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Q&A: Jay Pratte takes over as Miller Park Zoo director

Jay Pratte
Jack Podlesnik
Jay Pratte

The Miller Park Zoo is fresh under the leadership of newly appointed director Jay Pratte. He replaces Jay Tetzloff, who held the director position for 13 years. As the new guy in town, Pratte’s name and personality may still be unfamiliar to many in the community.

In an interview with WGLT, Pratte talks about how he got interested in the zoo profession, his plans for the Miller Park Zoo, and why he chose Bloomington as his next stop.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Where does your love of animals and zoos come from?

Pratte: I was fascinated with, and have just loved animals and had a connection with them, since I was a little kid. I’m Canadian, from a little town in southern Alberta, and there were no zoos really close by. It was an event to drive several hours to visit a zoo. So it wasn’t a career for me. It never occurred to me until I was getting my first degree, my biology degree in Edmonton, that a friend was like, ‘Hey, do you know there’s this park outside the city with all these cats that you love,’ and I visited and that was kind of that moment where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I could actually do this for the rest of my life.’ It was a big, changing moment and it’s one I will never forget.

You’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. You’ve been in places like Dallas, Atlanta, Omaha, and Utica. Why Bloomington, and why Miller Park Zoo?

When I’ve made changes in my career, it’s always been to be able to take that next step; to do more, to affect more people. And there’s not a lot of opportunities, when you get into accredited zoos in the United States, to be able to take those steps up; also in an area where you think, ‘I could love that area, I could live there.’ And this community is very strong in their support of the zoo. It’s a small, accredited zoo. I really love that small-team feel where you know everybody, they’re like your family every day. So it was a really great opportunity I was excited about in a region of the country I really love.

How have you enjoyed your first few weeks at the zoo?

I’m still feeling my way out but I’m loving it. I really do. The community has been great. Everyone has been so helpful since I’ve been here, from the city staff that I work with, to just the folks that I have met at restaurants, buying groceries, on the street. It’s been a really great experience.

What are some things about Miller Park Zoo you’d like to keep the same?

It’s a very friendly zoo, it’s a great environment to walk through. It’s very green, there’s a lot of trees, it’s a very comforting presence you get as you’re walking through. You have nice, smaller exhibits where people know the animals and can see them from different areas while the animals still have safe places to go. I see a lot of enjoyment on both sides of the environment for guests and the animals. That’s what I want to keep moving forward — that jewel, that oasis that people love to come to.

How about some changes?

Really looking at how we can elevate the level of care that’s been great so far, and take it to the next level so we can become known for being that wonderful, small little zoo that just excels at caring for each individual animal that’s under our stewardship. That’s kind of my goal and I’m going to look for all of those great ways we can improve that.

Our last director Jay Tetzloff was around for a long time. What would you say to people who may be a bit wary of having a new Miller Park Zoo director?

Back to when I was a little kid, I have always loved animals and zoos. I recognize the impact they have on not only children, but adults and the community. They should be a safe, fun, enjoyable, entertaining and educating place for everybody to go. As the representative of the zoo, I want people to be comfortable coming up and asking questions and wanting to learn more, and being able to give their opinion on how we may be able to improve. I have a very different sense of humor. It is a very dry and sardonic wit that not everybody gets right away. But what you see is what you get with me. I believe in honesty and transparency. I’m always going to let people know how I feel in a given situation, and when I’m really excited to be there it’s genuine. I want that to come across to the community. The zoo is a great place to go, you can always feel welcome, you can always make your opinion known and you’re going to be heard, and that’s going to be factored into decisions into the future of the zoo as we’re moving forward.

Jack Podlesnik was a reporter and announcer at WGLT. He joined the station in 2021.