Gene Peacock comes to Idaho at a crucial moment in Zoo Boise's history.
The new Zoo Boise director replaces Steve Burns, who led the zoo for 20 years. Burns raised the profile of the zoo nationally by focusing on conservation and laying the groundwork for the zoo's first major expansion in 35 years.
Peacock arrived in mid-March. Then the zoo broke ground on its $8.9 million project in early April.
The expansion will increase the zoo’s footprint by 1.5 acres into Julia Davis Park and bring a taste of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park to Boise. The zoo also is adding an exhibit on Indochina’s Annamite Mountains, an updated gibbon exhibit and a new entrance plaza.
The new exhibits and plaza are scheduled to open in summer 2019, and the zoo will remain open during the construction.
The new Gorongosa exhibit will be a complete conservation project for Zoo Boise, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It raises awareness for the plight of the African reserve and gives people a way to make a contribution for conservation — the most important part of a 21st century zoo, Peacock said.
“When people come here we hope there’s a take home message,” he said. “We want people to realize how connected everything is and the role people can play in saving our planet. What we do matters no matter where you are.”
Peacock is uniquely suited for this job — and not just because of his name, which earns him a lot of jokes — but because he knows the zoo business inside and out.
"I’m lucky," Peacock said. "I walk into this great zoo that has this great project that is already funded. Everyone from the city and Friends of Zoo Boise are very supportive. My staff is quality from the grounds crew to veterinarian."
He spent 25 years as a zookeeper, caring for large and small animals at several zoos in the South, including Zoo Atlanta, one the nation’s largest and most innovative zoos.
Then, in the early 2000s, he set his ambition to become a zoo director and sought ways to gain the management skills needed to run a full-scale operation like Zoo Boise. He spent 11 years as district visitor’s services manager for North Carolina State Parks, where he oversaw the construction of four visitor/interpretive centers.
He returned to zoos in 2013 as the director of the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Delaware, where he oversaw the construction to update many of the zoo’s exhibits. Most recently, Peacock worked at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History in Texas, where he shepherded the museum's restoration after Hurricane Harvey.
That diverse background helps him see the big picture of Zoo Boise's upcoming expansion, he said.
“There are a lot of logistics to work out because we’re going to be open during it all,” Peacock says. “We’re going to manage the (new) animals that are coming in, and where the current animals will go as the work is done.”
He works long hours managing the day-to-day operations, and searching for the Nile crocodiles, wild African dogs and other animals for the Gorongosa exhibit. He deals with the construction every day, and right now, while he waits for his family to arrive from Texas, he spends his free evenings working on ideas to streamline and tweak zoo operations.
“There’s a real nice burst of energy that he’s brought," said Assistant Zoo Director Liz Littman. "He comes from an animal-care background, certainly a different perspective and it's good learning from that. He's dove right in, I think he’s re-energized the staff and gotten us all excited about the process of construction and opening all these new exhibits."
Doubling down on conservation
Zoo Boise already was on Peacock’s radar because of its conservation work. When he saw the job listing, he didn't hesitate to toss his hat in the ring.
"Zoos, the outdoors and — really conservation — are at my heart," he said. "The conservation we do here is really why I came here."
The zoo raises funds and awareness to preserve and restore habitats — like Gorongosa, the Annamite Mountains and even the Boise Foothills. It collects about $200,000 each year through an additional conservation fee when you arrive, and fees for extra activities, such as feeding the giraffes. Since it began, it has raised more than $2 million.
Gorongosa, an animal preserve that has been ravaged by years of civil war, is the main focus for Idaho entrepreneur, humanitarian and philanthropist Greg Carr. The early software pioneer and Burns made the connection between the park and the zoo official a few years ago and started the capital campaign to build the new exhibit.
About Gene Peacock
Peacock is a large man with a gentle Southern accent and a good sense of humor— especially about his name.
"People say, 'It’s a perfect name, it’s what you were meant to do,'" he said. "I don't know if that's true, but it’s come in handy. It serves as an ice breaker, and you get used to the Clue jokes."
Peacock grew up in North Carolina collecting frogs and snakes but never imagined a career like this.
His interest in zoos started at the University of North Carolina Greensboro when he took a part-time job at the Greensboro Science Center’s small zoo. Over his career, he's seen the industry evolve and change dramatically.
“I started as a zookeeper. I got the job because I was willing to clean out the pens and feed the animals,” he says. “Being a zookeeper was a very different thing then. Today, zoo keeping is a very specialized thing. Our keepers are well educated in zoology, biology and other zoo sciences. They spend more time with their animals than they do their families in most cases."
In the late 1980s, zoos were very different than they are today, and Peacock has been part of the industry’s dramatic evolution throughout his career.
He worked at a number of zoos throughout the southern U.S.
"I’ve been fortunate to care for all the major breeds that are in zoos," he said. "I took care of elephants (for) a long time. And I think rhinos are the coolest animals on the planet. I hand-raised baby tigers and lions, red pandas, snakes and reptiles. I like bears. I’m a big fan of lemurs; they don’t get enough credit."
In the 1990s he worked at Zoo Atlanta under Terry Maple as Maple used his psychology background to transform Atlanta’s city-run zoo from one of the country’s worst into one of its best.
Atlanta was on the forefront of a movement to transform zoos from animals lined up in barred cages into institutions that put whole habitats on display to educate people about the importance of conservation globally and locally.
“In a perfect world we’d have no need for zoos because we wouldn’t be worried about habitats and animals disappearing,” Peacock says. “Zoos have to embrace their role in conservation (and) get the story out so people know this is what we do. This is why we matter.”
Otherwise, in 100 years, most information from zoos will be digital “because we don’t do a good job of taking care of the world.” In March, the last male northern white rhino died. There are two females left.
“They’ll live out their lives and when they’re gone, that species is gone,” Peacock says. "That’s a big animal. Think about all the insects, and smaller mammals that are gone. We can try to slow it down, but unless we step up, it’s going to happen more and more.”
Visit Zoo Boise
355 Julia Davis Drive, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, last admission is at 4:30 p.m.
$10 general, $8 seniors, $7 children 3-11, free for 2 and younger and Friends of Zoo Boise pass holders. Thursdays are discounted: $7.25 general and seniors, $6 children 3 to 11. Admission includes the conservation fee. 608-7760, ZooBoise.org.