Going Away Party
The Great Bend Zoo Society is planning a reception next week to say goodbye to Zoo Director Nicole Benz, Zookeeper Stacie Hayes, and Greeter Gabby Hildago. It will be held from noon to 3 p.m. in the Raptor Center (the zoo’s main building) at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, located at 23rd and Main.
The celebration of National Zookeeper Appreciation Week came a week late, and “celebration” may not have been the best word, but the Great Bend Zoological Society treated zoo staff to lunch on Wednesday.
Zoo Director Nicole Benz wasn’t there — having left to pick up the latest shipment of fish. On Monday Benz announced her resignation on the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo’s Facebook page. (She is still at the zoo for another week.) And at Wednesday’s luncheon, it was made known that two more zoo employees will be leaving soon. Zookeeper Stacie Hayes is moving to Texas, and Gabby Hildalgo, a greeter at the zoo’s main building, the Raptor Center, plans to become a stay-at-home mom.
Officially, National Zookeeper Appreciation Week was in the third week of July, and Benz posted tributes to each of the four zookeepers on the zoo’s Facebook page. In addition to Hayes, the zookeepers are Sara Hamlin, Ashly Burdick and Justine Doty.
However, there’s never a bad time to show employee appreciation. John Cross, treasurer of the Zoo Society’s board of directors, carried in pizza and said, “Thanks to the Zoo crew.” With the help of staff and volunteers, the City of Great Bend continues to operate the zoo as a free attraction.
Hayes grew up in Great Bend and has worked at the zoo for the past five years. She said her last day will also be next week. She has some job interviews lined up but said she was moving to be closer to family.
“I remember the zoo how it was 20 years ago,” said Hayes, who is 28 years old. “It’s progressed. The quality of care that the animals get here (today) is astronomically better.”
Hayes posted her own Facebook message later in the afternoon.
“It is with a heavy heart that I regret to inform you all that I will be leaving my position as a zookeeper at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo. The five years I have spent at the zoo have been filled with amazing experiences and I have learned so much. I appreciate the opportunity I was given that allowed me to work (with) the amazing people and wonderful animals here. I am incredibly saddened to be leaving but I feel like I need to move on to a facility that can offer me new opportunities and future growth in my career as an animal caregiver. This community and especially this zoo have always been my home. I wish nothing but the best for the future of the zoo and the staff that remain; I know they will care for the animals to the best of their ability.”
The message posted by Benz read:
“It is with great sadness and regret that I announce my resignation from the zoo. I have enjoyed working with this community and I love this zoo so much. I have learned a lot and had some great experiences here. Thank you all for your continued support of the zoo.”
With two key people leaving, the response to those posts ranged from sadness to bewilderment to frustration. Publicly, Benz has said she’s leaving for “personal reasons,” but that hasn’t stopped speculation.
What is known is that when Zoo Director Scott Gregory resigned at the end of 2014 to take another job, Benz’s workload increased. She continued to serve as the animal curator but also took on the added duties of zoo director, and took over directing the zoo’s educational programs, a job previously filled by a part-time employee.
Under her short tenure as director, the zoo added regular educational programs, and expanded its hours. The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and has been staying open until 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays this summer.
Great Bend City Administrator Howard Partington said the city will be looking for a new zoo supervisor. Meanwhile, the zoo is in good hands, Zoo Society members said.
“These (zookeepers) do a good job and I don’t think they get a lot of thanks,” Cross said.
Board member Charlotte Kluza agreed. “People don’t realize what a diverse day they have.”
The zookeepers described some of their recent tasks, which have included training the alligators to move to designated feeding stations — one marked blue, one red — so staff can make sure they are both getting enough food. The training also helps when it’s time to round up the ‘gators and move them to their cold-weather quarters.
Teaching animals how to behave when it’s time for feeding, physical exams or injections makes those tasks less stressful for animals and staff alike, the zookeepers noted.
The zoo also continues to receive new animals. The trumpeter swans have a baby, born around July 7, and the zoo will soon be getting another porcupine which the staff will introduce to the current porcupine.
Poppy the binturong needs a new enclosure, and the staff will be accepting a donation check from a Great Bend Girl Scout troop at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Finally, eight arctic fox kits turned 9 weeks old on Wednesday. They were examined by the veterinarians, and children who were at the zoo could watch through the window. The foxes ranged in weight from 4 lbs., 9 oz., to 5 lbs., 7.5 oz.