Behind the Zoo’s Barriers

The president of the Saint Louis Zoo board of directors offers a behind-the-scenes look

A day spent at the Saint Louis Zoo was always a great day for a young Matt Geekie. He would wander through the paths and see many animals looking back at him. He sat in classrooms and learned about reptiles and birds whose variety and beauty was never boring.

Flash. That’s how quickly Geekie’s favorite animal—the cheetah—would race by. “It’s such a beautiful, sleek animal,” he says of the big cat that is still one of the most beloved residents at the zoo today.

As an adult, Geekie gets a special privilege. He can go behind the scenes and visit the cheetahs’ habitat. There he sees how docile and calm they can be toward humans while animal care professionals discuss their endangered status in the wild and the reasons all humans should respect their strength and speed.

“It’s such a remarkable experience to see animals—including ourselves as human beings—interact with other animals,” Geekie says.

A lifelong resident of St. Louis, Missouri, Geekie is now in his second of two years as president of the Saint Louis Zoo Association Board of Directors.

By day he is senior vice president, secretary, and general counsel at Graybar, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in supply chain management services and distribution. He is responsible for corporate governance and the legal and risk management functions of the company. Under Geekie’s leadership, Graybar received national recognition for excellence in corporate governance in 2015.

By night, on weekends, and in his free time, he is at the zoo, promoting programs and planning the institution’s future. “Its a lot of work, but its a lot of fun work,” he says. “We want people to end their visit saying ‘Wow, that was awesome.’”

A significant focus of his time as leader of the board has been in making strategic plans for the future, but it’s different than planning for a company’s three-to-five-year future. Geekie is helping the Saint Louis Zoo plan for the near term as well as look ahead for decades.

Geekie envisions a future in which the Saint Louis Zoo’s enclosures look even more like the wild places the zoo is working to save through field conservation programs across the world. “I want to walk through and feel as if I’m walking in a Savannah or in sub-Saharan Africa among the animals,” he says. “Of course there would be barriers, but they would not be visible.

“There are certain species that may not be around when my kids have grandchildren, so we have to figure out what we can do to save them.”

“While the Saint Louis Zoo has been a leader in building naturalistic exhibits that closely resemble habitats in the wild, I want the zoo’s grounds to be even more open and interactive,” he adds.

Another feature could be a walkway area that is accessible to different animals at different times of the day—sometimes a lion, sometimes a rhinoceros. That would allow the animals to smell one another, as they do in nature, and it would be exciting for the visitors.

These plans are important, but Geekie says the one of the zoo’s primary concerns will continue to be animal preservation.

“Saving endangered species is critical, very important work for us to continue to do,” he says. “It’s really fascinating. There are certain species that may not be around when my kids have grandchildren, so we have to figure out if we can add space for them or what we can do to save them.”

Researchers at the zoo were even able to bring a species—the American burying beetle—back from the brink of extinction. After studying the few remaining populations of the orange-red insect, in 2012, they were able to reintroduce zoo-bred American burying beetles into the wild across Missouri.

“The ecosystem we live in is so important to maintain,” Geekie says. “There is a reality that if you pull on one thread in the environment, it might have a negative impact somewhere else that we don’t anticipate. Once you begin to lose species after species, it can have a snowballing effect.” Despite the zoo’s best efforts, the reality is that not every species can be saved in time. That’s why Geekie is fascinated by the “frozen zoo” concept.

“If we can’t save a species now, perhaps we can save the embryos for the future,” he says. Efforts like this are already underway in St. Louis.

Geekie acts as an ambassador for the zoo, meeting with local government officials and raising awareness about the work going on behind the scenes.  As one of the three free zoos in the country, the Saint Louis Zoo is proud to bring its animals and experiences to everyone, but being free of admission charges does present special challenges from the revenue side, he says.

Geekie says his work at Graybar, both as an attorney and as an active officer on the company’s board, has meant he can bring both business and legal expertise to  the Saint Louis Zoo Association.

“What I learn at the zoo, I can bring back to Graybar, and vice versa,” he says. “The volunteer work I do at the zoo provides me with different perspectives on issues and helps with finding creative solutions.”