When San Diego native Georgeanne “George” Irvine was a child, she slept with a dozen stuffed animals on her bed— a lion, two teddy bears, a tiger, a monkey, an elephant, and more. It was most certainly indicative of what was to come: a lifelong career at the San Diego Zoo as a spokesperson and champion for wildlife and conservation as well as an award-winning author of children’s books about animals.
George has devoted more than 40 years of her colorful career to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. She is the director of corporate publishing and an author, but has also worked in the public relations/marketing and development divisions of the organization.
We had a chance to sit down with George and talk to her about her wild life and career!
Staying with one employer throughout your career is unusual these days. What has kept you there?
When I started at the San Diego Zoo as a public relations assistant in March 1978, I thought I would stay with the organization for a few years and then move onward and upward. After a few weeks on the job, I realized that working for the Zoo was not only fun, exciting, and fascinating but also meaningful. I quickly learned that wildlife and their habitats are in danger of disappearing and I could help make a difference in their future by becoming a voice for the animals and a champion for wildlife conservation. Plus I got to work with extraordinary colleagues and I fell in love with the animals. I never wanted to go anywhere else.
How did the idea for the publishing division for the zoo come to be?
Our now-retired CEO Doug Myers has always loved books and storytelling, and in late 2016 at the end of our Centennial celebration, he decided to act on a dream he had been considering for several years: to create a book publishing division for the Zoo.
The book industry was having a growth spurt and Doug thought that by telling our stories through books, we could inspire children and adults to care about wildlife and become involved in efforts to protect and save Earth’s precious animals and their habitats.
Are there any central themes you like to explore in your books for children?
I write our non-fiction Hope and Inspiration books, which feature stories about real animals that have overcome challenges in their lives. If children can connect with a specific animal, such as Floyd the flamingo, Mosi Musa the vervet monkey, or Moka the tiger, I feel they will be inspired to care about that individual animal, its species, and wildlife in general. What I didn’t realize until I received feedback from teachers and parents is that the books also teach children life lessons, such as the importance of friendship, believing in their dreams, and never giving up.
How do you decide which animals will have their stories told?
The most important thing about any animal featured in these books is that we are able to document every aspect of its story with photographs because the books are illustrated with photos. I keep in close contact with our wildlife care and behavior staff and if they come across an animal that might be a good story, we start following that animal’s life by shooting photos. I’m currently working on a book about Omeo, a koala joey, who lost his mother to cancer before he was even out of the pouch. In the beginning we didn’t even know whether he would survive but we started shooting photos anyway. Because of his resilience and the dedication of our wildlife care specialists—and the fact that we have documented Omeo’s entire life with photos—his story will become a future Hope and Inspiration book.
Which animal stories inspire you the most?
All of the stories inspire me for different reasons. Friendship and miracles are themes that particularly move me, though, so the Ruuxa & Raina book holds a special place in my heart. Ruuxa is a cheetah, who had crooked legs as a cub and wasn’t supposed to be able to run, even with surgery. But no one told him that and he ran anyway—and as an adult at the Safari Park, he is now running 70 miles per hour. Raina, Ruuxa’s Rhodesian ridgeback companion, was diagnosed with terminal cancer but survived against all odds. And the friendship between the two of them is heartwarming—they were always at each other’s side through their challenges.
Do your young readers ever write to share their thoughts about your books?
I receive feedback and photos from children as well as their parents. Many write to me about Karen’s Heart, which is the story of a baby orangutan at the Zoo who survived open heart surgery. I receive many comments similar to this one, which touched my heart. “I just have to tell you how much my daughter and I have enjoyed your book, “Karen’s
Heart.” I bought her the book and plush last week and we’ve read it every night!!! My daughter has had two open heart surgeries. She was an infant when the surgeries were performed but she is aware she had them. Your book has given my daughter a perspective of her surgeries that I have had difficulty explaining to her.”
One grandmother sent me a detailed story about her newborn grandson, who had a heart attack when he was 10 weeks old. Thankfully, the boy survived after several open heart surgeries and is now in grade school. The grandma explained how meaningful the Karen book is to her “miracle grandson.”
You’ve provided tours for many celebrities. Whose off-stage personality surprised you the most?
I especially loved taking Julie Andrews and her family around the Zoo because I’m a huge fan of Julie as well as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. As I shared fun Zoo stories with them, Julie kept saying, “Damn, that’s a great idea for a TV show,” to her husband, Blake Edwards, who later produced a short-lived show about a TV show host (Julie) who quits and moves to Iowa where she marries a veterinarian. A highlight of the day was when we visited our new rhino, who had just arrived from Sumatra and liked to wallow in the mud. As we stood in front of the rhino habitat, Julie said, in her lovely British accent, “Why, I know a song about a rhino. As a matter of fact, it’s about a rhino who likes to wallow in the mud. As a matter of fact it goes like this!” And there in the middle of the Zoo, Julie Andrews sang me the song about the rhino. I felt like I was in the middle of one of her movies! It was truly exhilarating!
What have been some of your career highlights?
I feel like a kid in a candy shop because I’ve had so many incredible opportunities throughout my career. My Zoo job has enabled me to travel the world—from leading tours to the wilds of India, Australia, and China as well as several African countries to lecturing on two around-the-world private jet expeditions to traveling to Indonesia to help bring a critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros back to the United States. I loved accompanying our goodwill ambassador Joan Embery to the different talk shows, including to the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson reigned. For some of the shows, we stayed in hotel rooms with animals—I’ve bunked with lots of animals, including a harbor seal, baby tiger, emu, clouded leopard, kangaroo, and tarantula. Another major highlight was becoming personal friends with two great and beloved women who were also mentors to me: Dr. Jane Goodall and the late Shari Lewis (Lamb Chop’s mom). And, one of the most exciting 200 days of my public relations career was when Basi and Yuan Yuan, two giant pandas from China’s Fuzhou Zoo, visited the San Diego Zoo in 1987-88. I became very close friends with their caretakers and visited them in China several times. I also got to meet Basi upclose and pose with her for a photo.
What are you looking forward to in the next few years at the zoo?
I’m very excited about the opening of our new Sanford Children’s Zoo as well as our new hummingbird aviary later this year. I’m also following at least a half dozen animals and can’t wait to write books about them. Included in the wildlife roster are Xanan, a California condor that we photographed from the time she hatched out of her egg to her recent return to the wild and Tornero, a precious two-toed sloth, who is an animal ambassador.
What are your hobbies and passions?
Besides my family, friends, and three Boston terriers, I am passionate about photographing wildlife in their natural habitats, traveling to Earth’s wildest places such as the jungles of Borneo and the forests of India, storytelling, and Broadway musicals! I love going to New York, where I will see seven shows in five days. I’m also passionate about the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, our animals, and the work we are doing to save and protect wildlife.
What is your most exciting travel adventure?
It was during my first trip to Africa in 1989 on a month-long expedition to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Rwanda with friends. Every day was incredible but our three-day canoe adventure down the Zambezi River tops my all-time “most exciting” list. Everything that could happen did happen: We had to hide in the reeds from poachers, who came after us after our guide yelled at them. One of our canoes ran into a crocodile. I had to hunker down in a wilderness bathroom to wait for hyenas to pass by before walking back to my tent. We were confronted by angry hippos and at one point, my canoe got stuck on a submerged tree trunk, nearly dumping my friends and me into a river teeming with crocodiles. We were also left by ourselves on a dirt airstrip (with no protection), waiting a few hours for a small plane to pick us up to take us back to a small town.
But, the most hair-raising thing happened when I was canoeing with our guide. I sat in the front of the canoe so I could take photos as we followed four young bull elephants that were slowly walking along the shore in the reeds, grazing on water plants. When they stopped, we stopped to watch them making sure we kept a safe distance from them. Suddenly, one of the elephants charged us! He ran straight toward me—I was closest to him! My initial thought was “Now you’ve finally done it—you’ve just gotten yourself killed!” My next thought was “Well, if you’re going to die, you may as well take photos.” In those split seconds I even wondered if they would be able to retrieve my camera from the river. Plus I hoped that my film wouldn’t be ruined so they could develop it because I knew my photos would be spectacular!
The elephant stopped a couple yards from us, shook his head and splashed water at us. I was a clearly shaken as was the guide, and when I looked back at him, he nervously said, “It’s OK. I don’t think he will come any closer.” And then we slowly
When I realized I wasn’t going to die at that moment, I called out to my friends in another canoe, “Did you get any photos of that?” They were so scared—and worried about how they were going to tell my mother what happened to me—that they couldn’t remember. A month later, one of my friends developed his film and realized he had shot one photo as we were backing away from the elephant and already 25 feet away.