Chabot puts “gardens” in Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Chabot puts “gardens” in Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Ortega Forest resident promotes environmentally sustainable practices
By Steve DiMattia
Resident Community News

Bob Chabot is not from Jacksonville, but by any measure the Ortega Forest resident has blossomed here. And while he is not a Floridian, he has become quite friendly with the natives – both human and vegetative.
It is Chabot who puts the “Gardens” in Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. As director of horticulture and facilities since 2005, he oversees the zoo’s varied plant life and has a hand in designing all of the exhibits.
“I had the good fortune of coming to Jacksonville just as the zoo was really making a commitment to gardens and more naturalistic exhibits,” said Chabot, who is originally from Attleboro, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. “My first few years we were doing more gardens than animal exhibits.”
Chabot’s journey south to head up what would become one of the premier zoo gardens in the country was not necessarily direct. Nor was the position of “zoo horticulturist” a job description that had been well defined.
“There isn’t really much out there to prepare someone for zoo horticulture, but once I got involved with it I couldn’t see myself working in an office,” said Chabot, 50.
The seeds for his career were sown when he took a summer job installing indoor tropical plant landscapes while a student at Boston University. What began as just a way to make some cash grew into a passion after installing a large, indoor rainforest at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. He eventually left school without a degree to become their curator of horticulture for 10 years. Providence Rhode Island parks service then recruited him to build a $15 million botanical garden, which was going great until the Mayor was booted from office on racketeering charges and the project was cancelled.
“I decided that I wanted to get back to zoo horticulture,” Chabot said. “I hadn’t heard of Jacksonville before I took the job but it’s turned out to be amazing. Dennis Patte [the zoo’s former executive director] brought me in to implement this master plan that had been put together with all sorts of funding for just the garden side of the zoo.”
The vision from the start was to fully integrate the gardens in a way that uniquely compliments and enhances the animal exhibits.
“Bob has done a great job of seamlessly weaving the gardens into the zoo,” said Tony Vecchio, executive director since 2009. “It just looks and feels so natural, so right, that I think a lot of people don’t recognize that the reason they like the place so much and why it feels so good is because they’re walking around in a botanical garden that has animal exhibits in it. It’s just fantastic.”
While Vecchio pointed to Savannah Blooms – a unique grassland garden that serves as a visual and contextual invitation to Africa’s Giraffes – as his favorite example of how Chabot’s subtle touch can make a subconscious impression upon visitors, Chabot’s heart lies with the tranquilly exotic, $2 million, 2.5-acre Asian Bamboo Garden.
“This is my favorite garden that I’ve ever been involved with in my whole career,” said Chabot, who is currently working with zoo colleagues and architects from the firm that designed Disney’s Animal Kingdom on an $8 million expansion to open in 2014 featuring tigers and other Asian species. His choice fits his unassuming yet focused personality.
“Part of why I’m successful is that I don’t drive myself crazy,” said Chabot, who has a yin-yang feel about him, a sort of Eastern peacefulness and patience balanced with the rock and roll vibe of a young Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. “I just stay a little bit detached. Work hard to make it happen, watch it all and be aware, but stand back and appreciate it, too.”
There is much to appreciate. In addition to taking care of the gardens, Chabot and his creatively diverse team of 30 also design a new exhibit each spring. Last year’s  $500,000 “DinoAlive!” featured 20 life-like animatronics dinosaurs lurking amongst primitive plants along a misty 1,200-foot path (they are scheduled to return in 2013).
Currently, “Butterfly Hollow” exhibits more delicate creatures and reflects two things that are critical for Chabot: Environmentally sustainable practices and community partnerships. The $65,000 exhibit makes extensive use of recycled and repurposed material, its ticket booth has a “green roof” made of plants and Chabot turned to students from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts for a soundtrack featuring ethereal music and “fairies” laughing playfully as they cavort with butterflies.
“Giving back to the community and developing partnerships is really important to me and to the zoo,” Chabot said. “Promoting environmentally
sustainable practices is a further extension of that.”
In that vein, Chabot began a “Green Team” at the zoo to promote such practices and is the president of Greenscape, a local non-profit committed to improving Jacksonville’s landscape by planting trees throughout the city. He is currently collaborating with St. Johns Riverkeeper to build a “living shoreline” along the Trout River and the Zoo, Greenscape, Riverkeeper, the city and citizens recently worked together to create the Lasalle Bioswale near San Marco’s library – Jacksonville’s first.
Chabot also makes extensive use of native and “Florida friendly” plants throughout the zoo and strongly advocates against the use of invasive species. He is vice president of the Association of Zoological Horticulture and even has a band called The Greens.
“I feel fortunate to have found this zoo and this city, which my family and I have come to love,” Chabot said. “It gives me pleasure to give back.”

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