SALINA, Kan. (AP) — Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure has come a long way from its beginnings as a barn where schoolchildren came to learn about draft horses, so it seems appropriate that its new executive director came a long way to lead what is now a vast wildlife museum and sprawling zoo with more than 100 species from around the world.
Bob Jenkins was hired following a nationwide search by the board of directors of the private, nonprofit organization founded by the late Salina businessman and philanthropist Charlie Walker dedicated to the conservation and propagation of rare and endangered species.
"Rolling Hills is a real gem — it really is," Jenkins told The Salina Journal in an interview two weeks into the job he began Oct. 29. "You can see the love and the effort that Charlie Walker and the staff put into it. It shows."
Jenkins, 62, has the background to know a gem when he sees one. His resume includes the directorship of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, several positions at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and jobs at Marineland of Florida and Sea World in San Diego and Ohio.
Most recently, he was laid off from the San Francisco Zoo about 18 months ago because of economic cutbacks. He had worked at the zoo for seven years, first as director of animal care and conservation, then as vice president for government and external affairs, and finally as vice president for institutional advancement.
Now, the board at Rolling Hills has charged him with developing a master plan to grow the facility and draw more visitors from nearby Interstate 70 and beyond to the 100-acre zoo and the 64,000-square-foot wildlife museum.
Jenkins said the zoo already owns enough land to double in physical size and could add more exhibits and animals without destroying what he calls its unique atmosphere.
"It cannot be overstated what a great place this is," he told Salina radio station KSAL-AM. "The taxidermy in the museum is some of the best I have ever seen, and with the combination of the zoo, and the care that goes into the animals and the exhibits — it's something I would like to share with everyone in the country."
The taxidermy is housed in the wildlife museum, built in 2003 to display animals from around the world in seven large dioramas featuring such diverse settings as rain forests, North American vistas and the plains of Africa.
Jenkins said he will rely heavily on advice from Kathy Tolbert, who has been affiliated with Rolling Hills since before the zoo opened to the public in 1999.
Tolbert worked as assistant director starting in 1994, when Walker was creating Rolling Hills as a private, nonprofit foundation. She became executive director in 2005 but decided, after Walker's death in April, to resume duties as assistant director so the organization could find a director prepared to take on the changes to come.
"In a certain sense with Charlie's passing, he bequeathed Rolling Hills to the people of Salina, and now it's time for everyone to get involved in its future," Jenkins said.