The Good Zoo at Oglebay Resort doesn’t just take care of the animals in its collection—it’s training a new generation of caretakers.
Joe Greathouse is careful not to touch the electric fence as he snatches a Doritos bag out of the ostrich’s reach. Touching the charged wire would not be pleasant. He knows from experience.
Greathouse is the director of the Good Zoo, located on the grounds of the Oglebay Resort in Wheeling. In addition to managing the 53-person staff, overseeing the well-being of around 300 animals, reviewing guests’ TripAdvisor and Google reviews, and a million other things, Greathouse also has an eye for the minutiae. Like keeping junk food away from large African birds.
He leaves the ostrich enclosure behind, deposits the chip bag in a trash can, and follows the loop of blacktop past the kangaroos and wallabies. He stops to trill at the laughing kookaburra, which responds with a long and impressive cackle. “It just sounds like a zoo,” Greathouse says, smiling. Then he moves on to the enclosure for Malika, the park’s lone serval.
She is lounging like a housecat in one corner of her enclosure and, true to her feline nature, regards Greathouse coolly as he takes a look around. He notices Malika’s informational placard needs to be cleaned and the ground around it needs some mulch. He opens the Notes app on his chunky-cased iPhone and taps out a reminder.
Greathouse’s phone made its first appearance of the morning in the zoo’s veterinary care building. After stopping to speak with the West Liberty University students cleaning out a crate that recently held a cheetah—the zoo maintains a close relationship with the school, employing more than 80 students as apprentices and interns—he poked his head into the holding area for newborn zoo animals. The pen was empty but wasn’t tidy enough for Greathouse. Someone would have to take care of that. Apologizing for the interruption, he whipped out the phone and made a note.
After leaving Malika, Greathouse heads to the enclosure next door to see the zoo’s ring-tailed lemurs, Patrick and Zena. As he feeds them raisins, a mother and two small children pass by. The kids point and jabber at the tiny primates munching on Great Value raisins as well as the big primate who somehow got inside their cage. Greathouse understands their excitement. A native of Cumberland, Maryland, he grew up visiting the Good Zoo and marveling at its inhabitants. He later interned here while attending West Virginia University. He got hired as a zookeeper after graduation and worked his way up to registrar and then curator. He left for a while to work at The Wilds in eastern Ohio. But, as Greathouse now admits, “it wasn’t quite home.” He returned to the Good Zoo as executive director in 2016.
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The Good Zoo is named for the family of Wheeling department store magnate and philanthropist Laurance F. Good and his wife Barbara. They made the initial donation in memory of their son Philip, who died in 1971 at the age of seven.
Soon, the Oglebay Foundation had thousands of donations rolling in. Families wrote checks. School children collected pennies. The donations came so large and so fast that the foundation increased the zoo’s planned footprint from 10 to 32 acres. Construction broke ground in 1972 and the zoo opened five years later, fittingly enough, on Memorial Day weekend. Now, the Good Zoo is the only zoo in West Virginia accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the strictest and most coveted accreditation in the zoo world.
Greathouse now ducks inside the red panda enclosure, which the animals share with two goral, a type of Chinese goat. It isn’t long before he produces the iPhone again. The brown-painted aluminum band around one of the trees has come loose and needs to be tightened. The metal is meant to prevent the pandas from climbing up and out of their home, although that’s mostly a concern for Junji, an 8-year-old male. The park’s other red panda, a 14-year-old female named Amber, isn’t much of a climber since she came down with Parkinson’s disease.
This is one complication of zoo life. While animals live much longer in human care (zoo people do not use the word “captivity”), those prolonged lives lead to geriatric diseases never seen in the wild such as arthritis, cancer, or, in Amber’s case, neurological disorders. Parkinson’s affects red pandas in much the same way as humans, causing tremors and decreased motor function. Amber mostly gets along fine—after munching the prunes Greathouse gave her, she backed away and stumbled over a branch—but the zookeepers keep a close eye on her health. At what point will quantity of life overtake quality of life? It’s an unfortunate arithmetic, but one familiar to anyone caring for an aging animal. “As long as quality of life is still good, we’re going to take care of them,” Greathouse says.
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West Liberty associate professor Zac Loughman was knee-deep in a creek, showing a student how to catch snakes for a research project, when he received a call from the biology department. A man from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had stopped by for the school’s first-ever surprise inspection of its animal habitat.
The zoo science program has more than 100 critters in its collection, the vast majority of which are reptiles, Loughman’s speciality. But the USDA only cares about warm-blooded animals, so the inspector was there to check the enclosure and commissary area for the school’s lone mammal: a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth named Sweetpea.
Sweetpea is something of a mascot for West Liberty’s Zoo Science and Applied Conservation program. Like some kind of hairy Jerry West, her silhouette adorns the program’s logo, appearing on handouts, t-shirts, and classroom walls. She lives in a former chemistry lab, which the biology department remodeled into a zoo science laboratory with six animal enclosures.
The animals are an essential selling point for the young program, which started in the 2016–17 academic year. There are four other zoo science programs in the United States, but as Loughman points out, “we’re the only program that, by the end of your first week, you’re working with animals. It’s one thing to learn about animals and another to interact with and know animals.”
Students work rotating shifts caring for the animals, tracking the creatures’ well-being using the same computer system found at many zoos. “It is not glamorous,” says Karen Kettler, chairwoman of the biology department. “It’s teaching students there are amazing moments among the monotony. And that there’s value in the monotony.”
On this day, the monotony has paid off. Loughman left the creek and hurried back to meet the inspector. Less than an hour later, he appeared in Kettler’s office, still dressed in the shorts and sandals he’d been wearing in the field. He offered her a thumbs-up. Their facility passed the inspection with flying colors.
Word spread fast among the program’s students, who were also clearly anxious about the outcome of the inspection. It’s one more slice of zoo life that Loughman, Kettler, and the rest of the staff can offer.
Once students have gained experience with the school’s in-house animal collection, they can apply to work at the Good Zoo—West Liberty’s program is also the only one in the country affiliated with an AZA-accredited zoo. This, too, is an essential part of the curriculum. If students want to work in zoos, “just spending a weekend at the zoo isn’t good enough,” Loughman says. Facilities won’t hire anyone who hasn’t spent hours upon hours fully immersed in zoo culture. Thanks to the school’s relationship with the Good Zoo, all West Liberty students graduate with experience to spare.
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Back at the Good Zoo, Greathouse completes his walkabout where he began, at the main building. As he nears the door, he greets a young woman heading the opposite direction. She walks a short distance down the blacktop path, then perches sideways on a metal bench just below the reindeer enclosure.
Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, Amanda Alig might be mistaken for a zoogoer if not for the folder and notepaper on her lap. She is a West Liberty zoo science student and has come to the zoo to collect data for her senior capstone project. Today is a good day for it, with a cloudless sky and temperatures hovering in the mid ’80s. “It wasn’t really fun in the rain and snow,” Alig says.
She chose to study the reindeer—two females named Princess and Dancer—because, when she hired on as a temporary employee around Christmas, she was assigned to the animals and grew fond of them. But more than that, Princess needs Alig’s help.
Princess and Dancer grew used to the attention of visitors over the holidays and missed the crowds when they went away. But then they got used to the quiet again and now, as the weather warms and visitors start flooding back, they have become nervous about all the humans milling about.
Princess is especially anxious, spending much of her time pacing the enclosure. Alig wants to figure out how to make that better. She tried giving her a puzzle feeder, hoping the mental challenge might distract and calm her. It didn’t. She witnessed some success, however, after dumping two bags of ice inside the enclosure. “They played around and went and lay down,” Alig says. “They chilled out, literally.”
The relaxed behavior did not last long but Alig hopes the data she collects will help point to a permanent solution. She records the animals’ every action. She takes note when Princess begins pacing in clockwise loops at the top of yard. She scribbles on the paper when she notices Princess is constantly licking her lips, which might be a sign of a side effect of the sedative shot zookeepers recently administered. Alig keeps a close eye on Princess’s urine output, in case the shot might have affected that, too.
This kind of resume-building experience is invaluable for students like Alig. But the zoo benefits, too. “It keeps us on our toes and thinking about things in different ways,” Greathouse says. “It’s nice to have all those new ideas coming through.”
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photographed by Carla Witt Ford