Rosie and Juno turned as Percy King sauntered down the path to meet me. "Hey, girls," King called out. "I've got carrots for ya! And I know you girls love carrots!" The two elephants, each weighing well over 8,000 pounds, lumbered in his direction to collect their treats—just like great big puppy dogs. King greeted me warmly as he tossed carrots to his biggest charges, who, with delicacy belying their huge size, picked the carrots off the ground with their trunks.
King, 46, establishes relationships with people just as easily as he does with the animals in his care. He didn't grow up dreaming to be a zoo keeper—his career seems almost to surprise him—but he's passionate about his animals and the difference he makes in the community. A native Jacksonian who graduated from Lanier High School, King was working in the family business, King Brothers Tire Shop, when he applied to the zoo to make a little extra money. "Dave Wetzel, who hired me, knew something I didn't. During the interview," King said, "we mostly talked about bugs."
That was nine years ago. Today, King is the lead keeper for most of the zoo's African animals, including elephants, pygmy hippos, rhinoceros, zebras, antelopes and lemurs. When I asked if he had a favorite, he told me, "I love all of my animals; but it's not just the animals that I love." King also loves interacting with zoo visitors. "When families visit a community, they always come to the zoo. I've had the chance to meet people from all over the world."
Early in his zoo career, King frequently walked in local parades with one of his (then) reptile charges. Because of his obvious rapport with the kids in the audience, four years ago Jackson-Hinds Library administrators invited him to participate in their children's reading program.
"Every summer, I travel to each library in Hinds County with a few of the animals," King said. "To see the expressions on those kids' faces—it's worth more than anything." His only regret, he admits, is that more parents don't bring their children to this valuable program.
King's enthusiasm for his work is infectious. This year, his co-workers nominated him for the Jean M. Hromadka AAZK Excellence-in-Zoo-Keeping Award, which recognizes achievements of an individual in the zoo keeping field each year. King will travel to Chicago on Sept. 15 to accept this prestigious award at the American Association of Zoo Keepers annual conference. "It was a total surprise," King said. "I wouldn't want any other job in the world, and I'm humbled and grateful. I'm hoping that this award makes the Jackson area more aware and excited about this very special and safe family place."
Great work, Ronni! :o)
- Tom Head