Chastain overseeing Encounter Africa zoo addition

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Bob Chastain is CEO of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Working at a zoo wasn’t his dream job originally, but after an internship at one, he said he began to realize their value. Now, he’s overseeing the largest habitat expansion in the Colorado Springs zoo’s history.

The $13.5 million Encounter Africa exhibit, which will be home to African elephants, lions and black rhinos, is the biggest expansion in the zoo’s history.

The project is expected to be complete in 2013.

Chastain talked about the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s challenges and success with the CSBJ.

How long have you been at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo? What made you interested in working there?

I’ve been at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for 16 years now. I always took an interest in nature and conservation, but ironically I didn’t care much for zoos when I was in college.

Maybe that’s not appropriate for a zoo president to admit, but that’s how I felt before I really understood their purpose. I was studying horticulture at the time and my professor talked me into a summer job at a new zoo being built in Indianapolis.

As fate would have it, my plans changed course after working alongside a horticulturist. I was exposed to a breed of people with a passion for wildlife and commitment to conservation work, much like myself. It was there I realized the value of zoos in society. I believe the animals have an important job to do — they serve as ambassadors, educating and inspiring people to make a difference, which helps ensure the survival of their species in the future. After college, I stayed in horticulture, but moved around for awhile before beginning work on my masters. Fate struck again when I made a connection with Cheyenne Mountain Zoo while rock climbing with the then- horticulture director. When he moved on, he recommended me for the position. I fell in love with Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and Colorado Springs, but if you had asked me 16 years ago if I would ever be president, I would have said no. However, when my predecessor left, I believed so strongly in what the zoo was doing, I knew it was the right choice to take on this leadership role.

What are some of the major challenges you face at the zoo? How has the economy affected what you do?

Of the more than 200 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), less than 10, including Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, receive no city, state or federal support. Because we rely on admissions, donations, corporate sponsorships and special event revenue to run, clearly funding is always top of mind.

We feel if we can stay relevant and topical, the funding will follow. Yet in an age where kids are so technology driven and getting outside to experience nature doesn’t seem as important, that can be challenging. We want kids to connect with nature so they appreciate and value it as they get older and have families of their own. We constantly have to find ways to do old things differently, and I think we’re doing that. Even during this economic downturn, we are realizing success. Perhaps people aren’t spending as much money, but they are spending money where they feel they can find value, and we believe we offer a valuable experience. After a record-breaking summer in 2010, more families than ever are gathering at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, falling in love with Colorado and thinking about their impact on the environment. I think the success is a testament to our solid leadership team and the strong trust we’ve established over the years within the community. We plan to push forward, keep doing what we’re doing. We want there to always be something new at the zoo.

You are in the middle of a major renovation and expansion. What was the impetus for that? What will it look like when you’re finished?

We are in the midst of Encounter Africa, the largest capital campaign in the history of the zoo. Guests tell us elephants are extremely important, but that the exhibit was aging. We want people to fall in love with the animals, not be distracted by what they feel is a lack of space or complexity in an exhibit.

This new exhibit keeps us in front of AZA standards and gives our four elephants (the girls, as we like to call them) significantly more space — there will be seven outdoor areas and five indoor. Even more importantly are the features built in to keep them enriched and engaged. Water is a very important aspect of daily life, so there’s a 20-foot waterfall and a bigger pool. A half-mile elephant trek will give the elephants more exercise and numerous feeding devices in the new barn and outdoor exhibit help simulate their natural foraging behaviors. Additionally, we’re bringing black rhinos back to the zoo, and giving our lions and meerkats new homes as well. As I mentioned before, zoo animals have an important job to do. They serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts and I believe we owe it to them to keep their needs at the forefront of any new exhibit we design.

What’s your favorite exhibit at the zoo?

My kids have asked me the same question for years and the answer is always the same — I don’t answer “favorite” questions.