Episode 132 – Jeff Ewelt

Jeff Ewelt

Jeff Ewelt Jeff Ewelt has been involved with animals for twenty years. He is currently the Executive Director at ZooMontana in Billings, MT. He has appeared on several national broadcasts including Netflix, National Geographic, Late Night with Conan O’ Brien, ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover, The Discovery Channel, MSNBC and PBS. His latest project is a YouTube series entitled “Jeff the Nature Guy”. Jeff strongly believes that he can use his knowledge and training expertise to educate audiences worldwide about the importance these animals play in our everyday world.


Website: http://www.zoomontana.org/

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/ZooMontana

https://www.facebook.com/jeffthenatureguy


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 Jeff has been involved with animals for 20 years. He is currently the executive director at Zoo Montana in Billings, Montana. He’s appeared on several national broadcasts, including Netflix, National Geographic, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover, The Discovery Channel, MSNBC and PBS. His latest project is a YouTube series, entitled Jeff the Nature Guy. Jeff strongly believes that he can use his knowledge and training expertise, to educate audiences worldwide, about the importance these animals play in our everyday world.

 Hey, Jeff. Thanks for coming on today. Oh, absolutely. Thanks for having me. I’m honored. Oh, I’m honored to have you. You’re a real celebrity. Just kind of reading about you and looking at your YouTube channel. So why don’t you start us off, tell us a little bit about you and kind of how you became Jeff the Nature Guy. Yeah, you bet. So it’s been quite a journey. I’m such a fortunate person to be doing what I’ve dreamed of doing, since I was a little kid. You know, I very, very vividly remember when I knew this is what I needed to do. I was actually doing a shadowing program for our school, a school project. And I was in the sixth grade and we had to shadow somebody, in a career that we thought, we wanted to be in. And I knew I liked animals. So I decided to shadow a guy, in a local science center, in my hometown near Cleveland, Ohio. And as I was there, it was cool, I got to see some pretty cool animals, but quite frankly, I was doing some pretty gross stuff. I was cutting up mice for birds, and I mean cleaning poop and all this stuff, you know, that I was like, I don’t know if this is for me. 

However, at the end of the day, the gentleman I was shadowing took me, he said he knew I was maybe, not having the best time. He said, Jeff I’ve got one thing I want you to do. And he took me down this hallway and opened the door. And behind this door, there was a little tiny Salwin Owl. They’re literally only about, yea big, they’re tiny little things. And he let me hold it. And when that owl hit my hand, I knew in some way, shape or form, that is what I needed to do for my career. I knew that I needed to do something, where I was, I had an animal, and I can get people excited about wildlife. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, but now I know what passion was being born and you know, that stuck with me my whole life. And so as I went to school, I knew I wanted to work with animals in some way, shape or form. But quite frankly, I didn’t know how to do that. You know, I saw all these people that have these great jobs working with animals, and I was like how in the world you get there. And so when it ended up being just a lot of hard work.

 And so I graduated from Ohio State University and, as I was going to college, I volunteered in a wildlife rehab center, got some experience with some wildlife. And then, as time went on, I finally landed a job with the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio. But I started selling hot dogs and Pepsi and was working at a concession stand. You know, I’m a firm believer, you gotta get your foot in the door and gotta pay your dues, and I did that. And after about two years of selling and flipping hamburgers, I finally landed a job with animals. It was in the barns and working with goats and horses. Not exactly where I wanted to be, but again, I want to put in my dues. And then, after about a year of doing that, I finally landed a job working with birds in the Bird Show where we trained Raptors and Parrots and what have you. And that was heaven for me. That allowed me to get those birds back on my hand, like what happened in the sixth grade, and it was an amazing moment for me, to be able to finally put that owl on my hand, as a profession. It was pretty amazing.

 Now birds are your thing, is that kind of like your favorite animal at the zoo? Yeah. Birds of prey are aware of my love lives. I’ve always loved birds of prey. You know, I thank my parents for that, you know, as I was young, I used to always, we were driving down the road. You know, my parents always point out the Hawks and the Eagles and the nests, and that just kind of gave me a love for them.

 So yeah, once I, uh, left Columbus, once I graduated, I then went down to Tampa, Florida and my sole purpose in Tampa, was really the Raptors. They’re taking care of the Raptors. We trained them for flights and for flying. And what have you. We also did some rehab with them, and then we’re also in charge of a lot of training on zoo grounds, for medical procedures. And, you know, the cool thing about zoos nowadays, is that everything’s about the animal and we can train an animal to willingly partake in a medical procedure. So say we have to take blood from a tiger, for example. We can train that tiger to willingly present their tail, so we could take the blood from their tail. They get a dallop of a little whipped cream. They’re happy. We’re happy. We don’t have to knock the animal out. It’s just so much less stressful on the animal. And on the zoo keepers as well. We did a lot of that training at the zoo as well.

 And then after 10 years in Florida, we had just had a son. Florida was too hot, too busy and went back to slow things down and moved out to Montana. And boy was that a great decision. I was going to say Tampa to Montana. Quite the distance. Quite the cultural shift, quick, that climate. I mean, I go on and on. The culture shock is the big one there. You know, we moved from Tampa, Fla. You know, very, very urban area, to a town of 2500 people when we first moved here. So it was a little bit of a learning curve, but a good one at that. It was much more of the pace that we wanted to live our life. 

So how long have you been out of Montana? So we’ve been here in Montana for 10 years now and then I didn’t start here at Zoo Montana when it came out here. I actually worked in a small little animal sanctuary, in a small little mountain town called Red Lodge. And then when Zoo Montana started having some issues, we could talk about that in a minute. But they started having some issues, and I wanted my chance to take on Zoo Montana. And so I think I was the only one dumb enough to apply for the job, quite honestly, when they needed a director, and I came on board and the rest is history. So, yeah, eight years now here at Zoo Montana in Billings. So in eight years, right? So how did it start to where you are now? Like, what was the situation like? You were like, I want this job right. I want to make a difference. Yeah, I’m a big believer, every good city needs a good Zoo. And we could certainly talk zoos, and you know whether or not, how controversial. And certainly I love talking about that.

 Before we do that eight years ago, Zoo Montana hit rock bottom and we’re relatively young, in the world of zoos. We’re only 25 years old. And in those 25 years, this zoo has had its ups and downs, like you wouldn’t believe. And like I said eight years ago, it hit rock bottom. And honestly, the place probably should have and could have been shut down. The problem at the time was strictly financial. We are one of the very few private zoos in the country, accredited private zoos, meaning we don’t get any kind of tax base. We don’t get any funding from the city, or the county or the state. And so because of that Zoo Montana has struggled in the past. And so again, I’m a big believer, this city needed this organization. I saw the education that was coming out of here. I saw the conservational work that was being done, and I really believed it needed to persist.

 So I came in and we assembled a great team, had some incredible employees that were already here, that believed the mission. They stayed on board and without getting into a lot of the details,  fast forward eight years, we have our ACA Association, yeah we got our accreditation back. Yeah, we just got that in October. We’ve been in the black for the last seven years in a row, which is incredible, and we are reinvesting any kind of political profit. We seat back into the organization or back into the conservation research realm, and it’s something we’re really proud of. And it was not an easy task. We still have challenges ahead of us, don’t get me wrong, but we’re in an amazing place, in a better place I think we’ve ever been. And because it’s my face that people see, I get a lot of the credit, but my staff is unbelievable. I’ve got such a dedicated, incredible group of people that are working here, at the zoo that really make my job easy because they’re in it, they’re in it to win it. And, man, do they do a good job at that. And unfortunately, like I said, it’s my face that gets the credit. But I’d be nowhere if it wasn’t for our staff and our volunteers here. Yeah, how big is the zoo? How many staff and give us some perspective? We’re tiny. We are a little, little, little place. We were about 70 acres, which is a large size. We really utilize about 25 of those acres. We have a staff of 18 full-timers, but we have an amazing base of over 200 volunteers that help us out here, which is incredible, but yeah. So staff wise, like 18 full-timers, about 23 all said and done. Some part-timers in there. So, pretty dedicated individuals. And we only have about 100 animals of 56 different species here at the Zoo. And we grow as we need to grow. And what I mean by that, is we bring our animals in for three reasons. One, ex-pets. You’d be shocked, and you probably know, being in the business. You know, it is amazing what animals people think they can have at their home. For example, one of our grizzly bears, here at the zoo, somebody had in an 8 X 8 dog kennel in their backyard. You know, and so unfortunately, with that animal, that situation, that animal has one or two things that can happen to that animal. One is they come to a facility like us or two, that animal is put down and it’s an unfortunate situation, so we obviously prefer them to come to a facility.

 So that’s one reason, number two was injury. We have a lot of animals here that are injured in some way. A lot of our birds of prey, a car strikes, things like that. We kind of bucket into that category, trouble animals and, again, one of our grizzly bears. He’s a real-life Yogi the Bear. He was getting into peoples’ picnic baskets in their campsite. So again, his situation, we kind of group that with injury. And then number three, our breeding programs, that are specific to species. And in the zoo world, that’s called, the program that we follow is the Species Survival Program. And basically what that is, is a breeding program for endangered species, to keep genetic purity alive. So if we, if and when we need to release wild populations into the wild, we can do so with a genetically pure line of wildlife, that can then re-populate the wild populations. And so those are the three reasons we have a zoo.

 We also follow something here called quality over quantity. We don’t care about having 1000 animals. We want to ensure the animals we do have, get the best proper care possible. And so again, we’re not worried about growing big, we want to grow responsibly. I love that I can totally feel your passion and what you do. And that’s what comes across is that this isn’t a job for you. This is a lifestyle. This is your life. Yeah, absolutely. You know, and somebody said it best, when I was at a seminar, not too long ago,  it’s my life’s work, you know, I’ve been so fortunate that I found my life’s work and that I could make a living doing that. It’s spectacular and being able to give back, not just to wildlife populations but to our particular animals there. First, you know, we want to make sure that our particular animals, that unfortunately are here and no fault of their own, we want to make sure they have everything above and beyond what they need to have the best life possible. That’s crucial to all of us here at the zoo.

 Yeah, education is a big part of this, right, because, as you pointed out, I mean, that’s really why zoos exist is to give people that opportunity, get up close and to learn more. Absolutely. And I see that firsthand. We have an incredible education department, here at the zoo, and that’s where my roots are, is in the education aspect of it. And I see it firsthand and especially in Tampa. But I’ll tell you what, Montana isn’t any different. Everybody thinks Montana, outdoors. Science, literally, in our state, is not that good, you know. And you would think it should be because it’s Montana and it’s open and, You should be, it’s Montana. But we struggle just as much as any other city does, and that always amazes me, but just to see in a kids’ eyes or an adult, for that matter, doesn’t have to be a kid. It could be a full-grown adult, to see their eyes light up when they touch a snake for the first time, they get over a fear holding a spider. They’re able to see a grizzly bear up close and personal, destroy a campsite, see what they could do. Those are invaluable moments for these people, and it connects people with that wild counterpart. And in today’s world, we’re losing that so fast and in only, in today’s world of social media, how fast everything, you know, there’s a disconnect, and we like to be able to bring that connection back. And not just us, but all these animal, great animal facilities that exist in this country, they’re doing a service, and sometimes I think that kind of gets pushed under the rug a little bit because it’s an animal in captivity and I get that. I really do. But we’re bigger than that, and we want to get the message across that it’s an amazing service that we’re offering, that we’re giving back, so people can have that connection back. It’s important.

 I can feel that. I’m curious, how did you become this guy, that was all over television and all these different shows? And, as you pointed out, you’re kind of now the face of the zoo, even though you’ve got a very strong staff behind you. Yeah, you know, it’s so funny about that. And I love telling the story because I am a very introverted person and everybody that meets me says, Come on, I know, but that to me shows, especially kids and talking to kids, that shows what passion could do. It makes you a different person, you know, it takes over who you are, and that’s exactly what’s happened in this career. You know, I’ll never forget the first time I was up on stage with an animal, I was petrified, you know. But as soon as I started seeing the reactions of those that we’re seeing me with, an animal, that went away really quick because I saw that the individuals I talked to were reaching them, we’re connecting to them. We’re giving them this great opportunity, and that allowed me then to branch out. And so all that, the whole TV side of things, that just kind of came with the job. It’s not something I seeked out with Zoo Montana, in particular. That was a big part of our success is being able to get out in front of massive audiences in Montana, But that’s a big audience for Montana. But being able to get out in front of those individuals through TV, I really credit our local media for helping us get out in front of those people to let people know, Hey, we’re here. We have a new mentality. Here we are, and TV has allowed us to do that, and so has radio and newspapers, for that matter. But that all came with the job, and it’s not something I seeked out. It’s just kind of sort of happened. You know, we have some success with some of those videos and then the YouTube series, we have some success with that, at least locally, we do. And it’s been pretty fun, and I get to credit a lot of our come back to those videos.

 Now, I’m curious, the name, because you did. You started the YouTube channel, what about two years ago? Jeff, The nature guy? Yeah, actually, longer than that, we essentially started the Nature Guy, way back. That’s almost seven years ago now. And then before that, I did a Zoo Guy video out of Tampa, and obviously that was a lot more successful, viewership wise, just because we had a bigger audience. But the Nature Guy, we do, just again, as a fun opportunity for kids to watch and refined adults watch too. But I do goofy crafts on it. You know, a fun craft that kids could do, great animal clips. Obviously we do Meet the Keeper segments. It’s just a fun way for people to be engaged with what we’re doing out here in the Zoo.

 So you do that to educate and to make them feel part of it. Recognize that the zoo’s a part of their community? Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly right. Yeah, because I mean, I know myself. I live in Milwaukee. We have a really nice zoo, and I drive by it on the highway, going to and from work every day,  but I don’t really think much of it, right? So until now, I’m thinking about it, cause I’m obviously talking to you. But I think it’s a great way to engage people and spark their curiosity. Absolutely. And that’s exactly it, inspire. You know, we love to inspire and like you said, spark the curiosity, that’s what it’s all about. And I’ll never forget, in Tampa, I was talking to a group of kids who had never seen a raccoon before, and to imagine that there is a person out there, that has never seen one of the most common animals in North America, that was so unbelievably sad to me. We need to do a better job. We need to get out there and make sure kids know what this stuff is because they’re losing it, faster than we can keep up.

 Do you have a favorite resident at the zoo? You know I do. So I’m a vulture guy. You know that going back to that bird of prey world. And so I love vultures. We have a resident Turkey Vulture, by the name of Lurch, that I just love to death. And then I’m partial to one of our grizzly bears named Bruno. He doesn’t like me, but that’s okay. I still like him. And then we have an amazing Talking, which is a really unique animal from the mountains of Asia. We just lost one by the name of J. T. And he probably was one of the sweetest animals I’ve ever been around. He was an amazing animal and a big loss for us. So he was one of my top favorites of all time, that I worked with and I’ve worked with a number, with a lot of animals.

 Yeah. Now, how did he, as an example, come to you? Cause that doesn’t seem like something that would be in the U. S. and somebody was breeding or something. He was actually part of that Species Survival Program. So here at the zoo, we have agreed on the talk inside, that we will hold either geriatric or young males, that are not quite in the breeding pool, so we want to be sure to give them a good home, in a good place, either for retirement or to kind of start out of their life.

 Now you seem like a really busy guy that’s doing a great job. What does an average week look like for you? Yeah, it’s all over the board. You know, that’s one of the crazy things that I’ve learned being a director. And I think every zoo director could tell you the same thing. You know, one day you’ve got to know how to make sure that a Talkin ships, you know, safely from Colorado to Montana. Next day, you gotta know what plush is best seller in the gift shop. And the next day, you gotta know how to fix one of the trucks out back, cause the engine went out. So there is no day that it’s the same here. Typical day for me. I do a lot of grant writing here at the zoo. Fundraising is a big part of what I do. So I’m doing a lot of asking out there, for dollars again, being and getting in front of that camera is a big part of my job as well. I love being able to do podcasts like this one. This is awesome for me to do. So It really varies from day to day, and that’s the best part about the job. You know, one day I can help my team, my veterinarian team with a knockdown of a tiger to do dental work, and the next day I could be traveling across the country to meet with other directors, to talk about the latest and the greatest in the zoo world. So I’m a fortunate person and I can do a lot of fun stuff, and I don’t let that go lightly. I understand how fortunate I am.

 Obviously, you’re very lucky to be able to do what you enjoy and I see you doing a good job at it. So I’m curious. What’s the future look like for Zoo Montana? What’s your vision? Yeah, so we got a big mission. We have a master plan, that’s been in place since the zoo inception, 30 years ago. That master plan is still in use today, so we’ve got a couple of big exhibits planned and one we just finished was Bisons. We just opened up a new Bison exhibit. We’re bringing in a sloth, which has caused pandemonium in this town, people love sloths and we’re very excited for it. And that’s a big exhibit. After that, it’s gonna be Snow Leopards and we’re very excited to start the Snow Leopard exhibit, which is gonna be amazing. But for the zoo itself, we want to be, continue to be a community player. We take our community really seriously. We love being a gathering place. It’s kind of what we’ve turned into, as a gathering place for other nonprofits, for corporations. And we love that. We understand how vital community is to us. And we also want the community to know that we want to be vital to them, as well. So we’re just gonna work again to continue that community outreach. We want to continue to be a good steward for zoological parks and the new idea where zoos are going. We want to be giving back to conservation issues and we want to be giving back to research, as well.

 One of the big things that we do here on the grounds, a lot of people don’t know we actually create a contraceptive for wildlife, so basically think of a humane wildlife control for, like urban deer populations or bison populations. We create that, here at the zoo and that we actually administer that all over the world, including elephant control. So we want to continue to be a player in that realm as well.

 Well, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. A lot of stuff going on, but it’s exciting. It’s all exciting stuff. As you look back on this, is this where you thought things would end up for you? No, not at all. If you would have told me, you know, 20 years ago when I got started in this business, that I’d be in the director’s chair at this age, I would have said you were crazy. It was an intimidating move, honestly, but it was worth it, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We’ve had some crazy successes. Again, I’ve got a great team that helps with that. But if you would say, you know, even eight years ago, when we took over here, where we’re at now, I would have said You’re nuts. And so we’ve had an amazing journey. I’m sure eight years flew by in the blink of an eye. Right? And you’re probably planning the next 10 in your head right now. I could just see it. You’re exactly right. But I don’t know where those eight years went. You know, it boggles my mind that it’s been eight years since we’ve been here. But you’re right, The next 10 are gonna probably fly by just as fast. You know, we gotta stay ahead of the game and be sure to plan for that.

 Yeah, well, Jeff, I really enjoyed this. I’m glad you came on my podcast to talk to me. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up today? No, I think that’s fantastic. Again, I’m honored to be a part of this and love getting the word out there. You know, if you need any more information, please, I’m easy to find online. Just look me up and ask away and that love to be, you know, help answer any questions anybody has out there. Yeah, we’ll be showing a link Zoo Montana. And, of course, Jeff, the Nature Guy, your YouTube channels, that people can subscribe, and thanks again. I really enjoyed our conversation. Absolutely. And thank you and continue the great work that you’re doing. Thanks, Jeff. Absolutely. It was a pleasure.

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