Chattanoogan: Darde Long – “It’s A Zoo’s Life For Me!”

  • Wednesday, April 25, 2012
  • Jen Jeffrey

 With a porcupine crawling around on the table, Darde Long is as comfortable as she could be. The quilled friend waddled around to be seen …and petted. It actually was not as unapproachable as you would think. Darde even let the cute critter nibble on her finger.  

She was born and raised in Chattanooga and has been a well-known representative of exotic animals for over half of her life. “Everybody got to watch me age on television. My mom always recorded every segment that I did on the news and now I am glad she did because I have my animal friends that are gone now that I used to drag around on television shows.

It is remarkable to still have those pieces,” Darde says. 

As a young girl, Darde spent most of her time around horses, riding and training them. Her father, Dave Long, kept her horse habit up. Darde got to know about mucking stalls and taking care of her animals.  

She aspired to be a veterinarian and attended Auburn University as a pre-vet major 1976. Darde admits, “UTC vet school just opened but most people at that time went to Auburn for that and I was an Auburn fan. My dad got sick and I came back home. With that and financial reasons, I had to go to work and ended up working at a veterinarian’s office,” she says.

 “That is one of the best opportunities in the world. You know that you can’t be a vet assistant all your life, but I was so happy doing it,” Darde insists.   

Ironically, the vet she worked for was located on 23rd Street and attended to some animals at the zoo, back when it was Warner Park Zoo. “The biggest animal challenge that I had while there, was Hank the Chimpanzee, the jaguar and they had some monkeys. The years that I worked there, we would get the occasional zoo animal to come in. I was bitten by a black jaguar one time. I got an interesting exposure but never thought about working at the zoo,” Darde recalls. 

“Not a lot of people are a specialist in exotic animals; it is different treating them as there are so many varieties.”  

Brent Sheffield had said to her, “The person who is in charge of the zoo just left and you should apply for that job.” She didn’t really want to do that, as she was able to assist with surgeries at the vet clinic and felt she was learning so much. Darde wasn’t sure about exotics. He told her, “I wouldn’t worry about that too much; they just need someone who cares about animals.”  

Darde did apply for the job but she wasn’t very serious about it nor thought she would be hired.  “When you are a kid, you see the animals and you don’t really pay attention to the surroundings or what is going on - but as an adult I was a little depressed about it; it was rough,” Darde says. 

“In the 70s zoos started evolving and becoming more of a natural habitat and aware of animal welfare. Back then, the Warner Park Zoo had not been kept up, it was kind of a sad place,” Long notes.   

Darde didn’t want to work there because she was at a top-notch veterinary clinic, doing good work and felt that she was making a difference.

 When local news publications circulated negative stories about the Warner Park Zoo and its owners, Darde was afraid they would end up shutting down and did not want to risk working there if it were only going downhill.  

“I did get the job and Friends of the Zoo was formed. I was the zoo keeper in charge of the zoo,” says Darde.  

“There were public restrooms in the park, but we didn’t have a bathroom for us. We were on an acre and a half of land. It was a teeny little zoo and the volunteers from Friends of the Zoo helped me out tremendously. I got really blessed by an organization that started off with grassroots. They didn’t have a lot of money, and the biggest contribution they had gotten was $10,000 from a family and then $5,000 from another member of that family. The city gave some money later on, but they wanted it to come from the community.  A lot of people give me credit for what it has become - and I will take credit for sticking with it, but there have been so many to contribute in making it what it is,” Darde humbly says.  

In 2001 it was time for the Warner Park Zoo to change its identity and as the zoo received more substantial donations it was able to grow and change its name to the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park. “A lot of people remember the zoo as what it used to be, but it has grown and changed so much,” Darde confirms, “it is a challenge to get them to think differently if they haven’t seen it lately.”

 Darde and her husband, Rick Jackson, who is the director of exhibits at the zoo, have no children together. But Darde feels that she has a lot of family ties with the zoo. “If you have anything to do with me, you have to live and breathe the zoo,” Darde reveals, “it has been my life for so long.” 

By the time she was able to slow down and think about a family, she was already too entrenched, “I have had the opportunity to raise a lot of kids…when I see all the kids that grow up coming here…  I also have been able to work with the inner city kids – it gives me a sense of family around me,” Darde admits, “but animals have always been my closest relatives, I think,” Darde says half-joking but with a sense of solemn truth in her eyes.

 “We began growing as a zoo and received major contributions; one in particular was from an anonymous donor for a million and three - spread over 15 years. That guaranteed income to do some planning. We have been able to do so much and there is more to come,” Darde says with excitement.

 “I was asked to speak at a school and come out and show the animals. The kids had put together their money and I expected maybe 50 dollars or something – it was $1,100 - I was stunned! I couldn’t believe the kids in that school had managed to gather that,” Darde said.

 “Then we received $900 from the sale of a 2nd grade class’s cookie dough fundraiser and they have done that for 21 years - that is inspirational.” 

When people make contributions to the zoo, it touches Darde’s heart in an inexplicable way. “One day after conducting physicals for the chimpanzees, we were all so tired and sitting at the table and I spied a check on the table and I said to Rick, ‘Is that a check for $50,000? Given anonymously?’ I was just stunned. We received three more of those. That keeps you inspired. It’s all been about the animals. Whenever I see that, I think, ‘what do we get to do next?’” and she says with conviction, “There is always something to make this a better place.”

 Darde remembers the conditions of the zoo in which the animals had to reside, “The Kinkachoo had concrete in a very small area and his pads on his feet would bleed when he paced. With funds sent in, we are able to make changes for the animals,” she says proudly. 

 Zoo life is sure to have its funny moments. “A couple of years ago, we were sleeping on Labor Day morning, and my phone rings very early. It was the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department saying, ‘We have a cow on Cummings Highway…' It wasn’t ours of course,” Darde laughs, “but no one else was equipped to handle it. We all met there and chased the cow for hours. It is pitch dark and we tried to get close enough to use the dart gun, if we didn’t catch her, they were going to have to shoot her because she was headed for Broad Street and could cause someone to get killed. She had disappeared into the woods and we felt since she was off the road; maybe her owner would find her and we drove back home. Well, the phone rang again… same cow in the Walmart parking lot in Tiftonia. We came out again and we finally were able to catch up with her and we darted her. As she was going to sleep, we thought, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ No one had thought about transporting her. Fortunately, the veterinarian knew someone who had a horse trailer,” Darde recalls.

 Now the President and CEO of the zoo, Darde insists, “I am still the same person… all I did was add a few more staff members and a bathroom,” she jokes.  

This past Thursday was the unveiling of the sculpture dedicated to the zoo’s ambassador, Hank. The sculpture “Envoy” created by Bart Walter was an uncanny likeness. Darde didn’t expect to be so emotional with Hank having passed away a year ago, “It won’t ever be the same without him, but it is so wonderful to have such a remembrance of him with the sculpture. I am no art critic, but I know my Hank and I think the artist did a really great job,” Darde says teary-eyed.  

Darde says with affection, “Hank was not really a chimpanzee… he was not raised by chimpanzees and he didn’t know how to interact with them. He would much rather have been around people. Putting him into that exhibit was awesome, he was able to roam around in such a huge space and that kept me involved to stay,” Darde admits.  

 Hank was the main attraction at the zoo. Darde’s mom, Nell, was a big animal lover and volunteered at the zoo for 22 years working with the birthday parties and events. “She always went to see Hank and would give him lifesavers,” Darde confides, “She passed away a few years ago – I am glad that she wasn’t here when Hank died, she loved him,” Darde says.

 Darde grins when she recalls her favorite story about Hank.

  “As anyone who works with animals knows, you have to be careful with water hoses. I was cleaning out the front of his cage and when you stretch the hose out in front of a fence, invariably, they will find a way to get hold of it. When he yanked it through the chain link fence he managed to squirt me just a little, not intentionally but I squealed and jumped back. Chimpanzees are really smart and he had elicited an interesting response from me, he managed to do that again - much to the delight of the people behind me! They are very quick to learn.  That’s my favorite memory - he really made a monkey out of me!”

 One of the personality traits that branded Hank and in which the sculpture artist captured was the way he would hold his hand out. “Hank was so intelligent, he would sit when you walked by and always thrust that hand out, which is why that sculpture was so amazing. He wanted attention; it was his way of reaching out. He did that all the time,” Darde says, “you can’t just walk by that – there were people who came and volunteered to just sit with him. He had his times though, where he wouldn’t shift and go out into his den, so I couldn’t clean his exhibit.  And he was totally in control and he knew it,” Darde insists. 

"Hank had favorites that he had seen over the years, a red-haired girl in particular, named Julie Newsome who worked here during the summers. Hank really reacted to her. Hank knew how to get reactions from people, the donor that gave that very large gift would come and sit with Hank. He would jump up and down and scratch under his arms look like a monkey and Hank would do it too. Here Hank had this gentlemen trained to jump up and down … it was hilarious to see this well-to-do businessman just having a ball with Hank. And Hank just loved Rick because he had hairy arms and he thought he looked more like a chimpanzee,” Darde laughs.

 “One day I was crying, I had had a really bad day and I went down to the exhibit after we were closed and just sat by the glass. He came over and he didn’t know what the tears were about, but he was concerned and it made me feel so loved. I miss him a lot.” 

What is next for the zoo?

 “We are working on several things, camel rides …maybe giraffes…African penguins are on the horizon… we’re looking ahead at our overall plan. Everything we have done has been very, very good for the animals. Darde says proudly.

 What’s next for Darde Long – away from the zoo? 

“There isn’t much Darde Long away from the zoo. I am married to a wonderful guy, who knows this; I can’t imagine being anywhere else. But what I had thought about recently is what will happen when I am gone? You know the beer truck theory- ‘what happens if you step off the curb and get hit by a beer truck’ - what happens to your organization then?  There is still way too much knowledge in my head that hasn’t been shared, so one of the things that I am trying to do is to make sure I think about a future for the animals,” she says with a distant look. Then she gives a nod, smiles and says, “But I think they are going to have to roll me out of here…” 

To learn more about the zoo or to make contributions, please visit the website at www.chatzoo.org

Jen Jeffrey

jen@jenjeffrey.com

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