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What's New at Our Octogenarian Zoo


CASTOR IS ZONKED. The San Diego Zoo’s largest carnivore has just taken a load of tranquilizer—administered by zoo veterinarian Meg Sutherland-Smith with a compressed-air gun—and he’s already in dreamland. It’s moving day for the big guy. He’s being transferred to the new Polar Bear Plunge, the latest of the zoo’s “bioclimatic” habitats, this one simulating an arctic tundra. A good-sized crowd of zoo folk has gathered for the occasion among the eucalyptus down in Bear Canyon.

With senior keeper John Michel at the controls of a waiting forklift, the team nervously muscles Castor’s snoozing hulk—all 1,006 pounds and 11 feet of him—onto a pallet for the short ride to a pickup truck. As Michel raises the pallet, the bear’s massive head rolls, revealing a black tongue between huge yellowed fangs.

Under the watchful eyes of four keepers he’s secured in the open truck, then whisked in a convoy past startled visitors to Hoof and Horn Mesa, on the way to the nearly completed Plunge, just up the hill from the roar of Highway 163. Castor’s much smaller mate, Bonnie, joins him the next day.

Soon the usual guessing game begins: How will the bears respond to a much larger—and far more natural—habitat than they’re accustomed to? What new capabilities might they display, especially if two orphaned cubs the zoo recently acquired are added to the mix? Did the Plunge designers figure out the best ways to keep bears inside, zoo guests out? Has anybody overlooked something, um, important?

David Rice, the zoo’s chief architect, and his design staff, along with keepers and animal behaviorists—not to mention visitors—would find out soon enough. Rice, who’s designed exhibits for the zoo for 21 years, says an animal’s reaction to new surroundings is always the X factor. “The polar bears are so potentially dangerous we really agonized over how high, how wide, how deep we needed to make everything to contain them safely,” he explains.

“And we changed our minds a lot.”

Luxury digs don’t come cheap. At more than $5 million, Polar Bear Plunge is the zoo’s newest—but not most expensive—ecosystem exhibit. Tiger River, opened in 1988, cost $6 million, while the zoo’s most elaborate habitat to date, Gorilla Tropics, opened in 1991 after an outlay of $11.5 million—roughly $1.6 million per ape. The Sun Bear Forest pricetag was $3.5 million. Last year’s Hippo Beach, with its unusual glass-wall view of hippos frolicking underwater, cost $4 million. In the past decade alone, the Zoological Society has spent well over $50 million on these and other ambitious capital projects, all paid for by donations and endowments.

Despite their high cost, such habitats are likely to become the rule rather than the exception at good zoos of the 21st century. Animals act more naturally in them. Visitors aren’t peering through cages or into cement enclosures. The ultimate goal from a design perspective, as Rice puts it, “is to make the bars go away.”

But a better, roomier habitat is only half the story. “It doesn’t do much good to put them in a big new exhibit if they don’t get superior care,” says Michel, a 12-year zoo veteran (he worked his way up from security guard, like many current zoo managers who started in entry-level jobs). Michel is a leading proponent of “environment enrichment,” a concept in which zookeepers brainstorm ways to mentally and physically stimulate their captive charges—adding live fish to the brown bears’ pond, hiding meat for the Brazilian jaguar to track down, blowing artificial snow into the spectacled bears’ enclosure.

While the bioclimate exhibits draw most of the glamour and donor dollars, Michel’s team has quietly focused on improving some of the aging cat, dog and bear enclosures. Enhancements include selectively adding logs and boulders, jackhammering out old concrete and replacing it with soil and plants, creating hiding places for shy creatures, providing shady spots or more sunlight, raising enclosure levels so that visitors view the animals at eye level or from below, if possible, instead of from above, which animals sometimes find threatening.

“For too long, options and choices for the animals were something lacking in zoos,” he explains, musing about why so many captive animals become neurotic or antisocial. “I can only imagine what it must be like being on stage all the time like that.”

A little tinkering can pay big dividends. One afternoon earlier this summer, the first flamingo chick born in San Diego in 14 years chipped his way out of an egg
and peeked out from beneath his pink-bottomed mom. The news spread quickly; soon a dozen zoo staffers—office workers, bus drivers, keepers and guards—assembled excitedly in front of the flamingo lagoon to rejoice with bird curator Wayne Schulenburg. Beaming, he attributed the blessed event to recent remodeling of the old lagoon—replacing the lawn with sand, for starters—in hopes of fostering flamingo woo. Obviously, it worked. More eggs have been laid.

IT WASN’T SO MANY YEARS AGO at the zoo that you could sit on a giant tortoise, ride a camel or elephant, play with baby chicks and feed peanuts to the monkeys. Old habits die hard: Daily sea-lion shows at the zoo and bird shows at the Wild Animal Park continue, though zoo officials insist they are educational.

But over the past decade or so, the Zoological Society of San Diego—which this fall celebrates the 80th anniversary of its founding by Harry Wegeforth, an eccentric local surgeon—has accelerated the shift from animals-as-entertainment toward a much stronger wildlife-conservation ethos. Doug Myers, executive director of the Zoological Society since 1985, calls the recent push into hands-on conservation projects and better animal habitats “an amplification” of the same policies the zoo has followed for much of its history.

A similar trend is apparent at virtually all of the country’s better zoos, says Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. AAZA’s 174 members were involved this year in more than 300 field conservation projects in 60 countries.

“People’s attitudes about animals have really changed in just the past 20 years or so. You’re talking about a total change in the way we look at animals,” Hutchins says. “It’s been quite a paradigm shift for a lot of our members.” He thinks that zoos across the country—which each year attract more people combined than attend all U.S. sporting events—are beginning to realize the clout and credibility they possess to influence conservation and environmental policies.

Today few, if any, reputable zoos take animals from the wild unless a remnant population is facing imminent extinction, such as occurred in the 1980s with the remaining wild California condors. The vast majority of zoo animals today are obtained through captive breeding programs or by inter-zoo loans or trades.

The 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual Valley—brainchild of Charles Schroeder, zoo director in the 1950s and ’60s—was originally visualized exclusively as a breeding facility. The idea to sell tickets came later. During the park’s 24-year history, staff have successfully bred some of the world’s most endangered animals: Arabian oryx, southern white rhino, cheetahs and a long list of hoofed animals. The park’s breeding program has been so successful that it now provides most of the replacement animals on exhibit at the San Diego Zoo as well as some for zoos and parks around the world.

But even the notion that zoos can or should serve as institutional “arks” to breed every species of animal and plant threatened with extinction has become discredited. For one thing, zoos don’t have the room. For another, not all captive-bred animals can be successfully reestablished in the wild—and it’s almost always prohibitively expensive.

Instead, zoo conservators now agree that the most effective tactic in protecting biodiversity in coming years is to preserve the habitat of “flagship” species—big-ticket, highly threatened animals like gorillas, giant pandas, tigers, California condors, cheetahs, rhinos—that come from rich habitats shared by many other less-glamorous but equally threatened plant and animal species.

“Captive breeding by itself cannot be a panacea any longer. Zoos as a group have to become much more proactive in preservation of wildlife,” says Werner Heuschele, the zoo’s former chief veterinarian, who now heads up its research arm, the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES).

The center, which enjoys an international reputation, is probably best known for its “frozen zoo,” in which several thousand samples of semen from more than 300 threatened species are stored. Operating out of a cramped old building tucked behind the Old Globe Theatre, CRES’ vets and scientists track bloodlines; study exotic-animal genetics, reproduction and artificial-insemination techniques; and research endocrinology, virology, infectious diseases and pathology of the zoo’s thousands of mammals, reptiles and birds. They do all this on a shoestring $2 million budget.

AS PERHAPS THE LATEST SIGNAL of the Zoological Society’s intentions, a zoo panel recently drafted a new master plan for conservation. Among other particulars, the still-tentative plan recommends more than doubling the amount the zoo spends for outside conservation projects.

Jim Dolan, director of collections (he’s sometimes referred to as the curator of curators), suggests that the Zoological Society will need to triage a series of habitat plans, picking the projects where it has some reasonable hope of success—most likely in Pacific Rim nations where it already has a strong presence. San Diego Zoo researchers have been working in conservation projects involving giant pandas in China, spotted deer and wild pigs in the Philippines, primates and hornbills in Vietnam and parrots in French Polynesia, to name a few.

“We know where all the hot spots are. We just need to figure out where to focus our efforts,” explains Dolan, who has been with the zoo since 1963 and is credited with growing the Wild Animal Park’s hoofed-animal collection into the world’s largest captive herd of exotics.

For instance, how should zoos approach a place like Zaire, a huge Central African nation with many severely threatened wildlife populations? It’s impoverished, the government is corrupt, it’s on the brink of civil war, the infrastructure is shot. It’s a bleak place for humans, let alone animals. Dolan shrugs. “There are so many serious problems to address—politics, culture...”

Along with the new conservation plan, the society recently created a new position, director of conservation programs. Bill Toone, the Wild Animal Park’s longtime bird curator and one of the key figures in the 14-year-old California Condor Recovery Project, stepped into the post. Toone admits he isn’t quite sure what his first priorities are going to be.

For starters, he may toughen some of the dozens of “deep thoughts” signs posted around the park and the zoo—the ones featuring inspirational, if sometimes obtuse, quotes from naturalists, writers and philosophers regarding the value and beauty of nature. In a world of such stark threats to so many animals in the wild, Toone figures the messages could stand a sharper edge.

He is an aggressive advocate of the trend of zoos to go beyond their traditional roles as exhibitors and researchers. “We can’t keep talking about doing more research before we take action. We need to stop studying so much and start doing more-concrete things,” says Toone, whose first jobs at the Wild Animal Park included picking up trash and driving the monorail.

An example of Toone’s concrete conservation is the butterfly farm he and the park helped set up in the Costa Rican jungle as a demonstration project. The park buys butterfly larvae from the locals, who now have an economic incentive not to chop down the forest, for its Butterfly Encounter. Meanwhile, park visitors can make a better connection with what’s going on in a distant environment they likely never will see.

Closer to home, along with the condor recovery program—which has captive-hatched more than 100 condors at the park and two other sites—zoo personnel have helped provide research for the county’s groundbreaking Multiple Species Conservation Plan, a comprehensive land-use blueprint aimed at safeguarding sensitive local wildlands while permitting development.

WITH HALF A MILLION individual plants and trees representing about 8,000 species, it’s sometimes said that the 120-acre zoo’s botanical garden is actually more valuable than the animals. The collections of aloes, ferns, coral trees, palms and ficus are considered among the world’s best. The zoo’s animal and botanical collections recently were accredited as a “museum,” one of only five zoos in the United States so designated by the American Association of Museums. Overseeing the leafy domain is Charles Coburn, the zoo’s bushy-bearded horticulture director, and his staff of 28 gardeners. He says trying to put a dollar value on the plant collection is pointless.

“It’s like a living work of art; it’s genuinely irreplaceable. If the whole place were ever destroyed by a fire, we wouldn’t be able to go out and replace it. It would be impossible. There isn’t enough money to do it,” declares Coburn. Some of the trees and shrubs are as endangered in the wild as the animals who live among them. Some were planted from seedlings gathered on founder Harry Wegeforth’s world-roaming collecting trips in the 1920s and ’30s.

In the 80 years since the zoo was created from the menagerie left behind after the 1915-16 Panama-California International Exposition in Balboa Park, there have been only five Zoological Society directors: Wegeforth; his one-time assistant, Belle Benchley (whose purplish-prose 1940s memoir My Life in a Man-Made Jungle still turns up in used-book stores around town); Schroeder, a veterinarian and the driving force behind the Wild Animal Park, the children’s zoo and the Skyfari ride; Charles Bieler, now the zoo’s development director; and current boss Myers, who was promoted from general manager at the park.

Our zoo isn’t among America’s oldest; that distinction goes to institutions in Philadelphia, New York and Cincinnati, all more than 100 years old. But it’s one of the richest. A staggering 225,000 households in San Diego County—better than one in five—are dues-paying, card-carrying members of the society. Although Zoological Society capital assets are technically owned by the city, the group is run by an autonomous 12-member board of trustees.

Unlike many zoos, the San Diego Zoo receives almost no public funds. Virtually all of the society’s annual operating budget of around $100 million comes from the 3.5 million visitors who troop through the zoo’s gates each year and the 1.7 million who make the trek to the Wild Animal Park—and from food concessions, merchandise sales and the membership program. Food and souvenir sales bring in a third of the revenues—more than admission fees.

And thanks to several decades of shrewd marketing, abetted by celebrity spokes-handler Joan Embery’s national T.V. appearances, the phrase “the world-famous San Diego Zoo” has become an international mantra drawing tourists from around the globe.

DOUG MYERS’ DESK GROANS under five fat binders of panda protocols, permit applications and other documentation—some 8,000 pages—generated over the last four years, all aimed at convincing the U.S. and Chinese governments to grant permission to ship a pair of pandas to San Diego. Myers is sounding pretty optimistic on this June day, when U.S. and Chinese negotiators finally resolve a major trade dispute that had threatened to delay the zoo’s panda deal even further. He is confident the pandas will soon be on their way to the million-dollar enclosure that has been waiting for them to reprise 1988-89, when a pair of pandas on loan brought tens of thousands of visitors to stand in long lines for a glimpse of the charismatic bears.

But in a few days a peevish Bill Fox, zoo board president, is warning he’s tired of being jerked around by the Chinese and is ready to pull the plug, doubtful whether the zoo’s time, effort and expense—about $2.5 million so far—is ever going to pay off. Within a week, however, Chinese officials relent to pressure from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and announce San Diego will get the pandas, probably within a couple of months. As part of the deal, the zoo will pay China $1 million annually for the next 12 years to help protect panda habitat.

So what of our ambivalence about animals in zoos? We sort of wish they were running free, but we’re glad we can take the kids to see them on Sunday. We spend millions constructing ersatz habitats, trying to make animals more comfortable—or are we really only trying to make ourselves more comfortable, while their natural environment is being destroyed?

Zoo people like Werner Heuschele, Jim Dolan, Bill Toone—dedicated people who have spent their entire working lives around wild animals—puzzle over the paradoxes. They admit it might be easy to become discouraged at times over what’s going on in the real world—the one outside the zoo’s manicured, eucalyptus-scented grounds. But they don’t.

“What, are we just going to get depressed and throw up our hands? You can’t. You might as well quit and go sell shoes for a living if you do,” says Dolan.

Adds Toone: “Knowing what I know, I couldn’t work anywhere but a zoo. We can influence public attitudes more than any other group, and have fun doing it.”
Freelance writer Rick Dower, a native San Diegan, first visited the zoo on a first-grade field trip.
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