SALISBURY, Md. – Jim Rapp sees his job as director of the Salisbury Zoological Park as a way to combine two of his loves: children and animals.
“When I first started out, I quickly saw the zoo’s potential to change people’s attitudes about wildlife,” he said. “I get to show kids that, for instance, a bear doesn’t eat the same things as an alligator does, and an alligator doesn’t eat the same things as a duck.”
Being young himself helps to bring him closer to the children, he said. At 26, Rapp may be the youngest zoo director in the country, said Amy Beard, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
He has run the 12-acre Salisbury zoo, home to about 500 animals, since June 1994.
Jane Ballentine, director of the zoo association, said Rapp has “that ability to speak to little kids on their own level so they can understand.”
He manages to do it in a way that’s not condescending, she said. “The kids probably don’t even realize they’re learning a lot,” she said.
Rapp estimated that children make up about half of the zoo’s annual 180,000 to 200,000 visitors.
He takes his job as educator seriously. “If we can just reach the people on the Eastern Shore, then we’ll take care of our little corner of the world,” the Salisbury resident said.
Rapp’s own childhood sounds like an episode of “Wild Kingdom.” He said he collected iguanas and dozens of snakes, as well as guinea pigs, gerbils, dogs and cats.
“I loved reptiles, so I was always out looking under rotten logs and walking around the woods,” he said.
It was only natural he was attracted to the zoo.
He started volunteering there in 1988 as a zoo tour guide, leading two or three tours a day during a semester off from his freshman year at Salisbury State University.
He worked as a part-time guard the following summer, and came back every summer through 1992 – even after graduating in December 1991 with a biology degree from Salisbury State.
That fall, he was hired as a full-time groundskeeper, tending plants and doing odd jobs around the zoo.
Six months later, he became the zoo’s first education curator, training volunteers and organizing tours.
He said the zoo is “becoming more a part of the community, incorporated into the curriculum in the schools,” mainly through educational tours. About 10,000 children a year go through the education programs, he said.
As curator, Rapp also visited local schools, armed with small animals and slide presentations.
His next job was director of the park, which boasts a jaguar, a bison, bald eagles and a collection of North American water fowl.
Scottie Oligher, the zoo’s 68-year-old secretary, said Rapp’s age doesn’t cause problems with the zoo’s seven other full-time employees.
“In a small zoo, you either get someone [as director] who is working his way up, or just winding down their careers,” she said.
The zoo – just a short drive from Route 50 – definitely qualifies as small. It has about one-tenth as many animals as
The National Zoological Park in Washington, which has 5,500 creatures on exhibit. And it attracts about 200,000 visitors a year to the National zoo’s 3 million.
Rapp is on his way up, Oligher said, and his excitement is contagious.
He is “one of those people who is always looking at new ways to get things done, and we haven’t had that in a long time,” she said.
As director, Rapp helped to get a new educational center – worth an estimated $125,000 – built at no cost to the zoo. Labor and materials were donated by the Eastern Shore Builders Association, said associate vice president John Riggin.
Rapp also worked with local residents to secure funds for a $20,000 otter exhibit. The exhibit was completed in September, said Sheila Zimmer, who helped raise the money.
Rapp said being such a young director “is a little strange. … But I wasn’t hired, as some directors are, to save a sinking ship, which makes my job a lot easier.”
When Rapp took over, he said he and the zoo’s other employees had an agreement: “They would run the zoo and I would brag about it.”
For someone with a self-described big mouth, bragging may be the easy part. “People from Baltimore and Washington will come down here and tell us this is one of the finest zoos they have ever seen,” he said. -30-