1749 Beyer Road
Fredericksburg, Texas 78624
If you are passionate about animals (both pets and wildlife) and want to learn how to help save them in their natural habitats, then I invite you to read my Blog. This first one gives you a glimpse of why I ended up in the zoo and conservation world.
At age 69, I’m embarking on the riskiest adventure of my career, investing heavily in a business model that is more mission-driven than profit-making. I consider Longneck Manor as the right thing to do at the right time.
I retired from the Houston Zoo in 2015 having spent over 45 years working in zoological parks (Jungle Habitat, Zoo Miami, San Diego Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the last 15 years in Houston). I prefer to call them parks, as the word ‘zoo’ has gotten such a bad rap these days… more on that later. As a zoo-based zoologist (notice that, there is no ‘zoo’ in pronouncing zo·ol·o·gist or /zōˈäləjəst/). I have worked with and observed some amazing animals… and now it’s pay-back time, time for me to do something more significant for wildlife conservation.
Many amazing people and fascinating animals have enriched my life. My all-time favorite animals are the okapi, rhino, giraffe, tapir, tiger, gorilla and the Labrador retriever. My list of most admired humans is fairly short and includes both living and deceased. Jane Goodall, William Conway (former Director of the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society), Bill Barnett (first Board Chair of the newly privatized Houston Zoo), Russ Mittermeier (World renowned biodiversity conservationist, Nelson Mandela, Teddy Roosevelt, Katherine Hepburn and James Cagney. Yeah Jimmy Cagney, the tough guy actor best known for the words “You Dirty Rat”, a phrase he never uttered. He did however win an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of George M. Cohan in the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy.
I don’t believe our lives have a single moment of epiphany but rather are a series of experiences and lucky encounters that shape our futures. No one person or experience dictates all the disappointments and successes of our lives. I regard mistakes as learning experiences and successes as knowing and working with the right people. Suffice to say I have learned a lot over my career!
When I was 21 my biggest disappointment was not being accepted by the Cornell Veterinary College after graduating that same university in 1974. Little did I realize at the time, a different future, one working with wild animals, lay ahead. So instead of searching for an apartment in Ithaca, New York, I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Nairobi, Kenya.
The most significant experience of my life was this first five-month trip to East Africa in 1974. I have since returned to the African continent more than 50 times to work on conservation projects and lead photographic safaris. In Kenya they often call me Bwana Ba-rong-gee and are surprised when they see a ‘Mzungu’ (Swahili for white person) coming out of the airport. Perhaps the name Barongi is less Italian than African?
Fast-forward to the present and it’s easy to see why this New York City kid is building a wildlife ranch with overnight lodging in the Texas Hill Country. Some believe I’m doing it for myself, which is only partly true. I certainly will enjoy working and playing with zoo-born giraffe and rhinos, but there is definitely a higher purpose that drives me to this vision. Having observed the impact these live animals have on the hundreds and thousands of guests who have accompanied me on zoo and safari tours. I’m convinced that this human-animal connection is the most effective way to get people to care about nature.
My first visit to the Bronx Zoo, a second grade field trip, left a lasting impression on me. I was too young to notice the small cages and sterile exhibits but was fascinated by the animals themselves. Even the great Bronx Zoo was not such a great place for most wild animals back in 1959 but we should not judge the past by present standards. I look at it differently…. if the Bronx Zoo never existed I probably would have taken a job driving a Good Humor ice cream truck on Long Island. Having an inordinate affinity for ice cream also inspired this early dream.
Another significant early school outing was a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. Life-like dioramas in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals ignited my lifetime fascination with Stanley’s Dark continent. A jumbo-sized post card – a male silverback mountain gorilla beating his chest in a emerald forest with the snow-capped Virunga Mountains in the background – is among my most cherished keepsakes. Seeing these incredible animals face-to-face in 1974 motivated me more than ever to help to save them from extinction.
I still believe that these early childhood school trips open up young minds and hearts to a much a much larger and incredible world. To be sure, living creatures were either captured or killed for the purposes of education and recreation, practices that served a purpose at the time but are no longer required to engender concern and promote support for wildlife conservation. I’m not defending past practices, but also understand that people living 60 years ago didn’t have the same values, knowledge and options that we have today. If back then I had been able to look at zoos with today’s insights I most likely would have chosen a different path.
I am an unabashed champion for good zoos, ones that actively support wildlife conservation that saves animals in the wild. Unfortunately, even today, there are many more bad zoos than good zoos.
Let me end the first Barongi Blog with one of my favorite quotes “ Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” (Dr. Seuss, The Lorax). Hopefully, my personal stories about people and wildlife will inspire you to care more about our planet and all its inhabitants.
Please let me hear from you and what you would like to hear more of, or less of, in my future messages… and if you are ever in Fredricksburg, TX. you are always welcome to visit me and Drifter, my yellow lab and Goodwill Ambassador.
Thank You and Enjoy,
Rick, Heather, Courtney, Leah, Bryanna, Samantha, Jeff, Reed, Noel, Kelly, Drifter & Boone (the labs)
1749 Beyer Road
Fredericksburg, Texas 78624