Our First Zookeeper, Frank Bullock

Frank Bullock worked at the Louisville Zoo for almost 30 years. He was the Zoo’s first keeper, beginning his tenure in 1967, before the Louisville Zoo was even open!

While the Zoo was under construction, Frank worked with a pair of rhinos, Lou Lou and Leroy, that were housed across the street from the Zoo in Joe Creason Park. Anyone who worked with Frank knew his love and dedication for our rhinos; Leroy and Lou Lou would run across the rhino yard to Frank when they saw him walking their way.

Even though Frank began his work caring for the Zoo’s first rhinos, he worked with many of the Zoo’s animals throughout his time here. From the tallest giraffe to the loudest kookaburra, Frank was committed to ensuring that the animals received the best care possible. As you may know, Kentucky winters can be a bit unpredictable. One year, a particularly bad ice storm made it difficult for many keepers to get to the Zoo and get to the animal areas from the commissary, where the animal diets are kept. Frank and a few other keepers loaded up sleds with the animals’ food for the day and spent the day battling the winter weather to make sure that the animals were fed and cared for. Frank is remembered by many for doing jobs like this with a smile on his face and a joke at the ready.

When the Zoo first began its training program in the “Aquatics Department” with the seals and sea lions, Frank was one of the keepers working in that department at that time. This training, called “operant conditioning,” utilized positive reinforcement, associating voluntary behavior with a reward, in order to teach the pinnipeds to exhibit behaviors that helped keepers with their general care. This form of training is used with many of the Zoo’s animals today, so that keepers can make physical health observations and provide health care in a non-invasive way for the Zoo’s animals. “Frank hadn’t been accustomed to training the pinnipeds this way, but he rose to the occasion during the early years of that training program and was committed to learning how to perform this new task because he knew it was in the animals’ best interest,” said his supervisor at the time, and the Zoo’s current Assistant Director of Conservation, Education and Collections, Steve Taylor.

Frank not only attended to the care of the Zoo’s animals, but also to the people of the Zoo community. Having worked at the Zoo since its beginning, his words of wisdom were valued by his fellow employees. Frank was known for quite a few of his phrases, however, “Watch yourself!” is one that is remembered by many as he reminded his coworkers to prioritize their safety on the job. He is also remembered for his cooking (especially his barbecue sauce), which he shared with many in the Zoo family throughout the years. “Even after he retired in 1995, he knew everything going on here,” said Diane, the Zoo’s Coordinator of Volunteers.

He was a natural caregiver to all of those who call the Zoo home. “When Frank and I worked together in the giraffe area, we were sitting at the desk one afternoon filling out reports and he looked at me and told me that he remembered me as a little boy coming to the Zoo with my father,” said Sam Clites, retired manager of our Valley area. “I remembered my dad talking with Frank sometimes when we visited, but I never in a million years would have thought that he would remember me from that long ago. He was such a great person to work with. I always loved listening to him talk about the animals he had worked with because I learned so much from his experiences. I’m so thankful that I got to work with Frank and that he considered me a friend.” Sam’s story is just one of many that show the kind of culture that Frank contributed to and that we still work to continue today.

As we reflect on Frank’s life, we celebrate the warmth that he brought to Louisville Zoo, a warmth that was shared by his church community at Christ Center Ministries Church, his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and, his wife, Elizabeth. His devotion to the Zoo was able to touch the lives of so many. After his passing in 2009, he was recognized at the Louisville Zoo’s 50th anniversary celebration with a plaque in front of the exhibit of his beloved rhinos. His legacy lives on at the Louisville Zoo as we strive to emulate Frank by creating an environment where all people feel welcome to enjoy learning about wildlife and wild places.