Judy Bell started at the Zoo in 1977 and has been with the Horticulture Department since 1987.
Every great organization has folks who stand out in their passion for what they do. It’s easy to see in the results of their work. Judy Bell is that type of gardener. She has worked in the Heart of the Zoo (an area that includes Monkey Trails, Absolutely Apes, Gorilla Tropics, and the bonobos) at the San Diego Zoo since 1991. Being in that area for so long, Judy has developed a unique relationship with the primates that probably wouldn’t occur to most visitors. That connection is where the flora meets the fauna.
One of the things that keeps Judy excited about coming to work is what she does to help provide the animals in her area with an incredible living space. She is in charge of keeping up the landscape all around the Heart of the Zoo. Judy does a great deal to create and maintain the tropical rain forest experience for guests, but she says her favorite part of the job is what she does inside of exhibits. Creating dense, jungle-like settings so the apes feel at home, coming up with ideas for giving them places of respite (Judy calls them “zones of privacy”) from the crowds when they need that, and providing the animals with enrichment items is very satisfying. Judy recently planted an “enrichment garden” with leftover plants from our Spring Garden Celebration. Now she’s able to bring treats such as basil and rosemary to the keepers to help enrich the sensory experience of the primates in the area.
Along with working so near to the animals, Judy says she loves to work with the keepers in the area who are so passionate about the work they do. She enjoys seeing new keepers coming in who are really interested in doing all they can to enrich the lives of the animals with which they work.
As she walks through the Zoo, Judy is constantly reminded of the unique and special place it is. “How many places can you go and see such wonderful and unique plants, and see bonobos playing in the grass, or siamangs playing in trees in the same space as the orangutans?” Judy muses.
Judy got her degree in the fine arts, along with an associate of science in horticulture. If you get the opportunity to wander through the Heart of the Zoo, you will notice the manifestation of her artful eye in many of the gardens there. See some of her creativity at work in the carnivorous Bog Garden (pictured) in lower Monkey Trails and the area surrounding the Albert’s Restaurant patio, where some of Judy’s favorite plants, the epiphytes, grow from trees and rock wall. Besides these and many other marvelous landscapes in the human part of the Zoo, remember to look for the personal touches displayed within the homes of the non-human primates who live in the forest around Gorilla Tropics and Absolutely Apes.
Mychael McNeeley is a lead gardener at the San Diego Zoo.
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