Tag Archives: animals

Gary Pettit’s Wild Kingdom

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gary Pettit rolled toward New Orleans with one pressing concern on his mind. The cats. 

The hurricane had made landfall weeks prior, but New Orleans remained devastated with access restrictions in place. Extinguished city lights plunged the once-bright metropolis into eerie darkness. 

Pettit knew it would be difficult getting in and out of the city. But he had to evacuate the big cats from the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center.

He stopped at a blockade on the outskirts of town. “Where’s your permit?” a police officer asked in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

Pettit knew it would take months to get a permit. The cats didn’t have a month. 

After a whole lot of convincing, the cop acquiesced, “Go ahead. Get out of my sight.” 

The Nebraskan convoy to rescue African cats trudged onward. Pettit led with a heavy-duty animal transport vehicle following. They relied on GPS as the storm had wiped out street signs. They drove past a sign warning, “We shoot looters,” boats on the interstate, and destroyed buildings. 

Finally, Pettit and his crew of two other men arrived at the Audubon Center. With forecasts of another storm on the horizon, they needed to act quickly. He sedated the African wildcats and lions, performed physicals, and crated them. 

Loaded down with exotic wildlife, their vehicles departed the decimated city at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, caravans of military and emergency vehicles barreled past. 

“I never got flipped off more,” Pettit recalls with a laugh. 

In the end, it paid off. The lions had a new home at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, while the wildcats roamed at the Wildlife Safari Park in Ashland.  

 “Working with animals is always an adventure,” says Pettit, superintendent of the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari (located in Ashland). He has overseen the 440-acre enclosure since it first opened in 1998.  

Gary Pettit holds a screech owl in a restricted-access portion of the Wildlife Safari Park.

Pettit, 53, landed his first job at the Omaha Zoo right out of college in 1988. He earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, but his plan of becoming a game warden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed after applying at the zoo. He found his passion. Pettit even fell in love on the job, meeting his now-wife, Linda. (She still works at the zoo, too, as supervisor of the dietary kitchen for feeding animals.)

Pettit worked as a keeper specializing in birds, cats, ferrets, and bears. He learned animals can be unpredictable. How do keepers have the courage to work with lions who weigh between 265 and 420 pounds? 

“We don’t,” Pettit says, chuckling. 

It is always wise to keep a close eye out for any giraffes who might be in the mood to play a little joke, he adds. Pettit has firsthand knowledge of this after one snuck up behind him to kick him into a pool of water while he was giving a talk in front of hundreds of people. 

Ten years later, the zoo planned to open the Ashland conservation and safari park. Pettit jumped at the chance to be involved since he understood land management from his previous work with the Nebraska Forest Service. 

The park formed under his rough callused hands—with help from a small crew of colleagues, “his rocks.” Pettit built roads, cut down trees, and bulldozed. He continued working part-time with the bird crew at the zoo until he earned a permanent spot as the safari park’s superintendent.

At first, the Ashland acreage was not meant to be open to the public. It was for research, conservation, and breeding—a quiet spot with little human contact, conducive for resident animals trying to get busy. 

The scene might be familiar to human users of dating apps like Tinder. A male will walk down “lover’s lane” to meet a female, Pettit says. She gets to decide to swipe right (by purring or rolling on her back) or left (with defensive body language). This way, cheetahs have a lot of options in the dating pool. Plus, it doesn’t waste an entire year of breeding season. The formula has proven successful, with the rural Nebraskan park producing 90 percent of the cheetahs in North America. Construction has already started for on-site tiger breeding, which should be finished by the end of 2018. 

The Wildlife Safari Park’s Cheetah Breeding Center is closed to the general public.

Another portion of the safari park off-limits to the general public is reserved for veterinary care for raptors. No, not the dinosaur variety—hawks, owls, and bald eagles. 

Most of the animals are trained to walk next to the fence into a tube so it is easier to administer shots—which is much easier on them than knocking them out. 

The safari park’s conservation mission is part retirement home as well. Two female cheetahs hang out together in one cage. Tearmark, the oldest cheetah in North America at 17, paces the floor (a mixture of compost so it is easier on the joints). She flashes her teeth and shows off her tawny, black-spotted coat. Her companion, 13-year-old Sukari, observes with her amber eyes from the shadows during a hot summer day. 

Slumbering in another part of the park is a 500-pound black bear named Starsky. He grew up on garbage and was confiscated from a private individual who had him illegally in eastern Nebraska. Because of illness, he is blind.

After opening, half of the park transformed into a North American drive-thru where people could see wolves, bears, and bison roaming the tall grasses of the prairie. 

It became apparent the zoo would need someone at the growing park 24/7. Pettit would get calls in the middle of the night to check out an “elk” hit by the side of the road, only to learn it was a deer. Or someone needed to bottle-feed the babies. 

So, Pettit built his house right in the safari park with support from his wife. Their three kids grew up playing ball in the parking lot. Pettit drinks his morning coffee while watching wild elk at sunrise. His “backyard” is full of critters. 

“I don’t have a typical day,” Pettit explains. 

Pettit builds fences or assists his employees with the animals. During a drive around the park, he waves to visitors. When Pettit stops to chat, he shares stories about the animals as if they were members of his family. After all, they are.

White pelicans (who love to block traffic) are a recurring nemesis for the keepers of the safari park. As soon as the flock hears the four-wheeler coming, they waddle over to the side. Pettit then points out some freeloading geese who stopped by to enjoy the wetlands. 

He has to watch for animals who try to sneak into the park. Amorous bachelor elk traveling down the Platte River Valley are not welcome rivals for the resident males. Neither are unexpected human visitors. 

At night, along with his trusty terrier sidekick, Cooper, Pettit rides his four-wheeler to ensure everything is running smoothly.

On such a frosty winter morning years ago, Pettit took his spotlight out to check out the animals. He could hear someone faintly calling out from a remote part of the park. Pettit flashed the light on a man who was hanging upside down, pants down, with no shoes on. The man, obviously on drugs, told Pettit he had been sleeping with the ostriches. Although it keeps him on his toes, Pettit wouldn’t change his “ranch-style” life.

“This fits me. The wide open space, sharing it with my family, it’s a wonderful place,” Pettit says. 

After a long day out in his wild office, Pettit loves to sit around the fire pit with his wife at night. Wolves howl, cranes call, and elks bugle in the distance. Cooper paces back and forth. He barks back, reminding them all who the real superintendent of the park is. 

Visit wildlifesafaripark.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Ally In

December 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like many pre-teen girls, Ally Dworak loves animals. Unlike most 12 year olds, Ally doesn’t just think about animals. She raises them, studies them, and has made it her life’s mission to create a better world for her four-legged friends.

While most elementary school students are years from choosing a career path, this future veterinarian already comes with references. She understands that it is going to take a lot of schoolwork—specifically eight years of college—to reach that goal, but that doesn’t phase her.

“I love studying science and nature, I love animals, and I love meeting new people. Being a vet is just a way to combine all of these things I love,” she says.

The title “veterinarian” could cover anything from poodles to porpoises, and Ally loves them all. She fully understands that at some point, she’s going to have to narrow her field of study, and she’s thinking about going in a unique direction.

“I think I’d really like to learn more and maybe work with wolves. There’s a sanctuary in Colorado I’d really love to visit, and maybe study at,” Ally says. “They’re so pretty, and it’s so cool how they work in ranks. I like the way they work together. They’re kind of like us.”

She really loves dogs, which is not uncommon for a future vet. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2016, 65.5 percent of all private-practice vets were in companion-animal exclusive practices, and 61.2 percent of those vets were women.

But Ally’s pony, Buttercup, also needs care, and Ally might want to work with horses. Mom Shellee Dworak is helping her to figure this out.

“My mom is working to set things up for me to spend a day with a vet,” Ally says. “Dr. Michael Thomassen at Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic is going to let me come with him and learn what he does all day. He gives horses their vaccinations and checkups, makes sure they’re healthy before a family takes them in. He does everything and he’s really so great!”

She wanted to spend the day there last year, but Dr. Thomassen said she needed to be at least 12 before shadowing him. Most students shadow in high school. Shellee is also looking at the possibility of Ally shadowing at Ralston Vet Clinic, where the family takes their small animals.

In the meantime, the Elkhorn Grandview sixth grader has been pushing her animal care dreams along on her own. She has been a member of 4-H since starting Clover Kids at age 5, and has successfully raised, and shown, several animals.

“Last year I showed a sheep,” she says.

Actually, she didn’t just show a sheep. She won Reserve Champion Junior Sheep Lead. The champion was her sister, Kate.

This year, Ally pulled no punches. In addition to her schoolwork, family obligations, and maintaining her social calendar, she intensely prepared several animals for scrutiny.

“I showed a pig, a sheep, a goat, a chicken, and a horse. At the last minute, I decided to show my pet green-cheeked conure (small parrot), Sherbet. He won first place!”

As did her goat, chicken, and horse. It took many hours of care to prepare for the fair, including learning more about veterinary science. Aggie the pig got a hernia in June. Concerned about what to do for her ailing pig, she peppered their veterinarian, Dr. Lupin, with questions.

With the help of the veterinarian, and the future veterinarian, Aggie recovered well. He then placed a respectable third at the fair.

Ally brings out the winning spirit in her charges. Her tireless enthusiasm is as much a sight as the creatures she nurtures to award-winning health and status.

This future veterinarian is well on her way to nursing, as well as nurturing, animals.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo

November 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Like most teenagers, Ellie Morrison has made many new friends during her high school career. But what makes her experience unique is that, in addition to classmates and teachers, some of Ellie’s friends include emperor scorpions, African penguins, gibbons, lions, and other resident creatures of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

The 17-year-old Papillion-La Vista High School senior is enrolled in her second year of Zoo Academy, a partnership between Henry Doorly Zoo and several local school districts, through which more than 90 high school juniors and seniors during the 2017/2018 academic year will study advanced zoology classes at the zoo, complete high school, receive college credit, and explore animal-related career paths. The program launched in 1995.

“My favorite part of Zoo Academy is— surprisingly enough—not the animals, but the people,” Morrison says. “The teachers especially are amazing and always do whatever they can to help you.”

Morrison starts her days at her home high school with band, choir, and chemistry classes. After third hour, she heads to the zoo, has lunch with friends, then resumes classes there at 11:45 a.m. Zoo Academy offers typical core classes—such as English and sociology—alongside zoo research, vet science, anatomy, and zoology, all taught by school district instructors. Some students attend all day, others part of the day, like Morrison.

Morrison has also volunteered at Henry Doorly Zoo for the past eight years, beginning with the XYZ (eXplore Your Zoo) volunteer program for grades 4-6, continuing into Junior Crew for junior high school volunteers, and culminating in Zoo Crew, the volunteer program for grades 9-12.

Zoo Crew volunteers do guest education and interaction throughout the zoo, help with special events, animal enrichment, outreach programs, and (in some cases) work with keepers. While she’s a lifelong animal lover, Morrison says she was a bit shy and not a total people person when she began volunteering. Her experiences at the zoo helped her gain confidence, people skills, and knowledge, which she now fosters in younger volunteers.

“The best part is knowing that I made the same transition myself, and that I’ve helped them become the people that I now know them to be,” she says.

Morrison also enjoys educating zoo-goers about conservation and the animal kingdom.

“Sometimes, the best part of my week is watching children and adults alike learn something new about the world,” Morrison says. “It’s always really nice to be able to teach something and have them walk away with a little bit more than they came in with.”

The animal interaction is a definite perk of the program. In her junior year zoology class, she helped clean, feed, and care for a trio of emperor scorpions, affectionately called “Larry, Moe, and Curly” after The Three Stooges.

“I’ve never been that close to a scorpion before, and it’s a little terrifying at first. But getting to know them, they all had different personalities. Like, one of them always ate all the food,” Morrison says.

She’s come to know many of the animals’ unique personalities and idiosyncrasies. For example, a certain roar from Mr. Big—a beloved lion who passed away in 2015—meant that someone was in his favorite spot. Morrison also came to learn that happy chatter from the gibbons in the morning could set a pleasant tone throughout the zoo for the day.

“I like the African penguins a lot,” Morrison says. “They’re super funny and always come up to say hello. There’s a penguin named Lucius who will follow you around and sit on your feet if he likes you.”

Before Zoo Academy, Morrison considered a veterinary career, but through her work and education at the zoo, she’s now leaning toward a more research-based wildlife career.

“I love going out into the field and doing research, observing and recording what’s happening,” Morrison says. “It’s really cool discovering things [beyond] what’s already known.”

From volunteer work to academics, Morrison says her time with the zoo has been a “game-changer on so many levels,” and it will be a part of her life forever.

“It’s a completely unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else,” Morrison says. “At a top-rated zoo in the world, there are definitely some things that are one of a kind: the keepers, the animals, just the atmosphere itself is completely unique.”

Visit omahazoo.com/education/volunteer/ youth to learn more about youth volunteer and educational opportunities at the Henry Doorly Zoo.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Frequent Flyers

March 29, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

When the world’s elite horses (and riders) arrive in Omaha, an entourage of police and first responders—including mounted patrol—will escort them to the location of the Longines FEI World Cup. The international championship for show jumping and dressage begins March 29 and continues through April 2 at the CenturyLink Center.

European competitors depart from Amsterdam, Netherlands, aboard a chartered Boeing 777 cargo plane that takes more than nine hours to reach Omaha.

The flight requires horses to be loaded into specialized containers called “jet stalls,” which resemble an enclosed stable stall. Jet stalls can hold up to three horses. The charter flight includes a “pro groom,” nine shipper grooms, and a veterinarian—all provided by the company overseeing the transportation, the Dutta Corporation.

Horses at this elite level are well-seasoned air travelers, making the journey seem almost routine, says J. Tim Dutta, the founder and owner of the international horse logistics company.

“Horses are just like human beings,” Dutta says. “Some get jittery, some read the rosary, some like some gin and tonic, some go to sleep before the plane leaves the gate, and the rest are worried about life two days afterward. Everybody’s an individual, and we are ready for each and every situation.”

Any concerns or worries, he says, are the things that can’t be entirely controlled or predicted—such as poor weather conditions or a horse getting sick during transportation.

“You’ve got a couple hundred million dollars worth of horses on the plane, so that’s serious business,” he says. “You want everything to go smooth, and there’s always challenges. But for a guy like me who’s been at it for 28 years, and has done quite a few of them, it’s just another day at the office.”

Once the horses arrive in Omaha, they will be quarantined at the CenturyLink Center for up to three days while the USDA checks for diseases and other potential health concerns.

Veterinarian Mike Black—based out of his Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic just outside of Blair—says any adverse effects of a long journey would be the same for horses whether they traveled by trailer or airplane. It’s not unusual for humans and animals to struggle through temporarily weakened immune systems due to stress and long periods of confinement with other travelers.

“Whenever the animal is put under stress, it will compromise some of their ability to respond to infections,” Black says. “And a lot of horses are carriers of viruses and things. So, as they’re around other horses that they’re not normally around, then things can be spread.”

When the competition opens March 29, folks without a ticket will have an opportunity to get a closer look at all the horse-and-rider teams. The practice area will be free and open to all.

Mike West, CEO of Omaha Equestrian Foundation, hopes to create a fan-friendly and carnival-like atmosphere.

The World Cup is the first international championship of its kind to be hosted in Omaha, he says. Sure, there have been championship boxing bouts in the city. And the NCAA crowns the champions of college baseball in Omaha. But never before will so many world champions prove themselves on local grounds.

Back in 1950, when the College World Series first came to Omaha, nobody could have expected how the “Gateway to the West” would become a Midwestern sports mecca.

“They didn’t know about swim trials; they didn’t know about NCAA basketball or wrestling or volleyball and all the great events that we have now,” says West, a veteran Omaha sports-marketing professional. He previously held management positions with the Lancers, Cox Classic Golf Tournament, and Creighton’s athletics department.

The Omaha Equestrian Foundation is not only dedicated to putting on a good show. West and his colleagues are committed to continuing the city’s relationship with the FEI, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (aka, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports), the governing body for the sports of show jumping and dressage.

“We have an opportunity, but we also have an obligation as an organizer to do a good job. Because if we do a good job, we don’t know what it will lead to, but we know it will lead to something [positive],” he says.

A successful 2017 World Cup in Omaha could improve chances of the World Cup returning, along with its estimated economic impact of $50 million.

“We have to be better than anybody—by far—at listening and delivering on our promise to the fans of this sport,” West says. “And if we do, I think we’ll develop a reputation that if you want to be treated like a fan [of sports], go to Omaha, Nebraska.”

Visit omahaworldcup2017.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.


October 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In this issue we are taking inspiration from all things Wes Anderson! The masked characters on our cover were inspired by the strange, large painting hanging above the couch in the 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. The masks themselves were inspired by the disguises worn to hide from adults in Anderson’s 2012 Moonrise Kingdom. Whether you are a grown man posing intimidatingly on a four-wheeler, or a 12-year-old running from consequences, a good mask ignites adventure and makes you feel like you can get away with anything.

What You’ll Need:

  • Felt (assorted colors)
  • Scissors
  • Hot glue gun
  • Spray adhesive
  • 1/4” elastic band


  1. If you are not naturally gifted at visualizing shapes to build a critter, there are all kinds of great templates that you can find and print out on Pinterest or Etsy.
  2. Cut out shapes from paper, then place them on a piece of felt of the same color. Lightly trace around the shape with a pen, and cut out that piece of felt with scissors.
  3. Continue this until you have all of the shapes cut to form an entire mask. I doubled the felt for any piece of the mask considered to be a “base” in order to make the mask a bit sturdier by spraying one layer with an adhesive, laying it on top of another piece, and cutting my shape out of both pieces at once.
  4. When layering the mask together, flip over cut-out pieces so that you do not see any pen marks that you have made. Keep in mind that the mask will look backwards compared to your template, but the result will be much cleaner.
  5. Make sure that all of the pieces are in order before hot-glueing each piece in its place.
  6. Cut a hole on either side of the mask and feed the elastic band through the holes. Tie the elastics to the masks, and you are ready for a night as a woodland critter!




Steady As She Goes

September 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He’s part man, part machine, and all Steadicam operator. And he’s cleaning up on the screens and streets of New York.

This summer (or any season for that matter), just when you thought it was safe to shoot with a handheld camera, Omaha expatriate Kyle Wullschleger is waging an all-out war on shaky video footage with an iso-elastic arm and inner geekness. And he’s doing it for productions such as Saturday Night Live, Project Runway: All Stars, and Chopped, to name a few.

Not bad for a Heartland kid who originally wanted to be a zookeeper.

“Coming from a wildlife background, I never really was a filmophile,” Wullschleger, 28, says about his recently budding film career from his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn apartment. “It was more about the nerdiness of using a camera and just sort of dorking out about it.”

Before the technophile discovered the power of filmic gadgetry, Wullschleger says he developed a fascination for nature while growing up on his family’s former Christmas tree farm. It was there where the self-described animal lover says he would watch beavers build dams at the edge of his parents’ property and monarch butterflies migrate through the mulberry grove in his backyard.

And it was there where he says he also developed his work ethic.

“Not only did I learn to stop and smell the roses, so to speak,” Wullschleger writes about his childhood on his work-related website, Tree Farm Cinema, “but since trees don’t completely grow themselves, I learned the importance of working hard to create something you’re passionate about.”

While Wullschleger spent the rest of his salad days glued to Marty Stouffer’s PBS animal-documentary series, Wild America, it wasn’t until he says he got a job at Henry Doorly Zoo right out of high school that it occurred to him he could observe animal behavior in a different light.

“While I was at the zoo, I had access to all these amazing animals and that’s when I actually started to pick up a camera,” he says. “The wheels were definitely turning then.”

One thing led to another and Wullschleger suddenly found himself in New York shooting a dystopian spoof about an Andrew Garfield-played character being pursued by government agents for badmouthing a Beyoncé Knowles song and a satirical ad for testicles cologne with Andy Samberg for SNL. It hasn’t been quite the sort of animal behavior that Wullschleger originally had in mind, but it’s afforded him the chance to pursue what he says has probably always been his calling: animal documentaries.

“The hope is to take my experience and connections and decent living and start creating some of my own projects that are more nature-based, because that’s what I really want to be doing,” he says, citing work he’s done with great white sharks and sandhill crane migrations. “To get something started that shows what I’m capable of and what I could do if someone gave me a budget—that’s…well, that’s the big dream.”


Nature up close

August 7, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

With only a handful of part-time and seasonal employees, the very survival of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, Inc. (NWRI)—and the thousands of creatures who receive rehabilitative care from the organization every year—depends on the contributions of nearly 70 volunteers.

“Not everyone comes to us with animal skills per se, but what we’re looking for are people who are dedicated,” says NWRI Executive Director Laura Stastny. “We need them, and more importantly, the animals need them in order to be returned to the wild. It’s not easy work, but it’s really, really rewarding.”

The Easterday family exemplifies the best in volunteerism, Stastny says. Anne Easterday and her 16-year-old daughter Zoë, who will soon be joined by 22-year-old son Colin, help out at the NWRI wildlife center in Louisville or in their home with tasks from cleaning and maintenance to caring for litters of baby opossums around the clock. And the relationship with NWRI has really become a family affair; three more Easterday siblings (there are seven total) are too young to officially sign on as volunteers, but they pitch in where they can with tasks like changing cage bedding or helping build enclosures.

“That family is fantastic. There’s nothing that phases them and they show all of the qualities we look for. They show true dedication and they’re willing to not only take the education they’re given, but to educate themselves and really work in the best interest of the animals,” Stastny says. “They’re amazing and we’re thrilled to have them.”

The Easterdays first connected with NWRI through a Google search after finding a stranded wild water bird.

“I had found a pied-billed grebe that had gotten knocked down in a storm and was running down the street in my subdivision. I didn’t know what it was at the time, just that it was a bird that was unable to fly. So I picked it up and brought it home and tried to find somebody to take it,” Easterday recalls. “It was actually fine. I didn’t know that a pied-billed grebe has to have water in order to take off.”

Later that summer, the family turned to NWRI again after finding a fledgling grackle with an injured wing. “We called again and turned it over so somebody could take care of it, and my kids and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we actually knew what to do to help these things?’” Easterday says. It was Zoë who first suggested volunteering for the organization.

“I just really love animals, especially wild ones, and the idea of taking care of them and help them was amazing to me,” Zoë Easterday says. Although NWRI volunteers can help with tasks like answering phones and assisting with fundraising efforts, she and her mother signed up for the basic wildlife training program together to become qualified to work directly with animals. “I didn’t actually really know what to expect,” she says. “It can be a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it.”

Unfortunately, not all injured and orphaned animals survive to be re-released, and that’s just one of the life lessons the Easterday family has learned in their time with NWRI, says Anne Easterday.

“It really brings home the impact that human beings have on the lives of creatures that naturally live around us,” she says. “The kids have really learned and understand that these aren’t pets; they’re wild animals and there’s a difference.”

“The mission of Nebraska Wildlife Rebhab is two-fold: the first is to rescue, rehabilitate and re-release into the wild native wildlife and migratory birds. The second part of our mission is a very strong educational mission,” Stastny says. “The majority of the wildlife that we get comes to Nebraska Wildlife Rehab due to interference by human beings, often unnecessary interference. It’s only by education that we are going to teach people to live in harmony with wildlife.”

Wild animals are not suitable for adoption, Stastny says, which is why the group focuses on returning animals to their natural habitats and doesn’t keep animals in activity for educational purposes. “There are so many reasons for this but if nothing else, it boils down to the fact that it’s illegal for someone without a permit to have a possession of wild animal. So let’s start there,” she explains. “And while wild animals may be cute when they are really young, they mature and start thinking of things mature animals think about, and they can become really aggressive.”

Eastern cottontail rabbits are the species seen most frequently at NWRI, followed by songbirds and bats. Other creatures indigenous to Nebraska and seen at NWRI include opossums, raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and badgers, Stastny adds. Certain species or creatures from other parts of the country (usually transported unintentionally) may be referred to more appropriate organizations such as the Nebraska Humane Society, the Nebraska Herpetological Society or the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. These and other animal organizations also bring referrals to NWRI.

Zoë Easterday says that her favorite NWRI experience so far has been helping usher Canada goslings to one of their first swimming expeditions. Anne Easterday says her most meaningful assignment was assisting with a great blue heron receiving medical treatment after an encounter with fishing line.

“I got to hold this great blue heron in my lap and grasp its beak,” she says. “For me, it was really special. I’ve always personally loved animals, since I was a child. I feel incredibly blessed to have such close contact with things you usually only see from a distance.”


Selfless Selfishness

January 11, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A recent visit to the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS) found volunteer Chet Bressman deep into an adoption consultation with Sara Edwards, Amanda Hoffman, and a pup of questionable parentage named Nina. There had apparently just transpired a minor spat of sorts, and Bressman was setting things aright so that an interview could begin in earnest.

“No big problem,” Bressman explained. “It’s just that she was getting a little mouthy, and we had to…the dog…Nina…Nina was getting mouthy…not either of these nice young ladies,” the amiable Bressman sputtered as the women made an unsuccessful attempt to suppress giggles.

“Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
— Pam Wiese, NHS Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing

Bressman was working adoption duties that day, but his other efforts over the last 15 years have included everything from building kennels to driving the PAW mobile adoption unit and more. His tireless dedication—60 hours a week of volunteering is not uncommon for him— led to him and his wife, Louise, being recognized by NHS with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Chet and Louise are fixtures here at the Nebraska Humane Society,” says Pam Wiese, the organization’s vice president of public relations and marketing. “Chet has been here so long and has put in an incredible number of hours. Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

The couple, both longtime volunteers, met at NHS and dated for four years before being married over 10 years ago. “She came with all her papers and licenses in order,” Bressman quips.


Bressman was part of the organization’s team that traveled to coastal Mississippi on an animal rescue mission in the devastating wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and he joined the ASPCA team for a similar trek to Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado wrought destruction on that town in 2011.

Bressman’s commitment to animals knows no geographic boundaries, but his heart, he says, will always be for the sprawling NHS complex near 90th and Fort streets.

“I want the Nebraska Humane Society to be the very first words people think of when it comes to new pets,” he says. “There are so many puppy mills and so much bad breeding out there, and we don’t put up any unhealthy animals for adoptions. It’s a win-win situation in every way. It’s a win for the animal, for the adopting family, and it’s a win for the community because every adoption opens a new space here for us to do it all over again.”

“He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”
— Sara Edwards

The Bressmans live with Golden Retriever Buddy (11) and cat Sophie (17). Last year they lost Gracie, but her memory lived on when NHS commissioned a caricature of the Golden Retriever for use as the official mascot of the nonprofit’s annual Walk for the Animals.

Back in the adoption room—one brightly painted in the hue of cheery sunflowers—Bressman was coaching Edwards and Hoffman on some of Nina’s special needs. The dog, a Boxer-Dalmatian mix, was born deaf, and that meant the learning of hand signals along with other tips.

“Fold your hands,” Bressman gently explained to Hoffman, but not before she playfully wiped some of Nina’s slobber onto Edwards’ sweater. “That’s right. Now turn away from Nina. You got it.”


Safety was also paramount in the discussion because each woman, both recently divorced, had a young child at home. Neither of the kids knew that Nina—an early Christmas present—would be awaiting introductions when they returned from school that day.

“Chet was great to work with,” Edwards says. “He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”

“More like an adoption god,” adds Hoffman. “We couldn’t believe it when we learned he is a volunteer. He should have his own show on Animal Planet.”

“I knew that was going to be a good adoption. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love and care.”
— Chet Bressman

Bressman was equally happy with how Nina’s adoption unfolded. “I knew that was going to be a good adoption,” he says. “I always know. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love 
and care.”

And then Bressman admits that he, the seemingly selfless co-winner of such an august award as the Lifetime Achievement honor, secretly harbored the most selfish of motives in his interaction with Edwards, Hoffman, and Nina.

“Best of all, it’s a big win-win for me, too,” he beams. “That one made my day!”

Visit nehumanesociety.org for more on Nebraska Humane Society adoptions, programs, and events.

Life Through a Lens

January 10, 2014 by
Photography by Rick Anderson

You have seen his work, although you may not know his name. He’s the man behind the iconic aerial stadium posters of the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the last 20 seasons. Whether it’s his peaceful imagery of rural farm scenes welcoming visitors to Alegent Creighton’s Bergan Mercy Medical Center or his engaging shots of Omaha decorating Mayor Jean Stothert’s office, the work of famed photographer Rick Anderson seems to be popping up everywhere lately.

Anderson travels the world in search of the next big “get.” Success in photography can’t be planned, and it can happen in the blink of an eye—the flash of a shutter. Like the moment lightning strikes. He goes island-hopping on cruise ships that he calls “taxicabs.” “It’s like I’m going on an Easter egg hunt looking for the next egg, whether it’s a flower or a palm tree or a chicken running in the street in the Virgin Islands.” He’s sloshed about in the foamy Costa Rican waters capturing waves next to a volcano. He’s camped out in the Yukon National Forest’s wintery white snowscape and has soaked in the dead silence of the scrubby Sandhills of Nebraska. From the sunny coasts of Hawaii to the glacial peaks of Alaska, there is no trek too far for a man who is truly enthralled by the beauty of the world that surrounds him.


The sign of a true artist, he admits that he is not even in control of his destinations. He’s just along for the ride, much like a tornado. “Then the wind catches me, and I’m caught up in my own tornado, and it’s turning me and turning me,” he says. “It’s like the wind is taking me on this endless journey. In the back of my mind I’m thinking this has got to surface someday where I see the other side of the rainbow, and it all makes sense.”

Anderson speaks in snapshots. He describes his humanitarian mission to Cuba. “I went on a sailboat. We pulled into Havana at sunrise. I pulled into the harbor, and the sun was coming up, and all the lights were glistening in the water,” he says. “It was one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Even as a little boy he was hypnotized by the lens and the eye-catching objects they bring into focus. He remembers being about 8 years old in the mid-’70s and chasing the hot air balloons that would launch near the Miracle Hills area where he grew up, which was the edge of town at the time. “I would run up to my bedroom and get my little 110 camera, run down, hop on my bike, and I would chase those balloons just to take pictures of them,” he says.


It was later in his life that he would realize photography as his true passion. As an adult, he instinctively picked up the camera after the birth of his son. “I photographed him every day. I had a knack for taking photos.” He next tackled windmills, then sunsets, then sunsets and windmills together. He decided to set up a camera and shoot the lights with the sunset at Gene Leahy Mall. Then he was on to something. His friends were impressed. “They were like, ‘Wow, Rick, this is really good.’ I got goosebumps. I got kind of a high off of that.” It was his “aha” moment. “I had a purpose. I could do something,” he says.

Alaska is his favorite locale to capture the moment. “I have no words for it. You don’t know where to point your camera. There is just so much, whether it was just a simple pinecone or a little trickling stream. I saw 29 bears in three-and-a-half days.” But he is just as happy driving a few hours down the road to the Nebraska Sandhills, where one can hear crickets, prairie dogs, and the occasional cow. “You can hear a meadowlark and a train maybe off in the distance. It’s just a beauty all of its own. People have no idea what they are missing by just going out there and smelling the wildflowers.”

Artists—all artists—have a knack for capturing and expressing magic, but Anderson demurs that luck has at least a little to do with it. “It’s like going fishing. Sometimes you come back with the big one, sometimes you don’t.”

Bringing Community Responsibility to Life

May 25, 2013 by

Pythons. Hooded Pitahuis. Pygmy Marmosets.

Omaha is known by many across the nation because of Wild Kingdom, Mutual of Omaha’s primetime television show that brought animals to life in our living rooms.

But the show’s impact has been more profound for us (Omahans) than it has ecologically speaking. We identify with and claim the show’s reputation as our own. We feel community pride because, after all, it’s Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This pride generates a strong sense of community responsibility. So maybe not coincidentally, community responsibility is accepted as one of the five Omaha City Values.

Wild Kingdom is one of the coolest examples in Omaha of what is called “traditional philanthropy.” This kind of philanthropy refers to the age-old practice of companies making cash donations or in-kind contributions to worthy causes. Most companies participate in traditional philanthropy because of their sincere desire to be involved in their communities and/or to give something back. Traditional philanthropy promotes reciprocity that produces important business benefits, including increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention, and enhanced corporate reputation.

As compared to traditional philanthropy, strategic philanthropy is a concept that has grown in prominence since the 1990s. This kind of charity involves a process where companies align their community relations initiatives with their core business products and services. Instead of a Wild Kingdom animal television show sponsored by an insurance firm (What’s the connection there?), corporations donate to specific community projects that align with their core competencies. For example, ConAgra does strategic philanthropy by focusing its charity on food and hunger issues, like Kids Cafés.

Some organizations are finding ways to impact their communities through employee engagement practices. Firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) recognize that young professionals crave choice. So they’ve created an innovative program for performance incentives that offers a choice to support a cause in their name. Every staff member gets to choose how they receive their incentive—cash, a charity match, a tech package, or a gift card. This is an ingenious way to bring community responsibility to life.

At the furthest end of the community responsibility spectrum are social enterprises. These organizations flip the capitalist model on its head. Maximizing profits is no longer the purpose of these businesses. Profit is a means to a broader end of enhancing the well-being of the community. Nonprofits, as well as for-profits like Herman Miller, Grameen, and PlanetReuse, are bringing community responsibility to life in this way. Their employees and clients are supporting their model with extreme loyalty.

From traditional philanthropy to social enterprise, we challenge Omaha businesses to continue to enjoy the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that come from bringing community responsibility to life. And don’t forget—a sense of community responsibility starts with our kids. One of the ways the Business Ethics Alliance has promoted this is with our team of moral superheroes who live in the Itty Bitty City at the Omaha Children’s Museum. Take your kids to the museum and kick-start their sense of community responsibility by spending time with superhero Reese.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.