Zoo director Amos Morris loves big animals, grew up on nature TV shows

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Milwaukee County Zoo Director Amos Morris considers himself “a man elephant.”

This is one of the reasons Morris – who started his new job in August – was excited to come to Milwaukee, where the new elephant exhibit opened in 2019, offering elephants an outdoor enclosure of 1 , 6 acre and a 20,000 square foot indoor health center.

During his career at seven other zoos – where he worked as a zookeeper, curator and manager – Morris was often involved in the care of elephants.

This included hands-on elephant foot care, skin cleaning and vaccination, as well as administrative activities, such as his work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Elephant Species Survival Plan – decide which zoos to send elephants to for breeding and which zoos have the space, environment and commitment to care for these large animals.

“I started out as a hoof zookeeper so I’m used to dealing with bigger animals,” Morris said. “You don’t get bigger than elephants. At least not terrestrially,” he added with a laugh.

Jodi Gibson is the President and CEO of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, the nonprofit organization that serves as an educational and fundraising partner for the zoo.

“Elephants are some of the most popular animals at our zoo,” said Gibson, who was on the hiring committee for the new zoo director. “To meet a candidate who has practical experience and a love for elephants, especially when we have made such a significant recent investment in their environment, Amos just ticked box after box for us.”

Inspired by TV shows, camping and family

Morris attributes his childhood interest in animals to the TV shows he watched.

“When I was young, only kid-friendly television was allowed in my house,” Morris said. “And that was generally the animal programming, like National Geographic, the nature shows, Jacques Cousteau, the Disney animal shows.”

Morris also credits his parents – both teachers – for his interest in conservation, though he admits his father did not share his love of large animals.

“My dad was a biologist, but he was always afraid of animals and always nervous about large animals,” Morris said.

Although his father was not a fan of large animals, his lessons about the natural world on the family’s many camping trips would stay with Morris and is another reason he loves the Milwaukee Zoo.

“Milwaukee has a lot of great exhibits tucked away in a wooded park with trees,” Morris said. “I love the botanical aspects of this park.

Gibson said the hiring committee was looking for a manager who values ​​the zoo’s natural environment.

“All of us who grew up here in Milwaukee really appreciate the parkland feel of our zoo and the fact that you can come here and get away from it all in nature,” Gibson said. “We loved that Amos enjoys the atmosphere of our zoo.”

His camping trips as a child are also how Morris acquired a love of traveling to new places, which served him well as he lived in several cities with his wife and four children (now adults). .

“My parents were teachers, so we spent our summers traveling around the United States. That’s how we saw the country,” Morris said. “We would camp in national parks, and leave our campsites to visit the museums and zoos in each city. My father explained the environment to us, and animals were my mother’s passion. We stayed in the environment and learned to respect nature. . “

“No stranger to be the first”

Morris was aware of his father’s nervousness towards animals, but was surprised, as an adult, to find that his father hated camping.

As a child Morris thought camping was part of his family’s summer vacation fun, but later learned his father saw it as a necessary evil.

“I later found out that African Americans at that time couldn’t get hotel rooms in a lot of places, so when they traveled they either stayed with relatives or there were hotels and restaurants that were registered as friendly to African Americans, ”Morris said. “For my parents, camping was how we found safe places to stay.”

Amos Morris began his job as Director of the Milwaukee County Zoo in August.  He is pictured here on December 1.

Morris is the Milwaukee County Zoo’s first black director, and while it’s not something he draws attention to, he’s noticed a lack of representation over the course of his career.

“I’m not focusing on that. I’ve been doing this for a lifetime and I’m often the only African American in the room. It’s not a profession with a lot of African Americans,” Morris said. “But now there is more diversity than before because of AZA’s requirements for diversity programs. They are opening the field by posting jobs where more diverse people will see them. And that helps. “

The importance of representation is another lesson he learned from his parents.

“My parents were often the first African American teachers in their school districts. They were no strangers to being the first to achieve things. They told me I could do whatever I wanted, but that maybe I had to work harder for this, “Morris said. “I’m very exposed. When African American children see African American adults doing things, those things become achievable for them.”

“I don’t like to see animals in cages”

The influence of his father’s immersive nature lessons is also evident in Morris’s Favorite Parts of the Milwaukee Zoo – those exhibits that showcase the natural environment of typical animal habitat.

“I don’t like to see animals in cages. It’s not that cages are bad for animals, but you don’t have a clue who they are if you focus on what’s in them,” Morris said. “When people see the structure up front, they focus on the structure. When you see animals as part of their environment without what’s in them in the foreground, this is how you get a real feel for the animal. “

Morris’s philosophy fits well with that of the Zoological Society, according to Gibson. “The experience we create here is an environment where animals can thrive and where guests and visitors can see the animals in their habitat very seamlessly,” Gibson said. “Whether our elephants are indoors or outdoors, guests can see how we interact and take care of our animals, and it’s important to us, and we could see it was important to Amos.”

While the zoo’s most recent exhibits, including river otters, elephants, and hippos – which are indeed three of Morris ‘favorites – are the most obvious embodiment of Morris’ environment-oriented philosophy. , he also praised some of the zoo’s oldest exhibits.

He pointed out some of the zoo exhibits that use a moat to keep animals and visitors safe, but don’t need bars and can focus on the animals and their surroundings.

They include several exhibits that allow visitors to observe a habitat where natural predators and prey are presented in approximations of their natural habitats, separated by moats from each other and from visitors. Some are polar bears and harbor seals; cheetahs, Thomson’s gazelles, southern land hornbills and monk vultures; and the African lions, the cobe, the kudu and the zebra.

“These barless exhibits with moats to restrain animals were revolutionary back then, but now many newer exhibits have the same concept,” Morris said.

To look forward

Morris is happy with the zoo’s exhibits – both new and old – which put the animal environment first, but he speaks to his staff, assesses financial considerations, and consults with the Zoological Society to determine which exhibits need to be updated. day and to fill some of the empty exhibits.

While he’s not ready to make any announcements on potential new projects, he has some ideas on the types of animals he wants to bring to Milwaukee.

“I’m excited about the potential of other species, species that are hardy, species that can be outdoors in cold and northern climate species,” Morris said.

While Morris’ most recent work has been in California, he also enjoys Wisconsin’s “more northern climate” and he and his wife, Mary, both love the Milwaukee area and their home in Franklin.

“I like the seasons and I don’t mind the weather,” Morris said. “I also like being next to a large body of water. It anchors me.”

In their free time, Morris and his wife took advantage of the county parks, especially those near the lake. He calls Lake Michigan his respite, something that’s especially needed given his move across the country amid a pandemic.

And when he’s not busy planning the next phase of the zoo’s development, he and Mary can’t wait to make up for lost time during the pandemic by getting to know their new hometown better.

“The lake and the parks is where we explored the most,” Morris said. “Someday we hope to find a restaurant with a good view of the water. Hopefully, when the pandemic ends, it will get easier.”

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or amy.schwabe@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.

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