Kim Emmons: Spreading positivity at the Philadelphia Zoo

Kim Emmons

When I used to live in Fairmount, one of my favorite things was to pop over to the Philadelphia Zoo and hang out. I’d bring lunch and my computer and sit by the lake to work on this column. In the winter, it was a great place to get your steps in, traversing the shoveled pathways and stopping in the various indoor pavilions to get warm and check out the animals. Now there’s a new reason to check out the zoo during the holiday season and it’s spectacular. LumiNature lights up the zoo at night with more than a million twinkling lights across 16 illuminated zones that celebrate our planet and the wildlife found here. I had the chance to speak to an old friend, the charming Kim Emmons, who has been with the zoo in a few capacities, though she’s best known to me for belting out the Cranberries’ hit “Linger” on my karaoke stage! 

Hello old friend! Let’s get into it. I remember that like me, you are originally from NJ.
Yup, I was born in Trenton, St. Francis hospital! I’m a twin, and it’s interesting. On my birth certificate, it says, “Twin A.” My brother Chris is “Twin B.” We’re very close. We have coordinated Buzz Lightyear tattoos. Mine says, “To infinity” and his says, “And beyond!” So yeah, I’m a Jersey kid! But we moved to Philly when I was in 8th grade so I’ve been here for all my pivotal years and I consider Philly home. I was here for high school and college and have worked here in Philadelphia in different jobs since then.

Any other siblings?
Yes. I have a brother, Matt, who’s five years older than me and Chris. 

And what did the folks do?
My dad is a retired firefighter. My mom worked in sales at a lot of different places. She’s a retail guru! I get all my customer service savvy from my mom. We were a working class, blue collar family and we’ve all been hustlers our whole lives.

I know you as an outgoing person, always upbeat and ready to help people out. I guess that’s where you get it from.
For sure. I definitely get that customer service side from my mom, and wanting to help people and just put yourself out there comes from both of them. I grew up hearing my dad come home and telling us about rescuing people and helping them in difficult situations and my mom was always someone who would fight for the little guy. That’s who we are in the family. Here at the zoo, I do most of the seasonal recruiting and other HR things, and there’s nothing better than giving somebody a job. When you hear someone saying, “Thank you, thank you for this job! I really need it!” my little heart goes “ahhhh.” I absolutely, 1000% love what I do. 

That’s great.
I was also very close with my grandmom. We grew up in a NJ suburb in a court, and all the kids would play together. We’d be out of the house from dawn to dusk. It was just [shouting] “Come home for lunch!” “Come home for dinner!” but otherwise we were outside. I have a lot of great memories of trucking around the woods, putting cards on your bike wheels and pretending you were on a motorcycle, and just having fun. It was a good childhood. 

What’s a memory of your grandmother that sticks out in your mind?
Both my parents worked a lot, so she basically raised us. I remember my older brother was being picked on and she came to the door with her cane in the air and yelled out to the other kids, “If you pick on my grandson, I swear to God I’m going to get you with this cane!” She was also very funny. I think I get my sense of humor from her. She was ahead of her time and very progressive about everything from racial equality to women’s rights. She was loving and caring and a cool person. 

What’s the twiniest thing you’ve experienced?
Well, Chris and I are really different, but we do have a kind of sixth sense with each other. I will feel that something isn’t right — something’s off kilter — and sure enough right after, I’ll get a call from him saying, “my appendix burst…” and I’ll be like, [shouting] “I knew it!” The nicest thing about it is that even though we’re really different, there’s that great feeling of always having a best friend. We always had each other. Like when we moved from NJ to Philly, the transition was hard, but we had each other and what was really cool is that for the first time, we were in the same class together. The next year, I went to Hallahan and he went to North Catholic but that window of time when we had a whole year together was really special. Especially since we have that sixth sense, I feel like nobody knows me better than Chris, and vice-versa. [Laughing] Though he still complains that he has this little mark on his head from my big toe from when we were in the womb and a little indent on his chest he swears I caused! 

What kinds of things were you into as a kid?
I was obsessed with Olivia Newton-John. My babysitter Denise did that to me! I would watch her “Physical” concert over and over like a lunatic. I used to sing and pretend that I was one of her backup singers. I also loved basketball. I was a huge fan and I enjoyed playing. I also loved dinosaurs. I still do. I flipped out when they had the giant animatronic dinosaurs here at the zoo last year and I love music from the ’80s. 

I never knew you were that sporty.
Yeah, I played a lot of sports, but basketball was my big love. I also tried to be the class clown. I thought I was funny. Some people didn’t, but when we moved to a different school, I used humor as a way to engage with people and I made good solid friends because of it. I’ve also found it helpful to diffuse awkward situations. I also loved to sing and believe it or not, I wanted to act too. I remember my dad took me to my first play “Les Miz” when I was in 8th grade and then later as a Christmas present, he took me to New York to see “Grease” on Broadway and I LOST MY MIND! I thought I was going to end up in theater, but didn’t take that route. Life happens and things change so there you go but I’ve been very lucky. I’m married to an amazing woman, Rachel, with two great kids, Gabe and Simon, and have a job I love. 

Good for you! I understand that you went to Temple?
Yeah. I didn’t graduate though, almost, but I think I had a year to go. I got involved with nonprofits and worked at the Please Touch Museum, which I also loved! That’s when I started working in guest management. I met someone (now an ex). We had a baby, moved to Atlantic City where I worked at the Disney Store, the best job ever! I was hired as a seasonal [employee] and worked my way up to store manager and I LOVED it, but then we moved back and I went back to work at Please Touch in operations, then at several other places, including a corporate job that was awful because they are NOT for the little man, so I was constantly fighting with them. Eventually, I ended up at the zoo because my boss saw an ad for an opening here and encouraged me to apply. She knew that I preferred working with people. It’s what I do well. It’s my loveline.

Knowing you, I can imagine you’re great at it.
Thank you. Well, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I got my SHRM certificate. If you do not have a degree in HR, it’s the next best thing. It’s from the Society of Resource Management and it took me a year and it was extremely difficult but I finally nailed it and it was a HUGE deal. The only one in our group that has it is the CEO of our department. It was a huge accomplishment for me so now I’m here! Still rockin’ and rollin’ and loving it!  

Brava! So what was a time that you made a difference for a guest?
There was a day when a family came in, something had happened and they didn’t get here in time to enjoy the zoo. I got called to the front gate because they were upset. Often when there’s a problem, people get over excited and stressed about the situation and it escalates the situation beyond the initial problem. So often instead of saying, ‘What’s the problem?,’ I’ll ask, “How can I help you? How can I make this situation better?” She was still upset, so I looked her in the eye and said, “You know what. Let’s forget about today. Let’s call it a wash and what I’m going to do is have you as my guests on another day. Bring the whole family, I got you.” And she started crying. She said, “It’s just about the fact that you met me human to human and listened to me that’s making me emotional.” Because I know that the zoo is about creating memories, sometimes from generation to generation as people whose parents brought them, return with their kids. You never know someone’s situation and some people go through a lot to get here, it costs money, I didn’t want her and the family to have this sour experience to ruin it for them. And it was a reminder to me of how important it is to just stop, take a breath and listen sometimes. 

What are some of your favorite behind-the-scenes experiences you’ve had here?
So if you’ve ever noticed that little house in the middle at the zoo, it’s called Solitude and it’s William Penn’s great-grandson’s house. I went on a tour of that and it is soooo eerie. Apparently, underneath the zoo, they used to have all these tunnels. I don’t know what they were for, but if you go in the basement, you can see them behind glass. It’s really creepy, Suzi! It’s one of those places where you walk in and your hair stands on end! But a favorite animal experience was getting a chance to feed the hippos with one of the keepers. Some of the keepers said, “You always work so hard. Take a break and hang out with us.” So I got to feed lettuce to the hippos and it was awesome. I also got to go behind the scenes, where the giraffes go in at night and hold up browse for them to eat. And it was really up close because I was in there with the keepers. And one time, I got to brush and feed Tony, the rhino! He’s so cute! I got to brush him, which he loves. He was really happy and I was ecstatic. So yeah, I’ve gotten to do some cool things. 

Speaking of cool things, you have a great exhibit that just started, LumiNature, at night and the zoo is still open all throughout the winter for people to enjoy.
Yes, there’s a lot to see in the winter. There are several indoor exhibits, including a new exhibit on spiders that’s so cool! You gotta check it out! And as you mentioned, LumiNature, which is our holiday light show and I’ve heard it’s better than ever before! We’ve been doing it since 2019, so they’ve had a chance to tinker with it and make it phenomenal. There’s food and hot chocolate available; drinks for the big people; the gift shops are open. It’s amazing.

Speaking of animals, did you have a favorite stuffed animal as a kid?
I had a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man that I loved. 

Someone people always mistake me for…
Oh gosh. When I had short hair, I got called Rob Thomas, the guy from the group Matchbox Twenty several times in several different states! [Laughs] It’s been a problem. When I was way younger, I’d get the singer Sarah McLachlan. 

Do you collect anything?
I do. I collect compasses, old or new.

If you could talk to an animal, which one/kind would you choose?
Hmmm, so many. I guess a deer. They’re so precious and sweet and yet, people hunt them and we see them on the side of the road, which really upsets me. I just want to say to them, “Hey you, watch where you’re going…” 

Notable family member?
We have a great, great, something who was the person who drew the original MGM Lion on the logo for posters, etc.

Ha! That’s funny because the main MGM lion that you see before movies like “The Wizard of Oz” was named Jackie and once he retired, he lived out his days at the Philadelphia Zoo! Talk about a full-circle moment for you.
Wow! That’s great to know! You learn something new about this place every day!

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