Work is underway on the biggest project in the 112-year history of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.
By 2018, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and other sea life will move into a new $52 million, 35,000-square-foot aquarium.
Gary Geddes is excited about the project and briefly thought about delaying his retirement until it was complete.
“But we’ve had a string of big projects,” said Geddes, Metro Parks Tacoma’s director of zoological and environmental education. “… It’s time to let somebody else have the fun that I’ve had.”
Monday is Geddes’ last day. After 35 years, he’s riding off into the sunset. Almost literally. He plans to spend some of his retirement taking long bicycle tours.
Alan Varsik, deputy director at Northwest Trek since 2015, has been appointed Geddes’ successor on an interim basis.
Geddes, 66, is the longtime director of the zoo and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. Under his guidance both have set attendance records in recent years.
“Gary Geddes has made a significant contribution to this community as a result of his leadership and dedication to the mission of Northwest Trek and Point Defiance Zoo,” Jack Wilson, former executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma, said in a prepared statement. “These two facilities are among the very best accredited zoos in the nation.”
Geddes was working at a wildlife park in Illinois when he read about a similar park near Eatonville that was looking for a director. He’d fallen in love with the Northwest while working two years in Oregon for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and was eager to return the region.
He applied for the job and in 1981 he took over at Northwest Trek. The park was only 6 years old, but expectations were high. Too high, as it turned out. Geddes brought with him a heavy dose of reality.
As he did public presentations in those early years, there was one question he received more than any other: “When is Trek going to pay for itself?”
As he found out, the question was a reference to the bond issue for the park that passed in the early 1970s. Material promoting the bond issue said Northwest Trek would not only eventually offset its own cost, but also the cost of the Point Defiance Zoo. To say this was overly optimistic was an understatement.
Geddes says he spent his first few years dispelling this myth.
“Year-round parks like Trek do not (make that kind of profit),” Geddes said. “The animals require care and feeding year-round when the public isn’t even there.”
Eventually, those questions faded and people started to accept Northwest Trek for what it is. Today, Trek’s popularity is reaching new heights.
In 1981, when Geddes arrived, the park drew 103,676 visitors. In 2015, the park’s 40th anniversary, set a record with 214,697 visitors.
Geddes credits social media for piquing people’s interest. A dramatic increase in population near the park didn’t hurt either, he said.
“The beauty and the beast of Trek is that it’s way out in the country,” Geddes said. “It’s actually not really that far, but it seems like it.”
The attendance record fell again this year with the unveiling of a $1.9 million playground called Kid’s Trek. Northwest Trek drew 250,893 visitors in 2016.
POINT DEFIANCE ZOO
In 2000, Geddes’ job expanded to include serving as director of the Point Defiance Zoo. The change, he said, meant he spent about three-fourths of his time at the zoo and the rest at Northwest Trek and the Tacoma Nature Center.
The zoo would set attendance records, too, under his watch. His first year, attendance was about 510,000. In 2015, the zoo had its best year with 732,208 visitors. Attendance dropped in 2016, Geddes said, because of construction.
Geddes says 2000 was a turning point for the zoo and Northwest Trek because Pierce County residents voted to increase the sale tax by 0.1 percent to help fund local parks. The money now accounts for more than a third of the budget, Geddes said.
“Before that we always had our hand out,” Geddes said. “We’ve been able to grow programs because of that (added funding).”
If there is one area in which Geddes is particularly proud, it’s the conservation work done by the zoo and wildlife park.
In 2015, the zoo and Northwest Trek were honored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for 25 years of continued accreditation.
“We are not a big player like San Diego or some others, but every accredited zoo is required to be involved with conservation and telling the conservation story,” Geddes said.
Each year the zoo donates about $150,000 in $2,500-$5,000 increments to various conservation projects, Geddes said. “For an institution our size, that’s is substantial.”
The zoos have also worked on various conservation projects. Northwest Trek won the North American Conservation Award for programs designed to help protect the Oregon spotted frog and the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.
“Like many of his colleagues, Gary Geddes has dedicated his professional career to advancing efforts to save wildlife from extinction and educating the public about what is necessary to do that,” Kris Vehrs, interim president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said in a prepared statement.
Geddes points to projects designed to protect fishers, elephants, tigers and wolves as other examples of important conservation work by park and zoo staff.
“One of the things I feel best about is that Metro Parks Tacoma wants to engage more in conservation messaging,” Geddes said. “… So you are going to see a really great expansion in terms of conservation interpretation and storytelling.
“… For somebody’s whose entire career has been wrapped around conservation, it’s nice to be able to step back and see that. It is fantastic.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Don’t expect Geddes to slow down much in retirement.
His three children and four grandchildren live in the Puyallup Valley and are sure to keep him busy. And Geddes hopes to spend more time taking long bicycle tours.
He still has fond memories of a 2,500-mile bike tour he did in 1998 with friends to raise about $15,000 for a youth education program at Northwest Trek.
Geddes hopes to ride with a friend to Montana, but he’ll also spend plenty of time doing other outdoor activities.
He’ll also remain involved in conservation. He volunteers regularly at the Morse Wildlife Preserve near his home in Graham.
“Although I am leaving one conservation organization of which I am extremely proud,” he said in his retirement statement issued by the Metro Parks, “I will remain active in the community and find new ways to participate in the protection of wildlife and the environment.”