A Natural Leader

Thane Maynard ’76 developed an awe for animals and the natural world as a boy growing up in Winter Park. He’s spent his career sharing that sense of wonder with others.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

The anhinga is not an especially attractive bird. Its plumage is dull; its overall appearance, unspectacular. But you’d never know it based on Thane Maynard ’76’s effervescent assessment of the homely water bird during an early morning paddle on Lake Virginia.

His canoe has hardly left the Alfond Boathouse dock, but the executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo is already reveling in his hometown’s flora and fauna with his signature “ain’t it cool” zeal. Maynard brings this friendly fervor to everything—whether he’s reminiscing about his boyhood in Winter Park or persuading Conan O’Brien to ride a camel in the middle of a Midtown Manhattan TV studio.

“My style is kind of ‘if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,’” Maynard says. “I’m exaggeratedly exuberant about wildlife and conservation, because if you’re not passionate about something, nobody is going to walk away with passion about it either.”

Maynard is back on campus to co-host a Winter Park Institute event with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, but paddling around Lake Virginia is a homecoming of a different sort—a return to the wild places of Winter Park that originally gave life to his fascination with animals and the natural world.

Maynard was raised here in the days before air conditioning. He and his friends often sought respite outside, navigating Central Florida’s myriad waterways and rooting out all classification of critters.

“I grew up in the perfect time and place,” Maynard says. “Winter Park was not a dangerous place for kids to just go and wander around, and I was always the kid who would rather stare out the window than into the microscope.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Maynard entered Rollins in the early ’70s at the height of the modern environmental movement, and the College’s fledgling environmental studies program was a natural extension of his boyhood fascinations. He went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resource and Environment. All the while, he envisioned himself on the front lines of conservation.

“I imagined I would get out of school and go to Africa and get a Land Rover and a big wristwatch,” he remembers. “Or maybe Alaska and a Smokey the Bear hat and a green pickup truck.”

After graduation, Maynard married his college girlfriend Kathleen Stewart Maynard ’76, and the young couple settled in Cincinnati, Stewart’s hometown.

“You wake up one day and you realize, ‘I’m probably not moving to Africa or Alaska,’” he chuckles.

Instead, Maynard took a job in the Cincinnati Zoo’s education department. The zoo needed someone who could capture the public’s imagination with tales of animal feats and natural facts. Maynard quickly found his niche. He became the director of conservation in 1990 and the director of education in 1993. In 2000, Maynard left Cincinnati for Seattle and became the founding director of IslandWood, a 255-acre outdoor learning center in Bainbridge Island. “It was a charming time,” Maynard says, but he discovered that the zoo’s 24/7 nature better suited his kinetic style.

“There’s a corny saying that you can take the boy out of the zoo, but you can’t take the zoo out of the boy,” he says. “There are problems to solve, the public to serve, and animals to care for. It can become a little addictive because it’s so active.”

Thane Maynard and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore during a Winter Park Institute event in October. Photo by Scott Cook Thane Maynard and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore during a Winter Park Institute event in October. Photo by Scott Cook

He returned to the zoo in 2001 as vice president and director of the Cincinnati Zoo Foundation. Six years later, he took his current post as executive director. Even before Maynard was the zoo’s chief executive, his engaging personality and knack for storytelling made him its public face. Those same qualities have made him a prominent voice of conversation. He’s taken his animal act on Good Morning America, Today Show, and CBS This Morning, and he’s the author of 13 books on wildlife, including Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink, which he co-authored with Jane Goodall. Maynard is also creator and host of The 90-Second Naturalist, a daily public radio series broadcast on Cincinnati’s 91.7 WVXU. The show, which turns 30 this year, airs on stations across the country.

During Maynard’s decade at its helm, the zoo has developed a reputation as the greenest zoo in America and one of the country’s best—despite a budget that’s dwarfed by most major zoos. Given Maynard’s infectious enthusiasm, it’s not hard to see how.

“We’re an overachiever,” Maynard says. “We have crummy weather half the time, but we still get 1.6 millions visitors a year in a town of 1.6 million people. The key is really great people. You don’t have to be the world’s very best bird expert or even the best veterinarian. It’s more about engendering our spirit and bringing that every day to inspire the public.”