COLUMBIA — As the leader of the major tourist attraction in Columbia for 37 years, Riverbanks Zoo president and CEO Satch Krantz long has been a big deal in the Midlands.
What many in the community might not know, however, is he’s equally consequential in the national and international zoo community. Recently, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums selected Krantz for its highest honor, the R. Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence.
Named for the longtime host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” the award is a career achievement honor for commitment to conservation, education and the zoo profession. Since Perkins himself won the first award in 1978, there have been only 19 other recipients.
Krantz said he was humbled by the recognition.
“I feel honored to be recognized with a tribute of this magnitude,” Krantz said. “I have been very fortunate in my life both professionally and personally.”
Krantz, 63, grew up in the Columbia area, helped out in a cousin’s veterinary office while in high school and received a degree in zoology at Clemson in 1972. His timing was impeccable, with Riverbanks Zoo in the planning stages as he graduated. He landed a job helping create the zoo in 1973. When the zoo’s founding executive director John Mehrtens was forced out in 1976, the 26-year-old Krantz was thrust into the leadership role.
Thirty-seven years later, Krantz is the longest-serving zoo director in the country.
Riverbanks, with more than 1 million visitors a year, is the most popular gated tourist attraction in the state, and it has won many national awards for its animal science and conservation efforts.
Krantz also has served as president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and twice has served as president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“The fact that his peers called on him twice to lead is a testament to his knowledge and his vision, not just for Riverbanks, but for all zoos and aquariums,” said Jim Maddy, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “No one has taught me more about zoos and aquariums than Satch, and it’s also fair to say that no one has a clearer vision of what they can achieve in the future.”
Jim Smith has been on the Riverbanks Park Commission for nearly 20 years and has seen how people near and far appreciate Krantz’s work.
“I’ve been able to go to a couple of the (AZA) conventions, and it’s so gratifying to have people come up to you and say what a great leader you have,” Smith said.
Smith knows people in the Midlands recognize what Krantz has accomplished locally. When the zoo last year went to Lexington and Richland county councils asking tax-payers to support a $32 million expansion and improvement project, both councils approved it unanimously.
Krantz said he was informed of the Perkins Award recognition in May, but he wasn’t allowed to tell his staff until just before he left to pick up the honor at the AZA annual meeting this month. During his acceptance speech, he told the other zoo professionals, “I was born an only child, but now I have several thousand brothers and sisters in this profession.”
Career achievement-type awards sometimes indicate the end of a career is imminent, but Krantz isn’t ready to retire just yet. He spent Tuesday morning in a planning meeting for the zoo’s new children’s garden. The garden is part of improvement efforts expected to take several years, and Krantz said he plans to be around to see those projects through.