Tag Archives: Zoofari

Saving Animals, Chasing Penguins

May 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As the dedicated diamond buyer for Borsheims, it’s not surprising that Heather Ingraham travels all over the world. She even went to the Falkland Islands recently—but not to inspect precious gems—to look at penguins.

Ingraham, 38, credits her job for inspiring her dedication to animal conservation. It all started with a Zoofari fundraiser for the Henry Doorly Zoo at her work in 2011.

Zoo ambassadors were walking around Borsheim’s luxury salon with animals (penguins, snakes, and bullfrogs). “I was having an amazing time speaking with the keepers, learning about the animals, and one of the keepers at one point told me that I could be doing this, too,” she says.

Since that encounter, Ingraham began volunteering at the zoo almost every Saturday. She gives presentations to the public, assists keepers, and feeds birds, snakes, and rodents.

Her devotion to animal welfare doesn’t stop there. Ingraham also volunteers with Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, an organization that receives injured and abandoned wildlife from the public.

She even keeps some of those animals in her home, including bats. 

“I’m really involved with the bats in the winter,” says Ingraham, who kept 40 bats over the past winter. “They’re supposed to be hibernating. There’re not enough bugs out for them to eat, so we can’t release them.”

If a bat gets in your home during any time of the year, she urges you not to harm it. Call the Nebraska Humane Society instead for a free removal. She says the nocturnal creatures are highly effective pollinators that keep the mosquito population in check to prevent the spread of West Nile virus.

Volunteers like Ingraham keep the bats at home in small containers, feeding them so they gain sufficient weight to hibernate. When the weather warms in spring, they release 200-400 bats at a public event held outside Joslyn Art Museum.

On top of that, she is a Nebraska Humane Society foster parent. Her colleagues call her the “critter foster parent” for taking in all the animals that are not dogs and cats—i.e, rats, gerbils, etc.

Penguins, however, are Ingraham’s obsession.

“I love all birds. I’ve seen close to 600 species of birds,” she says. “It’s just that…penguins hold a special place in my heart. They’re just so comical. They are very devoted parents, and they’re just so different from each other.”

Ingraham has seen penguins in South Africa, Chile, and the Galápagos Islands. Her goal is to see every species of penguin in the wild. She’s currently seen seven. (The nonprofit organization BirdLife International says there are 18 penguin species.)

The Falkland Islands are a popular summer nesting ground for penguins, so Ingraham traveled there in February to take a land-based trip, which allows visitors to see the birds up close. That’s about all the trip entailed. Just watching penguins. No guided tours or other activities.

It was a dream come true for Ingraham. “I saw thousands and thousands of penguins,” she says. “I was surprised at how close I was able to get up to them.”

Lest you think it sounds like a cold trip, the Falklands get very little snow. “They’re actually just kind of in grassy areas,” she says of the flightless birds. “You would see a penguin next to a sheep.” Sheep farming is a popular industry on the British territory in the south Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the diamond buyer’s philanthropic work has also benefited her employer. In fact, as a result of her participating in a baby rhino rescue in South Africa in 2016, Ingraham helped design Borsheims’ Kalahari Dream Diamond Rhino Pendant (an 18-carat gold necklace with a rough diamond selling for $550) with a portion of proceeds going to help Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa where she had volunteered.

Ingraham has many other plans for the future. She’ll be working with bats in Malawi this summer, and besides seeing the rest of the penguin species, she hopes to hug a whale in Mexico, go on a mountain gorilla trek in Rwanda, and work with wallabies in Australia.

“With my involvement at the zoo and volunteering, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming,” she says. “But I want to do everything I possibly can. I want to live a life of education, adventure, and generosity.”

Visit nebraskawildliferehab.org, nehumanesociety.org, and omahazoo.com for more information about the local organizations where Ingraham volunteers.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

“Doc” Simmons

March 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dr. Lee Simmons retired as director of the Henry Doorly Zoo at age 71 in 2009. But apparently he didn’t get the memo about taking it easy. Simmons—called “Doc” by those who know him—still shows up for work daily at Omaha’s zoo.

But not as director. Dennis Pate now holds that position.

After 43 years at the zoo, Simmons was named chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation. Instead of lions and tigers, he nurtures dollars and cents, raising funds for projects, capital investment, and the zoo’s endowment.


Simmons—who led Henry Doorly Zoo to become one of the top zoos in the country—did back off from his 60- to 70-hour work weeks to what he calls “banker’s hours.”  The more relaxed schedule is a reluctant concession to his open-heart surgery in 2008.

Simmons, who has created and developed projects ranging from the Lied Jungle to the Desert Dome, is now wrestling with funding projects that are part of the zoo’s master plan.

Right now, he wants to buy elephants that would be part of a new African grasslands exhibit. Price tag for the exhibit: around $40 million.

Also high on the zoo’s wish list is a magnet high school. Imagine 350-400 high school students with a yen to study biology, zoology, veterinary medicine, science, and nutrition, among other disciplines, going to school every day in a new building on the zoo grounds.

The zoo has hosted a high school for 18 years. Two years ago, students began attending full time. Although carried out through the Papillion/La Vista School District, the zoo hopes to attract students from the entire metro area.

“We would like to cross the river to Council Bluffs,” Simmons says. Price tag for the school: An estimated $20 million. No tax money is involved.

He also continues conducting tours for the zoo’s “Zoofari.” Trips are auctioned at the zoo’s biannual fundraiser. In 2012, he took a group to Tanzania. In May 2014, he and his wife of 55 years, Marie, will escort a group to Botswana. Africa is a favorite destination for the adventurous Simmons.

His active involvement with five professional organizations, including as past president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, also keeps him on the road. Recent trips have been to Prague and Cologne, Germany. Simmons figures he has visited 49 countries plus the Antarctic during his long career.

In 2013, he was selected as the international recipient of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group’s Ulysses S. Seal Award. The honor is given to “people who exemplify innovation in applying science to conservation.” The group noted areas of invention and research where he excelled and his role in conservation projects worldwide.

His work doesn’t end when he leaves his office in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Pavilion. He and Marie run a home-based medical equipment business, manufacturing devices for treating and immobilizing animals. They sell to zoos and wildlife biologists around the world.

His time also is spent organizing the transferral of 50,000 slides to digital files, mostly of animals, that he has taken over the years.

For those asking if Simmons is enjoying his “retirement,” the answer is “yes, he is.”

After office hours, Simmons is writing his memoirs. And he’s had a life well worth writing about. The boy who spent his early youth in Arizona catching snakes went on to pay for his first year of veterinary school by deodorizing skunks. “They make sweet pets,” claims Marie.

Most likely he’ll write about the time he got lost in Vietnam from midnight to dawn. Or working in Russia when the temperature was 28 degrees below zero. Maybe he’ll reveal how he lost the tip of one finger thanks to an orangutan named Ichabod. “Ichabod went after a new zoo keeper,” says Simmons. “I went over to help and he chewed me from the knee up.” Blood was flying, and zookeepers were yelling, but some bystanders were still less than sympathetic. “Two women complained I used profanity and wrote to the mayor demanding I be fired.”

He doesn’t remember using the profanity. He was focused on pain and his missing fingertip but admits that maybe it wasn’t exactly a G-rated moment.

Dr. Jane Potter, the University of Nebraska Medical Center chief of geriatrics and gerontology, says Simmons has made a wise choice in continuing to work. “The key to aging happily and successfully is staying engaged.”

People actively engaged are healthier, feel better, and function better, she says. They have better brain function and mental acuity, better physical function, and fewer sick days.

“We need to do this not only for zoo directors, but provide reduced work schedules for people who do enjoy their jobs and make important contributions.”