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Posted by Erin Wooddell
At just nine years old, Darde Long knew she wanted to grow up and work with animals. She imagined becoming a vet, and though she made the educational strides toward that goal, life had even greater plans.
While attending Auburn University for pre-veterinary studies, her father fell ill and she needed to return home. This change led her to a veterinary assistant position in an animal clinic and she loved the passionate work of helping animals.
In 1985 the zookeeper position at the Chattanooga Zoo became available and Long applied at the insistence of a friend, but wasn’t instantly sold on the idea. “It was sad. The cages were, in fact, cages. They took care of the animals but the living conditions were not as they should be for a zoo with larger animals,” she explained.
Once she was hired, she rallied the volunteers and they began to transform the Chattanooga Zoo.
Over the past 30 years, Long has led the Chattanooga Zoo on a path of constant growth. The original 1.5-acre plot of land has increased to 14 acres, and her original full-time staff of one has become a staff of more than 80 full-time employees.
As the longest-standing woman in leadership at the zoo, Long has made community involvement and accessibility key missions in her work.
“This is a real resource for the community,” Long explains. “We were able to show people that this is a great home for animals. They saw the worthwhile investment.”
Once she got settled in her position as zookeeper, Long wanted to find a way to increase the exposure of the zoo so the community would know they didn’t have to drive all the way to Knoxville or Atlanta for a zoo experience. She began visiting classrooms throughout the area, establishing the educational outreach program the Chattanooga Zoo is now known for.
“We’d show up in classrooms and pull out a snake. It was always a big hit,” she laughs. “Our outreach increased our popularity. There was such a need for these programs.”
Over the years, the zoo’s education efforts have increased. Recent community initiatives focus on seniors and people with special needs. The zoo partners with organizations that have a lot of experience catering to kids and adults with developmental issues, providing special access events at night as well as camps in the summer.
Centrally located near under-served parts of the city, the Chattanooga Zoo works to keep prices reasonable.
“People who may be struggling financially should still get to see a giraffe. They shouldn’t be punished by not being able to afford the zoo,” she says.
The ongoing low-cost endeavor is supported by donations, volunteers and fundraising efforts. The Chattanooga Zoo is currently raising $10 million for an expansion that will someday house a giraffe and lions (slated for 2018 and 2020, respectively).
In the beginning of Long’s career, Jack Hanna, celebrity animal conservationist and director of the Columbus Zoo, helped the zoo raise money, and he’s still the celebrity guest at the annual Banana Ball event. He instilled in Long a strong conservation philosophy—that showing the animals to people makes them care.
“You can’t inspire people with videos. Seeing the animals in person means so much more,” she says.
The zoo has often used animals in residence for story-telling and communications opportunities to support different global initiatives. The red panda, for example, is critically endangered, as is the snow leopard. Animals of both breeds have homes at the Chattanooga Zoo.
“Raising awareness of their situations through education and conversation justifies holding them in captivity,” Long says.
One animal has been at the zoo longer than her, a spider monkey named Spider. He recently moved into a larger habitat with other spider monkeys. Most of the other animal breeds, however, don’t live for 30 years.
“That’s the sad part, I’ve lost a lot friends,” Long says as she shows the recent Chattanooga Zoo magazine spread with photos of animals in residence over her career.
Though many animals have come and gone, the zoo staff has steadily grown, helping Long continuously improve the environment for the animals.
“Her visionary leadership speaks great volumes,” says Hannah Hammon, marketing director for the Chattanooga Zoo.
Long is humbled by her leadership impact at the zoo, considering her younger days as a quiet girl afraid of interviews and of speaking to groups.
“Now, I have so much to talk about. I never dreamed or imaged all this could be possible and it’s such a pleasure to do and provide for our community.”
Being a part of CWLI showed Darde that she has a significant number of women on her team, and many have become leaders in their own right. She feels proud of her staff and of increasing women’s involvement in the zoo.
“I wouldn’t be anything without my team or this philanthropic community.”
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