The miniature red steam train at Niabi Zoo that thrilled Marc Heinzman '07 when he was 7 years old still greets him every working morning. That little engine is a reminder of the childhood trip around the park that first infused his passion for animals.
Now in his third year leading the zoo in Coal Valley, Ill., Heinzman is one of the youngest zoo directors in the United States.
"As a student at St. Ambrose University, I was able to take courses in the Biology Department that were focused on zoology," he said from his office at the 40-acre park that is home to more than 330 animals.
Heinzman originally planned to become a veterinarian, but an internship posted through the SAU Career Center led him to Niabi-and altered the trajectory of his career.
"Here I was, a college kid, spending time with animals nearly every day-monkeys and tigers and giraffes and elephants, getting to know them on a personal level, ensuring that they were taken care," Heinzman said. "It was a great way to break into the field."
After college, Heinzman had an opportunity to work with gorillas at the Kansas City (Mo.) Zoo, and experience how a bigger operation was run. But after six months, he returned to the Quad Cities and Niabi. His climb to the zoo's top spot was quick-from animal handler to assistant director and now director.
It is something he attributes to "being in the right place at the right time," but also, he added, "to the support of our community at Niabi and a lot of hard work."
Today, Heinzman is doing more than just caring for the primates, reptiles and amphibians that a record 270,000 zoo visitors viewed last year. He also is overseeing the construction of new and remodeled exhibits, and working with his staff to make tough decisions that ultimately put the well-being of the animals ahead of anything else.
"This past year, we decided to move our elephants to another zoo because our facilities-and our frigid winters-weren't allowing us to care for them the way they needed to be," he said. "The quality of life for our animals is our number one concern at Niabi. The decision to move them down to Arkansas was absolutely the right decision. It is something that all of us at the zoo are proud of."
He is also working with his team to offer more programming-from summer classes for kids to events for adults, like the beer tasting they held last year.
"As we get older, we sometimes forget the joy that visiting the zoo brought us as a child," Heinzman said. "All of us at Niabi hope to rekindle the same excitement we experienced as kids with every adult who steps foot in our park."
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