By Terri Darr McLean
Three Alums Green Up the Land at Regional Zoos
John Korfhage, Mark Zoeller
In what seems like magic, Mark Zoeller 93, John Korfhage 64, and Steve Foltz 86 can turn parking lots into rain forests and rocky hillsides into exotic gardens.
But theres nothing mysterious about what these UK College of Agriculture graduates do. Zoeller and Foltz are horticulturists; Korfhage is a landscape architect. All three create habitats for some of the most interesting wildlife and plants in the worldZoeller and Korfhage at the Louisville Zoo and Foltz at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
On any given day, Zoeller and Korfhage might see the fruits of their labor trampled by gorillas or gobbled up by pygmy hippos in the Louisville Zoos Gorilla Forest, the newest gorilla exhibit in North America.
But they wouldnt have it any other way.
When we first released the gorillas, they hadnt been in here five minutes, and they grabbed big handfuls of grasses and started eating. It was like, All right! It worked! said Korfhage.
Zoeller, administrator of zoo facilities for the Louisville Zoo, and Korfhage, owner of Korfhage Landscape and Designs in Louisville, were part of a team that spent more than four years transforming what Zoeller called a sleepy, underutilized part of the zoo into an African forest, including installing 8,000 plants. Their first priority was to make the habitat as natural-looking as possible, mostly for the biological and social benefit of the 11 Western lowland gorillas and two pygmy hippos that live there, but also for the enjoyment of zoo patrons.
If you can imagine this without all the horticulture in place, it would be a lot of rock and harsh architecture, said Zoeller, who was director of horticulture during design and construction of the $15 million exhibit.
Instead, there is an array of plants that can weather Kentuckys climate but resemble those from the animals native environment.
You definitely want to play with your plant palette, Zoeller said.
Plants help replicate the gorillas native habitat; other elements immerse people in that habitat. Visitors travel down a simulated jungle trail, complete with elephant footprints and sounds of the wild. Along the way, they can see Hippo Falls, shop at an outpost, and visit a small African farm. They also see firsthand the dangers that threaten the gorillas existence. An entire area of Gorilla Forest is devoted to the story of deforestation.
Visitors have three opportunities to see the gorillas: in the gorillas-in-the-round observatory and in two outdoor yards, one of which looks like an opening in the jungle called a bai. But, as Zoeller pointed out, everything is planted so that the zoo visitor has to work to get a view.
Its the same as if youre on safari, he said.
The forest earned the 2003 Exhibit Award from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which cited the forests natural habitats and strong story line about gorillas and pygmy hippos and the dangers that threaten them.
Whether theyre working on new exhibits like Gorilla Forest or maintaining old ones, Louisville natives Zoeller and Korfhage rely on a foundation laid for them by the UK College of Agriculture.
It began at UK. That set the groundwork, said Korfhage, who majored in ornamental horticulture because the landscape architecture program had not yet been established when he was a student.
I sort of made my own curriculum by going to the art department and taking several courses and then taking as many courses in plant identification as I could, Korfhage said.
He also took more traditional agriculture classes, including livestock judging and meats. I wanted to have as grounded an education as I could, he said.
Zoeller spent his first year at UK as an accounting major. But after working the following summer for one of Korfhages landscape crews, there was no doubt that horticulture was his calling.
I liked the outdoor work. I liked the physical aspect of it. I liked the feeling of accomplishment, he said.
Zoeller, who said he still refers to his UK horticulture textbooks and notes almost daily, also liked the small, hands-on classes and individual attention offered at the College and in the horticulture program.
It was just a very comfortable situation, he said.
Korfhage agreed. There were great professors there who took an interest in you.
With a sparkle in his eye and passion in his voice, Steve Foltz, at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, talks about plants the way many people talk about their children.
I love plantstrees, shrubs, perennials, grassesjust a wide range of plants, said Foltz.
A lot of people may like them, but not a lot of people take time to study them and see the value that plants provide, he said.
As director of horticulture, its not surprising that Foltz assumes a parental role. He has one of the areas largest plant collections under his care: 3,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, tropical plants, bulbs, perennials, and annualsmost of which he can name as easily as other people recite the ABCs.
There are only three jobs in this city where you deal with this much plant material and, certainly, this is one of themand the best one at that, he said.
Overseeing such a large plant collection is only part of Foltzs labor of love. Because the zoo is also an accredited botanical garden, he and his staff must conduct plant research and then share what they learn with the public. One way they do that is by giving each plant in the zoo a number and tracking it in a computer database to determine how the plant fares in Cincinnatis climate. Another is by conducting trials of annuals.
Were an educational facility for every homeowner in the Midwest to come and see the plant material, Foltz said.
Of course, many peoplemore than 1.2 million annuallyalso come to see the zoos animals. Making sure they see the animals in natural surroundings is yet another facet of Foltzs job.
You dont want to see fences. You dont want to see buildings. You want to walk in and feel like youre with the orangutans and the chimpanzeesthat there are no bars between you and the animals. Plants make or break that feel, he said.
Foltz is particularly proud of Jungle Trails, home to the zoos collection of rare primates.
We took a 2_-acre piece of land that was mainly a steep hillside of a parking lot and turned it into a rain forestoutdoors, Foltz said. That project used over 750 varieties of plants, literally hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs, and many varieties of bamboo. When you step in there, youre immersed.
Foltz originally planned to follow in the footsteps of his three brothers and become an accountant. But after two years of studying accounting at another university, he decided to pursue his true passionplants. The Covington native headed to UK to study horticulture.
UK horticulture is extremely special because theyve got a wonderful group, and theyve been there so long, he said. I dont know about a whole lot of other horticulture programs, but I cant imagine another group in the country thats that close-knit and passionate about what they do.
Foltz said all the faculty in the Department of Horticulture are wonderful, with Robert McNiel being one of those who most influenced him.
He would spend time making sure all the students knew what it took to make it in this field, Foltz said.
Foltzs vast knowledge and expertise is often sought by the horticulture industry. In addition to teaching classes at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State College, he speaks frequently to industry groups. He is also a founding member of Kentuckys Theodore Klein Plant Awards program, which selects and promotes outstanding ornamental woody and perennial plants for Kentucky landscapes.