Carol Kruse started her job as director of Zoo Miami recently, but her history with the park dates back decades.
Kruse, who grew up in Melbourne and moved to Miami-Dade in 1978, still has photos from the days when she brought her young sons to what was then Miami Metrozoo, posing them atop camel statues and visiting the children’s area where goats nibbled at their pants and shoes.
After serving as assistant Zoo Miami director from 2003 until 2011 — and a Miami-Dade parks employee since 1990 — Kruse was named to the new post in November as part of a succession plan. She started working in March to shadow the retiring director, Eric Stephens, who left the job in May following 35 years at the zoo, 17 of them as director. Kruse officially became director in late May.
During an interview in her office, Kruse discussed the perks of the job, her focus on conservation and why she can’t choose just one favorite animal.
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Q: Your predecessor was here for 35 years and director for 17. So what’s your approach to coming in after someone who’s had such a long tenure and filling those shoes?
A: Because I was the assistant director here from 2003 until 2011 and I worked very much on the visitor side, the guest services and business operations side, I was eager to also work more closely with the animal science side as I now get to do as director.
I’m ... very conservation oriented, so I wanted to come in and make changes that focus us more strongly as a conservation organization, one that focuses on animal interactions, public engagement, and just taking every opportunity to have an excellent guest experience every day and using every guest experience to connect people to nature.
Q: Are there trends that are the predominant way of doing business at zoos now that you’re trying to tap into? You mentioned interactivity, and I see a lot of that, but are there other things that you see as opportunities to bring here?
A: The best practices in zoos, looking from an animal welfare and enrichment and training [perspective], are large, multi-species exhibits. We are positioned with a great opportunity because we are a large zoo with topography that lends itself to creating large, open, natural habitat exhibits. As a matter of fact, we are working on a master plan refresh right now that will begin to focus and repurpose our existing exhibits into large, multi-species exhibits.
Other trends in zoos are to strengthen that conservation message: Why are you exhibiting this animal? What role do they play? Why are they here? They are ambassadors for their wild cousins and there needs to be a strong conservation message so that it’s purpose driven; we’re not just exhibiting an animal as a part of a collection.
The other one is public engagement, that’s the interactives. Everything, instead of passive exhibits, it’s more about experiences.
Q: What do you think are your biggest challenges moving forward?
A: [Having] a culture of staff that want to engage the public. It’s no longer good enough to just love animals and want to care for them. Every staff person, every zookeeper at the zoo has to want to share that love of animals so that we’re making that connection.
Q: And what do you think is your biggest opportunity?
A: Probably our biggest opportunity is the upcoming opening of [the new exhibit] Florida: Mission Everglades, where we are able to connect our work — our conservation work — and tell the story of our conservation needs for the Everglades. I think we can have the biggest impact locally.
Q: Do you think that there is more potential in driving more tourists, out-of-towners here? Or getting locals more engaged and coming back regularly? Or is it a balance of both?
A: I think we need to work on the core, the community. Our group sales team is doing a great job working with tourism operators, the [Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau], Visit Florida, going to international tourism conferences to start building those programs. But at the end of the day, we’re a community zoo and we need to have the community completely engaged with us and our mission. And they will bring, if our zoo is a favorite with them and they understand what we’re doing and support us, then all the people that come here to Miami to visit them will be here too.
Q: I don’t know, as director of the zoo, if you have a role with the proposed theme park Miami Wild or if you are a liaison to what they’re doing.
A: Not a liaison but as the zoo director, I will be part of that team — when and if it moves forward — to first and foremost protect the interests of Zoo Miami to make sure that this park complex serves the interests of the zoo also.
Q: What kind of, if any, perks does the zoo director have that would make animal lovers really jealous?
A: I would think the greatest perk is when a zookeeper or a curator stops by and says, “Hey Carol, we’re going to give vaccinations to the two clouded leopard cubs. Do you want to hitch a ride and come see them?” That is a perk.
Or walking out the door of the office last week and there’s two cheetahs in the atrium. I’m going, “What?” And the trainer’s motioning me to come out because they’re trying to acclimate them more to make them more comfortable in the public. And I could go out there and pet the cheetah, just like that.
Q: Do you have a favorite animal at the zoo?
A: Oh my gosh ... I have been afraid I was going to get interviewed and somebody was going to ask me that question. And I don’t. But I wrote down what I thought about it, because it’s been bothering me. It’s about as bad as “Do you have a favorite color?” Some people are so strong in that and very convicted. I am not at all.
I said: “I wrestle with that question. So many animals come to mind because of their stories, like elephants and rhinos. You know their story, their challenges, so when I walk out there and I can see the elephant’s eyelashes or you get to feed the giraffe, all of a sudden that’s my favorite for the moment. But then you go find out something cool about a frog or a bug and you go, ‘God, that’s just so cool.’” So yes, I don’t know, is that wishy-washy? That’s really how I feel.
Q: Do you have a sense of what the public’s favorite is? Is there one kind of showstopper that everybody huddles around?
A: Giraffe feeding because you have that up close and personal interactive encounter. The lions, the tigers; of course, elephants.
Q: In five years, what do you think is going to be the state of Zoo Miami?
A: I am hopeful that within five years, we will be engaged on the start of our master plan refresh, looking at those large, mixed-species exhibits, something like the Heart of Africa or the Serengeti plains.
We’re one of the few zoos in the country that have the topography, the location, the weather and the size, to exhibit both African elephants and Asian elephants. Both, you know, critically endangered. So we look forward to continuing to work with AZA [the Association of Zoos and Aquariums] to see what our role is going forward in the best interest of elephant care and conservation.
Q: And the refresh would be visioning or would that be actually making changes?
A: I would hope that we could have been in a capital campaign already and that we’re actually not talking about it, but have the support and are able to do something. The master plan refresh isn’t going to focus on expanding, it’s going to focus on improving, updating, modernizing what we have to make sure the exhibits follow the state of the art out there in terms of animal care and well-being, and of course conservation messaging and public engagement. We’re looking at everything through that lens: focus on our quality. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.
Q: Did you have a really great zoo experience as a kid? Or is working at a zoo or as a zoo director always something you wanted to do? Or was that just a happy accident?
A: It’s not a happy accident. I always had a love of nature. Growing up in small-town Melbourne, Florida, at the time, we had lots of woods around our house, so I was out there all the time. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, that book was just an epiphany for me. Because it speaks to the Baby Boom generation as probably the last generation in this country that has no fear of nature.
We grew up there, unstructured play. And you could go out and catch frogs. We’d catch snakes, catch birds, you observe them for a little while, pretend they were your pet and then just turn it loose because mom said: Let that turtle go. You played for hours and you developed an appreciation for nature and you didn’t even know it. But you understood plants and somehow learned all of that.
And Richard Louv, in writing this book, speaks to: We’ve lost that generation. Now woods and nature are scary, we have only structured play. You certainly can’t go ride your bike, there aren’t a lot of vacant areas around. Everything is so controlled, but without that nature experience people don’t, from childhood, have that love of nature and an appreciation for something as cool as a little lizard or a bug. ... He just speaks to, unless we start reengaging through zoos and aquariums, through the parks experience, we’re going to lose the next generation of conservation stewards. Because he argues probably most people that are in zoos, that are conservationists, that are nature biologists got their start probably in childhood, that connection to nature. It just was like: “Oh my gosh.”
So now we have to work extra hard to reengage the next generation so that they will have that love of nature instead of just saying: “So what? Big deal.”
I didn’t mean to go off, but it was like “wow.” So being the zoo director is a dream job. It is an amazing opportunity to serve the community in that capacity. ... You know, if we do our job right every day, it’s connecting people to nature for life.
Title: Director of Zoo Miami
Personal: Age 60; married to Karl Kruse with two adult sons, ages 32 and 34.
Lives in: Kendall area
Education: Bachelor of science degree in biology at Florida Atlantic University; MBA at Nova Southeastern University.
Career background: Assistant director of Zoo Miami; several roles in Miami-Dade County’s parks department dating back to 1990, including assistant director for administration, chief of the management and budget division, and chief of the financial resources division; projects consultant and publications manager for John L. Adams and Co.; planning director for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.
Professional affiliations: Board member, Florida Attractions Association; member, Association of Zoos and Aquariums.