| Magazine Feature |

If I Ran the Zoo

A job as zoo director fulfilled Dr. Jeremy Goodman’s wildest dreams

Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

“It’s a pretty good zoo,”
Said young Gerald McGrew.
“And the person who runs it
Seems proud of it too.”

Lots of kids grow up on the Dr. Seuss classic, If I Ran the Zoo. But Dr. Jeremy Goodman, the executive director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, actually took the title to heart. Today, like the zookeeper in Dr. Seuss’s story, he has ample reason to be proud of his work.

“I always loved animals and zoos,” says this modern-day zoo profesional, tall and rangy, clad in khakis and a royal blue polo shirt emblazoned with the park logo, a leather yarmulke on his head. “I’ve been obsessed since I was two years old. My parents were the type who would bring us to the library every week, and I went through every book about animals. I always begged them to take me to the zoo, and we’d always find another one whenever we went on vacation.”

Born in Highland Park, near Chicago, his family moved to Parsippany, New Jersey, when he was four. The standard childhood pets, like cats and dogs, held no charm for him; instead he preferred gerbils, hamsters, lizards, snakes, birds, rabbits, fish, turtles — “the exotics,” he says. His parents were tolerant, even after his mother was startled by a lizard skittling out of the laundry basket when she went to put in a load of sheets.

His guidance counselor at Frisch yeshivah high school urged him to go to college at Yeshiva University.

“But,” he protested, “they have no animal programs there.”

“Just take a pre-med curriculum — it’s all the same material,” she told him.

But 18-year-old Jeremy wasn’t convinced. Instead, he chose to attend Rutgers University, where he majored in animal science. Then he applied to veterinary school as the most expedient path to working in a zoo.

The competition to get into vet school is fierce. His grades were good but not stellar, and he attributes his success in gaining admission to Tufts to the passion he exuded. Once there, his course of studies often required running to a rav with sh’eilos, since a Jew is prohibited from practices like spaying, neutering, and treating animals on Shabbos. Ever since, he’s been impressively successful in meshing his religious and professional obligations. (The local rabbanim he consults, who don’t often deal with animal-related questions, exclaim with some frequency, “Well, that’s a sh’eilah I never got before.”)

“In every zoo I’ve worked in, we put protocols in place about Shabbos,” Dr. Goodman says. “The staff knows I’ll leave the answering machine on, so maybe my wife or I will hear it. I can’t treat animals on Shabbos, but sometimes the staff will drive to my house to ask for direction about what to do.”

One Rosh Hashanah in the years he was the director of the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey, in the middle of the tefillah, the zoo curator banged on the door of the shul bearing an African black-footed penguin suffering an epileptic seizure.

“She knew where I was, so she put the penguin in a car and drove over,” Dr. Goodman relates. (He instructed her to administer Diazepam —apparently any animal can have a seizure.)

In 1996, during his last year at Tufts, Dr. Goodman met his wife, Marina. As Marina began her own journey coming back to her traditional Jewish roots, she grappled with the role of women in Judaism and eventually shared the inspiring answers she discovered on her spiritual odyssey in her book Why Should I Stand Behind the Mechitza When I Could Be a Prayer Leader? (Targum Press, 2002).

While in vet school, Goodman was able to secure a rotation at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, and later moved to an internship at a specialty animal hospital in Deal, New Jersey. He spent some time after that in private practice in a clinic for cats and dogs before his big break appeared in the spring of 2000: an offer to serve as the veterinarian and assistant director of the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana.

He convinced Marina to leave the East Coast by promising her that if the community had no eiruv, he’d build one himself.

“It took me four years to build it, and then we left,” he says with a shrug.

The eiruv notwithstanding, the years in South Bend were happy.

“It was a very nice community with a great zoo and great yeshivah,” Dr. Goodman says.

He would sometimes go to the yeshivah to teach the kids about kosher animals, including a few rare endangered species. Whenever an animal at the zoo died, the zoo staff would conduct a necropsy to determine the cause — and Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, the city’s rav, once attended in order to expand his own understanding of Chullin.

 

“But if I ran the zoo,”
Said young Gerald McGrew,
“I’d make a few changes.
That’s just what I’d do…”

Early in 2004, Dr. Goodman’s dream to become the full-fledged director of a zoo came true. The Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange offered him the position, and as glorious as it sounded, he was essentially hired to perform techiyas hameisim on a failing, outdated zoo. It was a huge challenge, he says looking back, pushing him to a whole new level of professional growth.

Turtle Back was a small, unaccredited zoo that was operating at a significant financial loss. Once there, Dr. Goodman created a master plan to transform the zoo from an old-fashioned facility with animals in cages to a state-of-the-art complex with naturalistic habitats for the animals and its own animal hospital.

He spent the next nine years there, turning it into a zoo that netted over a million dollars annually in profits and garnered accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In 2006 he oversaw the demolition of the old administrative buildings and construction of new buildings and entrances, including classrooms, an auditorium, a new reptile center, a picnic area, an animal-themed playground, and a gift shop.

One of his biggest challenges came when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012. There were 700 animals to protect, and he and the staff filled up the generator, stocked food, dragged mattresses into the main building, and prepared to weather the storm at the zoo. They battled winds that toppled 80-foot trees on the grounds and used flashlights to guide themselves around after dark. A Komodo dragon was furnished with a heating pad; a nervous wolf received a sedative.

That night, a shelter adjacent to the park lost power and heat. Dr. Goodman offered the zoo to the Red Cross as a shelter, and after initially demurring, as it wasn’t their usual protocol, they decided that it didn’t make sense to deprive several dozen people of light or heat. And so the shelter residents, some of whom had lost their homes, stayed at the zoo for a few weeks, while the staff did their best to keep their guests entertained by bringing out various animals for the children to see.

“A zoo should be there for the community,” Dr. Goodman says, referring to that operation, and to the initiatives at the zoo he now heads. “Here at Roger Williams, for example, we carry out blood drives, clothing drives, food drives. We don’t brag about it, but we’re proud of it.”

Dr, Goodman’s concern for the community is matched by his devotion to the animals in his charge. One wintry Friday afternoon, a red panda escaped from the zoo into a neighboring forest. He and his staff tracked it through several feet of snow for two miles until it was recouped, but then Shabbos was upon him and he couldn’t hitch a ride home in the zoo vehicle that arrived for the other staff.

“I hoofed it home,” he recalls. “It was a very cold walk.”

His wife says that all his hard work with the zoos in his charge over the years hasn’t adversely affected their family life.

“Jeremy’s a family man who always puts us first,” she says. “Our kids grew up in the zoos, and it was great for them to have that behind the scenes view.”

Goodman’s unusual job afforded his children an unusual childhood, with a unique exposure to animals from an early age.

“They knew the names of every animal,” Dr. Goodman says with a touch of paternal pride. “My son’s nursery teacher would be showing the class a book, saying, ‘Here’s a bird,’ and he’d tell her, ‘No. That’s a Chilean flamingo.’

“The kids often came with me when I’d go to the airport to pick up a new animal for the zoo. Today, when my job is less hands-on and more administrative, they complain that my job used to be much cooler.”

This year two of his three children, ages 22 and 19, have taken summer positions at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in admissions and grounds/construction work.

Yet he admits that his wife and kids don’t share his consuming passion for animals. The family’s only pet is a cockatiel, who whistles but doesn’t talk, and a fish tank he calls “therapeutic.”

Roger Williams Park Zoo, where Dr. Goodman has been since 2013, is America’s third-oldest zoo. It was founded in 1872 and remains the state’s premier tourist attraction. It occupies 40 acres within the 400-acre Roger Williams Park, and is large and diverse enough to occupy a family for several hours while being less overwhelming than larger places like the Bronx Zoo.

“It’s less than four hours from New York,” Dr. Goodman says, suggesting that “it makes a nice day trip.”

The move to Providence required greater exertion for his family, though. When his son graduated from the Providence Hebrew Day School, he began waking up at 5:30 for a two-hour train commute into Brookline to attend Maimonides High School. His daughter commuted for a year before transferring to Maayanot in New Jersey. His wife, Marina, who’d been working as a portfolio manager at a five-star mutual fund, decided that math was her real passion and took a job teaching in a charter school.

Dr. Goodman now works with a staff of ten senior members, handling education, HR, guest services, fundraising, and other aspects of zoo life. The zoo retains one full-time vet, 120 full-time employees and a cadre of about 300 volunteers (the number doubles in the summer). Dr. Goodman, who also deals with the media and occasionally gives guest lectures at a university, considers himself a planner and visionary when it comes to the zoo.

“I’m always looking to guide the zoo toward continued growth, and to be more effective at our mission,” he says.

He sees himself as a hands-on director who considers his staff like family, encourages them to speak their minds, and doesn’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. When he needs a break, he’ll leave his office, located in a charming Victorian structure on the grounds, and walk around to observe the visitors.

“I love to watch the smiles, the looks of amazement,” he says. “There’s a great value in kids seeing animals, even if they’re little and don’t fully understand what they’re seeing.”

He strongly believes that zoos should educate the public about the animal world and its preservation, as well as nurture endangered species so they’re not lost to the world. Posters around the zoo, featuring faces of all ages and races, tell visitors about the small changes they too can make to protect wildlife, such as buying coffee from growers who protect the rain forest. The zoo has an educational staff of 25, who not only work at the zoo but go out to schools and take around the zoo mobile, connecting people to wildlife.

Dr. Goodman has ready answers for those who object to zoos as artificial and cruel to animals.

“The animal-rights people don’t believe in zoos,” he says, “and their voice has become more normative. But zoos are evolving, and today we use our knowledge to save wild animals.”

In modern zoos, the animals don’t languish in cages, but live in habitats carefully designed to resemble the ones they’d have in the wild. Zoo animals are well cared for on every level — fed, washed, even given dental care. In fact, between good preventive care and the absence of predators, animals in zoos live so much longer that geriatric animal care has become an important subspecialty. In the wild, on the other hand, an animal that becomes weak or wounded becomes easy prey for its other predators.

We see evidence of this longevity as we enter the large building housing the African large animals. Towering giraffes duck their heads to walk through the 18-foot door leading from the outside pen, as they come in to chomp on grasses packed into hanging plastic boxes suspended from the ceiling at the level of their mouths. With their dark-rimmed doe eyes, they look like they’re wearing false eyelashes.

“A giraffe usually lives for 14 years,” Dr. Goodman says, “and ours are already 29.”

When they have health issues, these animals receive care ranging from acupuncture to laser treatments.

“Since giraffes are kosher animals, Jews always ask about the challenges of shechting them,” he related. “Although they’re endangered and you wouldn’t want to, they’re actually easy to shecht, since there are so many places along the neck they could be cut — but you’d have to be ready to pay $15,000 a pound for the meat.”

(Goodman himself is not a vegetarian — “I like pastrami too much,” he admits, acknowledging that it’s nature’s way for carnivores to eat other animals. “Shechitah is a comparatively merciful way to die, since in the wild, animals are more likely to be torn apart and devoured — they don’t exactly die in bed surrounded by family.”)

In an adjacent area, we observe Alice and Ginny, two of the zoo’s three Zimbabwe elephants, munching on straw. (Dr. Goodman reminds us that if we haven’t seen a monkey or an elephant in over a year, we need to make the brachah of Baruch meshaneh habrios). Today’s zoo elephants are rarely captured in the wild, but bred in zoos (as are the vast majority of zoo animals). By providing sanctuary for elephants and other endangered animals, zoos — contrary to the carping of critics — actually help preserve and protect animals.

“Ninety-nine elephants a day are killed for their ivory,” Dr. Goodman says. “It’s very hard to control. Plus, the poachers are often in league with terrorist organizations.”

Occasionally animals bred in zoos will be released to the wild, like the golden lion tamarin monkeys from the rain forest exhibit and the New England cottontail rabbits and timber rattlesnakes. Thanks to zoos, some species like red wolves and California condors, which had dwindled to just over a dozen specimens, were bred until their numbers reached several hundred, many of whom were re-released into the wild.

Zoo breeding, which Dr. Goodman jokingly calls his “shidduch system,” is actually a highly scientific process carried out in coordination with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, ensuring that there isn’t inbreeding and that zoos don’t produce more animals than they can care for. The AZA keeps meticulous genealogies of which animals are bred, and to whom.

When the zoo wants to obtain an animal, it puts in a request. For example, Dr. Goodman hopes to open an exhibit in two years featuring Galapagos tortoises. These giant turtles have a very long lifespan, and he wants them to arrive at about three or four years of age, so he put in his request almost five years ago. Decisions about acquiring animals are complex, always based on algorithms to determine if it makes sense according to a large range of variables — from visitor appeal to educational value to tolerance for cold.

“Every zoo has an Institutional Collection Plan [ICP],” he says. “It’s the blueprint for what should be in its collection — what to bring in, what to phase out.”

Passing a field of Watusis, African cattle with enormous conical horns, we look for the cheetah, but he’s apparently gone back into his “house” for his afternoon feeding. The zoo maintains a commissary of restaurant-quality food for the animals, everything from slabs of meat for the carnivores to fish, fruits and vegetables, grains, and hay.

“The food is weighed out to the gram,” Dr. Goodman says.

Some reptiles require salad greens chopped fine. The Brazilian giant otter, which we observe gliding in a tank with its own waterfall, eats its own weight in fish every day. (The zoo is happy to oblige his hearty appetite, since they’re one of the only zoos in the country to own a specimen of this very rare, endangered species.) When the staff is unavailable to feed the animals, there are time-release mechanisms to make sure proper amounts are released.

Between COVID-19 and the sweltering heat, there aren’t a lot of people walking around today, and the paths have been rendered one-way to keep people socially distanced. Group tours have largely been replaced by Zoom tours.

“The pandemic has been terrible for our budget,” Dr. Goodman says. “It costs over 12 million dollars a year to run the zoo, and this year we’re already running a five-million-dollar deficit.”

We stroll past a farmyard with alpacas in a pen (their wool coats have been shorn for the summer), and a donkey keeping them company. We’ve left the African area — the zoo zones are divided according to continent — and are entering South America.


The lions and tigers and
that kind of stuff
They have up here now are
not quite good enough.
You see things like this in
just any old zoo.
They’re awfully old-fashioned.
I want something new!

We’re now in front of the RWP zoo’s newest pride and joy, a structure that looks like a three-story-high greenhouse. This spacious $14 million building, whose tree-vine “ribbon” was cut in 2018, is a rainforest pavilion that adds dozens of new and exotic animals to the zoo’s collection.

Although there’s more sunlight streaming through the glass walls than you’d find in the jungle, the atmosphere is just what you’d expect in a rainforest: lush tropical greenery, jewel-colored birds darting across the ceiling, twittering monkeys and fowl creating a jungle soundtrack. A two-foot tall macaw, its feathers a deep shade of periwinkle, eyes us unperturbed; six feet below wanders a gray, black , and white helmeted curassow with a fanned tail like a peacock’s.

There are tortoises and iguanas, sloths and otters in a tank. A movement above my head startles me, and it turns out to be several tiny golden lion tamarin monkeys scampering around the upper perimeter. They’re more orange than gold, and look like souvenir stuffed toys, but are actually an endangered species today preserved in zoos.

Being a zoo director calls for a hefty dose of problem-solving ability, and these monkeys are but one example.

“We didn’t want the monkeys to climb too high, so we designed the landscape with smooth steep rocks,” Dr. Goodman says. “But it didn’t work. Next we tried plexiglass walls, but they figured out how to scale those too — animals are very smart.”

Much of the vegetation came from Miami, not Brazil, but it’s pretty much the same plants. When Hurricane Irene wiped out a lot of natural vegetation in Florida, the zoo had to obtain new plants, about 150 species including coffee and guava trees. With its knotted hemp fences, trickling water, and screeching howler and saki monkeys, visitors feel transported to an enchanted forest.

Emerging from the rainforest to the outside, we approach a large caged area populated by majestic flamingos from Chile, their feathers coral and white. While their elegant forms and long neck suggest delicacy, Dr. Goodman begs to differ.

“These birds are very hardy,” he says. “They do fine in our New England winters, and they live to be 70 years old.” Their coloring derives from the shrimp they feed on.

Nearby, a giant anteater refuses to come out of his hiding place to greet us.

“The female is busy with the babies, so he takes advantage to just sleep,” Dr. Goodman says.


Somehow or other, I think I could find
Some beast of a much more
un-usual kind.

In the Asian pavilion, the first animal we see is a formidable reptile called a Komodo dragon — the world’s largest living lizard, from the steep-sloped island of Komodo in the Lesser Sunda chain of the Indonesian Archipelago — who sits in his habitat looking around suspiciously. A generous donor paid for her acquisition, and in return was offered the honor of naming her.

“He thought her chin looked like his Aunt Elsie’s, so we named her Elsie,” Dr. Goodman says. “These animals can be dangerous in the wild, but they’re more docile under human care.”

Nearby are tree kangaroos the size of koala bears. The zoo has been especially successful breeding them, and exports them to other zoos. Hornbill birds perch high in a cage. Dr. Goodman explains that the males are the ultimate overprotective husbands: When the female lays eggs, he seals her up in a tree and brings food for her and the nestlings. When the baby birds grow big enough, they break their way out of the nest to freedom.

As we continue down the path outside, Dr. Goodman points out a babirusa, a rare Asian pig (there are only about 100 left in the world). It’s taupe-colored, smaller and sleeker than the fat pink farm animals in children’s books. There was once some discussion as to whether the babirusa is kosher, as its stomach is sectioned. But Dr. Goodman asserts that it’s not a true ruminant.

When I went to camp, we used to sing songs about a kookaburra in the old gum tree. Now Dr. Goodman shows us a real one in his outdoor cage, white and dun with a spot of teal on his wing.

“His call sounds like jungle noise, so filmmakers use kookaburra calls for jungle soundtracks,” he says.

Since the bird has opted to remain silent, Dr. Goodman finds a recording on his phone for us to hear. Within a few minutes this kookaburra opens his mouth to put in his own two cents.

The walk out of the zoo affords yet more discoveries: a Marco Polo exhibit, showing the animals Marco Polo may have encountered on his travels (including a snow leopard and red panda), a snake house, a cage of snowy owls acquired from a German zoo, a stand full of bald eagles (rescue birds who were shot or are missing parts of their wings). There’s a field full of wild turkeys and pronghorns, an animal that’s a cross between a goat and an antelope, and which has the distinction of being the fastest animal in North America.

We notice cameras placed all over the zoo to monitor what’s going on.

“During the recent riots, the local police told us that rioters might come and try to let the animals out,” Dr. Goodman says. “We stayed up all night to keep watch, but nothing happened.” (Why would someone want to “liberate” a hungry tiger?)

Dr. Goodman, a bit like Adam Harishon in the Garden, is the chief over his own diverse animal kingdom. Does he have a favorite?

“My favorite animal is a healthy, happy animal,” he pronounces. “Every single one has something unique to offer. My zoo- management software used to display a different quote every day, and my favorite was, ‘G-d doesn’t make junk.’ Everything Hashem created has its purpose. Perek Shirah isn’t just a nice thing to read. It shows the inner quality of each animal, how each has its role and excels at something.”

Through caring for animals, preserving endangered species, and educating the public, Dr. Goodman is also doing his best to protect Hashem’s creations in the animal world and show their specialness in the human one.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 832)

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