Zoo director turns passion into life’s adventure
Published 1:33 pm, Thursday, December 12, 2013
Gregg Dancho seems to be living the life he was meant to live.
From catching frogs, snakes and turtles as a youngster on his family's Stratford farm, to mopping the floors of the "monkey house" at the Bridgeport zoo as a teen volunteer, to becoming a full-time animal keeper there in 1980, and subsequently director, Gregg Dancho has turned his passion for wildlife into a lifelong adventure.
Dancho, celebrating his 30th anniversary as director of the now-named Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo, has seen -- and shepherded -- enormous growth and numerous improvements over the years at the zoo.
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Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo is at 1875 Noble Ave., Bridgeport. Open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; last visitors admitted at noon. Closed on Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission $12; $10 for children and seniors. Visit www.beardsleyzoo.org.
When Dancho joined the zoo, it attracted about 75,000 visitors a year. Now, it's up around 300,000 and new improvements by next spring should spur that figure to about 350,000, he says.
Visitors then typically spent about 45 minutes wandering the property. Now it's about two hours. The annual budget was then about $800,000. Now it's about $3.5 million.
Formerly owned by the city of Bridgeport, the zoo ownership was transferred to the Connecticut Zoological Society, a private nonprofit organization, with financial support from the city and state.
When he began his commitment to the zoo, it was "primarily a recreational facility, where you came with the family and had some cotton candy," he said.
But that is no longer the case and he views that move as one of the greatest achievements in the zoo's 91-year-history.
"Probably the biggest turning point in the zoo's history was that for the first time ever we received accreditation as a fully professional facility from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1987. We worked very hard to raise our standards and gain accreditation. It was essential for our long-term development," he explained. Gaining accreditation "put us in an entirely new category."
And with membership, comes responsibility, he noted. As the state's only accredited zoo, it was incumbent upon Dancho and Beardsley's staff to commit themselves to the (renamed) Association of Zoos and Aquariums' standards: The establishment and growth of educational and volunteer programs, providing new and ongoing recreational opportunities, participating in national and international research projects and participation in global conservation projects (working in cooperation with other American zoos).
Dancho points out that the zoo has been involved in "ground-breaking animal conservation efforts," including being home to the first Brazilian ocelot ever to have multiple pregnancies and kittens produced by artificial insemination.
Dancho's first "memories of the zoo go back to my childhood, when my parents, Al and Louise, took me and my six siblings here every Sunday after church. I find it amazing that my connection with the zoo spans about two-thirds of its existence," he said, laughing.
A 1976 graduate of Stratford's Bunnell High School, Dancho would go on to receive an associate's degree from Housatonic Community College in 1978 and a bachelor of science degree in zoology from Southern Connecticut State College in 1980. By 1982, he completed all the course requirements for a master's degree from Southern Connecticut State University. (With marriage, a new job and a family on the way, Dancho said he simply did not have the time to complete his master's thesis.)
Dancho, who lives with his wife, Laura, and three children in Stratford, says he knew early on that he wanted to make a difference in Bridgeport, but never set about to make Beardsley his life's work.
"I knew that I wanted to make this a career and not just a case of `working at the zoo.' And apparently, working here is not a short-term proposition," he said, laughing, pointing out other employees at lunch in the cafe with decades of service. ``It's a real testament to the people who work here. They're here because they love their jobs. Of course, there are ups and downs -- animals are born, live, have offspring and pass away," all of which affects the staff.
But for Dancho, the hard work and continual upgrading made him want to stick around.
"It was just a lot of things that fell in place at the right time," he said.
State of the zoo
Medium-size zoos like Bridgeport's need to focus on specific areas of the world in order to give their collections a sense of cohesion. With that in mind, Dancho says the zoo has shaped its collection to include 300 animals representing North and South America. It's prized elephant was sent to a more appropriate and larger home a number of years ago, he said. Features include an indoor Tropical Rainforest, New England Farmyard, a walk-through aviary with bald eagle exhibit, a wolf observation learning facility, Amur tigers and Amur leopard exhibits.
And there's so much more growth to come, he says.
If he were a different person, Dancho -- with countless community and professional honors and awards to his credit -- might be tempted to rest on his laurels.
"There's never been a moment when I've said to myself, `I'm content and happy' " with the state of the zoo, Dancho said. "It's always a work in progress," which he says keeps his life exciting.
In the next six to 18 months, the zoo, with city and state support, is scheduled to devote millions of dollars to make several more improvements, including a new Pampas Plains exhibit and an exhibit for two endangered South American Andean bears.
Dancho says that high on his list of personal favorites is giving the tiger exhibit a facelift, increasing its size and adding a glass viewing area so that visitors can go "nose to nose" with these beautiful animals.
Bitten many times (by snakes, lizards and even a pig), Dancho says it's hardly worth a mention -- just an occupational hazard.
What's important are the precious, fulfilling moments that make all the dedication worthwhile, he said.
"Many years ago -- I was a keeper at that point -- we had a tiger, Betty, who was pregnant. I set up propane heaters in her holding area and slept with her for several nights. We did all we could for the animal -- and she rewarded us with the live birth of Kimbee, a tiger cub. ... Kimbee's birth was probably one of the greatest moments for me at the zoo."
Today, with new animal husbandry techniques, Dancho would not be allowed to sleep with a tiger, but he's grateful for having had the opportunity and looks forward to having many more special moments at the zoo he helped to shape.
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