By Nikki Hedrick
Photos Courtesy of Emerald Coast Zoo
Emerald Coast Zoo in Crestview has new owners with some mighty big dreams. The de Ridder family now calls Crestview home, even though some months ago they weren’t familiar with the area.
Rick de Ridder and his family—wife Sara and their three children—all have experience with exotic animals. “We built and designed a zoo before (near) Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a little town called Alto, and it’s very similar to Crestview,” says Rick.
“Then I got into TV, moved down to Florida to film with the Discovery Channel’s Swamp Brothers.” Rick had his own show, Wild Transport, on A&E for a while, but the network didn’t pick it up. “We were just kinda hanging out in Cocoa Beach, surfing every day and loving it.
“My daughter actually said, ‘I want a sloth.’ And so, like a good dad, I looked for a sloth for sale for her, and jokingly said to my wife, ‘Hey, here’s a sloth but it comes with this whole zoo.’”
Little did the de Ridders know that goodhearted joke would shortly lead them to becoming the Emerald Coast Zoo’s new owners.
“We’re always hoping for another TV show. I talk to producers regularly,” says Rick. But in the meantime, new additions like an alligator pond, parakeet house, and new tiger and lion enclosures are in the works. “My goal is to someday have the biggest snake in the world out here.”
Emerald Coast Zoo will continue its aim to be a hands-on zoo, with an array of available animal encounters for up-close-and-personal experiences.
But it hasn’t all been easy sailing for the family. “I mean, just like the movie We Bought a Zoo, about two months ago I was throwing up and kicking the trash can like, ‘What am I gonna do with this zoo?’” says Rick. “So there’s plenty of ‘oh, man’ moments, but it’s looking good now that we got through the winter. People are warming up and starting to come out here.”
Rick emphasizes that the zoo is family run. “My 16-year-old son can run the place, practically, and then my two daughters, 10 and 11, they’re in the gift shop on the weekends doing that, sometimes during the weekdays. They’re all homeschooled or zoo-schooled.
“Then my wife is a graphic designer, so she’s making all the new signs—the educational signs for people to actually read what they’re looking at, ‘cause nobody really knows what a muntjac is, or an audad, or a watusi.”
Rick points out that Emerald Coast Zoo is also part of “the one percent of zoos that believes in creationism instead of evolution. I’m really curious how that’s gonna go. We are a religious family, and we love Jesus, and (we) believe that God created these animals. Most zoos do not believe that.”
When pressed on whether their beliefs would be included in the new zoo materials and signs, Rick says, “We don’t like to punch people in the face with it, but I think you’ll definitely see God’s glory in how He has created these animals.
“Some of the signs, like for the donkey, for example—that’s what Jesus rode—you look on the donkey’s back and there’s crosses. I do not believe that’s a coincidence. I think that God created that cross on that donkey for that reason. Little things like that throughout all the animals, just little fun facts.”
Former owner Debbie Mattox can often be found volunteering, something Rick seems to appreciate. “She comes in and just with a smile on her face, she says that we were her miracle. She’s always wanted this zoo to be a family zoo, and now it’s right back where she wanted it to be.
“Just to see her walking around with her 30 years experience, and now we’re able to bring more manpower in and more ideas. This place is gonna be as awesome as she dreamed 30 years ago.”
Keep up with the zoo and their growing exhibits at EmeraldCoastZoo.com.