No one knows when they make the decision to abandon a pet at the gates of the Dallas Zoo what is going to happen to the animal. And it’s not unusual for zoo employees to find strays on their hands.
A disproportionate number of those animals end up in University Park. Beth Mayfield, who has worked at the Dallas Zoo for 39 years and is retiring at the end of June, just can’t say no when it comes to saving animals.
“When I went to do volunteer work I thought ‘I can’t go to the shelter, ‘cause I’ll take them all home,’ not knowing people drop animals off at the zoo,” Beth said.
Her son Danny, who grew up going to Highland Park schools, was used to finding himself covered in animal hair. On one occasion, Beth said he ruined an enormous Honey Guide costume slipping in one of the furry friends’ vomit.
Danny grew up with five to seven dogs and as many cats, and sometimes the odd bird, roaming around the house.
“She would bring home animals, we would have snakes, birds, I couldn’t even name them all,” Danny said.
Beth adopted enough animals that she was once called away from a tour over the zoo’s loudspeaker because someone had dropped off a Pyrenees (now 6 years old and named Jackson). Everyone knew she was the person to tell.
“Two of my cats were born in the gorilla building,” Beth said. “At one time I thought I had more animals than the zoo had.”
Having so many animals makes it impossible to keep a house clean all the time, Danny said. “It pretty much scarred me. It probably caused my OCD about being clean,” he said. “I won’t let hair in my house, I’m really weird.”
Beth started out as a zoo volunteer in 1978. “I did leave, because I had to get a real job. And then I hated it and I got back to the zoo,” she said. “The only thing I ever really liked was being at the zoo.”
After that, she was hired as the zoo’s special events coordinator. Guiding public and private tours, donor parties, and school groups are all part of her job duties. On a recent Friday, she led a total of 5,000 young students.
“She takes care of us whenever we bring a group out,” said Beverly Sermersheim, a zoo frequenter who has known Beth for 25 years. “She’s really really great with the kids, and she’s so patient … She finds out that we’re gonna be coming and she takes over. And I’m sure she treats everyone like that who comes.”
Surpisingly, Danny doesn’t share his mother’s animal fanaticism. “I do have two cats, which drive me crazy,” he said.
Still, his memories are fond. He remembers his mom bringing animals to his school, Hyer Elementary. “We thought that was pretty cool,” he said.“We always got to go behind the scenes and see the animals in a different light.
“I like it when the school kids are here,” Beth said. “Probably the most important thing [the zoo does] is the education part and the conservation part — saving animals from extinction.”
The zoo mainly acquires animals from other zoos, but it also takes animals from sanctuaries. The elephants, for instance, came from a refuge in drought-striken Swaziland. Zoo admission proceeds benefit various conservation groups.
In the nearly 40 years Beth has worked there, the zoo has gone from public to private, added gorillas, and opened a savannah.
“People always ask me what’s my favorite animal, and I say, ‘Well, it’s the one I’m standing in front of at the time.’ ”
She did admit she has a soft spot for the black rhinos, though.
A highlight for Beth was when a board member took her to Kenya to see the animals she loves in the wild.
“And then we built our savannah,” Beth said, “and it looks exactly like Africa … to hear that in 35 years cheetahs could be extinct, or gorillas — I just can’t imagine a world that doesn’t have those animals.”
Although zoo-goers will find plenty new to entertain them this summer, including the new hippos and a baby giraffe on its way, many will notice Beth’s absence.
“She’s worked her ass off,” Danny said. “There’s nights she’ll work a party and she’s there till 2 in the morning and then she’s back there at 8 o’clock. She’s put in hard work.”
“We’re gonna be missing her for sure,” Sermersheim said. “She’s gonna be hard to replace.”
As for Beth, she said, “I’m not doing anything for six months. I may not leave this house for six months.” But she’ll be kept busy with her mother, who is 92 and still living in University Park, and her grandchildren, now 10 and 15.
While the animal-loving gene may have skipped a generation, Danny says her granddaughter makes up for it. “My daughter wants every animal in the world.”
Dallas Zoo vice president of advancement Lacey LaPointe said Mayfield has been the “heart and soul’ of the zoo for decades.
“Her infectious laugh and giving spirit have been mainstays that will be sorely missed,” LaPointe said. “She always will be part of the fabric that makes the Dallas Zoo great.”