FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Brian Keating
December 15, 2020
He’s a bit of a one-man institution, an icon on the Calgary landscape – environmental advocacy, zoo diplomacy, and passionate Calgarian/Albertan, who bills himself as the ‘Owner and Head Naturalist’ at Going Wild.
Many Calgarians will, like me, feel they know Brian Keating even though we’ve never met him. Not because we know his reputation or because we met him during his 30-year association with the Calgary Zoo, read his books, or went on a trip to Africa with him – but because we’ve heard his excitement about animals over the radio during the afternoon drive-time on CBC. I wanted to know more. I reached out to Brian, who readily accepted – we followed COVID guidelines and did the interview outdoors …in November.
The scene is a spectacular oasis in the backyard of the Keating home in Inglewood – set above the berm that saved Inglewood from the big-flood; thanks to a gas-fired heater on the deck, I was entertained for an afternoon of animal stories, zoo stories, travel stories and we were frequently entertained by a red squirrel coming for peanuts which Brian happily doled out.
We were interrupted frequently – each time a fresh bird would fly by or sing, Brian diverted to tell me what species of bird we’d just heard or seen fly overhead, and quickly this article could have easily shifted to many other subjects … but as much as I would have loved hearing anecdotes and getting a birder-education as he regaled me with nature, travel and adventure stories, I wanted to get into the ‘who is Brian, and what makes him go.’
My opening question is always: “Where were you born?” which elicited this answer: “I was born in Medicine Hat.”
He lived there from birth to age six when his family moved to Oyster Bay, New York. Yes, the famous Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay. His dad was a watchmaker, mom was a lab-tech/homemaker. Brian was the #3 kid in a four-kid family. Two older brothers and a younger sister, who was born deaf. The family’s move to New York (the town was East Norwich, was to secure therapy for his deaf younger sister and led to his mom’s work as a speech therapist.
Brian was a self-confessed C-student throughout his school career. He got fascinated by some rat bones he discovered – reconstructed their skeletons, and went in search of more learning …
Fast-forward to 1972, his older brothers had already moved to Calgary for schooling, the family decamped for Calgary. The family’s status was ‘landed immigrant,’ and Brian was age-eligible to be drafted. “I had no clue.”
Brian completed his grade 12 at James Fowler High, where he was top of his class in Machine Shop.
His interest in the outdoors and nature came from camping in the Rockies and involvement in the Junior Forest Ranger program. He wanted to be a forest ranger. Next stop, Lakeland College – not to be a machinist but to do a two-year program in Renewable Resources, Fish and Wildlife Management.
Somewhere in there, a summer job as a naturalist in Creston – where he met Dee. She was on her path to being a doctor.
Back to school – this time to Brandon, where he would earn his B.Sc. Degree in Environmental Studies from Brandon University. He was hooked on his career path, and by then, also hooked on/by Dee. His logistics got complicated because Dee was in school at UBC in Vancouver while Brian took a summer job at Ellesmere Island. There is insufficient room here to repeat the stories – hiking, boat building-diplomacy, hypothermia that nearly killed him, and drilled deeper into him - his concerns for conservation. And there was a need to be closer to Dee, so a return to Calgary because a friend heard about a job at the Calgary Zoo – Education Director. That was 1982. He married Dee. He got the job. He thought he would try it for a year.
His 30-year career with the Calgary Zoo was, in summary, taking our zoo to Africa as much as it was bringing Africa to our zoo. He was an ambassador-at-large – and again, he had many stories to tell of being part environmental-entrepreneur, tour guide, eco-tourism promoter, and zoo builder. As for his retirement in 2010, “It was time…”
The travel and junkets to far-away places might, for ordinary people, pose a health risk – but Brian has his physician-wife Dee (now retired from practice) as his side on most of his adventures. In recent years the combination of book writing, tour leading, film-making in Madagascar, and continued curiosity have taken Brain and Dee to many corners of the world. I’ve been ‘a listener on CBC,’ but hearing Brian describe where he is and what he’s seeing has always been a treat. The COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed the travel, but not diminished Brian’s enthusiasm … the work goes on, he is very involved in many environmental and wildlife causes, public-speaking engagements are now mostly virtual, and he hangs out in his great backyard – right across the Bow River from the zoo he was so much a part of for three decades, just he and me, and that red squirrel.
Also, I know that red squirrel, while native to Calgary, are not native to Inglewood. Who knew? [to see Brian’s clarification on this point – scroll to the bottom of this page]
Why are you successful? “I feel good about what I do. It’s from the heart and driven to protect nature – the celebration of its complexity and beauty. It’s an inner drive, somehow. I realize a healthy planet keeps us healthy. I feel good about what I have been able to accomplish. Helping people understand our need for intact ecosystems. We’ve got to give nature a chance to breathe if we expect to breathe.”
What has held you back? “Nothing much. I’ve had a very lovely life.”
How do you see your business – nature appreciation – going forward over the next quarter?
… right now, during the pandemic, it’s completely flat. We’ve had to cancel all of our trips – and the public speaking work has been all virtual-talks.
And over the next five years?
… as time goes on, the value of wild landscape will become more significant – it’s now reduced so significantly from what it once was. And it’s going to get worse. The urgency will become more clear and more important.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators, and suppliers?
… I don’t buy very much. I work with people I trust and like. People with a sense of humour, and conviction.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Brian Keating, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you over your competitors?
… reputation, people like what I do. I’ve been ‘at this’ since I was 12. I try to be a catalyst so people can show their best. I love doing what I do, and people like that. The magic and collaboration I have with my wife, Dee.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… these days, not-applicable. BUT, when I had a large crew at the zoo, I did have one – I made it my own. I let them be who they were – let them work as independently as possible because we were in it together.
… definitely, during COVID-19, I have it more than ever. I love to work, and my work and weekends have always been fun.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I worry about government policies, like the new ‘coal policy’ that would impact our parks with a resurgence of coal mining.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… in the 7th grade – a science teacher who helped me with my Norway rat-bone anatomy education – got me interested in mammals; a paleontologist in Medicine Hat got me interested in dinosaur fossils, which set the stage for a lot of work I did at the zoo; the summer in the arctic, it was powerful stuff – the summer I grew up; as a little kid, my dad taking me camping, got me enchanted with nature
… having a great time camping around western Canada during COVID; we’re at our best out in the wild
What do you read?
… books mostly – not devices; currently reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
… a 2013 Toyota truck, and a Prius – I don’t remember what year it is …
Clarification from Brian, because my first-draft said the red squirrels were not native to Calgary – I got it part-right:
- red squirrels ARE native to Calgary......found in places like Edworthy Park & Fish Creek......they are new to Inglewood (I suspect because the evergreen trees are sizeable now).
- It’s the eastern gray squirrel (also comes in the black colour) that is the invader........came from a population at the Calgary Zoo way back before anyone knew of the implications of invasive species like the gray squirrel .....now found in all older parts of Calgary, and displaces the red squirrel. They are aggressive animals, eating birds eggs, displacing hole nesting birds like flickers, etc.
This is an important fix......the reds are adorable, the gray's are bullies.
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