Mike Crocker, director of Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield. (Photo: Dickerson Park Zoo)

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It’s safe to say that a person who has worked professionally with animals for almost half a century would have a wealth of interesting stories to tell.

That’s certainly the case for Dickerson Park Zoo Director Mike Crocker. He’s experienced so many sights, sounds, smells and other sensations in his 46-year career at the zoo that he has enough tales to fill a book.

So that’s exactly what he did.

“True Tales from Dickerson Park Zoo: There’s a Crocodile in the Bathtub!” — published locally by Pages and Pie Publishing earlier this year — is a collection of over 50 non-fiction short stories that chronicle many of Crocker’s adventures with Dickerson Park Zoo animals of all kinds, from mountain lions to hippos to snakes.

(Photo: Dickerson Park Zoo)

In fact, it was Crocker’s love of snakes in particular that put him on his career path in the first place. “I always liked animals since I was a kid, especially snakes,” he says. “I was catching snakes around the neighborhood, probably by the time I was ten years old. I was always fascinated by them. I looked forward [to] opportunities to get out and look for snakes and lizards and frogs and turtles. That’s kind of really how that started. My hobby became very all-consuming.”

Crocker’s passion for his hobby continued well into his high school years. His parents even allowed him to use their detached garage to house his snake collection, which could number between 60 and 70 at any given time. Later, after earning his degree in wildlife conservation and management from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University), he was hired by Dickerson Park Zoo as a reptile keeper in 1976.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to pay me to do my hobby! How great is that?’” Crocker recalls. “I didn’t really give any thought to moving up into other jobs.”

But when opportunities for advancement came up, Crocker didn’t shy away from them, spurred by his interest in the zoo and its plans for continued growth. He ended up rising through the ranks to become the zoo’s director in 1988, a position he has held now for close to 35 years. He’s worked with all manner of creatures in the zoo collection, from the smallest turtles to the largest elephants. He’s seen many employees come and go over the years and made countless friends, both of the human and animal varieties. Between his tremendously long tenure at the zoo and regular requests from colleagues, friends and family to share his countless zoo stories, a book “just sort of happened.”

“It was never planned to be a book,” he says. “I thought, well, I’m getting older, I’m going to be retiring in a couple years, so maybe I ought to put this down on paper so work colleagues and friends can read the stories.”

Between the pages of Mike Crocker's book

Mike Crocker, director of Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield. (Photo: Dickerson Park Zoo)

The story ideas flowed for Crocker. Recalling one story would often lead to the recollection of two or three more. Most of the tales, Crocker chronicled from memory, occasionally using the zoo’s animal records to help establish timelines for dates that he had trouble remembering. Several longtime employees, and even an intern who had worked with the zoo over two decades prior, also looked over his work to verify specific details. “I wanted to tie it down the best I could for accuracy,” Crocker says. All stories, he states in the book, are as accurate as he could possibly get them.

He worked alongside Joey Powell, the zoo’s PR/marketing director, to write and edit the short story collection, as well as determine a cost-efficient way to potentially shape it into a book. Thankfully, connections through the Springfield-Greene County Park Board put them in contact with a former marketing person who knew an up-and-coming local publisher. They looked over the manuscript, and publishing was a go.

The book is divided into a number of distinct sections, such as “Animal Escapes” or “Birds of Prey.” The publisher helped Crocker determine how to best categorize the 50+ stories, which he found to be a significant challenge. The bite-size format of each story allows readers to bounce around, picking and choosing the animals they want to read about, without being tied down to a larger narrative. The longest story in the book, entitled “Snakes, Drugs, Murder, and Miscreants”, gets its own section due to its complexity. It stretches over a ten-year period of time and talks about how Crocker went from innocently associating with a fellow snake enthusiast to being asked to handle the man’s large snake collection for Springfield Police while they combed the man’s house during a drug bust.

Naturally, working in an environment like a zoo for such a long period of time can be a roller coaster of emotions, and Crocker’s career has been no exception. The tone of the stories can vary wildly from one to the next. Some tales are happy, some sad, some humorous and some downright bizarre. As Crocker says in the book, no two days working at the zoo are the same. One day he might be chasing an ornery emu down the railroad tracks traveling along Commercial Street, and the next calming down a cheetah that is afraid of thunderstorms. Many of the animals featured are characters in their own rights, demonstrating unique, often loveable, and sometimes quirky personalities, such as a Hamadryas baboon named Snoopy who became notorious for — and quite skilled at — throwing its excrement at light-haired women and couples that happened to display affection in front of him. Crocker expertly weaves in interesting zoological facts about these animals at appropriate points, making each story both entertaining and educational.

“I simply picked stories that I thought people would find interesting,” Crocker says. “It just so happened that some of them were humorous, some were tragic, but most people, I think, would say they’re unusual or interesting.”

Crocker shares how much zoos have changed since the 1970s

Dickerson Park Zoo. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

While the book acts as a collection of short stories with no overarching message, Crocker does take care to mention an important fact throughout: Dickerson Park Zoo — and really, zoos in general — have made tremendous strides over the past several decades in caring for the animals that they house.

“When I started at the zoo, this place was really primitive,” Crocker says. “The zoo had been neglected for decades. The city didn’t have much money and didn’t put much money into it. It started changing in the mid to late 1970s [and] really picked up the pace by the mid to late 1980s. Not only our zoo, [but] zoos in general have changed a lot, especially in the last 20 to 30 years.”

Crocker goes on to note that his career at the zoo began not long after it had recovered from the verge of closure. There were not many zookeepers, and few of them had the proper training to effectively care for the animals. Non-animal related tasks like public relations, coordinating volunteer programs, marketing and education were often taken care of by a single individual, whereas now, the zoo has multiple employees who specialize in these different areas.

The zoo works hard to keep up to date on all of the latest improvements to animal care and handling. Escapes are far less common, and on the off chance they do occur (Which they do at times; as Crocker puts it, humans make mistakes and animals live by their own rules), they have more humane and effective ways of returning them to where they belong.

Animal food has become more nutritious. Safety has increased. Stress to animals has been reduced. Management of animals is now all based on proven science. One particular area in the zoological world that has a history of being controversial, but has seen marked improvement, is that of elephant care.

“Most of us do not go in with the elephants anymore,” Crocker says. “We’re always on opposite sides of barriers for safety. I wanted to point that out in the book, how the management of elephants has changed and modernized.”

While Crocker’s book does offer a wide collection of stories, they are nowhere near an exhaustive list of every interesting experience that he’s had in his almost 50-year career at the zoo. That being the case, could he possibly pen a sequel sometime down the road?

“I’m not opposed to writing a second book,” he answers. “I’m sure there are lots more stories that I either have long forgotten or don’t remember enough details about them to have enough words to put together a chapter on.”

Crocker’s book offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of Dickerson Park Zoo, the career of a longtime zoo director, and the zoological world in general.

Want to read it?

“True Tales from Dickerson Park Zoo: There’s a Crocodile in the Bathtub!” is available in hardcover and paperback locally at Barnes and Noble, ABC Books, and Dickerson Park Zoo’s Safari Trading Company gift shop. It can also be purchased online, in physical or Kindle format, at Amazon and BN.com.

Paul Cecchini

Paul Cecchini is a freelance writer, aspiring author and award-winning former editor of the Mansfield Mirror newspaper (the Missouri one, not the Texas one). His writing mantra is that everyone has a story, and he’s always on the lookout for the next one to tell. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @peachykeeny or view a sampling of his published work at muckrack.com/peachykeeny. More by Paul Cecchini