First impressions are everything to
Joe Watson. Based on that belief, he took it upon himself four
years ago to tackle the unkempt lawns of ZooMontana.
“Tacky” was the thought that came to
his mind when he visited the zoo for the first time. With a
horticultural and maintenance background, the Billings man thought
he could lend a hand and spruce up the grounds.
By helping out the zoo, he would be
helping himself, too. A widower, he needed something to keep
“I figured I could help out here,”
Watson said Monday morning. He just finished mowing behind the
Science and Conservation Center. “I don’t have a lot of money, but
I still need something to do.”
The zoo staff told Watson it couldn’t
afford a person to mow the lawn, but he wasn’t looking for money.
Watson wanted to do whatever he would be allowed to do.
That meant walking around the property
carrying a pair of shears for the first few days while the zoo
staff created a liability waiver.
He can now be seen riding a lawn
mower two and a half to four hours, five or six days a week, trying
to keep up with a job that spans 35 acres.
“The only thing I don’t do is the
berms with the cement barriers in the parking lot,” Watson said.
“Someone a lot younger than me needs to tackle that.”
He does mow the grass at the front
entrance of the zoo, along the sides of the parking lot and
throughout the 70-acre facility.
“I love it,” Watson said. “It takes me
all week to do it.”
Watson is just one of dozens of
volunteers who, with the staff, keep the zoo going.
It’s a force that interim director
Jeff Ewelt thinks can grow to the hundreds. He’s received more
applications than he can handle at the moment.
“It appears we are having people
coming out left and right offering help,” Ewelt said. “We’ve
definitely had an uptick. We’ve had a lot of people come forward
… I need their patience so we can go through and see where we
need the help.”
Among the crew of volunteers are
representatives of the Water Skippers Pond Club of Billings.
The pond enthusiasts all either own,
are renovating or are in the process of building personal ponds,
and they make it their mission to share their expertise with the
They are spending about a day a week
working on getting a pond they built five years ago back up and
Club president David McMasters said
the project took several years to develop before they presented it
before former zoo director Mike Carter.
After getting the OK, the group
installed a koi pond near the barnyard area of the zoo with the
help of several local businesses that donated lumber, rock
and asphalt. The city even donated two large Dumpsters to be used
for the filtration system.
The koi made it through a summer and
winter season before problems arose.
“The new director was not particularly
fond of having a koi pond at the zoo,” McMasters said, referring to
former zoo director Jackie Worstell. “We got booted off the project
because koi are not a native species.”
The club contacted Ewelt after he took
over as interim director. He openly welcomed the project.
“I’m super excited to have them here,”
Ewelt said. “They are doing a tremendous service and putting a lot
of time and effort in those ponds.”
While clearing the area of weeds and
checking on the long-sitting system, McMasters said, they found out
the pump was damaged.
Water got into the pump’s chamber,
submerging the pump. The club will have to buy a new pump to get
the pond working again.
They hope to have the project
completed in a few weeks. Ewelt hopes the new ponds will be a hit
“Kids love ponds and fish,” Ewelt
said. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids to get excited. It’s a
great addition to the facility.”
Once the ponds are finished, the zoo
staff will tend to the general upkeep and feeding of the fish. Club
members will stop by once a month to check the system and handle
Before things can officially get
going, they need to track down some koi. One of the club’s former
members used to breed koi but has since retired. The club is
looking for anyone who wants to donate koi to the zoo.
McMasters said the pond can hold up to
20 large koi.
“We want to do this for the zoo and
help them out,” McMasters said. “We know it’s financially difficult
There’s another group that has had a
constant presence at ZooMontana since 1993.
Upon the creation of the zoo’s sensory
garden, a group of about 10 volunteers have tended flowers and
trees, meticulously weeding by hand.
The zoo does not use pesticides in the
gardens, according to volunteer Joann Glasser, a master gardener
who has given her time to the zoo each Monday since last
“Zoos, in my opinion, are for
education,” Glasser said. “They show people something that is not
from around here — a totally exotic experience.”
With rain falling heavily over the
area this spring, the volunteer gardeners have their weed work cut
out for them.
It’s nothing new for the longer-term
“Sometimes we think we burned our
healthy backs in one part of the garden or another,” said Fran
McDermott, who has been volunteering at the zoo since 1995.
McDermott said it’s important to keep
that section of the zoo looking sharp. It’s often rented out for
weddings and other special occasions.
Once they catch up with the sensory
garden’s weeds, the group hopes to focus some of their time on the
children’s garden out in the zoo’s main plaza.
Statues of an elephant, giraffe and
gorilla mark where the children’s garden is supposed to be. Glasser
said after years of neglect, the garden has turned into more of a
“To me, a children’s garden should be
bright and cheery, and have things to sit on and play on,” Glasser
Glasser said Ewelt gave her permission
to renovate the area. She also hopes to move the zoo’s medicinal
garden, currently right next to the children’s garden, to a new
“There is so much potential here,”