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New curator, interim manager keep Micke Grove Zoo swinging

South Lodi zoo running smoothly thanks to new curator, interim manager

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Posted: Saturday, September 8, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:24 am, Tue Sep 11, 2012.

As San Joaquin County officials look for a new manager to replace Ken Nieland at Micke Grove Zoo, the south Lodi animal kingdom is being run by a long-time zookeeper and a curator who has researched exotic animals all over the world.

James Rexroth has spent a little more than 30 years with the county, most of it at Micke Grove Zoo, where he was involved in feeding and cleaning animals, administering medicine, assisting veterinarians and what he called “exhibit development.”

“It’s another way of saying adding soil, plants and branches,” he said.

Six years ago, Rexroth transferred to the county-owned nature center at Oak Grove Regional Park on Eight Mile Road near Interstate 5. However, around the first of the year, Rexroth learned that Micke Grove Zoo manager Ken Nieland was considering retirement.

As it turned out, Nieland retired in the spring, and Rexroth was named interim manager while county and zoological society officials decide what to do for a permanent manager. Rexroth says he enjoys his interim status.

“I was thankful I wasn’t required to clean the cages,” said Rexroth, known for his extremely dry wit.

In addition to losing Nieland this year, zoo curator Matt McKim left San Joaquin County to take a position at a larger zoo in Sacramento. Micke Grove’s new curator, Avanti Mallapur, was born in south India and researched wild animals all over the world.

Mallapur grew up in the town of Bangalore, where just 50 miles away elephants would walk through farms and eat the crops. A Lodi resident, Mallapur got her master’s degree in India and a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where she learned the behavior of captive wildlife and took zoo management classes.

Despite seeing exotic animals all over the world, Mallapur saw a couple of species at Micke Grove she’d never seen before — a Chilean pudú (the smallest deer in the world) and the Kuhl’s marmoset.

Her favorite animal at Micke Grove is the mountain lion.

“I’ve always had a fascination for cats,” she said.

Rexroth’s favorite animals at Micke Grove Zoo are the lemurs and spider monkeys. Among animals that don’t live at Micke Grove, he enjoys amphibians and reptiles.

Although Mallapur has a decidedly international background, Rexroth has local ties. His mother grew up in Stockton, and his father, Roger Rexroth, is a 1957 Lodi High School graduate.

His father joined the Navy, so the family moved all over, with James Rexroth graduating from Novato High in Marin County. He found his youth in Florida interesting because he enjoyed wading in the waterways.

“My parents were concerned that I might get eaten by an alligator or bitten by a snake, but I wasn’t so lucky,” Rexroth said with a grin.

On a more serious note, Rexroth said it’s been a smooth transition returning to Micke Grove Zoo after six years at Oak Grove Regional Park. One of his goals, which the Micke Grove Zoological Society shares, is to be re-accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a national organization that sets standards for zoos. Micke Grove Zoo had its accreditation removed in 2005 due to budget cuts.

He finds the zoo staff very professional and dedicated in their care for the animals who live there.

Rexroth lives in North Stockton with his wife, Carol. They have three children, Christina and twin sons David and Jaymes. He explained that he didn’t want to go through the confusion of having their son be named James Jr., so he give him the spelling of the Bartles and Jaymes, which makes wine coolers.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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