You’d think the executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, when asked to name his favorite animal, would hem and haw. You’d think he’d generalize and suggest thatevery animal at the venerable zoo is his favorite.

Not Thane Maynard. The affable top zookeeper immediately answers the question, and to the point: “I do have a favorite. I grew up in Central Florida and have tremendous affection for American alligators.” Maynard recalls that, as a kid, central air-conditioning didn’t exist in Florida. “So everybody, especially kids, were outside all the time, fishing the lakes and swamps.” The gators, naturally enough, were everywhere.

All this said, Maynard also has a fond spot in his heart for elephants, cheetahs and all our four-footed (or clawed) friends. And why not? The veteran naturalist has spent a lifetime trumpeting their cause, often on the airwaves.

The90-Second Naturalist, Maynard’s daily radio segment, is heard on more than 100 NPR stations in North America, as well as by a worldwide audience on the American Forces Radio Network.

“Go figure, but it’s something of a hit in the Rockies, 27 stations in all,” Maynard observes. “When I am on a speaking tour in Wyoming or Billings, Montana, or wherever, and I’m in a coffee shop, people actually have recognized my voice.”

HisNaturalist episodes hit all the wildlife topics you’d expect from a man who has written the book — no, make that a dozen books — on animal life. From his first stab,Animal Inventors, in 1991, Maynard has been churning out the tomes for Scholastic Books; popular student readers such asA Rhino Comes to America,Rain Forests and Reefs(co-authored with his daughter, Caitlin), and most recently, Working With Wildlife (are you beginning to detect a trend here?).

Next up, he’ll partner with famed naturalist Jane Goodall on a writing project. This fall’sHope for Nature (Grand Central Publishing) will be “more Jane than Thane,” he frankly concedes. But for someone in his line of work, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

Well, that, and getting to appear on a ton of national television talk shows — shades of the Columbus Zoo’s Jack Hanna.

“Those are all fun,” Maynard laughs. “Of course, it was easier to fly to New York with live animals before 9/11. Now, we have to drive the rattlesnakes and cobras in.” Call it an “Eels on Wheels” plan.

From the early hours withGood Morning America,Today andCBS This Morning, into the late evening with Letterman and Conan O’Brien, Maynard has become the ultimate cheerleader for both ecology and Cincinnati. (His Conan appearances, by the way, are his most treasured.)

All this media attention, not surprisingly, has created a local demand for his talents. But the public speaker has no grand illusions about what audiences really want. “I learned a long time ago that when a group asks me to speak, the Rotary Club or whatever, what they really want is for me to bring animals. They don’t want Thane Maynard, they want animals. People love animals.”

Oh, those silly animals, again. It’s as if Maynard wants to bring (or should we say, herd) the conversation around to the zoo’s many attributes, including Manatee Springs, Jungle Trails, Wolf Woods, Giraffe Ridge and Lords of the Arctic. “In terms of the year, we have a bunch of zoo babies, zoo births, coming up,” the director points out. “We came up with the motto, ‘More Animals, More Fun.’ Down the road, and the economy has slowed us down a little on this, is Cat Canyon” — a multi-dimensional wildcat experience.

Maynard has taken to spending Saturday mornings at the zoo, working in all the various wildlife enclosures (“On any given Saturday, you’ll find Thane slinging elephant dung or parrot poop,” confides one associate). In what off-hours remain, Maynard is most likely found hiking and bird-watching with his wife, author Kathleen Stewart.

Maynard takes the role of conservationist seriously, especially with the zoo’s Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). He raves about CREW as “one of the best-kept secrets in the region.”

Another best-kept secret: “We are a botanical garden, one of just two accredited botanical gardens in the state. Yes, we have 750 species of animals here, but we have 5,000 varieties of plants.”

Which makes Thane Maynard, in addition to all his other attributes, just bloomin’ crazy.

The Maynard File

Educated: B.A. in environmental studies at Rollins College, master’s in wildlife ecology at University of Michigan, certificate in nonprofit management from Harvard Business School

First Job: Adjunct instructor in biology at the University of Cincinnati

Titles: Joined the Cincinnati Zoo as assistant curator of education in 1977, promoted to director of conservation in 1990, director of education in 1993, vice president and director of the Cincinnati Zoo Foundation in 2001, vice president of public information in 2002, interim co-director in 2006, and finally executive director in 2007
Disney Connection: Hosted the Disney Channel TV series Animals in Actionfrom 1984 to 1987