When an 800-pound wild Himalayan goat called a takin escaped from its enclosure at Roger Williams Park Zoo last May, it smashed through a reinforced door and injured two staff members before the zoo’s recapture team, overseen by Wakefield resident Tim French, sedated the animal and returned it to its exhibit. The emergency had staff members on edge for an hour, but none more than French, the zoo’s deputy director for animal programs, who is responsible for everything at the zoo that has anything to do with the animals.
“From the very first day the takins arrived here, they had really nasty attitudes and showed aggression to people,” French said. “We had practiced emergency drills on takin escapes, because that’s one animal I was worried about getting out.”
And yet the drama of the escape and recapture is something French looks back on fondly for the successful way it was handled.
“One of the things I like about this place is when we get to the end of an event like that when something has gone wrong, and I can see that the response was quick and coordinated and we had taken a potentially bad situation and turned it around,” he said, “I get a real sense of satisfaction out of that.”
Luckily, French hasn’t had to deal with too many escaped animals in his more than three decades working at zoos around the country, including the last 14 years at Roger Williams Park.
He grew up in Endicott, N.Y., and said he “fell into” zoo work a few years after graduating college with a degree in wildlife biology. He started as a zookeeper at the Ross Park Zoo near his hometown, then became the curator of mammals at the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio before becoming the director of the Riverside Zoo, a small zoo in western Nebraska. Yearning to return East, he accepted his present position in Providence, where he oversees the veterinary staff, zookeeper staff, animal nutrition and conservation activities.
“I like the size of the animal collection here – it’s big without being huge, and the physical facilities are, too. It’s decent-sized without being unmanageable,” French said. “When I arrived, the zoo was getting ready to design a new polar bear exhibit and breed elephants, both of which I had just done in the last five years, so my experience fit nicely.”
French starts every day with a status meeting with his zookeepers to make sure they know the day’s schedule of veterinary visits, exhibit repairs and keeper presentations. Every week he meets with his animal management team to discuss medical cases and the status of new exhibits and other programs. And he maintains regular contact with his counterparts at numerous other zoos about the transfer of animals from one facility to another.
His big project for the last three years has been the design and construction of the zoo’s new “Faces of the Rainforest” exhibit, which opened in November. It features a 40-foot-tall glass atrium and free-flying aviary housing four kinds of primates – two of which are already breeding – giant otters, sloths, toucans, an anaconda and many more creatures of the Amazon.
“We wanted to accomplish a lot with the exhibit and address a number of weaknesses in our collection,” he said. “We wanted to tell a rainforest story, so it had to be a very diverse collection of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. We also wanted to select species that we thought would give us more breeding opportunities.”
Because so many animals were going to be arriving at the zoo at the same time, French was faced with the logistical challenge of transporting them all to Providence from zoos around the country, getting them through quarantine, making sure their exhibits were completed on time, and carefully introducing the varied species to each other.
“Animals will always find your mistakes and find them quickly,” he said. “One of our golden lion tamarins found an opening in the exhibit that was just a little too big, and he got into a service area. He was back there for a couple of days until we could coax him out. But we got him.”
Now that the rainforest exhibit is open, French can focus more of his attention on construction of a new education building and the establishment of a new commissary for the preparation and storage of food for the animals.
“The commissary is a real big deal for us because right now, we’ve got freezers scattered around everywhere,” he said.
Among the groceries he purchases for the animals every year are thousands of dead rodents, hundreds of thousands of crickets and mealworms, several tons of fish of many varieties, many tons of hay, several thousand pounds of horsemeat for the carnivores, four varieties of biscuits for the primates, uncounted servings of “restaurant quality” produce, and bi-monthly deliveries of grains from four vendors.
While the demands of the zoo’s animals don’t leave a great deal of free time, most of French’s time off revolves around his family, especially his eight grandchildren and his “goofy” golden retriever that he takes on hikes. But his mind often wanders back to Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“I really like that I get to do a lot of different things in this job,” he said. “I like the opportunity to create things, like exhibit designs. When you finish something and open it up and see how people react, I get a charge out of that.”
French won’t admit to having a favorite animal at the zoo, but he prefers to spend his time with the bears and otters.
“I’ve had fun working with all different animals,” he said. “But I’m not an aquarium guy. I like looking at fish, but the thought of caring for them does nothing for me.”