Queen of the Zoo

Kristy Eckert

The little girl with the big heart carefully poured the puppy formula into an eyedropper and then gently dripped it into the mouth of the baby squirrel she cradled.

Suzi Rapp remembers she'd been jumping on her trampoline in Upper Arlington when she spotted the meek critter watching her bounce. The tiny creature's mother, Rapp assumed, somehow had died. So she wandered to him, scooped him up, and at age 10-maybe younger-became a surrogate mom.

She named her squirrel Scotty and taught him survival skills on her screened-in porch.

"I sort of was surprised at first," said her father, Robert Brannon. "But she just seemed to love it so much, I let her do it."

After eight months-and confident that Scotty was prepared-Rapp let him go.

Then she started taking in other needy squirrels, too. She fed them, nurtured them and trained them. She eventually weaned them off human contact by releasing them but leaving food near the porch, until each finally found his place in the wild.

Her sole mission, she decided, was to work for the zoo.

"And at the time, the Columbus Zoo was one of the worst zoos in the country. But not to me," she said. "Animals were-I just couldn't get enough of them."

Now 49, Rapp has spent nearly 30 years at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, helping it garner its ranking from USA Travel Guide as the No. 1 zoo in the country.

She worked her way from a student employee while attending Ohio University to her current position as director of zoo promotions, animals encounters and outreach. In this role, she coordinates late-night talk show appearances by the zoo's director emeritus, Jack Hanna, and showcases zoo animals herself on a local weekly segment for WBNS 10-TV. She spearheads programs that allow zoo visitors to interact with animals. And she continues taking home baby animals that need extra attention to mother them herself.

While Hanna-the mentor who hired her-is the face of the Columbus Zoo, Rapp may very well be the heartbeat that keeps the place not only running, but running at a pace that other zoos openly strive to achieve.

"People look at me and say, 'You have the job of a lifetime.' And I say, 'You know what? You're right,' " Rapp said. "Monday is my favorite day of the week, because I get to be [at the zoo] for the rest of the week."


The egg was cracked and abandoned.

So when someone brought it to the zoo, Suzi Rapp took it under her human wing. She sealed the shell with nail polish, incubated it and not only kept the bird inside alive, but also taught him to talk.

About 20 years later, Kramer still lives in the same building that houses Rapp's office.

"These animals are taken better care of than most people's children," Rapp said. "That's just my standard."

Her goal, then, is to instill in others that same passion. People passionate about animals support the zoo, she says, and may then be inspired to financially support endangered species in the wild.

Last year, the bubbly blonde with energy to spare erected the Animal Encounters Village, where more than 200 animals rotate into an educational stage show and some are available for petting. Benches were built to seat 50, but some shows, which run several times a day during the summer and on weekends in the fall, have drawn hundreds. At a national zoo conference, Rapp was overwhelmed with a standing-room-only crowd for her discussion about the show, which is the only of its kind in the country.

But she wasn't satisfied. She followed up its success by starting an even grander (and more entertainment-focused) stage show, Animals on Safari, which features more than 100 dogs and cats rescued from Central Ohio shelters.

"My goal," Rapp said, "is to have things like this all over the zoo."

While Rapp is known for her gifted animal skills, particularly in raising exotic cats (which some zoo directors send her to nurse), it's her enthusiasm-and ability to share it with zoogoers-that most impresses them.

"There's no question that she and the Columbus Zoo, they lead the way on doing programs," said Tom Stalf, zoo director of the Niabi Zoo in Illinois. "It's just the absolute, bar-none, number-one zoo in the nation. ... They'll actually take their flamingos for a walk around the zoo. They break that barrier down for guests to interact with animals."

And Columbus takes that interaction "to an extreme," Rapp said. Sure, she admitted, there's risk to the tactic, since animals may not always behave as taught.

"But you know what? If you don't take the risk, nothing's going to happen," she said. "You're never going to touch a child who can't [otherwise] be touched."


They were small and snuggly-much like the newborn daughter, Brannon, who Rapp had just brought home. But they were tigers nonetheless. Still, Richard Rapp, the high school sweetheart Rapp married 23 years ago, was hardly shocked that his wife would volunteer to raise a trio of tigers at the same time as she parented an infant child.

The endless array of animals brought into their Ostrander home-including his favorite, a spunky, Chihuahua-sized fox-has added a bit of spice to their lives. "I never know what she's going to bring home," said Richard, 51, the park manager at Highbanks Metro Park. "It's been very entertaining never a dull moment."

It's also not surprising, then, that Brannon, now 17, is one of few people in the world who know how to properly feed a clouded leopard. Besides doting on the family's three dogs, she's helped nurture many of the 200 or 300 animals her mother's brought home for significant stretches of time. "That's all she knows," Rapp said. "She's starting to see how cool that really is."

Their lifestyle hasn't been without bits of comedy, too. Take, for example, an instance when Rapp was showing animals at a Columbus Crew soccer game. As Brannon watched, she realized the same thing as her mother: Some of the animals would be OK for the appearance, but because of a brewing storm, the temperamental cheetah would not. Brannon watched her mother struggle to get the large animal back in the van, and automatically thought of the tactic she'd used at home to lead the animals where she wanted them. "Mom!" she screamed. "Do you want me to run so the cheetah will chase after me?" Rapp still laughs about the story. But she is proud that Brannon wants to someday work with animals as well.

While Rapp is so committed to work that she sometimes fields middle-of-the-night calls from out-of-state zoo directors, she's equally as committed to humanity. She often doles out jars of homemade jams to those she loves, and never misses the football or basketball games at which her daughter cheerleads. And her kindness, said her mentor, goes well beyond family.

When Rapp discovered that an animal dealer in Indiana suffering from Alzheimer's had been abandoned by his family, she moved him to a nursing facility near her home and visited four times a week for years, until he passed away.

"She just is that kind of person," Hanna said. "She's one of the most caring individuals there are."


Ten years ago, Rapp bottle-fed Kuzo, a baby cheetah, on her couch at home. Now 126 pounds, her all-time-favorite animal has retired from making public appearances, but he lives in the same building as Rapp's office so she can visit often. "You're a good boy," she tells him, rubbing his coat. "You're a good boy."

Rapp fits in snuggles with her furry friends between loads of other daily duties. One moment, she corrals animals into vans for public appearances. The next, she hops in a golf cart and drives across the zoo to shoot a TV segment. She stops to visit a few birds and other myriad creatures between fielding questions from coworkers about how various critters should be cared for.

On one particular day, Rapp received word that the zoo's Chilean flamingo eggs were prepping to hatch. "I'm so excited, I can't see straight," she said, driving her golf cart toward a well-hidden space that held the incubator. The smile that rarely leaves her face grew upon spotting a crack in one egg. "Hi, baby," she said, then brought her fingers to her lips, still clearly in awe after so many years. "That's so cool."

When animals die, Rapp said, it is heartbreaking. But much like she was alright releasing Scotty the squirrel back into the wild, she accepts that having to say goodbye is part of her gig. "It hurts me, but it's part of the circle," she said. "I'm OK with that."

Stalf, the Niabi zoo director, said Rapp is undeniably intelligent. But it's this type of stuff-the true emotion she puts into her job-that makes her so good at what she does.

"We can sit here and say how professional she is and how knowledgeable she is," he said. "[But] she's having a good time, and that's the most important thing."

Kristy Eckert is editor of Capital Style.