Career paths at the Nashville Zoo are interesting things. Take that of J.G. Auman, who started out as a “snakes and lizards guy” 17 years ago, eventually moved from herpetology to aquatics and now is the entire facility’s Life Support Systems Manager.
What does that mean?
Basically, if animals drink from, live in or swim in a water source, he and his team are responsible for its upkeep.
“We take care of all the large aquatic exhibits in the zoo — filtration, plumbing, water chemistry, installing equipment, designing waterfalls — anything to do with how it looks and operates,” says Auman, whose resume also includes everything from rap artist to fishing guide.
“Every bit of water you see in the park, other than the human-related areas (bathrooms and fountains), that’s us. We also monitor stormwater that comes into the park, and sample the natural stream that runs through it.”
And when Auman talks animals, he’s not speaking in the abstract. You get to know somebody when you’re fiddling with their water day in and day out, and relationships of every level get forged.
While flamingos tolerate humans in their exhibit, for example, he’s not on a first-name basis with the birds. With Prada the alligator, however, the bond is tighter. She’s out of sight at the moment as her area of the zoo is renovated, so she likely enjoys the company. (That said, it should also be noted that her handlers know if they turn their back on her, even though they are out of reach, she’ll swim straight for them.)
“It’s not like we swim in the water with her, but we do go in,” Auman says.
“There are safety protocols, but we’ve trained her to know some commands. If we bang the safety hook on the concrete twice and tell her ‘water,’ she knows she can leave the building and get into her water.”
It’s a time-consuming and exacting job, but for the lifelong animal lover and almost native (his family moved to Mt. Juliet from Ohio in the early 1980s) it’s a way to blend passion with earning a living.
“I got my first pet-store job at Pass Pets, a national chain that had a store in Hickory Hollow Mall,” Auman recalls. “Then the guy who was the store manager opened up his own store and I worked for him for 10 years. I got a lot of experience with reptiles because that store evolved in that direction over time, and that led to my job at the zoo.”
Growing alongside a major Nashville attraction
The Nashville Zoo of 2000 was a fine facility, but a mere shadow of its current self. The site had only been open for 3 years, after the zoo relocated from Joelton to the Grassmere property, which had been left to the city. New buildings and exhibits were planned, but not a reality yet.
Still, it was big enough to keep a herpetologist plenty busy and Auman dove into his reptile work, but would look longingly at the various aquariums and pools.
“I spent all my time as a kid playing in creeks, catching crawfish and minnows,” he says. “I loved aquatic life, and so after I’d been at the zoo a while I decided to go back to school at MTSU and finish my degree. I got a biology degree with an aquatic-animal emphasis, and that helped me land a position in aquatics. The way the zoo was growing, eventually the team grew and I was able to become its supervisor.”
He’s managed that alchemy in other endeavors as well, always turning his interest in something into a professional opportunity.
Take his fishing-guide operation, Tennessee Moving Waters:
- He and a friend like to fish
- They know other people like to fish
- They built a business, and
- National media coverage ensued.
“We’d been fishing together for 20 years and wanted to get serious,” Auman explains. “We decided to specialize in river and stream fishing, which is what we’d been doing, and because that’s what people were always asking questions about. We get people way out into nature, and we do everything from wading trips to kayaking and boating.”
The business exploded.
Auman and his partner have been on NBC Sports and the World Fishing Network (yes, that’s a thing — a big thing), and continually field requests to speak at fishing clubs, as well as sponsorship opportunities.
“Let’s just say it’s grown a little faster than we envisioned,” he deadpans. “It’s pretty cool.”
Don’t call it a comeback
Going back a bit further in time, there’s Auman’s time as a rapper to consider. While he declines to call it a “career,” he will point out that his group, Freedom of Knowledge, is still selling briskly… in Germany.
“My aunt and uncle had a roller rink back in Ohio, and oddly enough that is where I was introduced to rap music,” he says. “Of course, it was 1980s rap, which is slightly different than what we have now. I was intrigued by it, and really dug the original messages I was hearing, so I decided I wanted to get into that.”
So, here’s this guy, working in a pet store, playing with snakes, and wading into Nashville’s underground rap scene (again, a thing). He formed a group, they recorded, saw some success and eventually went off in different directions. But is rap ever really gone? Nope.
“I heard from my brother-in-law that some German record company got ahold of our original recordings, and were selling them as part of a compilation on cassette tape,” he says. “Apparently, there are a ton of kids in Germany and across Europe who are going all retro with old boom boxes and 1980s clothes, and since we had a couple of songs on a couple of labels, we’re out there.
“I’m known as the zoo’s ‘resident rapper,’ so I guess I’m back!”
Meanwhile, back at the waterworks
Even with his growing responsibilities in other arenas, Auman is still laser focused on providing the best aquatic care possible to zoo denizens. That means a day full of rigorous testing, double-checking data and animal interactions.
“First thing every day, we go and look at all our exhibits,” he says.
- “We check all the filtration systems, and that alone takes us about half a day.
- Then we work on new exhibits, such as the bear exhibit now being built. It’s a pretty complex filtration system, because it also will have a freshwater stingray tank.
- Stuff always breaks in my world, so we do a lot of plumbing all the time as well, and it’s way more advanced than home plumbing. You have to take into consideration that we are dealing with living animals. If we make a mistake and something goes wrong, it could kill them.”
Interplay with Prada and other zoo denizens livens up a day full of chemistry, but it’s still all about the measurements. Auman easily tosses around stats for chlorine, alkalinity, pH levels and more, noting that it’s a challenge that never really ends.
“Keeping the water clean for the animals is essential, but it is also crucial for the guests,” he explains. “Some older exhibits are harder to maintain, and the big thing for us is plants. We try to make all the exhibits look as natural as possible, and that means leaves in pools. We spend a lot of time netting leaves.
“It’s simple, mundane stuff, but I can tell you that our flamingo exhibit is one of the best-looking ones in the country. Most have green water that looks and smells horrible, and ours is crystal clear. That means a lot of maintenance.”
The zoo also offers Auman the chance to sneak off into the reptile world on occasion, thus reconnecting with his first love. Snakes and lizards will always hold a special place in his heart, but he says the entire zoo is a pretty magical place to spend the workday.
“I get to see new species of animal, things that I only saw in books as a kid,” he says.
“I love the days new exhibits open, and how excited the public is. It’s been cool to watch the zoo grow, to see things that were just talked about once actually come to life. I get to be involved in the construction of new exhibits, and it’s amazing to see what it takes to form something like this bear exhibit from the ground up. It’s a Peruvian lodge!
“Being a part of what it takes to make something like that happen is really cool.”