David Kleven shares memories of his years as “Critterman”
A jubilant man dressed in classic safari attire grins and gleefully strides towards his audience asking for a volunteer. Of the 48 hands that shoot up into the air, Kyle, a young boy wearing an oversized Hulk t-shirt, is chosen amidst the clamor of Critterman’s captive audience, and he dashes to the front of the room. Critterman shakes his hand, thanks him for volunteering, then walks over to a large steel dresser drawer.
“Now, don’t all yell at once,” he says, “but can anyone tell me how to know if a snake is poisonous or not?”
Critterman steps in front of the audience with a Speckled King Snake draped over his shoulder. “Kyle, this is Odin. Odin, this is Kyle.”
It’s a humid Texas day in late September, and dozens of families have packed into a small room in the North Branch of the Denton Public Library to see Critterman and his treasure trove of zoo animals. David Kleven has educated Texas residents about animals for over a quarter century, but his entertaining performances as Critterman are just one facet of his ongoing mission to build awareness everywhere he goes.
David always knew he wanted to work with animals. Over a plate of chilaquiles at Cartwright’s Ranch House, he discusses how one of his earliest memories was being put on a horse at a family farm in Minnesota when he was 2 years old. “From that moment on, everything had to do with horses,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get enough, and that created an interest in all animals.”
He remembers being enraptured by a gorilla named Samson at the Milwaukee County Zoo, back when that zoo and others were investing more in conservation and natural habitats. And Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom brought a world of exotic animals right into his living room. Like Wild Kingdom’s Marlin Perkins, he would soon fuse entertainment with animal education.
Before David knew what an animal educator was, a career aptitude test steered him toward a career in veterinary medicine. When he interviewed a vet for a school project, though, he heard something that he’ll never forget.
“I asked him what his least favorite part of the job was, and the vet said, ‘Well, the animals don’t seem to like me very much because they come here when they’re not feeling well, and I often have to do things that make them uncomfortable.’” David realized that being a vet probably wouldn’t make him happy, but he still wasn’t sure how to translate his love of animals into a career. Then, a high school gig at Chuck E. Cheese — as Chuck E. Cheese — changed everything.
“One of the people I met there applied to a school in California and told me that it’d be perfect for me too.” The program was the Exotic Animal Training and Management school at Moorpark College, north of Los Angeles. “When I discovered that program, I knew it was where I was going to go to school,” he said, smiling. “There wasn’t going to be any place else for me.”
The man who would be Critterman discovered his future career at Moorpark, where classmates noticed the depths of his compassion for animals and humans alike.
Nicki Boyd, a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo, has fond memories of her time in college with David. “He was always willing to help out someone in need, and he was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back.” When she and David were tasked with caring for a pair of baboons, Nicki recalls the calming effect David had on the situation.
“It was scary to have such powerful animals sitting and picking through your hair, but I felt like I could trust David with my life.”
Moorpark is also where David met the love of his life. Future wife Susan enrolled in the same program after attending UNT as an art major from 1984 to 1988. “I admired his work ethic and determination,” Susan recalls, “and he always made me laugh.” The two married, and upon graduating from the prestigious animal training program began to look around the country for jobs.
“We wanted to find jobs that were good fits for us, but were also in the same place, which was difficult,” David recalls. While on the job hunt, the two lived with Susan’s parents in Houston. Susan’s father, Mike — the vice president of an environmental clean-up company, and according to David, “a bigger animal fanatic than we were” — asked the newlyweds what they would do if they could do anything they wanted. David and Susan didn’t hesitate: both shared a love for the animal education programs they participated in at Moorpark, and knew that they wanted to do that full-time.
But when asked what it would take to get it done, neither knew.
“We didn’t have a clue,” David says, laughing. “We knew that there were companies in California that did this sort of thing, but we had to do our homework first.”
The couple conducted market research, cold-called schools across Texas, and assembled a business plan. “We realized we could do it, but it would take a huge investment to pull it off,” David says. “Luckily, timing was on our side.”
A German firm bought Mike’s company. With the money from the buyout, Mike funded what would soon become Animal Edutainment.
The company incorporated in 1990, and David and Susan went to work building their brand. Susan adopted the moniker of “Safari Sue,” and David became “Dave the Critterman.” The duo started a wide-range of education programs for schools, libraries and special events, often involving animals that are typically misunderstood or written off as scary. Then came the Frank Buck Zoo.
“Safari Sue” was hired as the director of the Gainesville-based zoo in 2004, and Animal Edutainment set up a new HQ in Denton. In the 12 years since she took the reins, Susan has overseen a lot of change.
“We were doing giraffe feeding and setting up a mixed-species Africa exhibit long before the Dallas Zoo,” she says, proudly. “We may be small, but we’re mighty!”
While she had to drop the “Safari” from her name and focus on her new position as Zoo Director, husband and wife still work together whenever David helps out. When the zoo experienced a flood, David was instrumental in helping his wife and her team evacuate the animals and identify all low-lying areas. And every Halloween, David appears at Zoo Boo as the eponymous Frank Buck, the Gainesville-born animal collector. Still, his favorite part of his multifaceted job is not the creative cosplay, but the wide range of people he educates.
“The best part is the people, both kids and adults, who tell me their minds have been changed,” he remarks. “They’re not going to lose their fear over one experience, but it will change the way they react the next time. To be part of that process of changing people’s views of animals is special.”
The conversation turns solemn when David waxes poetic about education as he rolls up his sleeve to reveal a “96 Elephants” wristband. “How many Americans know that 96 elephants are poached every single day in Africa?” Amidst the hustle of a midday lunch rush at Cartwright’s, he pauses, letting the gravity of this fact sink in. Now he’s not the joyous Critterman that you meet at a Denton library or school nearly every day of the year; he’s David, an animal lover fearful of what is avoidable, but possible.
“Same thing with giraffes,” he says, his voice ringing with worry. “Most people don’t know that all species of giraffe are endangered. That was unthinkable 20 years ago.”
These are problems that David hopes to eventually end alongside Susan, Frank Buck Zoo and other zoos and aquariums across the world. “Changing this starts with education,” he says, “What I hope is that our program helps people understand what’s going on, makes them care about it, and then inspires them to take action.”
Zoos and aquariums are an integral part of achieving long-term conservation and education goals. For its part, Frank Buck Zoo is involved with efforts to conserve cheetahs and South American penguins. The zoo’s conservation efforts make it the perfect place for David to educate and hopefully inspire. “Frank Buck Zoo and places like it offer a chance to reconnect with the natural world; a world that needs us to take action,” David says. “Education is what I’m passionate about, but ultimately my work and the work that zoos and aquariums do is all about being a safeguard for extinction.”
It’s a line of work that he plans on being in for as long as possible, whether he’s playing Frank Buck or representing Animal Edutainment at any number of places in Denton. Luckily for all of us, his fans show no sign of losing the enthusiasm that first earned him his gallant reputation and moniker.
“Whenever I used to go to a school or birthday party, the kids wouldn’t remember Dave the Critterman, they would just yell, ‘It’s Critterman!’” he says. “Over time, it just stuck, and we stuck with it.”
“I guess it sounds like a superhero.”