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Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays Celebrates 40 Years at Houston Zoo

Phyllis and the Zoo’s amazing Animal Nutrition team!

Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays, our Animal Nutrition manager recently celebrated a big milestone – 40 years at Houston Zoo! Get to know more about Phyllis in our Q&A with her below!

1. How did you get your start at Houston Zoo and how has your career evolved during your 40 years?
I started out as a Zoo volunteer in 1982, then shortly after that I became the first Houston toad intern. I was hired as a zookeeper in 1984 working in the small mammal building, which is now the Carruth Natural Encounters building.

Phyllis in her docent outfit when she first started as a volunteer at the Zoo.

2. What’s your proudest memory of being a part of the Houston Zoo?
Wow! I got to be a part of starting up the Houston Zoo’s Commissary in the late 80’s when most zoos did not have centralized diet prep area for their animals. However, my proudest memory has been my daughter growing up here throughout the years. She spent a lot of time here as an infant, toddler, zoo crew, and zoo intern. She is a zookeeper herself and was hired into the Hoofstock department, and now she is a supervisor in the Wildlife Connections department. What parent wouldn’t be proud of an accomplishment like this!

Phyllis pictured here with her husband, Stan Mays, who also worked at Houston Zoo for 40 years and was the curator of herpetology and entomology.
Phyllis pictured here with her daughter Memory and husband Stan.

3. What does your day-to-day look like in your role at Houston Zoo?
My morning starts at 5:00 a.m., okay truthfully 4:00 a.m., sometimes even earlier if we are getting deliveries from semi-trucks for fish or meat. Many mornings I work in the kitchen side-by-side with my team, working with all the animal sections on their needs, communicating with vets on diets, ordering all types of food from our vendors, and making sure they supply what is needed. I am proud to say that we have had some of these vendors supply to Houston Zoo for over 30 years and that is amazing! I feel relationships with these suppliers are the most important thing!

For example, I was not here during Hurricane Harvey that hit the Houston area in 2017. I was in the Galápagos Islands on vacation, and it was impossible to enjoy myself knowing what was happening here. One day, when I was about to jump into the water to snorkel, I heard my phone on the chair. I couldn’t believe it! It was one of our produce vendors calling me and apologizing for not being able to get to the Zoo on time because all of the roads around the Zoo were flooded and the Zoo was like an island. Now that is what I call service!

4. What are some of your favorite Zoo memories?
I would have to say working in the Herpetology department in the 80’s was my favorite, especially being the first Houston Toad intern. Another favorite memory was also being a part of the first successful breeding of a snake species we kept behind the scenes. It is called the Candoia Aspera (New guinea Ground Boa) and it was super exciting! I have really enjoyed working with all the people here, and I do my best to stay in touch with many previous zoo people, even those who I met over 40 years ago! Oh, and yes, I enjoyed being a keeper in the Hoofstock department back in the day, where I got to work with Sable Antelopes, rhinos, giraffes, and even hippos! I could go on forever here but it would be a book by the time I was finished!

5. What is something that your coworkers may not know about you?
I know most people think I was born in the Commissary, but my start in the zoo field was as an animal keeper. I am from Chicago, and I grew up in a family of Chicago Bear Fans. I actually was at the Superbowl in 1985! I couldn’t afford tickets, but I did party with the fans in the French Quarter when they won! Oh, and also ketchup does not belong on hot dogs.

Phyllis pictured here in 1980 when she first moved to Houston from Chicago.

6. How have you seen the Zoo change over the 40 years you’ve been working here?
Again, I have seen so many changes throughout the years. The Zoo became privatized several years ago, and it brought about a lot of changes in how we operated, but seeing how the Zoo has grown and what it has become today, I feel pretty lucky to have been a part of it!

Pictured here are the members of our 40 years at the Zoo club. From left to right, Dr. Joe Flanagan, Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays, Stan Mays, and George Brandy.