Zoo operations manager balances maintenance with mingling with the animals

April 15, 2011 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated April 14, 2011 at 11:15 p.m.

Jay Gregston has spent almost six months building the new small-primate exhibit that houses several species from lemurs to monkeys.

Jay Gregston has spent almost six months building the new small-primate exhibit that houses several species from lemurs to monkeys.

The homes that Jay Gregston builds are not as famous as David Weekley, Perry or Pulte Homes.

They are not praised in Better Homes and Gardens magazine or featured on the Victoria Parade of Homes tour.

But they do, however, provide shelter to some of the most loveable and exotic four-legged, two legged and no-legged residents of Victoria - the animals of the Texas Zoo.

"It's the first job that I've ever had that I love to come to work," said Gregston, who is the operations manager at the Texas Zoo. "I'm 51 years old and this is the first job that I know I'm doing something good and worthwhile."

Since joining the zoo in 2008, Gregston has been responsible for a multitude of tasks, including maintaining all the zoo buildings and signs, maintaining the zoo grounds, doing blueprints for and building the animal exhibits and fixing everything that is broken.

"It would not be far-fetched to say that he works miracles with what he has," said Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the zoo. "He is an excellent guardian of the zoo's money, materials and labor that has been available to him."

She added, "He does so much with so little."

With a background in construction and hardware store management, fixing and building things was something the Center native was familiar with.

Working alongside a Baird's tapir and screeching spider monkeys, however, was something that took a little time to get used to.

"My first weekend there, I went in to unstop a drain. When I stood up, the first thing I noticed was a huge paw on my left shoulder, then there was another one on my right shoulder," said Gregston. "I looked up and there was a bobcat. He went to purring and rubbing his whiskers on me."

It did not take long though for Gregston to build up a good rapport with the animals.

"I've always loved animals and honestly, they love me too," he said. "None of them seem to have any aggression toward me."

This mutually beneficial relationship has made things easier for Gregston as he has worked hard to keep the zoo together from behind the scenes.

Some of the larger projects that Gregston has worked on over the years include rebuilding the zoo's quarantine area, renovating the green wing macaw exhibit and setting up for the zoo's annual Haunted Zoo event.

"I'm always busy," said Gregston. "There's not a real slow period of the year."

He continued, "It's very rewarding to know I had a big part in setting things up."

He credited the help of part-time zoo volunteers and community service workers for their help in bringing many of the zoo's projects to fruition.

"If we didn't have the community service workers or the volunteers, or any extra help, it would be harder to complete some tasks," said Gregston.

Most recently, Gregston, volunteers and community workers took on the task of building a small-primate exhibit.

The idea to build a small-primate exhibit, which would house the lemurs, tamarins and spider monkeys, came about after the lemurs' exhibit was destroyed by a pecan tree in September 2010.

Gregston and his crew began the first construction on the approximately $18,000 exhibit in November.

The new exhibit has seven bedrooms made from treated pine with cedar shingles, each of which is divided into halves; built-in heaters for each bedroom, which will eliminate the need for heat lamps in cold weather; fresh water sources; umbrella and St. Augustine grass and climbing fixtures.

"It's one of those projects that you see in your mind and on paper, but during the whole time building it, it doesn't look correct until it is finished and you say, 'That's it.'"

Although a ribbon cutting ceremony occurred Friday for the exhibit, Gregston's work is never done.

He plans to get started on renovating the otter exhibit on Monday, doing the alligator exhibit in early May and beginning renovations on the birds of prey exhibit in June.



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