LOGAN — Troy Cooper has a love of animals that can be traced back to his childhood when he used to imagine one day working at a zoo.
"My mom tells a story that even before I was in kindergarten, I knew every animal that was in every book that I could pull out," Cooper said.
When he grew up, Cooper worked for Ohio State for roughly 15 years teaching others how to raise livestock and balance nutrition, "and plants and bugs and those types of things," he said.
Despite having a solid career path, zoo life found him.
"We were just looking to come back and be closer to family," Cooper said. "I just found an opening. They were advertising for a new director, and so I decided to apply for it."
He's now in charge of a zoo connected to Logan's Willow Park — one of the smallest zoos you'll find. Cooper was tasked with overseeing the zoo's transition as it split off from the city in 2013, making the most of what he had.
The zoo's staff has just two full-time employees, including Cooper. There isn't an accounting office, a marketing department or any other departments that are usually found in other zoos.
He's helped by a group of extremely loyal part timers and volunteers.
"I worked here for free for two years," laughed Josie Hansen, a 19-year-old who started out as a volunteer. "It's not really work when you love your job."
Cooper believes one of his zoo's biggest assets is their ability to offer an experience — a unique chance to get up close to the animals each and every day.
Hansen regularly brings the zoo's reindeer outside its enclosure, answering questions while children pet and feed the animal.
"It's different," she said. "We get to interact more with people, and that's what we want to do."
But without the City of Logan's safety net, keeping the zoo running can be a struggle. They aren't able to stay open in the winter, but regular bills like heating and electric continue to come in — meaning they have to build up a nest egg each summer to carry them through.
I have two great loves. I love people, and I love animals. Our mission statement is to affect positive change in peoples' lives. One animal at a time.
–Troy Cooper, Zootah director
Cooper's done everything he can to cut costs, but thoughts of the worst are hard to escape.
"It's entered my head," he said. "And that's the worst case. That we'd have to close."
But Cooper and his team are far from giving up.
"Everybody loves the zoo," he said. "That knows about it."
They're on a quest to bring in new animals, and to find new sponsors — they've even changed the name from the "Willow Park Zoo" to "Zootah," hoping to attract more visitors who aren't from the immediate area.
And when you ask Cooper what changes he sees on the horizon, he's full of ideas.
"We need to create exhibits and also buildings where we can be open year round," he said. "Really, I'd like to change just about everything."
As for new animals, Cooper has a wish list running from a bear to a wolverine — a list that would fill one of those books he read as a kid — but one thing he doesn't want to do is try to compete with the much larger zoo in Salt Lake City.
"They're a great zoo," he said. "And we love Hogle Zoo. We just want to complement, and build and diversify. We have different animals, and we have different interactions than they do. We have the petting zoo, we have reindeer, we take our parrots out. We have feedings that they don't have. Just different programs to kind of complement."
Despite the challenges of the occasional big bill, Cooper doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. Because while his love of animals will always come first, a desire to share that love with others is what helps keep his zoo running.
"I have two great loves," he said. "I love people, and I love animals. Our mission statement is to affect positive change in peoples' lives. One animal at a time."