Ken Nieland has not only worked at Micke Grove Zoo for almost 33 years, he's actually lived on the zoo grounds the whole time.
"I loved this job," Nieland said. "When you've worked someplace for 33 years, there's never a shortage of things you do. There have been a lot of great people to work with."
Nieland said goodbye to the wild animals he oversaw when he retired in late March. He is in the process of moving to Sutter Creek.
James Rexroth is Micke Grove's interim zoo manager. He's the nature manager at Oak Grove Regional Park in North Stockton and a former animal keeper at the zoo.
Nieland has spent more than a month driving back and forth from his home at the zoo, where he's been busy packing and transporting his possessions, to his new home in Sutter Creek.
It may have been time for Nieland to retire, since he's 63 years old, but he also saw that San Joaquin County, which owns the south Lodi zoo, doesn't have the financial ability to give the zoo the attention it needed.
Diane DeBruno, first vice president of the Micke Grove Zoological Society, praised Nieland for getting the zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a move that increased the zoo's opportunities to receive federal grants.
Nieland is known on the national scene for his ability to gain accreditation as quickly as he did. A zoo employee since 1979, Nieland achieved accreditation at Micke Grove 11 years later.
The zoo was reaccredited in 1995 and 2000 before the sagging economy caused the zoo to lose its standing five years later. Micke Grove remains unaccredited because budget cuts have prevented the county from improving the zoo grounds to the association's satisfaction.
"The zoological society has progressive new leaders interested in reaccrediting," Nieland said.
After working for several years at the Sacramento Zoo, Nieland joined Micke Grove in 1979. The zoo had only two full-time employees at the time — Jim Cordero and Art Head, both Lodi residents who spent more than 30 years there.
Donated by the late William and Julia Harrison Micke, the 5-acre zoo opened in 1957. It is home to more than 130 types of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and invertebrates. Many species at Micke Grove are classified as endangered or threatened in the wild.
"We've had nine snow leopards born at Micke Grove Zoo," Nieland said.
Nieland retains fondness for both the two-legged and four-legged creatures at the zoo. He says he has fond memories of large chimpanzees and critters like Maggie the polar bear.
The larger animals were gone by the mid-1990s because they were too big for a small zoo.
However, Nieland enjoyed working with the many interesting and dedicated people — employees and volunteers alike.
In addition to his move to Sutter Creek, Nieland said he plans to remain active in the Kiwanis Club of Greater Lodi, go fishing and tend to his grandchildren. His wife Nancy will continue working for the California Department of Justice in south Stockton.
"I still want to be a cheerleader for Micke Grove Zoo," Nieland said, adding another reason to return to Lodi.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.