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The Animals' Best Friend


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On the evening of May 18, a pall fell over the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. Devoted animal lover Charlie Faust, the man who forever changed the way the world would view its exotic creatures in captivity, died in his sleep that night at age 78.

For 33 years, Faust was the architectural design director for the zoo and the Wild Animal Park. It was through his vision that the animals were freed from their cages and given a wide-ranging, more natural environment in which to live.

“I got my start by working on the Children’s Zoo,” recalled Faust in one of his last interviews. “I wanted to try something really different. I wanted to actually take the kids into an area where they could interact with the animals. This had never been done before, and there was a lot of opposition to it at the time. But when we opened, the Children’s Zoo was an immediate success. I scaled everything to kid-size. We purposely made it so adults would have to duck to get through doors and such. The kiddies loved it.”

Faust’s work was so well-received that a new position was created specifically for him in 1957. As the first-ever architectural design director for the San Diego Zoo, he set out to give the old zoo a facelift. In the process, he made architectural history.

“One of the first things I wanted to do was get rid of the cages,” said Faust. “But to do that, we had to create pits and moats to keep the animals from eating the visitors. So I had to find out things like: How far can a gorilla jump? Well, who the heck knows how far a gorilla can jump except another gorilla? We wanted to make sure that if he did jump, he’d miss what ever he was grabbing at by several feet. The way we learned about these things was by trial and error.”

In the process of creating these innovations, Faust and his team discovered many animal behavioral traits that experts study to this day. One of the lessons learned became known as “flight distance.” This is the amount of space an animal feels it needs between itself and a potential predator to either avoid being attacked or to escape safely.

Another chapter was written in the annals of animal behavior when Faust discovered a giraffe wouldn’t step over a 3-foot wall, not even for food. This allowed him to break down the barriers between the giraffes and the visitors.

“After tearing down the fences, we dug a 3-foot moat around the giraffe enclosure, and not once did any of them ever get out,” recalled Faust. “We were the first to do it, but now that barrier is used by zoos everywhere.”

Faust also changed the route the bus tours took. Instead of a straight route through the park, he put a new twist in the road. His serpentine road was like the ones he’d traveled in Africa. Around each twist and turn, he planted a variety of trees and exotic plants native to the regions of Africa where each specific animal lived.

“Something else we did that had never been done before was to mix the animals,” explained Faust. “I wanted the visitors to have an idea of what it’s really like in Africa. Of course, we were careful not to put any animals together that would hurt each other, but other than that, it was pretty realistic.”
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