Executive Director Tony Vecchio is wild about animals, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Since coming on board in 2009, attendance at the Jacksonville Zoo has increased 40 percent to almost 1 million visitors annually. With a master's degree in science and biology, Vecchio has worked for zoos in Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Atlanta, Rhode Island and Portland, Ore. He's currently on the board of directors of Visit Jacksonville, Jacksonville’s Cultural Fusion and the Southeast Zoo and Aquarium Research Consortium. He also chairs the Conservation Committee of Florida Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and he makes it a point to visit places around the world, including his own backyard, to learn as much as possible about animals.
What do you like about living in Jacksonville?
I was really excited about coming here. I like the South for a number of reasons. I just love nature and the outdoors, and Florida is such a beautiful area for people who love being outside and connecting with nature.
What makes the Jacksonville Zoo different?
This zoo is so special in a number of ways. It's gotten better every single year for the last 25 years, and it's now one of the top 20 zoos in the country—also the fact that we're a zoo and garden and just how beautiful it is. I've never been to a zoo where the gardens are so integrated in the zoo as they are here. It really adds to the atmosphere. The main path of the zoo is actually considered a botanical exhibit. It's called the river of colors. The horticulture department makes sure that every day of the year there is something flowering along that path.
What are the zoo's highlights?
The Land of the Tiger is now a year-and-a-half old. It's one of our newer exhibits. There's never been another exhibit like it. It's beautiful. And it's an important exhibit as far as working with numerous endangered species. The way we display the tigers is absolutely overwhelming. We've created this trail system that winds through the entire visitor area around the back of the other two tiger exhibits and goes over the visitors' heads. You can be anywhere in the area and see a tiger go by. It really takes people by surprise in a great way.
You have an award-winning jaguar exhibit. Is that because of your NFL team?
It's almost hard to believe that it's coincidental that the zoo has been famous for their jaguars since the 1960s. At one time the zoo had the only black jaguar in captivity. And all the black jaguars in zoos currently are descended from the animal that was here at this zoo. Right now we have the largest collection of jaguars of any zoo in the country. Our zoo is into jaguars in a big way.
Can you share a crazy animal story from your years working in zoos?
I used to work at Zoo Atlanta back in the ’80s. At one point a king cobra disappeared, and they thought a disgruntled former employee stole this snake. Just to be careful, we closed the zoo for a day and the reptile building for a couple of days. They searched every inch of the entire zoo and decided the snake was stolen, gone forever. Several weeks later a keeper came in in the wee hours of the morning, turned on the lights and there was the king cobra, 15-feet long laying under one of the exhibits. [Yikes!]
What indigenous animals can visitors see around town?
Manatees are an iconic Florida species you don't see in other parts of the country. You can see them in the Trout River near the zoo, you can see them in the St. Johns River, just about anywhere in the summertime. I think the fact we can see dolphins almost any day is pretty remarkable. Especially with kids, being able to show people a wild alligator is always pretty exciting.
Is there a certain conservation issue that's near and dear to your heart?
We have about 150 partners we work with around the world and in the local area. Speaking on behalf of myself rather than the zoo, my favorite is a project we support in the Pantanal of Brazil. We support a researcher there who studies giant armadillos. They are about 5 to 6 feet. That's a big armadillo! The Pantanal is like South America's version of the African savanna. It's a big open grassland that's also flooded regularly so it's more like a seasonal wetland area. This guy is an absolutely crazy, passionate, dedicated conservationist who's doing a lot of good work so it's hard not to want to support him, but the animal itself is so unusual and interesting and so little known—generally a pretty funky animal.
What animal do you relate to most?
I'm kinda famous here among the zoo staff for being a fan of pigs. We have one pig in particular that's a very important species we work with called the Visayan warty pig. Visaya is an island in the Philippines, the only place this pig is found. It's critically endangered. The reason I like this pig so much is that every year at the end of breeding season, the males go bald, their hair falls out. And almost immediately it starts growing back so by a year later at breeding season they have a full bouncy head of hair. But for a couple days a year they are very depressed and sad when their hair falls out.
What are some of your favorite things to do with friends and family?
A lot of my friends and family are into arts and culture. We have some incredible museums here. The Cummer, the MOCA, the MOSH, the Ritz. It's overwhelming and impressive to see how much there is to do, to see four great museums in one day. So many more of my friends are big nature people, and the birdwatching here is just fabulous. Most times of the year, the best birding is the beaches. In the migration season Timucuan Preserve is a great place to take people. In the late spring and summer the swallowed-tail kites have come back to this area.
What are your favorite local restaurants?
I like bringing visitors to River City Brewing and having a great meal while watching dolphins on the river. I also like Juniors Seafood for lunch. They started on Main Street about a mile from the zoo. Incredible seafood menu. They're so popular they've opened up a place in Yulee and a place in Calahan. But they're just really nice people, really involved with the community, and it's a nice, fun, family restaurant. No pretenses at all. For dinner, there's also Crazy Arts, Checker Barbecue [Now called Southern Charm]. This place is a dive. He's famous for cracker cooking. It's the best fried-green tomatoes you'll ever eat. He also makes shrimp 10 different ways and an all-you-can-eat buffet on Friday and Saturday nights.