.) Zoo.

Every Saturday, Reed would accompany his father to the zoo.

That was the day they did necropsies, examining animals that have died, to determine a cause of death.

He was fascinated.

"Every evening at dinner, I would ask him, 'What died today?' so I would know what I would see on Saturday."

Although he did not grow up in Kansas, Reed spent summers at both his grandparents' farms. He learned to drive a pickup in Kansas and buck hay bales and do field work.

He is the third generation of his family to graduate from Kansas State University.

He received a master's degree in park administration from Texas Tech University in Lubbock and got a job as an animal keeper at the San Antonio Zoological Gardens and Aquarium.

In 1979, he came to the Sedgwick County Zoo as an assistant director under R.L. Blakely, the zoo's original director.

In 1991, Reed was chosen from 25 candidates as the top contender to replace Blakely.

He promised the board five years — tops.

"It was my goal to help create the best zoo this community could afford," Reed said.

That was 20 years ago.

His roots are here, Reed said.

When he goes home at night, it is to his wife, Mary — and more animals.

The Reeds maintain rescue pets: A black lab that was passed around before ending up with them; a rottweiler that "would lead the robbers to the safe ... if I had one"; a half-Siamese cat that "looks in the mirror and sees a lion"; and two horses, "both pasture potatoes."

Motivation for success

In his spare time, vacations mostly, Reed, a past president of the board of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, goes to other zoos.

So far he has visited 183 zoos accredited by the association and an additional 85 zoos worldwide.

"It never fails that I find an idea to bring back and try to somehow implement or modify to improve our zoo," Reed said.

Much of his motivation, Reed says, is creating exhibits that can showcase animals and educate the public.

"How many times do you get a chance to do something that people think is the best in the business?" Reed said."... Our zoo is known for getting the most out of our dollar. Success breeds success."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle