i live here (now): andi kornak, general curator, cleveland metroparks zoo

From the tiny two-inch Oriental fire-bellied toad to the mighty grizzly bear, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is home to some 3,000 diverse and fascinating animals. But where does the Zoo's General Curator Andi Kornak go when she needs a little breather?

"I like going in the greenhouse in the spring when the gardenias are blooming and when no one else is in there," says Kornak. "I love gardenias."

It's a poignant admission considering the Jackson, Michigan, native has been on the business end of zoo keeping for more than 20 years. In 2011, Kornak joined the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo after an 18-year stint at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek Michigan, where she started as a seasonal employee and worked her way up to full-time zookeeper.

"I lived on the grounds of the zoo," says Kornak. "I did a lot with animals because I was there 24 hours a day. I was very hands-on with the collection and the day-to-day care of the animals."

Talk about your wild roommates.

But Kornak didn't bunk with them for her entire stint. She went on to become Curator at Battle Creek, a position she held for eight years before deciding it was time for a change -- a tall order in her line of work. With only one zoo in most major cities, the boutique zoo industry is tight-knit and small. Even so, the accomplished Kornak had an array of choices before her, but she held out for Cleveland.

"I was looking to go to a large zoological organization in the Great Lakes region," she says. "There were a few opportunities that I could have taken that I turned down in hopes of getting an interview with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The level of sophistication of the programs and the operation is what drew me here." Specifically she cites the Metroparks' zoological program and education departments along with its conservation science and veterinary care.

Quiet moments with the gardenias notwithstanding, Kornak wholly enjoys lingering at the exhibits and observing the animals whenever her frenetic schedule allows. And while she never takes those impromptu moments for granted, her repertoire of memorable events brims with tales both grand and quiet. She recalls when the zoo's 33-year-old African bull elephant, Willy, first stepped from his transport trailer and surveyed his new home.

"I've never seen an animal that large at such close range before," says Kornak, referring to the animal's 13,500-pound, 11-feet frame. "He's such a compliant animal. He’s a very good bull with a good temperament and very cooperative. To see an animal of that size interact in an environment so well and so calmly -- he's got great confidence. That’s always very impressive."

The birth of a baby black rhino last year also holds special significance. Black rhinos are a critically endangered species and any birth in captivity is a milestone. So when first-time mom Kibbibi gave birth to Juba, it was cause for celebration. Juba's birth created a three-generation legacy for the zoo, where his grandma Inge still lives. And although his first 72 hours were rough for everyone, he finally started nursing, climbed to his feet, and became an instant hit.

"That cute baby rhino was running around," recalls Kornak. "I don't think anyone could get enough of him."

Any insider tips for the million or so annual zoo visitors? Kornak offers one key piece of advice.

"The best time to go to the zoo is right when it opens," she says. "That's the best time to see the animals up and active and moving around." Animals often lay low during midday heat, says Kornak, but when they're first released into their habitats, they're energized with curiosity and immediately go about exploring. "You go first thing in the morning. Your die-hard zoo people know that secret, but most people don't."

As for Kornak's assimilation into the 216, she extols the virtues of the pigtails and ears at Lolita, happy hour at Deagan's and the sausage gravy and scones at Lucky's Café. She laments the closing of Phil the Fire but moderates her grief with pierogis from the Ukrainian American Youth Association in Parma. Which begs the question: potato or prune?

"Neither," proclaims Kornak. "Sweet farmer's cheese and kraut for this chick."

For now, the action at the Zoo is in the administrative offices, which are undergoing staffing changes and a shift to a new director. Christopher Kuhar took the helm as Director in January after Steve Taylor, who came to the zoo in 1989, retired.

The only big exhibit coming this summer is, ironically, not living. From May 9 through September 15, the popular DINOSAURS! exhibit returns, with 20 animatronic prehistoric giants roaring around Waterfowl Lake.

"It's probably the easiest exhibit for me to curate because they're going to be there all summer with very little care," says Kornak with a laugh.

As for her new work home, Kornak sees the Metroparks as an organization that harbors a culture of loyalty that extends throughout the Emerald Necklace. And as evidenced by her 18-year tenure at Battle Creek, loyalty is a virtue Kornak values above all else.

"The entire organization is very integrated," she says. "The loyalty doesn’t stop at the end of Wildlife Way where the zoo ends. The loyalty goes on to the Cleveland Metroparks as an organization." It seems some of that loyalty has washed over Kornak as well.

"I feel very settled here."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.