Early on this crisp fall morning, Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park is quiet and still. A jogger glides by in the distance; a deer grazes peacefully. The parking lot is empty at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, though voices of zookeepers at work float through the fog. But there’s one lone figure in navy blue, walking methodically around the zoo’s perimeter fences. He checks each segment, each gate; glances calmly around the park with eyes that miss nothing. As he turns, you can just make out the writing on his jacket: RANGER.
“The goal of our ranger program is to add another layer of safety around the Zoo,” explains Sarah Oliver, the Zoo’s deputy director. “Our ranger is here to support staff and guests if situations arise, patrol our Zoo grounds and parking lot, and be a liaison with first responders. It’s a little like a security guard but more personal – our ranger is a Zoo staff member and very connected to our mission and community.”
It’s a job that’s key to keeping the peace at the Zoo – and one that Metro Parks Tacoma (which oversees Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium) intends to bring to other parks throughout the city if future funding allows.
Ranger Josh has been in the Zoo position a little over a year. With a background in both security and forestry, he’s a perfect combination for the job. His day usually starts at 8 a.m., depending on Zoo hours, with around 30 minutes of administrative time. Then he’s outside the rest of the day, patrolling inside and outside Zoo grounds and helping wherever he’s needed.
“I tour inside the Zoo first, checking in with staff and making sure everything’s safe,” Josh says. “Once we’re open for the day, I walk both the public and staff parking lots, then around the exterior perimeter fence. I’m looking for damages to vehicles or fences, suspicious circumstances or anything that’s not as it should be.”
Josh pauses mid-step to listen carefully to a radio call about a tiger about to be moved between habitats in the Asian Forest Sanctuary. With multiple tigers rotating around this complex habitat area daily, each tiger movement requires expert staff – like the ranger – to be on the alert.
“This is Ranger Josh, I copy,” Josh says into the radio, and continues to the staff gate, checking in with a newly-arrived construction worker.
Josh then walks the Zoo interior again, making sure all equipment is functioning and that guests and staff are safe and well.
“Giving first aid is a part of the ranger job,” explains Josh, checking the first aid supply room near the front entrance. “If the situation needs emergency medical response I would of course call, asking the injured person first to make sure that’s what they want.”
And the row of fluffy new plush animal toys on the first aid shelf?
Josh laughs. “That’s for our younger guests, to take the sting out of any first aid I might need to give them.”
Another big part of the Zoo ranger position is preparing staff for bigger emergencies. Josh designs facility drills such as fire, disaster or animal emergencies, and in doing so he discovers what needs improving – like an extra automatic external defibrillator (AED) or a different safety protocol. He invites the Tacoma fire and police departments to observe drills, has brought South Sound 911 to present to Zoo managers about best practices, and is the Zoo’s liaison with the nightly contracted security service and emergency responders.
While the Zoo ranger doesn’t patrol Point Defiance Park as a whole – that would be another ranger position in itself – he does collaborate with park staff on safety and security issues in the 760-acre forested park.
So how often does Ranger Josh help with real life situations?
“On a busy Saturday there could be 10 to 12 incidents that might require my support,” he says. “Maybe around 50 per week during the summer: things like lost children, first aid, someone smoking on grounds or possibly graffiti.”
Staff can also radio Josh if there’s a guest altercation: He’s trained in de-escalation, and his calm voice and demeanor help bring tensions down.
Sometimes, though, it’s a simple question: Where are the penguins? What’s that tree?
“I’ve taken several courses here about the animals’ natural history, and with a forestry background I can answer most questions about native Northwest plants, but I defer all the others to the zookeepers or horticulturalist,” smiles Josh.
“This is exactly what we need in our wider park system, especially the bigger parks like Point Defiance and Swan Creek,” explains Joe Brady, deputy director of regional parks. “Bringing rangers into our parks would deploy a trained staff member to be the eyes and ears of the park, to connect park users with wildlife while deterring potential safety issues.”
Metro Parks intends to create a districtwide Park Ranger program if voters approve Proposition 1, which is on the Nov. 8 ballot. Metro Parks’ regular property tax levy rate has dropped to its 2009 level due to a restrictive revenue formula set by the state. Restoring the rate to its usual level would provide the funds needed to establish the ranger program.
“Having a ranger is a big benefit to the Zoo,” says Josh. “To have someone walking around the Zoo provides a presence, a trained person that staff or guests can contact if something happens or they need help. That’s so important.”
Eyes alert, he continues down the path.
LEARN MORE: Find out more about Metro Parks Tacoma’s Proposition 1 at metroparkstacoma.org/vote/