It was announced at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) annual conference in Seattle that Josh Lucas, lead herpetology caretaker at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, was among the winners of the organization’s AZA Heroes contest. In 2019, a national multi-platform media campaign will share the mission and spirit of AZA through the stories of four heroes who go above and beyond in their work for education and conservation.
From a field of 95 entries crowdsourced from AZA-accredited organizations across North America, the top 10 finalists were announced in August and an online vote commenced. From there, the four AZA Heroes were selected. The OKC Zoo was one of only two organizations with multiple finalists in the grassroots video contest with Amy Mathews, lead elephant caretaker at the OKC Zoo, also among the 10 finalists.
“We are so proud of Josh, not just for his selection as an AZA Hero, but for his commitment to conservation and the work he does here and in the field to fulfill that commitment,” said Greg Heanue, chief marketing officer, Oklahoma City Zoo. “I’m beyond confident that the Oklahoma City Zoo and its mission will be well-represented in this campaign by such an outstanding individual.”
Originally from Austin, Texas, Lucas has been at the OKC Zoo for six years and cites his childhood love of reptiles as a factor that led to his passion for animal conservation. He met his wife, Sonia, currently a full-time physical therapy doctoral student, when she was a fellow caretaker at the Zoo. Lucas graduated with a zoology degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master’s in conservation biology from the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). He turned his backyard and part of his house into a habitat for 16 turtles and tortoises.
Lucas has contributed to “boots on the ground” field conservation efforts in Ecuador (including that nation’s renown Galapagos Islands), Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and, most recently, in Madagascar where nearly 11,000 critically endangered tortoises were discovered in a private residence this April. Almost every room in the house was filled with tortoises without access to food or water. The tortoises were likely collected for the illegal pet trade, possibly for shipment to Asia where the species’ shell makes them highly prized. The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in partnership with more than 20 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, including the OKC Zoo, supplied team members, supplies and funds to care for the sick or injured tortoises.
In partnership with the TSA, OKC Zoo and his graduate program at UCO, Lucas will return to Madagascar later this year to begin work on a long-term, three-year, re-settlement project for the tortoises.
In addition to Lucas, other AZA Heroes include (pictured below): Donnie Alverson from San Diego Zoo Global, Amanda Hodo from Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and Rachael Rost from Topeka Zoo.