Sunday, January 23, 2000

Maynard's wild about wildlife

Animal educator spreads gospel through new book, TV appearances

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Do we have this right? There are so many people out there who turn to Thane Maynard for career counseling that he had to write a book about it?

        The same Thane Maynard who . . .

        • Eats worms on TV: “It's OK in the larvae stage. They're still soft.”

        • Once spent 10 minutes on TV digging a Royal Goliath Beetle out of a Honeybee Queen's chiffon bodice: “It's the largest insect in the world, size of a baseball, with real spiky, spindly feet. They got all tangled in her chiffon when it flew off. I swear, I didn't know they could fly.”

        • Conducts cooking classes every 17 years when the cicadas emerge. “I take the wings off, because they're too crunchy — and I do have to work up a taste, but they're not bad stir-fried.”

        Yeah, that Thane Maynard, director of education at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, host of National Public Radio's 90-Second Naturalist and frequent guest on the Late Night With Conan O'Brien talk show.

        “Every day, and I mean every day and from all over the country, my phone rings with people asking about zoo and conservation careers. I get them from kids, college students, a lot of adults looking for midlife career changes.”

        Hence his 12th book: Working With Wildlife: A Guide to Careers in the Animal World (Franklin Watts; $26). It's divided into seven sections, six of which detail jobs in areas such as veterinary medicine, research, education, conservation — even tree and rock building for zoo exhibits. The seventh is advice on how to get these jobs.

        Sitting in his office in the Education Building, dressed in his daily uniform — khakis, denim shirt, hiking boots — he fiddles with a carved wooden snake while taking a break from daily duties that include speaking engagements (with animals in tow), chaperoning groups staying overnight at the zoo, guesting TV and radio shows, acting as zoo ambassador and running the zoo's education department.

        Oh yeah, and writing books.

        “This is a growth industry. Twenty years ago, none of the jobs in this building even existed. Now, we scramble to fill them.

        “CREW (Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife) didn't exist either. Today, we have three Ph.D.s and three vets and I don't know how much support personnel attached.

        “I'll tell you a story. When Zoo Academy (the alternative school Cincinnati Public runs at the zoo) started in '77, graduates would come out of it and walk in to jobs.

        “Today, we're hiring people with master's degrees for the same jobs. The field has been elevated that much.”

        By any measure, Mr. Maynard, who considers himself “a low-rent storyteller,” is one of those highly qualified people:

        • Midway through the interview, he gets a panicky call from San Diego naturalist and media darling Joan Embery. Her husband is ailing; could Thane fill in for her at a conference in Tennessee?

        • His 11-year-old Naturalist, quirkly stories about animals, airs on about 100 radio stations and generates mountains of mail.

        • So do his appearances with Mr. O'Brien. “But I'm wise enough to know it's not me he wants, it's the animals. I even hand out pins that say, "It's the animals, stupid.' What Conan likes is the humorous chaos an animal can bring to the show.”

        Or to an airplane on the way to the show: Like the time he had to convince a Delta flight crew to let him board with a noisy peacock stretching 7 feet from head to tip of tale.

        “What was I going to do? No one's invented a carrying case for them, and I had to have it in New York so it could do the NBC peacock thing. So, I wrapped its tail in burlap and went for it.” (They did let him and the bird on, but kept close watch).

        Or the time he flew to New York with a pygmy hedgehog. “I put it in my pocket and laid my coat in the overhead bin. It was fine 'til we got to LaGuardia. This very high-powered stockbroker type reached up to grab his coat and the hedgehog tumbled out. At first, he was horrified, but after I explained, he carried it all around the plane, introducing it to people.

        “You know what that's called? Biophilia. It refers to man's innate love of animals and how they can soften even the most jaded soul.

        “And do you know why that is? I think as the world becomes more crowded and more paved over, people get more interested in wildlife.

        “Attendance at national parks is up, African camera safaris are up. Zoo attendance is up. That attendance boom is great, but it's not enough. You know the saying "A zoo is a mile wide and a millimeter deep'? It means we get a million visitors, but we only have them for three hours.”

        That's why he has developed overnight programs, college intern programs, and interactive programs and games for zoo exhibits.

        And why he writes books. “If there are bright, capable people out there who think there might be a career in all this, well, I want them.”

        “But remember, it's not about me: It's about the animals, stupid.”


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