Herpetologist takes over at Hope Zoo

Career & Education

Herpetologist takes over at Hope Zoo

Snake, lizard, alligator lover turns hobby into career

Sunday, February 02, 2020

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Joey Brown has been in love with reptiles since his boyhood days, so it was only natural that he turned it into a professional career.

Brown, a conservation biologist with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Kansas (KU), took over the role as general curator at the not-for-profit Hope Zoo Preservation Foundation operation three months ago. He comes to Jamaica with loads of experience within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums across the United States, including the San Diego Zoo, as well as in field academia in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

His zoo experience started 14 years ago at the Kansas City Zoo, while also attending KU.

Starting off working as a zookeeper, Brown was also hands-on in the African Savannah exhibit, taking care of the hippopotamuses, chimpanzees, baboons and crocodiles.

“I love all animals honestly, but I've always had this love for reptiles, especially snakes. As a kid growing up, I would ride my bike down the street and into the woods, and flip rocks because the snakes hide under there. I would go take pictures, catch the snakes, bring them back to the house,” Brown shared. “My mom let me keep them in the basement for a couple weeks then I would release them.”

While he was in his first year at KU, he worked under the famous legendary herpetologist Professor Dr Henry Fitch, who taught him how to read the scales, so to speak.

In Dr Fitch's twilight years as superintendent of Natural History Reservation and instructor of zoology, he guided Brown to think of his love for reptiles beyond a hobby.

“I was very fortunate to work under him [Dr Fitch] studying rattlesnakes. As a legendary herpetologist his study of reptiles and amphibians was groundbreaking. That inspired me to turn my love into a professional career,” Brown shared.

After receiving his degree in 2008, he did his first six months of field work in the Philippines.

He also travelled around Southeast Asia and Australia for a year, before returning to the US and landing a job at the San Diego Zoo.

His experience with venomous snakes helped him to settle in for five years as senior reptile keeper in San Diego overseeing the care of numerous crocodile species, pythons, venomous snakes, and Komodo Dragons.

But the call of the wild was ever near.

He left San Diego Zoo for graduate school at the University of Oklahoma and headed straight for Fiji to assist with headstart efforts studying the spatial ecology of the critically endangered Fijian crested iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis).

Not long after that, he was in the Philippines working with the critically endangered Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis).

“For the Philippines project, I worked with an NGO, the Mabuwaya Foundation, rearing wild crocodile hatchlings in captivity to improve their survival rates once they're released into the wild, much like the Jamaican Iguana headstart initiative sponsored by the International Iguana Foundation (IIF) and the United Nations Development Programme Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP),” Brown said.

Less than 150 Philippine crocodiles remain in the wild, so Brown and his colleagues applied satellite transmitters to study crocodiles in the remote jungles of the northern Philippines, gaining essential knowledge needed for successful conservation efforts.

But how did he get to Jamaica?

After working in Fiji, he attended an International Union for Conservation of Nature Iguana Specialist Group (IUCN-ISG) conference in Cuba to present his Fiji research, while also networking with iguana researchers from across the world.

That chance meeting led to him being made aware that the Hope Zoo Kingston needed a curator.

“My academic work on the critically endangered Philippine crocodile was tied to my Masters' thesis research, so after that was completed and defended in July, I applied for the post at Hope Zoo and was successful,” Brown revealed.

He feels his experiences with both the Fijian crested iguana and the Philippine crocodile are quite similar to the Hope Zoo Jamaican iguana headstart programme and puts him in good stead.

Hope Zoo's work in bringing the Jamaican iguana from the brink of extinction is one of the greatest success stories in conservation in the world. Since the rediscovery of the Jamaican iguana in 1990, the zoo's programme has ensured the reintroduction of 465 iguanas into the wild, with another 70-80 individuals set for release this year.

For the Fulbright Scholar and National Geographic Explorer, Jamaica was the culmination of his job experiences in US zoos, and field and academic work.

Brown believes that while there are many great features at Hope Zoo Kingston, one of his immediate projects will be improving the petting zoo.

“I want to ensure a more hands-on, interactive experience for the guests with animals and keepers. When people visit the zoo and they're constantly learning, experiencing new things, and forming connections with our animals, they want to come back to us,” Brown said.

“Zoos play a critical role in connecting people with wildlife. They provide unique experiences which are critical for education, inspiring both kids and adults to care more about the precious beauty our planet has to offer. Not everyone is fortunate to travel to Africa, Southeast Asia, or Australia to see these animals in the wild. Plus, a lot of the habitat in these wild places are disappearing. If we can help make that connection with our guests, they're more likely to care and protect animals in the wild,” Brown posited.

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