Honesty, no-fail options and other lessons learned at the zoo and in life.
Growing up on Wardsville Road in the late 1970s, Amos Morris, Jr. recalls being an active kid.
“I probably hit every street in the city,” he says about the freedom he found roaming Jefferson City on his bike with friends. “I was everywhere.”
Today, Morris serves as zoo director of Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden and the executive director of the Evansville Zoological Society in Evansville, Indiana. Working with exotic animals has taken him around the world and has helped to further foster his adventurous nature and penchant for the outdoors.
He has traveled to a Peruvian rainforest, caught Agrimi (wild goats) up in the White Mountains on the island of Crete in Greece and brought back African painted dogs from South Africa. He traveled to Germany to assist the Wuppertal Zoo with their elephant program and led a tourist group to see Africa’s Serengeti.
Speak to Morris about his career, however, and a quieter side to zoo life emerges as more important than travel. Some of those priorities include late night, after-hour walks around the grounds with his kids; the privilege of helping an elephant calve; the responsibility of caring for some of the world’s most amazing creatures, including giraffes, tigers, sea lions, okapi and big horn sheep, leopards and wolverines, elephants and jaguars; and educating others about the significance of these animals.
He describes zoo keepers as a dedicated lot and starting with his days as a young man in Jefferson City, it’s easy to see how he fits the mold. Morris was a three-sport high school letterman in football, wrestling and track and cites coaches Steve Johnson, Larry York and Dennis Licklider as among his most influential mentors. Yet, things didn’t always go as planned for Morris when found himself a father at age 16, a detour that would drastically change his life from those of his peers.
“I would not advise anyone to have a child in high school, but I can honestly say that without the birth of my son I would not be the person I am today,” he says.
Through the challenges and struggles, Morris learned perseverance and fortitude, plus a unique awareness of the world. “My mother insisted that I still do everything I was currently doing including all the sports, that my grades could not suffer and had to get a job to provide whatever assistance I could for my child,” he says. “I credit a handful of close friends, my parents and coaches with helping me through those difficult times. In my family, distractions were not allowed to be excuses for failure.”
Morris was an all-district running back in football his senior year, and he still holds the freshman high jump and triple jump records at Jefferson City High School. He earned a full scholarship to play football at Hampton University in Virginia, but after two years returned to his home state and transferred to the University of Missouri-Columbia. He walked on the MU football team, which earned him a spot as running back his junior and senior year. More importantly, however, he found the path to his future while at MU.
“In my junior year of college, I realized the zoo business was it,” he says about meeting the curator of mammals from the St. Louis Zoo and discovering what he wanted to do with his life.
His impressive career path has taken him to the St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh zoos, to name a few. Today, he oversees and provides leadership for the 90-acre zoo and botanical garden in Evansville, and he is the only African American zoo director in the country at an accredited zoo. He is also the first African American to be elected to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Board of Directors.
Working in a zoo is about much more than taking care of animals, Morris says. “It’s a city,” he says. “Vet services, maintenance, marketing, concessions, commissary food for the animals and visitor services. There are multi-operational career opportunities.”
He admits it’s not a job for someone seeking high financial reward. “Zoo keepers are not doing their jobs to get rich, and most zoos are run by non-profits,” he says.
The rewards, however, are greater than financial to Morris, and he says that zoo keepers’ dedication and loyalty runs deep. “It’s generally an 8-to-5 job, but if needed, they’ll stay there 24 hours a day. They’ll come to work when there’s two feet of snow or below freezing temperatures to take care of the animals. Zoo keepers have to approach things as a no-fail option. They have to adapt and make things right.”
For Morris, the animals have brought him great perspective on his own life. “Animals teach you a lot because they are truthful,” he says. “Either they like you or they don’t. They go about their lives, nothing misleading. They’re not arrogant or greedy.”
He appreciates that each species has their unique behaviors and social structures that go beyond science. “Elephants and apes mourn their dead, and then they move on,” he says. “They don’t get overly entangled in the past. [Learning from them] has been instrumental in helping me navigate life. They’ve helped me learn to be a better person, to live a better life.”
Moreau Heights Elementary School
Jefferson Junior, 7th grade
Simonsen, 8th grade
Jefferson City Senior High School: 1982 graduate
Hampton University: attended 1982 – 1984
University of Missouri-Columbia: 1986 graduate
Parents: Doris and Amos Morris
Sisters: Sylvia Ferguson and Pat Reese
Wife: Mary Jane
Children: Jared, Derek, Aubrey and Dalton