by Tim L. Tetzlaff, Director of Conservation, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens
We all have special days we mark at the time as forever memorable like a birth or wedding. But then some moments are so seemingly insignificant, we don’t notice them until we see the impact years after. One such instant was an email response on an unknown day in the 1990s that led to Naples Zoo becoming the international headquarters of a conservation organization in Madagascar.
While I recount this story, contemplate similar moments in your life that have shaped who you are that you can share with younger people who can be tempted to minimize their potential impact because they are not in positions of power or financially affluent. I include detail when telling this story to interns and on campuses to illustrate how single connections combined with investing time and whatever skills you have can lead to exciting things.
So, it’s the mid-1990s. The now functionally extinct DVD was just invented, Disney created a loose adaptation of Hamlet with cartoon lions, and I saw a request from another zoo on a listserv for a translation into the language of Madagascar for a themed lemur habitat. Now I didn’t speak Malagasy, but through a friendship with biologist and wildlife photographer Larry Richardson at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, I had met Connie Bransilver who had photographed on the island nation. Talking to her, I first heard of the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG), an international consortium of zoos, botanical gardens, and universities created in 1988. I reached out to Dr. Eva Sargent at the MFG and received and shared the translation – and now I had a real connection to a place I had only been reading about for a decade.
Not being a primatologist, I offered my graphic skills to revise the MFG website. That led to further opportunities and engaging with fascinating people like MFG’s in-country program leaders Andrea Katz and Charlie Welch. In September 2002, the Director of Zoo Zürich and MFG Board Member Dr. Alex Rübel asked me to become the MFG’s Public Awareness Advisor. Then headquartered at San Francisco Zoo under David Anderson, the MFG moved to Saint Louis Zoo in 2004. First under the leadership of their President and CEO Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, the MFG was then led by Senior VP Dr. Eric Miller who also serves as editor of the textbook for wildlife veterinarians: Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. At a conservation lecture here in 2018, Dr. Miller tapped me on the shoulder to potentially become the next Chair of the MFG and for Naples Zoo to have the honor of becoming the International Headquarters – all of which came to pass by a board vote at the annual meeting later that year.
Today, the MFG has thirty institutional members on five continents and nearly 100 staff in Madagascar plus an expert board and advisory group involved in significant projects from protecting critically endangered lemurs and plants to discovering new species and reforesting degraded lands. Under the leadership of Executive Director Dr. Karen Freeman, the MFG has also taken a lead role in giving native wildlife a chance against invasive species while Program Manager Jean Jacques Jaozandry oversees diverse conservation efforts on the ground.
Moments in life can have such power. What if I had not taken the time to help a colleague I didn’t even know with that translation? I may have never set foot in Madagascar or played a role in helping its endangered species. What act of kindness or extra effort may shape your future or that of someone else? Even if it’s just sharing your story with someone who needs to see the difference they are capable of making.
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is an award-winning, private 501(c)(3) nonprofit serving wildlife and families here and around the world. If you’d like to support our conservation efforts, contact me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. More information at www.napleszoo.org/conserve.
FEATURED PHOTO: Indri are not found in any zoo and are one of the critically endangered lemurs
protected by the MFG.