As a little girl growing up in Ohio, Mary Jo Stearns could never dream of the impact she would one day have on the animal world.
After all, she was an animal care specialist, and later the carnivore curator, at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center from 1989 until 2017. Of the 177 cheetah cubs born at Fossil Rim since the species arrived at the facility in 1985, approximately 140 entered the world on her watch. Not to mention her efforts for the conservation of numerous other species.
Flashing back to her formative years, her family would move to Alabama where she attended high school and then junior college, studying elementary education. When the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky she went on to major in biology at the University of Louisville.
“I didn’t know I was going to work with animals,” she said. “I thought I would be a kindergarten teacher; I felt that was what was expected of me. But I loved animals, and my mother was an animal fanatic. I think that’s where my interest probably came from.”
Blazing her own trail
Stearns’ career began at the Louisville Zoo in 1976, where she worked with a wide array of animals over the course of a decade.
“When I got started, zookeeping wasn’t really a woman’s profession,” she said. “I had no idea if it was a world I could get into, but I was lucky because Louisville Zoo Director Bob Bean was very progressive. At that time, women were generally hired to work with birds or at children’s zoos. There weren’t any intern programs like there are now, so I took a huge leap of faith one day and went to the Louisville Zoo to volunteer on weekends.
“When a keeper opening came up about three months later, I applied for the job and was hired. Mr. Bean gave me a job working with hoofstock and big cats, so I’ve always been very grateful to him for helping me get the chance to do what I love. Women in this profession today don’t have to deal with that problem as much, and I realize now how important it was that I succeeded in Louisville and then at Fossil Rim.”
It was at the Louisville Zoo that Stearns began to gain firsthand knowledge of cheetahs.
“I worked in the African area at the zoo, and when you had an area you took care of every species of animal in it,” she said. “I had some display cheetahs there, but my favorite animals to work with at that time were primates.”
Stearns was a general curator for a short time at a small zoo in Illinois, but she was not a fan of the reduced interaction with animals that a management position brings. Wanting to move closer to her family in Arlington, Texas led to a position at the Dallas Zoo.
Going to Glen Rose
One day, a friend mentioned an opportunity that would change everything.
“When I was working at the Dallas Zoo, I heard from Sandra Skrei, who was Fossil Rim’s education director at the time,” Stearns said. “She told me Fossil Rim had an opening to work with cheetahs. I was apprehensive about moving to a small town (like Glen Rose) and working in the country, but I came and interviewed. I was pretty awestruck, considering my background was in zoos. I was used to small yards, so I was really impressed by all the acreage.”
Once again, Stearns found herself in a situation where facility management was forward-thinking in what a woman could contribute. She decided to take a leap and leave the big city behind.
“The open-mindedness of Kelley (Snodgrass, Fossil Rim cheetah animal care specialist at the time,) and Jim Jackson, former co-owner of Fossil Rim, to hire me and other women meant a lot,” she said. “The ratio in this profession has totally flipped since my career began. I was the only woman of six people in Fossil Rim animal care when I started in 1989.”
Stearns did not plan on logging decades at Fossil Rim, but the nature of her job kept her invigorated.
“In the beginning, I told myself I would be here five years, but I didn’t realize until I came here that cheetahs are really high maintenance and unpredictable,” she said. “You can’t get bored; every day is a new day, and that’s how I ended up staying. In my mind, I’ve never worked a day in my life. One of the volunteers said that about me one day, and it’s true.”
Cheetah program soars
Snodgrass, now Fossil Rim’s C.O.O., already had Fossil Rim’s cheetah program going for four years when Stearns arrived, and then they teamed up from 1989 until 2008. From there until the arrival of 2017, she partnered with Jason Ahistus in pursuit of cub production. Fossil Rim is home to more than 50 species, and without question cheetahs are one of the animals it is most well-known for.
“It’s amazing to be part of one of the few successful cheetah breeding programs,” Stearns said of a species classified as “vulnerable” with a decreasing population trend. “It took a lot of hard work; Kelley started this program in 1985 when cheetah breeding was very rare. It’s fulfilling to know that what you are doing is actually working to the benefit of a species. The implementation of the BCC (Breeding Center Coalition) has allowed us to collaborate with others and help them learn what, how and why we do things here. In turn, all learn from each other.”
Stearns pointed to why she thinks the world’s fastest land animal has thrived at Fossil Rim.
“There are certain factors that have to happen in order for a successful breeding program,” she said. “One is consistency in the people who are caring for the cats. Fossil Rim got its first cheetahs in 1985. Since then, the two primary cheetah people have been Kelley and me, Jason and me, and now Jason and Alex (Sharkey).
“Also, cheetahs never do what you expect them to do. So, experience is the most important thing in cheetah care so that you can deal with the unexpected.”
Cheetahs have not been the only animals on Stearns’ mind during her tenure at Fossil Rim. She has also cared for coatis, red wolves, maned wolves, Mexican gray wolves, ocelots, black-footed cats and one margay years ago.
“I really like the coatis,” she said when asked about her favorite non-cheetah species at Fossil Rim. “We had a pair in the 1990s named ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa.’ Mama was here 17 years. She actually escaped once when a tree fell into her exhibit during an ice storm.
“She was gone for 40 days before being found by someone in the horticulture department we had at the time. She was frostbitten and very skinny, but regained health and lived many years. Mama was one of my all-time favorite animals here.”
Trust in teamwork
On Jan. 1, 2017, the aforementioned Alex Sharkey became only Fossil Rim’s fourth primary cheetah animal care specialist in 32 years, and that is not by accident.
“Cheetahs are easily stressed, and one of the ways to keep that under control is to have consistency in their keepers and routines,” Stearns said. “It’s usually a one-on-one situation for cheetahs and their keepers, even though we have 29 cats right now. You have to get to know each and every one, because they are all different.”
Also on Jan. 1, Ahistus succeeded Stearns as Fossil Rim carnivore curator.
“Having Jason here to be my successor helped me make up my mind to semi-retire,” Stearns said. “Without him, I think I’d probably be here until I fell over dead. In reverse, I think, at some point, Kelley knew that I was ready to take his place on a daily basis. That trust doesn’t come easily, and it’s important that Jason is as passionate about cheetahs as he is.”
In terms of full-time staff, Ahistus is joined in the carnivore department by Sharkey and first-year carnivore animal care specialist Tessa Townsend, who primarily focuses on red wolves, maned wolves, Mexican gray wolves, coatis and black-footed cats, but is also trained for cheetah care. Conversely, Ahistus and Sharkey are both trained to care for the non-cheetah species.
“I think we have the potential to have the best carnivore department Fossil Rim has ever had,” Stearns said. “I feel like these animals will be well taken care of for years to come. I see that Alex and Tessa are willing to do what it takes – coming in on their off-days, staying late, getting the job done no matter what. That’s the kind of people we need.
“It’s how Kelley was, how he taught me to be, and hopefully I imparted that to Jason. To me, it is a privilege to be able to work with animals, and I believe all three people we now have in the carnivore department feel that way. That makes me feel successful.”
Learning on the job
After interning at Fossil Rim in 2005 and 2006 during two separate terms, Ahistus was excited to get the full-time gig as cheetah animal care specialist alongside Stearns in 2008.
“The intern days were awesome,” he said. “It jumpstarted my career, and it all goes back to the opportunity that Mary Jo gave me – especially being able to play an integral part in hand-raising (cheetahs) ‘Moose’ and ‘Bruce.’ For someone who didn’t really have any experience, she saw something in me and it changed my whole life. I know what earning her trust did for me, and to be able to give those same opportunities to my interns who earn it is great.
“When I started, it was Mary Jo, me and an intern. It was about a year later that we got one more staff member. I slowly got more responsibility and trust over the years as I proved myself. It’s a rollercoaster of a ride when you work with someone for a long time, but looking back on it, I learned so much from her over two internships and our nine years working together.
“You always know where you stand with her, and realistically that’s what you want in a boss. Because of that, I was able to make improvements.”
Perhaps only Snodgrass knows Stearns as well professionally as Ahistus.
“Hand-rearing is her strongest suit,” Ahistus said. “She has hand-reared almost every animal in the book – carnivores, primates, hoofstock. She is an expert on that, so as long as she has a phone, if I ever have an animal to hand-raise, I’m going to call her for advice. You can’t duplicate her experience.
“I would also point out her strength in cheetah husbandry and breeding. We have a saying that ‘we’re clearly clueless’ on cheetahs, because you can never know everything about them. But she’s seen more than most people have.”
Ahistus noted that Fossil Rim’s cheetah program has been peaking in recent years.
“Especially in the last 5-6 years, we’ve been as successful producing cheetahs as anyone out there,” he said. “Since Mary Jo, Kelley and I put together a plan for cheetah production, the numbers prove that it’s working well.”
Like Stearns, he preaches the importance of stability within the carnivore department.
“Having dedicated staff willing to learn and put in the time, building up years of tenure working with cheetahs and learning their behavior is how you build a successful program,” he said. “We are always around those cats to learn the little subtleties in their behavior. It’s a big workload for 2-3 staff members, but if you have more, then you aren’t around the cats enough to pick up on the little things. It’s not a friendly bond with the cheetahs, but it’s a respectful bond.”
Ahistus shares Stearns’ confidence in the new department members to keep their priorities in order.
“Alex and Tessa both fit a certain mold here,” he said. “Tessa was an intern here, so we knew what she was all about. She didn’t have a lot of experience in the carnivore world, but we knew the kind of person she was. We know that knowledge will come in time, and she’s a great asset to us going forward.
“We handpicked Alex for the cheetah position. She had cheetah experience and was eager to learn a new way of doing things. With my transition to curator, I’m not in the field as much, so I need someone who can step into my shoes, to some extent; she is the perfect fit.
“You get into this field to make a difference in conservation and to care for animals. You want a staff that will go above and beyond to make it better for every animal, and they are both that type of person who will succeed.”
Carry the torch
Ahistus explained how Stearns has helped build upon Fossil Rim’s reputation.
“Everybody in the cheetah field knows Mary Jo Stearns,” he said. “It’s from all her years of experience and production success. She is very well-respected. She’s helped countless people and facilities with good advice.
“People have started to ask me questions, and hopefully I answer them the same way she does. I learned from one of the best, so I’m trying to carry the torch. Our association makes people respect me more, which is huge.”
It sounds like Ahistus has a plan for his staff based on his own experiences in their position.
“Mary Jo gave me the opportunity to grow professionally and as a person,” he said. “She valued my opinion, which made me feel more confident in my abilities. I am already doing the same with my staff, because their opinion matters.
“It’s been a heck of a ride with Mary Jo. I’m super grateful and she leaves big shoes to fill, but hopefully I can do them justice. She was truly one of the carnivore pioneers at Fossil Rim, when you consider that most of the programs began in her first two years here.”
From a friend
Bearing in mind they approached three decades together at Fossil Rim, Snodgrass was able to step back and vividly paint the big picture describing Stearns’ tenure.
“To say Fossil Rim was evolving in 1989 would be an understatement,” he said. “The small, all-male animal care staff needed another ingredient to reach its full potential. Although Fossil Rim’s animal programs consisted primarily of hoofstock species, there was a growing cheetah program and our carnivore programs were just getting underway with red wolves, maned wolves and then Mexican gray wolves not too long thereafter. Fossil Rim needed help, and that help came to us in the form of Mary Jo.
“She was everything we were not – city, zoo, female and with the experience befitting those sources. You could say that beauty arrived to work with the beasts (staff and animals), and it worked because she made it work. Mary Jo has provided her talents, experience and oftentimes different viewpoints that were needed and beneficial, but most importantly consistency of time and effort for this organization and its conservation programs.
“Therefore, we’ve been able to grow our carnivore programs so they provide a successful influence toward species sustainability. Working to ensure the existence of a threatened or endangered species is not a quick trip, but one of long perseverance and continued learning. That is what Mary Jo has provided the animals of Fossil Rim for 27 years – creating a solid foundation well into the future.
“These sentiments are not said because of an end to her involvement with Fossil Rim, but intended to express our sincere appreciation. Thank you Mary Jo, for the successes, the failures we learned from, plus the unique and dedicated person you are.
“Without question, her motivation is always intended to be in the best interest of the animals, and that is where her heart and passion exists. For that, not to mention the endless, wonderful stories we share – Fossil Rim and I thank you deeply.”
What the future holds
There is a reason Snodgrass said his sentiments were not shared because her involvement at Fossil Rim has come to an end. Going forward, Stearns is a part-time registrar and carnivore consultant for Fossil Rim.
“I have no idea how often Jason will need a consultant, but it gives him another person to be able to bounce ideas off of and someone who can recall examples from experience,” she said. “Kelley is also there for him in that regard, which is a good thing.”
Stearns does know she wants to keep tabs on all the animals she has come to know so well.
“I want to come visit these animals, especially Bruce (the cheetah),” she said. “Of all the living animals, he’s my favorite. I wouldn’t want to stop seeing them, and I think Jason will give me those opportunities, especially when there are babies.
“After all these years, we still jump up and down for each successful breeding like it’s the first one. Every single litter of cubs or puppies is so exciting, because that’s the core of what Fossil Rim is about.”
Stearns still recalls her early impressions of Fossil Rim like yesterday, and somehow she values the wildlife center more than ever.
“I’d spent more than a decade at zoos, but coming here and seeing giraffes running, eating out of trees, roaming all this acreage – that was a turning point for me,” she said. “To see sable walking across all the acres in the Main Pasture, that was amazing to me. I knew how this place was very different, and I’ve always been grateful that I had perspectives of life here and at zoos, because it made me appreciate Fossil Rim more.
“It’s an amazing place that has made huge strides I’ve witnessed over 27 years, but I like to think about those early years and the camaraderie of an extremely small animal care staff. I feel thankful and privileged that I have been able to have a career that I love. I have had my ups and downs, but being excited to go to work every day for over 40 years is not something I take for granted.
“It makes me happy to hear from Jason that some of that joy has been imparted to him and from him to other young animal care specialists. These are the people who hold the future of species sustainability in their hands, and I want them to love it as much as I do and have as much fun as I have had doing it.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate