Angela Hill and Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEWORLEANS - When Rick Dietz walks the grounds of Audubon Zoo, you get the feeling he's in his second home. That's because he's spent nearly half his life here.
'I grew up here, went to high school, Loyola and ended up here at the zoo right after graduating, so it's definitely bittersweet,' he said.
Bittersweet because the young man who rose through the ranks to become Audubon Zoo's general curator is leaving for a job in Ohio as director of a nationally-known facility called The Wilds.
'It's operated by the Columbus Zoo and is about an hour and a half east of Columbus,' he explained. 'It's a wildlife conservation center, about 10,000 acres and there's about 100 lakes on the grounds.'
At Audubon, Dietz, 38, oversees a 60-person staff, a $3 million budget and the day to day care of more than 1,500 animals.
'Being flexible is probably the toughest part,' he said. 'You can never make everyone happy.'
But for much of his adult life, 'happy' has been the word to describe Dietz. He started as a junior zookeeper and intern and has watched the zoo he loves go from one of the worst in America to the top of national lists.
'It's definitely more than a job. There are times when I've slept here and after Katrina, I lived here among the animals and my co-workers for 30 days,' he said. 'It's something that gets into your blood. Just ask Ron Forman, he's been here for 30-something years and it's definitely a place that's hard to leave.'
Forman, the Audubon Nature Institute president and chief executive officer, said Dietz is one of the zoo's many success stories.
'I think when you have a love for what you do, it shows,' Forman said. 'He's very passionate about wildlife conservation. He's fortunate too that Audubon has a great reputation...indicitave of what we do here.'
Forman added that the directors of the zoos in Atlanta, Salt Lake City and San Francisco all started their careers at Audubon.
Now, as he prepares to join their ranks, Dietz says leaving has him a little anxious about the future, but also excited about the possibilities, and thankful for the opportunities here in New Orleans.
The zoo is also special to Dietz for one more reason: he met his wife there. They'll both leave for Ohio in the coming days.
'It holds a special place in my heart, not only the people, but the animals, the grounds, and mostly what Audubon means to the people of New Orleans.'