Life on the Wild Side: Brian Dowling’s surprising, satisfying career
From Contact magazine, Spring 2014
Sometimes destiny stares you right in the face.
Picture a seven-year-old boy staring transfixed at two man-eating lions, stuffed and on display at Chicago’s Field Museum. He would get a good grade on his school report about the notorious killers of Tsavo, Kenya.
Flash forward to today and this seven-year-old is now the general curator for Lion Country Safari, the renowned drive-through wild animal park in western Palm Beach County.
Brian Dowling never imagined this would be his career when he was growing up a stone’s throw away at the intersection of Lake Worth Road and Route 441. Thankfully, Palm Beach Community College interceded.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t have direction.…Then at PBCC, I stumbled across a professor who really struck a chord with me.”
Dowling entered PBCC directly from high school in 1991 and enrolled in a biology class to satisfy an A.A. degree requirement. The night class was taught by Professor Michael Boxer, a former Navy Seal who would talk about his experiences that included taking a year off after he left the military to sail around the world. Inspired, Dowling found himself motivated.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t have direction. I went to college because I was supposed to. Then at PBCC, I stumbled across a professor who really struck a chord with me. I was so amazed by this guy. I really liked listening to his stories and wanted to follow in similar footsteps.”
Follow he did. After two years at PBCC, Dowling joined the Navy “because I wanted to see the world a little bit.” He returned home from the Persian Gulf in 1996 and started job hunting. Thinking he’d like to work with marine animals, he went up to Orlando to try his luck at SeaWorld, only to find that he was one of 1,000 applicants. Then sitting around the kitchen table back home with his mom, she suggested he apply for a job at Lion Country Safari.
“It never dawned on me that this is what I wanted to do, but somebody gave me a chance. I started off at the bottom, rakin’ up monkey poop every day and worked my way up,” says Dowling with a wry smile. “Now I run the whole wildlife department. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Dowling earned his Bachelor of Science in Biology from Florida Atlantic University at night, and while he credits Professor Boxer for setting him on his path, he made another important discovery in that PBCC biology class: “College girls want somebody smart who’s going to do something with their life,” recalls Dowling, who became a popular lab partner due to his high test scores. He ended up marrying Adrienne, a young woman in the class, and credits her with making him “a better person.” They now have three daughters.
Lion Country Safari has attracted more than 22 million guests from around the world since it opened in 1967. As general curator, Dowling is in charge of 40 employees taking care of more than 1,000 animals from six continents, representing 96 species of birds, reptiles and mammals. The mammals, including the largest herds of rhinos and zebras in the country, roam free on 320 acres.
“These animals are ambassadors for their species,” says Dowling, who also oversees the park’s conservation program to help replenish endangered species. “They represent their species to people, especially to younger generations. I look at it this way: I have an obligation to these animals and to their species to make sure that our guests learn about these animals, are inspired by them and want to help conserve them and protect them.”
As he moved up the ranks, Dowling held every “keeper” position for every type of animal, from chimps to lions to hoofstock (giraffes, antelopes, anything with hoofs). “The variety was exciting, but I think when the day comes that I retire from this job, I will look at building a pride of lions as being my greatest professional success.”
Usually zoos exhibit only two, maybe three lions. Space is one reason, aggression is another. Lion Country Safari takes a unique approach, displaying a whole pride of lions. “Living in a pride, being social, is a normal, natural thing for lions,” Dowling explains. “They sort out their politics through aggression. If lions aren’t able to do their politicking, you take something away from their lives. It’s like telling a bunch of teenage boys not to engage in horseplay. In a lot of zoos, you’ll see the big cats pacing back and forth. You don’t see that here. Living in a pride enriches their lives.”
Yet people, not animals are Dowling’s first priority. “You are only as good as the people you have working for you. My favorite part about the job is seeing how much passion my staff pours into the care of these animals. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
Last year, National Geographic’s Nat Geo Wild channel was scouting locations for its new “Jobs That Bite” television series, which has host Jeremy Brandt trying his hand at the wildest animal jobs in America. Lion Country Safari was chosen as the series opener, and it featured Dowling showing Brandt the ropes. “I just treated the host [Brandt] like a new employee and trained him how to do the job. None of it was staged.”
Brandt assisted in dental surgery on an aging, sedated lion, but the birth of a giraffe just 12 hours earlier gave Dowling and Brandt the unexpected opportunity to perform a neonatal exam. The results: a healthy female newborn weighing in at 171 pounds and measuring 75 inches tall.
“It doesn’t get much cooler than that,” Dowling said on camera. No it doesn’t.