Chastain rides herd over mountain kingdom

Filed under: One on One |

It’s a little like being king of the jungle. Bob Chastain will take over as Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s president and CEO on Oct. 1. He’ll succeed Susan Engfer, who is retiring after 17 years as the zoo’s CEO.

Chastain most recently held the position of zoo vice president and chief operating officer. He’s worked at the zoo for more than 10 years, and now, as the zoo’s top executive, he’ll oversees a multi-million dollar operation where the animal kingdom meets the human kingdom daily.

Chastain took time recently to tell CSBJ about himself and his business.

Hometown: Fortville, Ind.

How long have you lived in Colorado Springs: Since July 1995

Education: Bachelor’s degree in public horticulture, Purdue University; master’s degree in environmental education and ecology, University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point

A few words about your company: We are a nonprofit zoo, one of a handful of about 211 nationally accredited zoos. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association accreditation holds institutions to the highest standards of animal care and sound business practices. We are one of about seven zoos nationwide that receive no tax support. We have an annual attendance of about 400,000 people. We have been open since 1926 and were founded by Spencer Penrose.

Recent Accomplishments: I was the project leader for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s $7.1 million African Rift Valley project. It was awarded the AZA’s 2004 Significant Achievement Award and the 2003 Colorado Springs Partnership Community Design Award. I served as president of the Association of Zoological Horticulture from 2002 to 2005. This is an international organization with about 300 members. Last summer I led the effort to pass the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s five-year intensive AZA re-accreditation process. This was the best inspection report we have ever received. Each zoo staff member, from the CEO to groundskeeper, worked on projects to accomplish the goal. I’ve also helped coach and train the 2003 World Master’s Wrestling Champion.

Biggest Career break: Being made aware of and, basically, sent to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo while finishing my master’s degree in Wisconsin.

Toughest Part of the Job: The toughest part of this job is balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the animals and the staff members. There are always competing issues and concerns regarding the facilities, animals and staff. Issues such as weighing how many staff we can afford and how we can compensate them.

Someone you admire: I admire everyday people that do great and selfless things. Right now, I admire my sister and brother-in-law. They recently lost a 7-year-old daughter to brain cancer. I admire that they have the strength and faith to carry on. I admire all of our front line staff at the zoo. People like the keepers, horticulture, grounds and maintenance staff. They do their work day after day because of the mission, and I love that. I also admire our board, many of whom are extremely busy and influential community members and how they selflessly give their time, energies and money to make Cheyenne Mountain Zoo a better place.

Something else you’d like to accomplish: I have often stated, written and mused about what we are really trying to accomplish in the zoo world. While it is definitely about animals, for me there has always been the desire to accomplish something more and now I have the chance to make that happen. I have begun to think our zoo should be a model of a community. That is, a place where we care about each other, our environment and the many things we have direct stewardship over. I want to create an organization that exemplifies these qualities.

How will your business change in the next decade: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will have a greater diversity of visitors and employees. Our facilities will change and upgrade. Our planet will have lost more habitats and more species of plants and animals. We will have to continually redefine our roles as zoos. We will find it mandatory that we learn how to define and measure the emotional and social impact zoos are having on visitors, and how these impacts define the way zoos educate visitors about efforts to save wild places and things.

What book are you currently reading: I just finished "Bloodties – Nature, Culture, and the Hunt" by Ted Kerasote, which addresses the pros and cons of hunting in a modern society. I am also always reading "Felicity Wishes" by Emma Thomson to my 6-year-old. The book is about a fairy that is always helping others, but struggles to find her purpose in life, until she realizes helping others is her purpose in life.

What would you change about Colorado Springs: It would be closer to my family in Indiana, but since you would have to slide all of Kansas and Illinois out of the way, I guess it is fine for now.