There is no denying the dominance of Riverbanks Zoo in the region, even the country. From the Botanical Garden to the birdhouse, the Aquarium Reptile Complex to the large mammals, on any given day visitors of every age are mesmerized by the beauty and grandeur of Columbia’s zoo, not to mention the always-entertaining baboons.
Much of the success of Riverbanks Zoo can be attributed to Satch Krantz, who began his career there in 1973 and has served as executive director since 1976. Satch is one of only three American zoo directors to have served as president of both the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In fact, in 2008, he served a second term as the American Zoo and Aquarium Association president, becoming the first person to do so since World War II.
Satch’s leadership and guidance have helped Riverbanks Zoo to reach an astounding number of visitors – more than one million each year. That is more visitors than any other zoo in the Southeast, including the large cities of Miami, Atlanta and Dallas. “Combine this with the fact that approximately 40 percent of our guests originate from 50 miles away from Columbia or more, and you have a cultural institution with a significant economic impact,” he says.
The economic impact of the zoo seemingly knows no boundaries. In late 2012, Richland and Lexington county councils unanimously approved a $32 million bond issue for various improvements throughout the Zoo and Botanical Garden, a testament to its value in the community. Among the upcoming improvements are a new sea lion exhibit, a bigger zoo entrance to accommodate larger crowds and a children’s garden within the Botanical Garden.
No doubt, Satch has witnessed tremendous growth of and appreciation for Riverbanks Zoo. In a word, his career has been dynamic. “Thirty years ago, zoos were little more than menageries, places where people came to gawk at strange and unusual animals from around the world. Today, zoos rival many international conservation organizations in money contributed to conserving wildlife in nature,” he says.
Over the years, Satch and his team at the zoo have worked hard to position Riverbanks as an affordable, quality attraction that appeals to people of all ages and socioeconomic status. To achieve this, the zoo must continuously grow and evolve.
Satch and his team work hard to keep the experience exciting in order to ensure that those who haven’t been to the zoo want to visit it, and those who have been want to return. “We want people to feel like they experience something new every time they visit,” says Satch. “Someone told me recently that they used to view a visit to Riverbanks as a passive family outing. Now, he finds a trip to the zoo an action-packed, fun-filled experience. Attractions, like hand-feeding giraffes, and our new Sky-High Safari four-story-high vertical ropes course, have made the zoo far more participatory and fun.”
Not surprisingly, Satch has an adventurous side as well, having travelled extensively throughout his career, including on 15 African safaris, the highlight of which was a 120-mile walk across Tsavo National Park in Kenya. While Riverbanks has sponsored many fantastic photographic safaris to East Africa since 1983, which involve visiting several national parks and viewing wildlife from mini-vans, the Tsavo adventure was different. “We walked approximately 10 to 12 miles each day in 100-degree heat,” says Satch. “At night, we slept on the ground in one-man tents listening to the sounds of lions and hyenas. But the most exciting part of the trip was standing just a few yards from herds of elephants, separated only by the clothes on our backs.”
It’s a good thing Satch is so fond of “charismatic megavertebrates,” a term coined by the zoo staff for the large, well-known animals that are easily recognized the world over. While gorillas, elephants, koalas and giraffes are the top animal attractions, smaller species, including meerkats and naked mole rats, are also huge crowd pleasers.
Not surprisingly, the Riverbanks Zoo animal collection has long been considered one of the best in North America. Likewise, some of the newest exhibits, such as the Birdhouse at Riverbanks, are considered among the best in the world. “We pack a very big punch for such a small zoo,” adds Satch. “You just don’t expect to see this kind of quality in such a relatively small southern city. But above all else, we have a governing authority and staff that are second to none.”
When he isn’t leading his invaluable team, evaluating areas of growth for the zoo, or hiking through a safari, Satch can also be found helping out in the community. “Becky, my wife, and I are Columbia natives, and we want our community to be the best that it can be,” he says. “I consider giving my time and energy to that purpose an obligation.”
His service to business and community has not gone unrecognized. Satch has been awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Regional Cooperation from the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the International Ambassador of the Year Award from the Committee of 100, and the Global Vision Award by the World Affairs Council. Satch also received the Distinguished Service Award from Clemson University, the university’s highest alumni honor.
For those just entering the business world, Satch has some very sound advice. “Be patient, know that you do not have to change the world in a day, and don’t be afraid to dream big,” he says. “Riverbanks Zoo’s success is due in part to the fact that our guests are proud that Columbia is home to a world-class zoological park and Botanical Garden.” He also advises not to underestimate the value of good writing skills. “I’m 63 years old and am still learning how to express myself in writing,” he adds.
Good advice from someone who has maintained and grown a 30-year career with only progress and opportunity ahead. No monkey business here!
Q&A with Satch Krantz
Q. Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
A. Not at the Zoo! A number of years ago I was playing golf with a group of friends. We had walked into a patch of woods to retrieve an errant golf ball when I encountered a small black rat snake. I thought this would be a great opportunity to show off my snake-handling skills and reached down to pick it up. It promptly bit me between my thumb and forefinger, and I bled for hours.
Q. Have you ever petted a lion?
A. Over my career I have had an opportunity to “pet” a number of rare and dangerous animals, from lions to giant pandas. Fortunately, most were anesthetized at the time.
Q. What’s the most exciting animal you’ve interacted with?
A. In one fashion or another, all animals, regardless of size or intelligence, are fascinating and exciting creatures. For example, bees and ants are incredibly fascinating animals.
Q. What animal frightens you?
A. We tell all of our employees: If it has a mouth, it will bite. That being said, I am not afraid of any animal, but I respect some more than others.
Q. What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had with animals?
A. In 2002, I hiked 120 miles across Tsavo National Park in Kenya. We were walking in single-file one morning when we literally stumbled into a small pride of lions sleeping in a thicket of shrubs. Hikers and lions ran in all directions, each scared of the other. The entire episode last about five seconds, but it was the most exciting five seconds of my life.
Q. What are your top memories with animals at Riverbanks?
A. Due to the size and complexity of our animal collection, I have memorable experiences every week.
Q. Which animal deaths has made you the saddest?
A. Zoo people are impacted by every animal death. But, like most people, we tend to favor those animals that are large and/or intelligent. We have lost two elephants in our nearly 40 years of existence, and each one of them greatly saddened me.
Q. What’s the funniest experience you’ve had with animals?
A. A better question might be: What is the funniest experience an animal has ever had with me?