All in a Day’s Work: Inspiring Visitors, Saving Species

Eileen Barrett and Cecil Jackson, Jr.

Jon Keeling


It was a beautiful August morning. As I stood at the entrance of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, I was surrounded by bees buzzing in the pristine flower beds, summer camp children donned in matching camp t-shirts excitedly awaiting entrance to the Zoo, and families of all ages and backgrounds pushing strollers, taking selfies, chasing toddlers and slathering sunscreen on their babies.

I was there to meet Eileen Barrett, who loves our great city, is well-known for her extensive philanthropy here, and is a member of the Cincinnati Zoo board of trustees.

Mrs. Barrett and I walked together toward the entrance gates where we were met by Chad Yelton, the vice president of communications for the Zoo, and he whisked us straight to the Elephant Habitat.  The elephants are a favorite of Mrs. Barrett’s, and you could see her excitement as we approached. We were met at this historic site by Cecil Jackson, Jr., the Zoo’s elephant manager. Mr. Jackson is a second-generation elephant keeper. At the age of 14, he began working at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden with his father, Cecil Jackson, Sr., who worked at the Zoo for 50 years.

In his 35 years as a Zoo employee, Cecil Jr. has worked with gorillas, chimps, orangutans, cats, okapis, tapirs, hippos, horses and various types of birds. In addition to his duties as elephant manager he is also responsible for the animals in Giraffe Ridge.  So, to say the least, Cecil Jr. is an expert in his field.  As an animal lover myself, this was an absolute dream come true. And what came next was over the top!

He walked us through some trees, past a gate, and once in a clearing through the trees, I realized we were right next to the outdoor elephant habitat – almost in it.  The elephants looked up and absolutely recognized Cecil.  He called to them and the massively majestic pachyderms walked closer to us, seeming to expect what was happening next – Mrs. Barrett and Cecil began feeding them heads of lettuce. I got to feed them, too. Being up close and personal with these animals and learning about their personalities from the man that knows them best is something I will never forget.

More Home to Roam

Mrs. Barrett and I searched for a quiet place to sit and talk about the Zoo’s new “More Home to Roam” campaign.  As we walked, we talked about the loyalty of the Cincinnati Zoo’s staff and volunteers. She explained that without the commitment of the Zoo’s dedicated staff and volunteer network, the Zoo would not be what it is. These folks are passionate about the Zoo, its inhabitants, and the beautiful city that surrounds it.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was recently named the number one Zoo in America by USA Today. People come to this Zoo from all over the world to work. The Cincinnati Zoo works closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to constantly propel the animals’ safekeeping and enrichment forward.  These employees love their job and leadership so much, that they stay for years. Their loyalty a testament to the true leadership and knowledge of the Zoo’s keepers and management alike. This is more than evident in the interactions with every staff member and volunteer I had the pleasure of speaking with that day.

We walked a little farther and eventually ran into Cincinnati Zoo Director Thayne Maynard. For animal people like me – and most likely anyone that has had the pleasure of meeting him – talking to or hearing Mr. Maynard speak about his passion for animals and conservation leaves one a bit awestruck.  Among his many accomplishments, he co-wrote the book, “Hope for Animals and Their World,” with Jane Goodall.  For over 30 years, he has shared his knowledge and environmental news on his nationally syndicated radio show, “The 90 Second Naturalist.” Indeed, he’s ’s kind of a big deal in the animal world.

Mr. Maynard was wearing his trademark elephant-emblazoned belt buckle, and as Mrs. Barrett introduced me, he shook my hand and warmly welcomed me to the Zoo. They shared with me some highlights about their trip to Africa, and as volunteers and guests walked by, they greeted Mr. Maynard kindly and he returned the gesture with a smile and genuine connection. The three of us chatted a little more about the More Home to Roam Campaign, discussing its importance to the future of the Zoo and the amazing impact it will have on the Zoo’s extensive conservation efforts.

Mrs. Barrett and I said goodbye to Mr. Maynard, and we found a quiet bench in the shade to further discuss the More Home to Roam initiative and its key components.  The goal of this campaign is to raise a total of $150 million by the Zoo’s 150th anniversary in 2025. The capital campaign was launched about a year ago, and to kick things off, Cincinnati philanthropists Harry and Linda Fath donated $50 million to the effort. This marks the largest single donation ever gifted in our Zoo’s history. The Faths have quietly donated to the Zoo for years, knowing the gem that it is, from its staff all the way to the animals and plants that the staff cares for.  With the Faths’ unprecedented $50 million donation and generous donations from other sponsors, the “More Home to Roam” campaign is a little more than halfway to its goal.

Key points of the campaign and how it will benefit visitors, as well as the Zoo’s inhabitants, include the following:

  Parking has always been a challenge in this densely developed neighborhood. “More Home to Roam” will allow the Zoo’s parking lot to move and expand.  An 1,800-car garage will offer guests safe and convenient parking and help alleviate parking and traffic issues for neighboring businesses and residents.  As plans for increased and convenient parking move forward, it opens a world of possibilities inside the Zoo’s walls.

  After a quicker, more efficient entry, you will notice upgrades to the Entry Village.  You will see animals right away and instantly know you’ve arrived at the Zoo.

  It will provide almost five times more home for our beautiful elephants to breed and live a more natural life, within a multi-generational herd. The new habitat, dubbed “Elephant Trek,” will include trees, mud wallows, grasses, pools and streams.  This will also include a children’s play area within Elephant Trek, featuring nature-based water elements. The historic “Elephant Reserve” will get some needed renovations including a new roof, repairs to the concrete dome, new windows and a new garden area and animal habitat.

  “More Home to Roam” will provide more room for the critically endangered Black Rhino by expanding the outdoor habitat, allowing for a larger, multi-species yard for the Black Rhinos and Zebra. The Cincinnati Zoo is committed to the conservation of this animal, and this extra space will help immensely with that effort.  It will also allow for a modified indoor space and better viewing areas for visitors.

  The Zoo will add a beer garden and picnic area where visitors can enjoy spacious seating (more than 3,600 square feet) for parties and corporate events. This new area will overlook Roo Valley, a 15,000-square-foot Kangaroo Walkabout featuring large and small kangaroos.  Roo Valley will also include a multi-level ropes course through its tree canopies for the more adventure-seeking guests.

  Visitors will enjoy a new underwater viewing area for the little blue penguin colony, and the colony will have a larger area to call home.

  The Sea Lions habitat will enjoy upgrades, including more shade, better water filtration and behind-the- scenes-areas.

  The Lords of the Arctic polar bear denning area and outdoor habitat will also expand.

Our Zoo is the second oldest Zoo in the country.  Opening its doors in 1875 and starting with just 64.5 acres in Avondale, it has since spread its borders into neighboring suburbs to a total of about 75 acres.

Zoo stories are perfect for passing down through generations.  In an age so immersed in technology, places like the Zoo are even more vital. You can see a lion on Nat Geo, but do you remember the first time you saw one in real life? Maybe even heard him roar? Let’s keep the conversation going for many more generations. In the words of Mr. Maynard, “We will inspire guests, save species, and celebrate all that we have accomplished – together.”

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is located at 3400 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH 45220. For more information on ways to donate to the “More Home to Rome” campaign, please visit