Keeper of the Zoo

The story of “The Little Zoo That Could” proves that with the right support — and the right people — life’s storms can be surmountable.

The entrance to the zoo is flanked by two buildings: the gift shop and ticketing on the right and the Safari Club restaurant to the left. Photos by Matthew Coughlin

Benjamin lopes across the yard in beeline fashion when he spies her. The 8-year-old giant knows what time it is. “We call him Big Ben,” says Cyndi Johnson, head curator at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, while breaking apart a head of lettuce. The long-necked creature wriggles his prehensile tongue until it connects with the leafy green offering. Ben happily munches his midmorning snack while Johnson pets his ossicones, the protuberances on a giraffe’s head. “He’s a stinky boy, that’s for sure.” 

Johnson’s like that, a gentle josher when it comes to talking about her zoo children. And she’s got quite a few roaming around this place.

Netty the ostrich, Benjamin’s roommate, so to speak, sashays over, nosing her way into the commotion at the feeding station. “She’s the bomb diggity, isn’t she?” Johnson asks no one in particular about the shaggy, flightless bird. Before long, Netty loses interest. In the distance, a lion roars a greeting — or stern warning, perhaps — while lemurs chirp and play on their centrally-located island, seemingly oblivious to the big cat noise or the rising temperature. 

Johnson turns her attention toward securing the giraffe enclosure, and the radio on her hip comes alive with zookeeper-to-zookeeper chatter. As she works the lock, a beam of sunlight catches something silver around her neck, casting a dancing orb onto the ground. 

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“This is Trey’s handprint,” she says, rubbing the necklace charm instinctively. “She’d have been 17 years old in March.” 

A Little History

In 1989, entrepreneur Joey Ward opened Zooland Animal Park one mile from the white sands of Gulf Shores. The small zoo survived as a seasonal-yet-growing attraction, thanks to community support and the vision of staff and volunteers like Patti Hall. In 1997, Hall was appointed zoo director, and the following year, Hurricane Georges blew into town, prompting a partial evacuation, according to Johnson. This was merely a primer of what was to come. 

Fifteen years after opening its doors, the zoo, by then renamed the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, found itself preparing to receive a 120-mph punch named Hurricane Ivan. “We only had 72 hours to get out,” Johnson says of the organized chaos. What followed was something no other American zoo had ever attempted: a full-scale evacuation. “It was a cluster, for sure, but everybody worked very well together. Patti, Rusty [Gilbert] and I told the staff what we needed them to do. We didn’t have anybody who wanted to back out. They wanted to be there and take care of their animals.” 

A moat surrounds lemur island, the epicenter of the 25-acre, multimillion dollar facility.

Hall’s property in Elberta, 20 miles inland, served as sanctum for the roughly 200 zoo animals, as well as staff, their families and pets. Despite having no running water for days, Johnson says “there were some good times. Patti had a big pool, and we were able to take the tiger cubs, Rajah and Rani, and bear cub, Boodah, out swimming at separate times.” 

But one swimmer had been left behind at the zoo, and it was he who gained worldwide attention, leading media to descend on the coastal town.

Chuckie, the American alligator, rode out Ivan in his enclosure, rising with the tide, as reptiles are designed to do. But the water rose higher than his 10-foot fence. “It was 12 to 14 feet high behind the park, so he literally just floated out,” Johnson explains. Multiple sources reported the “escaped gator” story, including The Weather Channel. “We had people from France calling to check on him. Several psychics called to say Chuckie was trying to come home. We also had people saying he had eaten their dog or cat. But he was still within our perimeter fence. When the water receded, we were able to see evidence of where he had been trying to get back into his exhibit.”

Head curator Cyndi Johnson makes small talk with Jasper the red ruffed lemur.

A Little Miracle

Johnson is no stranger to powering through storms or overcoming adversity. Professionally, she says she started at the bottom. “I’m not college-educated; I worked my way up,” she says of her climb to head curator. “I was this keeper, then that keeper, and eventually I became the head keeper.” But sometimes life’s hurdles can’t be traversed in such a straightforward manner. 

In 1994, Johnson’s 3-month-old son, Trey, succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Within a few months, she was expecting again, but the joy was tempered with heart-wrenching news. “I was seven months pregnant when I found out I had cancer and had to have this eye removed,” she says, pointing to the right side of her face. “It was melanoma, and the doctors were concerned it had gone from my eye to my brain.” It hadn’t, and it hadn’t spread to the daughter she was carrying either. “Cursti was my miracle baby,” she says of the little girl born in 1995. “She kept me going.” And so did Chance, the son who followed soon after.

In March 2003, on the 9-year anniversary of Trey’s death, a new life entered the world — a tiny capuchin monkey. “I asked Patti if I could name it Trey, in honor of my son,” Johnson says, admitting that at the time, she didn’t realize newborn Trey was a female. That matter was insignificant when it came to the bond that would soon blossom. “When she was a baby, Trey fell off her mama’s back and slammed her head onto the concrete.” As a result, Trey suffered seizures and needed round-the-clock care. Having already felt a special connection, Johnson added another child, this time of the primate variety, to her brood. 

“She went home with me every night, and then she’d come here and play during the day,” Johnson says, smiling. “Trey grew up with my kids. She was a special capuchin; she couldn’t climb very well. I would never keep a regular capuchin in my house!” 

Chuckie the American Alligator gained national attention when he “escaped” after Hurricane Ivan.

A Big Gift

“Once we went national with Chuckie’s story, we got a call with a pitch for an Animal Planet series,” Johnson says of what became the network’s 13-episode show, “The Little Zoo That Could.” Camera crews followed the zoo’s ups and downs for months, capturing heartwarming moments, such as Johnson’s snuggles with Trey the capuchin, as well as devastating losses — the zoo evacuated twice more, for hurricanes Dennis and Katrina, during filming. “At the last minute, Dennis turned and went to Florida,” Johnson recalls. “Katrina didn’t do as much damage to us as Ivan, but it still destroyed a lot of stuff we had just fixed or built new.” In total, the zoo had been pummeled twice in 18 months. 

As viewers tuned in to the show each week, the story of the zoo’s struggles unfolded. Support poured in, even after the first airing. “When he saw that first episode, he called,” Johnson says of Souvenir City owner Clyde Weir. “He said he had no idea what we went through or how traumatic it was.” Weir and his daughter, Andrea, visited the zoo shortly thereafter, with the younger Weir donating part of her inheritance. “This property was hers,” Johnson says of the land we’re standing on. “She wanted to give us 25 acres.” 

After 13 long years of setbacks, from hurricane seasons to financial challenges, the little zoo that could, did. Built from the ground up and three times larger than its former footprint, nearly 500 animals now call this higher ground, located four miles north of the beach, their home. “The reception was awesome,” current executive director Joel Hamilton says of the facility’s March 2020 grand opening. But the fanfare was short-lived and would require another round of patience and tenacity.  

Hamilton continues, “After the long wait, it was very disheartening to have to shut it down.” On March 18, seven days after opening, the doors were locked. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, snuck in yet another knock. “The staff has always been one to come together to get things done when the chips are down.” This time would be no different.

Sixteen-year-old Bengal tiger Rajah experienced the zoo’s three evacuations prior to calling the new zoo — on higher ground — home.

A Big Heart

“I am such a ham,” a doting Johnson singsongs to Simba the African lion, the one responsible for the early-morning roar. “He’s pretty famous. I raised him from 3 months old.” We don’t get far before she stops again, turning her attention this time to the Bengal tiger. “Come, pretty boy! What a good boy. I’ve had him since he was 2 weeks old.” Johnson once bottle-fed the now-11-year-old Omar every two hours. “I’ve raised over 50 tigers, but I am not one of those people who feels like I have such a unique connection with a cat that I can go in and play with it. I’m the person who healthily respects the cat — I know what it can do to me!”

Visitors to the reopened-with-restrictions zoo linger near the enclosure. Johnson is soon in her element, fielding questions about the animals to whom she’s devoted so much of her life. “One of the things we were always know for, and are striving to maintain, is the accessibility of staff,” Hamilton says. “There are opportunities for guests to stop staff with questions and to hear stories about the animals.” Johnson has plenty of stories.

There are few species she hasn’t had a hand in raising, but there might be some she wouldn’t sign up for again. “I never want to raise another wolf,” she says. “They poop more than any other animal I’ve ever had.” I laugh. 

Reptile zookeeper Andy Jordan shows off a Brazilian rainbow boa.

As we near completing the loop around the zoo, I take a moment to really notice my surroundings. The zoo is abuzz with families pushing wide-eyed toddlers in strollers; couples walking hand-in-hand, laughing along with the kookaburras; staff smiling and engaging with inquisitive children; and diners enjoying a meal on the patio at the Safari Club restaurant — the first “Green Certified” restaurant in Alabama. A braying miniature donkey named Angie, out for a walk with her keeper, brings me back to present. 

Of all the beautiful sights seen today, perhaps the most admirable is Johnson’s evident love for every creature at the zoo. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she muses. “This is my life.” A life filled with storms of many kinds, one she tackles day by day knowing she’s got an angel Trey above and a handprint of capuchin Trey, who passed away this January, next to her heart. 

“Coming here, it’s not like I forget [hardships]. But I can come over and sit next to a tiger, and he’ll rub his face against the fence as if to say it’s OK. You just can’t help falling in love with these animals. And if you can help it, you don’t need to work here.”

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