Getting to Know You: Ryan Gulker, Lake Superior Zoo director

Here's a question that rarely gets answered: Exactly how does a person become a zoo director? Are there fast tracks of study or is it simply a matter of job evolution?...

Here's a question that rarely gets answered: Exactly how does a person become a zoo director? Are there fast tracks of study or is it simply a matter of job evolution?

For Lake Superior Zoo Director Ryan Gulker, promotion came one step at a time.

"I went on a zoo tour for college and this guy started talking about zoo internships," said Gulker, noting that he started out studying wildlife biology. "I thought that sounded interesting."

Gulker became a zoo keeper, then assistant general curator, then curator at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan.

Having said that, Gulker admits he is one of a dying breed.


Nowadays, he said, most zoo directors aren't former zoo keepers. Instead they come from fund-raising backgrounds, often from the non-profit sector.

Although Gulker's only been in Duluth for two months, his journey to the Northland really began two summers ago.

"We were driving home (to Kansas) from a fishing trip to Canada," Gulker said. "When we got into Duluth, my wife looks around and says, 'If that job (at the zoo) ever came open, I think I could live here.'"

While it hasn't been the easiest transition for Gulker -- the zoo lost its accreditation right after he got here through no fault of his -- the new director is upbeat about the challenges he's facing.

Gulker does have one regret about becoming a zoo director.

"With each step you take, you get further from the animals," he said, wistfully noting the zoo's polar bears don't recognize him yet. "When I retire, I'll probably end up volunteering to scoop poop at some zoo."

Want to know more about the man who will lead the charge to restore Lake Superior Zoo? Read on.

Budgeteer: What is your favorite thing about living in the Northland?


Gulker: I think the thing we're going to like the most is the natural space, the outdoors, the things we can do here. We moved into a house with 10 acres of woods and we still haven't seen all of it. Our family is very outdoor oriented.

Budgeteer: Your least favorite?

Gulker: It's just far away from family. Most of our family lives in Kansas, although there are a few in northern Iowa.

Budgeteer: If you won $1 million and had to donate half to a cause or organization of your choice, where would you direct the money?

Gulker: To the zoo (of course).

Budgeteer: If you had more "you-time," what would you do with it?

Gulker: Outside of spending more time with my family, you mean? If it were just "me time," I would probably spend more time fishing. You can never get enough time to fish. That's one thing that attracted me to this area, the ability to do more walleye fishing.

Budgeteer: Do you have a motto and what is it?


Gulker: I like quotes, I like writing them down. One of favorites is a definition of integrity: "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody's looking."

By the way, that's not an Oprah quote, although I can't remember offhand who did say it. I have it written down somewhere.

Editor's note: The "Getting to Know You" Q-and-A feature will run every other week in the Budgeteer. If you know someone we could feature, please call Editor Jana Peterson at 723-1207 or e-mail with your suggestion and contact information.

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