My First Coast

Tony Vecchio

Where First Coast - - NEWS - BY LAURA AN­DERS LEE

The Jack­sonville Zoo ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor chats with us about tiger en­coun­ters, warty pigs, gi­ant ar­madil­los and the orig­i­nal Jack­sonville jaguar.

Since Vecchio came on board in 2009, the Jack­sonville Zoo has be­come a top 20 zoo in the coun­try with nearly 1 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors. With a master’s de­gree in sci­ence and bi­ol­ogy, he’s worked for zoos from Ore­gon to Penn­syl­va­nia to At­lanta. He’s wild for gi­ant ar­madil­los and the warty pig.

What makes your zoo dif­fer­ent?

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.

What are the zoo’s high­lights?

The Land of the Tiger is now a year-and-ahalf old. 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.

Did Jack­sonville’s NFL team in­flu­ence your award-win­ning jaguar ex­hibit?

Co­in­ci­den­tally, 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.

What an­i­mal do you re­late to most?

We have one pig in par­tic­u­lar that’s a very im­por­tant species we work with called the Visayan warty pig. The rea­son I like this pig so much is that ev­ery year at the end of breed­ing sea­son, the males go bald. I can laugh and cry with them.

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