Tag Archives: Amy Dee Stephens

Interview with Amy about “OKC ZOO: 1960-2013”

Thank you to fellow-writer, Regina Garvie, for posting this interview about my book.  Please visit her site to view the full interview—this is just her introduction.

A cool look at the OKC Zoo

Today I have the pleasure of featuring a different type of book on my blog!SCBWI Oklahoma member Amy Dee Stephens writes fiction, but is also the author of two books on the Oklahoma City Zoo. I got a chance to look at her book recently, and it’s a must-see for anyone who has interest in animals, Oklahoma history, or a first-class zoo’s transformation through the years.

From the book’s description: What started as a small menagerie in 1902 officially became Oklahoma City Zoo in 1903. Journey through the second half century of its illustrious history in Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960–2013. Meet the staff and animals and explore the exhibits that propelled it from a third-class animal facility to one of the best zoos in the United States. In the 1960s, its animal population exploded as knowledge of animal care improved. The zoo soon assembled the largest-known collection of hoofed animals. Later, a rare mountain gorilla named M’Kubwa stole newspaper headlines, a third leopard escaped, and the zoo met its first cheetah babies. The opening of Aquaticus in the 1980s “brought the ocean to the prairie” in the form of a dolphin and sea lion show. Elephants, however, remain the queen attraction at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 2011, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant baby, Malee, was a crowning achievement in its 110-year history.

Personally, I remember a lot of the changes that took place at the zoo, like when they built the Great EscApe when I was a kid, and the transformation of the big cat areas and new habitat for the elephants. It’s pretty dang great. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to check out our zoo – and maybe pick up a copy of Amy’s books while you’re at it!

Amy was nice enough to share a press release with me about her newest book, including an informative Q&A that I enjoyed reading. Hope you do too!

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How I Wrote the Book “Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013”

by Amy Dee Stephens

My second zoo history book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, hit stores last week! I’ve known I would write “Part 2 in the series” for many years, but I kept putting it off as my attention was focused on other things. Last fall, Arcadia Publishing contacted me and asked if I would write another book because my first one had successfully sold over 2,000 copies (a good number for a local history book). That was the impetus I needed; it was time to write that book.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Who Agrees to Write a Book in 6 Weeks?

I had a lot of overtime built up at work, so I took off about 45 days in the winter to write. Being used to writing magazine articles on a short deadline, having weeks sounded do-able. I signed the contract on Halloween, and started a few days later.

Taking off to write a book sounds great—right? But it was such a hectic time. My grandma, Myrtle Davidson,

went into hospice and passed away, and my husband had surgery, so I had a hard time fitting the book in! I had chosen a mid-December deadline in order to push myself to get it done before the holidays. Many times afterward I chastised myself for being so ridiculous. I stayed up ‘til midnight, one, or two a.m. nearly every night. After logging 250 hours in six weeks, I turned the completed manuscript in on December 18th.

Photographic Treasures

Although the writing was important, another major factor to this book was gathering good-quality photos for each story. First, I sorted through 10,000 photographs in the zoo’s collection. About 100 of these will be in the book, but I didn’t have much representing the 1960s and 1970s.

A fortunate event occurred when I visited the Oklahoma History Center to inquire about any historical images they might have. Within a few hours, an archivist made a very kind allowance—he took me downstairs to the basement where hundreds of unprocessed boxes of Daily Oklahoman photos were stacked. The newspaper had recently donated their archives to the history center, but staff has barely started to scan the images.

With a little searching, we found four boxes under Oklahoma City Parks; Lincoln Park. I donned white gloves, and for two days I sorted through precious photos dating between the 1920s and early 1980s. Only fellow historians could understand how exciting it was to go through such treasures! The staff quickly scanned these in, and I suddenly had another 100 high-quality images to add to the book.

Selecting the Cover

Finding the right cover photo was challenging. Why? Besides picking an appealing photo, there had to be empty space at the top to allow for the title— almost impossible! Who takes a photo with great material only on the bottom third? My publisher dropped a number of photos into their template—but none of them popped for me. I wanted both animals and people in the photo, something that felt old-fashioned, and an image that wouldn’t make all zoo people run screaming because of antiquated practices (such as dressing chimps up in clothing). I’d found lots of cute kids with goats from the Children’s Zoo, but they felt too farm-ish.

Finally, I found this picture of five men lifting a Galapagos tortoise. It had nice action, looked dated (being from 1961 and including one man smoking a pipe), and it had an obvious “zoo” animal. One of the men happened to be a significant Oklahoman named Bob Jenni, who worked at the zoo and later became a wildlife filmmaker who opened his own wildlife center. It was perfect.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Tweaks and Proofs

By spring, I started receiving proof copies of the book to review. I could tell I’d written it in a sleep-deprived state, as I found some obvious errors. Luckily, the publisher allowed me to make corrections. Since I’ve worked at the zoo for 16 years—the last chapters of the book were mostly written from memory. I was able to include events of importance to me—and a few of my family members even made appearances in the photographs. One image about Cat Forest wasn’t working well with the text, and at the last minute, I thought of the perfect image—a family photo of my late step-son visiting Cat Forest a few months before he died. The substitution was made, and I didn’t tell anyone until the first copy arrived in the mail. When I showed it to my family, we all got a little teary eyed.

It’s A Wrap

One day, the editor and I were making little word tweaks, and the next day I got an email that the book was “going to print in the morning.” It seemed so sudden. And so final. For the record—I wouldn’t recommend writing a historical book in 6-weeks. Although the subject was familiar and close to my heart, it took a long time to wade through 50+ years of research to pinpoint the most important themes. I also didn’t have the luxury of mulling over things, like I did with my first book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959, which I wrote over a 2-year period. I’m proud of the final product, and doubt it would be much different if I had taken a little longer– but with my self-inflicted deadline, I didn’t have time to savor the process.

In less than a year, the book went from “okay, I’ll write a book” to “for sale in stores.” That’s pretty great! I hope to do another one someday—but next time, I plan to allow myself a little bit more time.

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Filed under History, My Philosophy on Writing, Published Article Announcement

Amy Named Employee of the Year

Amy surrounded by those who wrote Employee of the Year nominations. Photo by Steve Gooch.

 I was surprised and honored when the zoo awarded me as Employee of the Year.  Four lovely people wrote nominations: Todd Bridgewater, Tara Henson, Teresa Randall and Candice Rennels.  I cherish each of them and will always be grateful. 

With permission, I’ve included Todd’s nicely-written nomination, followed by the zoo press release. 

Amy Stephens’ enthusiasm and passion the Oklahoma City Zoo’s history is nothing short of contagious. Her research connects the zoo’s growth to significant events in our community. It covers everything from animal behavior and husbandry, construction and exhibit design, civil rights and political figures, community and culture, and two once forgotten beer-drinking monkeys.

In the beginning…

Even though it was beyond her scope of duties, Amy dedicated the past 8 years to salvaging and archiving 108 years of zoo history. She first excavated the Daily Oklahoman archives for stories of Wheeler Park and the Lincoln Park Zoo. This yielded enough material to fill twelve D-ring binders and publish two books: Oklahoma City Zoo Now and Then and Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959

Additional articles further revealed her gifts as a talented writer and story-teller.  She imparted the significance of our zoo’s history to the community, state and the global profession by respectively publishing articles for ZooSounds, Distinctly Oklahoma and NAI’s Legacy Magazine.  In short, these publications became stepping stones to sharing the Zoo’s rich, and often humorous culture, in person.

She inspired others…

Amy and Mike at the ZooZeum grand opening, April 9, 2011. Photo by Lisa Franks.

Amy presented many programs to community groups (i.e., Rotary, Edmond Newcomers Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Red Hat Ladies, Ladies Auxiliary, etc.) about the zoo’s first 50 years. Several of these occurred on her personal time; however each benefitted the zoo. Her presentations increased our community’s awareness of, interest in and donations toward the overarching goal of creating a formal zoo museum. Note – it is extremely difficult to measure the effect of a specific program on someone’s attitude. In this case, one only needs to look at the zoo’s archive collection. Its growth is a direct reflection of her personal commitment and activism in saving zoo history. Current and past employees, as well as public citizens, donated numerous personal and historical affects producing a unique and diversified collection (i.e, articles, postcards, video, slides, t-shirts, artifact, etc.). Sixteen individuals even contributed their life stories through a recording project with the Metropolitan Library System. Volunteers have spent more than 800 hours cataloging over 6,000 items, with more waiting to be processed.

To create something new from something old…

Overlooking the 80-year-old bathhouse that is now the ZooZeum. Photo by Todd Bridgewater.

Opening a museum requires vision, creativity and an ability to communicate both with clarity. Amy’s management style ensured that everyone stayed informed and involved. By working with multiple zoo departments, she guided a renovation process that turned a 4,000 sq. ft. dilapidated building into a beautiful exhibit space. Appropriately named the ZooZeum, the building features two exhibit galleries with museum quality cases, oversized graphic panels, multimedia presentation platforms and more. Her attention to detail not only included aesthetics, but extended to infrastructure too. Amy began researching and developing an archival storage system from scratch, which is now accredited by the American Association of Museums.

So it can be shared with everyone…

After the ZooZeum opened, Amy’s work shifted from individual stories to envelope the site itself. She created two to behind-the-scenes programs and organized five on-site special events. She also presented the ZooZeum at three conferences, including an international on-line audience, and three podcasts. Each program, event, conference and podcast succeeded in achieving zoo education’s primary mission – connecting our guests with zoo resources. At a recent meeting in Saint Paul, the education staff from the Lincoln Park Zoo raved about Amy’s ZooZeum presentation – from three months ago! They have spoken with her since, are still in awe and clamoring to do the same at their site.

For the purpose of giving back…

As far as we know, there is no other zoo exhibit like the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum. It is unique and one-of-a-kind. It is also interesting to think how saving an organization’s history can be viewed as a progressive step forward. Amy Stephens not only guided that process, she inspired others to join in the vision, to donate their personal affects, to give their time, and to become stewards of their own resources. The ZooZeum presents memorable stories of our organization’s growth within the context of our community’s history. She answers to the unofficial title of Zoo Librarian, but perhaps a more fitting one is Zoo Historian. We should honor Amy Stephens’ passion and commitment to the Oklahoma City Zoo by recognizing her as Employee of the Year.


(Press Release) The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden proudly announces Amy Stephens, Naturalist Instructor Supervisor as the 2011 Ralph D. Harris Employee of the Year. The Employee of the Year award is selected each year by the Zoo’s Employee Recognition Committee and management staff.

Amy teaching zoo preschoolers. Photo by Todd Bridgewater.

A member of the Zoo’s Education team since 1998, Amy teaches a variety of programs throughout the year in addition to supervising the department’s part time birthday party, snooze and camp staff members and overseeing the Zoo’s collection of historical artifacts.

Amy was the sole impetus behind saving the historical building that is now the Patricia and Bryon J. Gambulos ZooZeum. Through her passion and motivation to preserve the Zoo’s history for generations to come the foundation for the ZooZeum came to life when it opened last spring. For nearly a decade Amy gathered historical information, objects and oral histories about the Zoo. This past November her effort to bring Gayla Peevey to the Zoo for the debut of the “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” ZooZeum exhibit resulted in providing a special holiday event for the community and creating another unforgettable moment in the Zoo’s history.  

“Amy is a true asset to our team,” said Dwight Scott, Zoo Executive Director/CEO. “She is extremely self-motivated and approaches all projects with heartfelt enthusiasm and a positive outlook. Amy is 100% focused on doing the best job possible for the Zoo, her peers and our patrons.” 

Amy brings many of her personal passions to her job. She supports animal welfare and co-developed the Zoo’s internal certification program for animal training and its curriculum. An advocate of life-long learning, Amy shares this passion with staff and volunteers by maintaining the Zoo’s library. Working closely with staff she keeps the library’s collection current allowing them access to information on present zoo practices and research. She is also an engaging speaker and often speaks in public forums about the Zoo.

Aside from her Zoo duties, Amy is an award-winning author. Her book “Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959” (c2006 Arcadia Publishing) was awarded as an Outstanding Publication by the Oklahoma Museum Association. She also maintains membership in with the National Association for Interpretation and the Oklahoma Museum Association. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Oklahoma Christian University and a master’s degree in Instructional Media from the University of Central Oklahoma. She and her husband Mike reside in Edmond, Oklahoma.


Amy Stephen’s job profile is featured on the Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) Explore blog  http://wildexplorer.org/


Filed under Zoo