Nancy McToldridge, Director of the Santa Barbara Zoo
Paul Wellman

“My parents bought me a goose when I was a toddler,” says Nancy McToldridge, the director of the Santa Barbara Zoo when I ask her when she knew she wanted to be a zoologist. “I have seen the home movies,” she recalls, adding that “it was probably someone’s poor decision at the time.” But that decision sent her on her wondrous career path. I sit with the jovial and inordinately pleasant Nancy in her perch-like second floor office overlooking the Zoo on a sunny Spring morning. The huge map of the world that papers one entire wall of the room intrigues me, so I ask her about it. “Besides getting a pre-professional degree in zoology from Ohio Wesleyan, I also majored in geography” she explains, “and that set my love for world travel.”

Nancy is currently celebrating 35 years working for our Zoo. There have only been two people to hold the title of director since the Zoo opened in 1963, and they are both named McToldridge. The Zoo’s first director was her husband, Ted McToldridge, who retired in 2007. “I never imagined I would be here 35 years,” Nancy says, adding that “Santa Barbara is a hard place to leave.”

Her career began as an interpretive naturalist with the Ohio State Parks, where she discovered her love of connecting people with nature. That led to volunteer work as a docent at the Columbus Zoo. Nancy accepted an appointment as Education Curator at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 1982. She was promoted to Assistant Director in 1989, to Chief Operating Officer in 1999, and to Director in 2007. “I identify with the mission of conserving wild animals,” she shares. Every employee in the zoo gets a paid day to do conservation work whether it’s with the monarch butterflies – the southern sea otter – the red-legged frog or the California Condor. “For a zoo this size, we exceed the expectations in conservation,” she states.

Nancy tells me how pleased it makes her that the Zoo has the deepest reach into the community of any non-profit destination in Santa Barbara. “It has a great reach, and I’m proud of that,” she says. The Zoo is the #1 most visited attraction that charges admission in Santa Barbara, and is second only to Hearst Castle on the entire Central Coast. In addition, the Zoo is totally financed by private donations and by entrance fees, which is unusual, as most zoos receive tax-based support from the state or the city.

One of the joys of visiting our zoo is how approachable it is in terms of size. At only 30 acres, and with just 500 animals, “it is the Audrey Hepburn of zoos,” says Nancy with a smile — “petite and beautiful.” And it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium, a fact that Nancy clearly cherishes. While the US Department of Agriculture licenses 2500 locations for the exhibition of animals to the public, only 231 of them are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as their standards are very strict. Nancy has served on the Association’s Accreditation Commission for the past 15 years.

Nancy McToldridge — Santa Barbara’s Doctor Doolittle — answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I like to think that, over my 35 year (so far) career, I have made contributions to the Santa Barbara Zoo which have helped create something of significance for the community, for animals, and for the people who work here. But this isn’t just my achievement, since thousands of people have made this happen. I have also served as a volunteer on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Accreditation Commission for 15 years during which time I have assisted and mentored other institutions to meet the AZA’s high standards of animal welfare and conservation.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

That is a tough question. I have thought about historic figures I admire but . . . identify with? Maybe Charles Darwin for his love of the natural world and how it worked, and his thirst for adventure and new experiences.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I hope it is laughter and a positive outlook. I also like to think I have a talent for bringing diverse people together to accomplish common goals.

What do you like most about your job?

I love it all! Our mission of saving wild animals in wild places is my personal passion. The people I work alongside make it all so much fun and rewarding.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Feeling so grateful for everything: the perfect family, the perfect occupation, and the best dog ever. 

What is your greatest fear?

I don’t really have a fear, as it seems like a waste of energy. I like to manage my concerns. However, if I had to name one, it might be the total breakdown of any structure that I treasure, like the Zoo or my family.

Who do you most admire?

There are too many to name. I admire people in my profession, in public life, and among my family and friends. The person who most inspires me is my husband, Ted, who built the Santa Barbara Zoo and created everything I am so grateful for every day.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Definitely travel. I love traveling the world – especially to Africa (where I have been 10 times), but I love to cruise too.

What is your current state of mind?

I have always thought that the current time in my life, whether it was when I was 21 or a decade ago or right now, is the happiest time of my life. I look forward to the next day, the next year, the future.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Loyalty. And they absolutely must like to have fun.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Arrogance and conceit. If you think you and your needs are better or more important, I do not have time for you.

What do you most value in friends?

See question before last!

Which words or phrases do you overuse?

“Passion.” “Fun.” “What were they thinking?”

Which talent would you most like to have?

Any musical talent. I would love to sing without making the dogs howl, play multiple musical instruments, and write music. It is a passion. (There’s that word again.)

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

You don’t have enough space to list them all… My New Year’s Resolution was to focus more on the present and not worry about, or overly anticipate, events in the future so much.

Where would you most like to live?

Santa Barbara! It is a hard place to leave.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have my Dad’s college letter sweater and some other items which belonged to my parents that I will always treasure because they remind me of them.

Who or what makes you laugh the most?

Everyone around me. I surround myself with fun people because life is short.

What is your motto?

“I’m not here on business baby, I’m only here for fun.” (Sorry, Bruce Springsteen.) The other would be “Just do what’s right.”

On what occasion do you lie?

Hopefully not at all, but I have probably fibbed to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or giving away a secret.


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