Africa Live! building renamed for former San Antonio Zoo director
Before the streaming waterfall and rocky exterior of Africa Live!, San Antonio Zoo keepers, board members and patrons gathered Thursday afternoon for the unveiling of a mural by students from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Or so it seemed.
Former zoo director Steve McCusker and his wife, Jonolyn, joined the crowd, as zoo CEO and executive director Tim Morrow announced the event was a ruse. Morrow said there weren’t any UTSA students present and the mural wasn’t the reason for the ceremony.
“Steve McCusker is a true visionary and it is with great honor that the San Antonio Zoological Society dedicates Africa Live! to Steve McCusker,” Morrow said, taking McCusker by surprise as the crowd burst into applause.
Then Morrow and members of the zoological society revealed a bronze plaque, bolted to the entrance of the grotto that allows visitors to watch the hippos swimming underwater. The plaque has an engraved image of McCusker wearing his trademark cowboy hat.
They lauded the former director for leading with heart, passion and enthusiasm. They spoke about how 20 years of his 44-year zoological career were spent at the San Antonio Zoo. Among the exhibits that he and his team opened were Africa Live!, Gibbon Forrest, Lory Landing, Kronkosky’s Tiny Tot Nature Spot and Zootennial Plaza.
Morrow said the idea for the dedication came to him while he was walking through the zoo, and noticed recognitions for former zoo directors Fred Stark and Louis DiSabato. He wanted something similar to commemorate McCusker’s legacy.
“Steve, thank you for setting the standard for all you’ve done for the San Antonio Zoo and our community,” he said to a stunned McCusker. “And we’re honored to dedicate this building in your honor for generations to come.”
Morrow said the Africa Liva! exhibit set the standard for the future plans that include expanding the rhino exhibit and renovating the jaguar habitat to include a catwalk which will cross above guests’ heads.
Keeping the event a secret took coordination and a little persuasion.
Morrow said they had to trick the reserved McCuster to come to the zoo for a photo shoot. His wife Jonolyn was the one who told him about the supposed unveiling of the mural and told him they had to be there.
“I just think it’s a wonderful honor and he’s very pleased,” she said, as well wishers dined on snacks lining tables draped with zebra-striped tablecloths. “It’s a wonderful zoo and the fact that he was part of it for so long is something that we’ll both always remember.”
McCusker, who retired in 2014, entered the grotto part of the newly renamed building to hugs and handshakes.
He said incorporating animals from Africa in one setting was the inspiration for the Africa Live! exhibit.
“It just shows that animal varieties are endless,” he said. “You can teach much better with all the classes of animals and environments. It’s a great teaching tool.”
Guests snapped cell phone photos through the underwater viewing windows of Timothy the young hippo and his grandmother, Uma, as they swam in their lagoon.
San Antonio Zoo Board President Chris Bathie said that the five-year Africa Live! project transformed the zoo and increased attendance twofold. He called the underground rock structure design revolutionary.
“It was a massive impact,” he said. “Steve took on the job from day one and you don’t know what people’s tastes are going to be in five years time. It’s quite fortuitous that things turned out quite well. Hats off to him for addressing that problem and solving it.”
Vincent T. Davis is a reporter in the Greater San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | email@example.com | Twitter: @vincentdavis