The Evolution of Zoos (Master’s Project)
In the first week of December, a two-year-old Siberian tiger approached a lumbermen’s village in Far Eastern Russia, near Vladivostok. Locals immediately knew that something was terribly wrong when the normally solitary animal strayed into the village, ignoring the presence of several men and their dogs. Very few Russians have ever actually seen a Siberian tiger with their own eyes. The world’s largest cats largely confine themselves to the vast wild mountains and forests of Russia’s remote Siberian countryside. But the farmers of Pokrovka knew enough to observe that something was wrong with this young tigress. She looked ill and disoriented. She needed help.
John Goodrich received the call a few days later. Goodrich, a 38-year old zoologist employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been based in Russia for the past nine years, working tirelessly to save a species that has been dangerously approaching extinction. Fewer than 400 adult Siberian or Amur tigers remain in the wild. The main threats to them are loss of habitat from intensive logging and development, depletion of prey and poaching. Goodrich, who received his PhD in zoology from the University of Wyoming, specialized in carnivore ecology before coming to Russia and joined forces with the organization that is primarily known for running the Bronx Zoo. During this time, he has tracked dozens of tigers and watched many of them perish.
Goodrich rushed to the village along with four of his Russian colleagues. They found the tiger wondering at the edge of the village. She was completely unresponsive. “Sort of like the lights are on but nobody is home,” he recalled later. Goodrich’s team transported the sick cat back to Terney, where the joint Russia-US Siberian Tiger Project is based.
The tiger clearly had encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. But what had caused it was unclear. At first they suspected poison, which is commonly used to kill wolves and other predators in Russia. It wouldn’t have been the first time that poachers had tried to kill a Siberian tiger. Up to 50 tigers a year are believed to be poached and sold for up to $10,000 a piece. However, upon further research, viruses like canine distemper or even rabies were deemed more likely culprits. Ultimately, to Goodrich’s frustration, what sickened the tigress remained a mystery. He still hopes to discover what happened. “If it is a problem that will affect the entire population, we need to know about that so we can try and do something about it,” he said.
For six weeks, Goodrich and the Russian veterinarians tried everything they could think of to save the tiger, including administering intravenous treatment for as many as eight hours a day. But the tigress would not recover. On January 12, 2004, she died.
Goodrich equated the loss of one of his tigers to the loss of a long-time pet. There was nothing more he could do to help this tiger, but the pain of her death remained profound. “As a scientist, you are trained to try and be objective and not get emotionally involved. But you can’t help but get emotionally involved in that situation,” he said. “It hurts deeply.”
A few days later, back in the Bronx, on a frigid January afternoon, Christa Kugler was preparing an “enrichment session” for Alexis, a six-year-old, 300-pound captive Siberian tiger. A thick glass window separated Alexis from Kugler, a 31-year old zookeeper with a degree in forestry and wildlife from Virginia Tech. A handful of visitors watched silently at “Tiger Mountain,” the newest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. Alexis’ steady breath was visible as she trod in the melting snow beneath her. Shifting her gaze towards the window, she briefly stared directly into the eyes of an awestruck man only a few yards away.
At three acres, “Tiger Mountain” is one of the zoo’s largest exhibits, allowing Alexis and her 10-year-old mother Norma to prowl in the snow and enjoy their wide assortment of natural toys. Alexis is distinguishable not only by the three “scratch-like” marks on her right shoulder and the five-diamond pattern on her left shoulder, but also by her unique temperament.
As Kugler carefully lowered the massive wooden door on one side of the enclosure, Alexis began to growl. “Alexis is very vocal,” said Kugler with a smile. “We call her the bratty teenager.”
All that separates her and the tiger now is a thin fence. Kugler skewers a piece of raw meat with the tip of a long rod and signals to Alexis with her other hand. With a ferocious roar, Alexis rears up to her full height, over eight feet, leaning against the fence with her enormous front paws. Kugler slips the rod through the fence. The rabbit, Alexis’ favorite, disappears in an instant. The crowd crows with excitement.
“This is not a show,” Kugler quickly asserts. “This is enrichment. We are trying to teach them behavior that they would normally do in the wild.”
Yet, Alexis will never truly be wild. Unlike pandas or condors, tigers are surprisingly easy to breed in captivity. Alexis, like her mother and virtually every other Siberian tiger in captivity, was born and bred in a zoo. Tigers such as her were once thought to be prime candidates for reintroduction to the wild. But these days, no one at the Bronx Zoo believes Alexis will be making her way back to the Sikhote-Alin reserve in the Russian Northeast anytime soon to join her wild relatives. The wild is simply not ready for her. “We can keep on putting tigers in there as much as we want, but as long as you keep killing them it is not going to help,” said Richard Lattis, Senior Vice President and General Director of Living Institutions at the Bronx Zoo.
This realization was the genesis of Goodrich’s Siberian assignment. Goodrich’s work may not be what one would normally associate with that of a zoo, but missions such as his are where modern zoos are increasingly going. Accredited American zoos now participate in 2,230 conservation projects in 94 countries.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, the parent organization that runs the world famous Bronx Zoo, leads the way. It has dispatched nearly 170 field scientists around the world to work mostly with Third World governments to save wildlife in their native habitats. The Society, or WCS for short, finances more than 350 research projects in 53 countries. Much more than monitoring populations and conducting scientific research is involved. Goodrich, for example, is fluent in Russian, and spends most of his time engaging the local Russian authorities and meeting with communities to promote tiger conservation. The efforts seem to be paying off. Twenty years ago, many experts predicted that the tiger would be extinct in the wild by the year 2000. Although still extremely endangered, the tiger population in Asia, thanks to efforts such as Goodrich’s, is now believed to be relatively stable.
While many visitors are vaguely aware that the zoo supports some research and conservation projects, very few realize that saving wildlife is rapidly becoming the main business of the zoo.
“Conservation is the mission of the zoo,” said Lattis, also a former president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, known as the AZA, the governing body of the 213 accredited zoos and aquariums in North America.
Changing its original name from the New York Zoological Society to the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1993 was just one sign. Another was the dramatic increase in resources directed to the cause of international conservation. While spending at the zoo itself has remained relatively constant over the past five years, the conservation budget has been growing 20 percent a year during this period. At that rate, conservation would surpass the flagship operation in a couple of years.
The WCS director of Budget and Financial Planning confirmed that their international wing was in fact the fastest growing part of the society. “At some point in the next few years it will pass the zoo,” said Sarah Gillman. “That is the direction we are going.”
In evolutionary terms, one might say that the Bronx Zoo and its parent organization are approaching a tipping point. Only a few years ago the “new zoo” was defined as a zoological park with a conservation wing. Now, its metamorphosis into a conservation organization with a zoological park is all but complete.
“Zoos, like animals, are evolving in order to survive,” said Michael Hutchins, Director of Conservation and Science at the AZA. “We are making changes or we will go extinct.”
The emphasis on field-based conservation marks only the latest stage in the 4,000-year evolution of zoos. They have evolved over time in response to changes in the social environment ranging from rising affluence to attitudes towards animals. Formal animal menageries are recorded as far back as Ancient Egypt, with the zoos of the pharaohs. These collections were largely seen as a sign of wealth, with the animals viewed as objects — possessions belonging to man. Royal menageries largely remained private collections until the early part of the 19th Century, when the animals first became accessible to the general public with the opening of the zoological parks in Paris, Vienna and London. These marked the establishment of the modern “zoo” concept.
According to zoo analyst Jeffrey Hyson, an American cultural historian, the enlightenment was the cause for the emergence of the zoos in Europe. The zoos exhibited a much more scientific approach to animals. In America, zoos also had strongly scientific leanings, in stark contrast to the circuses that still treated animals merely as props in a show. The emergence of zoos after the Civil War coincided with the surge in public interest in science, urban amenities and conservation, and was an adjunct to urban development patterns, including the establishment of individual Parks departments in the late 19th Century. The earliest manifestation of this was the establishment of the Philadelphia zoological society in 1859, leading to the grand opening of the Philadelphia Zoo in 1874. This inspired copycats in cities such as Cincinnati, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas and Washington. Over time, America’s zoos have evolved in accordance with the social norms and movements of the times. Today there are more than 2,400 zoos licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture.
None, however, has been more active than the Bronx Zoo in fostering its own evolution or in influencing the rest of the zoo world. At 265 acres, it is the largest urban zoo in North America. With dozens of exhibits and more than 4000 animals of over 500 species, it attracts more than two million visitors annually. The WCS now operates four additional facilities in New York City that, together, bring in an additional two million visitors a year: the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn.
The WCS has 1100 full-time employees. At least 50 percent hold advanced degrees. In addition, there are more than 1000 part time workers and seasonal employees. Three main departments carry out the Society’s Bronx-based operations: Living Institutions, which oversees research and all the New York City facilities, Environmental Education, and International Conservation.
“What they are continuing to do is set the bar higher and higher in what a zoo can be,” said Hyson. “They are so unusual compared to any other zoo in the country. It’s an example of what a zoo could be.”
The New York Zoological Society, though, was a relative latecomer, arriving on the scene 36 years after Philadelphia. Yet, the Bronx Zoo more than made up for the delay, connecting early on with rich New York families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, who helped establish the new park. With its wealthy founders and New York notables on hand, the Bronx Zoo finally opened its gates to the public on November 8, 1899.
The zoo world had never seen anything quite like it. Twenty-two buildings and enclosures housed the various animals. Many were placed in barren cages, allowing visitors to come face to face with some of the world’s greatest predators. With all the pieces in place, the Bronx Zoo was off and running, introducing the largest facility with the most varied collection of species and leading the way in wildlife conservation. The Zoo had business barons banking it, political players supporting it and a unique staff exploring the world of animals and getting the public excited about its work. It opened the office of the first full-time zoo veterinarian in 1902 and supported the adventures of naturalist William Beebe around the world.
Yet, in what insiders refer to as the “dead period,” the Zoo itself did not change much during its first 40 years. European zoos, often allied with great departments of zoology, were the role models of the time. Other zoos began departing from the “zoos as art galleries” notion, and began introducing moated, barless outdoor exhibits. The Bronx Zoo lagged far behind the animal management innovations introduced by Carl Haggenbeck in Germany. The Zoo was basically just a collection of animals. It was in dire need of change.
World War II marked a turning point. The new president of the Society, Fairfield Osborn, took over in 1940, closed the gap with Europe and reinvigorated the Zoo. He established the state of the art African Plains exhibit in 1941 – a shift towards displaying the animals in a more naturalistic environment, exhibiting the diversity and integrity of habitats as they exist in nature. That trend has continued to this day.
“Since African Plains they have been ahead of the curve,” Hyson observed.
More significant than the many changes Osborn instituted inside the park, however, were those he promoted outside the park. Osborn ushered in a new era of conservation, launching the international programs department that expanded in the post-World War II era.
The giant steps began in the 1950s as the WCS reached out to Africa, still its most comprehensive area of operations. Perhaps most notable was the 1959 George Schaller seminal study of mountain gorillas in Congo. Schaller followed that with research on tigers and their prey in India, lions and their prey in the Serengeti, mountain goats and sheep in the Himalayas, jaguars in the swamps of Brazil, giant pandas in China, and the wildlife of the Tibetan Plateau and of the Mongolian steppes.
But this hardly marked the first time that the WCS stepped outside its own gates in the Bronx and engaged directly in saving wildlife.
A visitor entering through the Bronx Parkway Gate on the northeastern corner walks through a typical native forest of oak, maple and birch trees. The Bronx River borders the large grove. Within a few minutes walk, on a large plain, the first creatures are majestically revealed. The giant beasts stand still, their huge shaggy heads hanging low as they graze peacefully on the range, their graceful presence a reminder of the zoo’s colorful history. It seems only fitting that the American bison is one of the first animals to greet the guests of the zoo, since the bison owes its very existence to this zoo.
In 1905, the Bronx Zoo’s first director, William T. Hornaday, established the American Bison Society, an act that would prove pivotal in the history of zoos. About 50 million bison roamed the west before the Civil War, but there were fewer than a thousand left at the beginning of the 20th Century. As millions were slaughtered, the bison were on a fast track towards total extermination. Hornaday, a hunter himself, as many of the early conservationists were, was determined to save the species, and not only within the confines of its safe haven in the Bronx.
In 1907, the first planned conservation project of its time was underway, as the Bronx Zoo shipped 15 head of bison out west and established a protected herd at the Wichita Forest Reserve in Oklahoma. More Bronx-bred bison continued to make their way to Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska in the years to come. There are now about 100,000 bison alive and well in North American reserves. Many are direct descendents of the original Bronx herd.
While international conservation efforts are a relatively new trend, conservation is hardly a new term at the Bronx Zoo. In fact, conservationists, including future President Theodore Roosevelt, were among those who established the zoo. Hornaday perceived the zoo as a reflection of the larger world of nature.
In the Society’s first Annual Report in 1896, the “three great objects” were stated: 1) The establishment of a zoological park, 2) the encouragement of public interest in and promotion of animal life and zoology, and 3) “the preservation of native animals of North America and encouragement of the growing sentiment against their wanton destruction.”
“The bison was a landmark, which all other attempts followed,” explained Steve Johnson, the veteran archivist of the Bronx Zoo library. “This was the first conservation success of this society.”
The Bronx Zoo stood alone as a leader of conservation then, and its legacy continues today. It is still by far the leader of all American zoos in conservation, and sports more field based researchers than any other organization. The bison experiment marked not only the emergence of the zoo as a leader in conservation, but also a dramatic shift in the overall evolution of zoos.
The post-World War II era found humans and animals increasingly at war over natural resources. Unsustainable hunting and over-industrialization began to destroy many animals’ habitats, causing a growing number of species of wildlife to face extinction. The population explosion of the baby-boom generation, together with a growing realization of the damage humans inflict on wildlife, caused zoos to start looking at themselves and to reexamine their purpose. Zoos had to start changing.
No single individual contributed more to the transformation of the Bronx Zoo than William Conway, who began as assistant bird curator at the Bronx Zoo in 1956 and became the director of the zoo a decade later. In 1970, he became the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a title he held for 29 years.
“I wanted the zoo field to become much more professional and much more strongly devoted to conservation,” said Conway, who still works as a senior conservationist for the WCS. From behind the desk in his office, he spoke at length about his long years of working with animals. The walls of his office are decorated with colorful animal photos, such as two penguins nuzzling and a leopard killing a pheasant.
A combination of the social changes in the 1960s and the development of ecological theory led to a greater awareness of animal welfare. People began showing more interest in the fate of animals and naturally, zoos came under a microscope, with their treatment of animals drawing fire from animal rights activists.
“A lot of people who led the animal rights movement were involved in other battles as well,” said Dr. Bernard Rollin, a professor of animal ethics at Colorado State University, referring to the civil rights movement. “This generation had an ethical flashlight that other generations before did not.”
Reflecting the changing times, Conway made huge changes at the zoo, vastly improving exhibits, introducing new ones and expanding the international program to all corners of the earth. His greatest legacy, however, may be his innovative concept of the Species Survival Plan.
“Conway thought that zoos should start breeding their [own] animals,” said Johnson, widely considered the authority on the history of the Bronx Zoo. “He thought that they couldn’t keep taking them from the wild forever.”
This marked a drastic change in the relations between zoos and wildlife. Hyson described the change as zoos becoming producers of animals, rather than consumers of animals. Today, there are hardly any animals left in accredited zoos that were taken directly from the wild.
However, Conway realized that despite the great strides made by the zoo, it wasn’t getting the job done in terms of saving wildlife around the world. The 74-year old Conway continues to be active in field conservation to this day. He said that his ultimate vision would be for a complete merger between the zoo and the international conservation program, so that the zoo could provide the ultimate support for its overall cause.
Yet, even the buoyant Conway is grief-stricken when discussing the state of the natural world during this difficult era. While the Bronx Zoo continues to expand its global rescue missions, the state of animals in the wild continues to deteriorate at a horrendous rate.
“We really are in an age of extinction,” Conway admitted sadly. “I don’t think any animal bigger than a two gallon bucket has much chance of surviving the 21st Century unless it is being quite intensively protected.”
This ominous situation has caused zoos to temporarily abandon their previously declared mission of reintroduction of captive animals to the wild, a philosophy commonly referred to around zoo circles as the “Noah’s Ark paradigm.”
“In the past, zoos saw their primary role in breeding animals for reintroduction,” said Hutchins, of the AZA. “Now we believe the role is much more than that.”
Hutchins points to scientific research, public education, technological development, ecological restoration and fundraising, among others, as modern tools for conservation that will help save not only species of animals, but their withering wild habitats, as well. He calls this drastic change a paradigm shift. The new philosophy in the zoo world is referred to as the “Ambassador concept.”
The Bronx Zoo has adopted a two-pronged approach to its stated mission of conservation. It has continued breeding captive animals and educating its visitors about conservation, while at the same time promoting the work of international conservationists like Goodrich in an attempt to create safer habitats for endangered species in the future.
Seen through this prism, Alexis plays a vital role in the fate of the Siberian tiger. Zoo officials often state that Alexis is “an ambassador for her species,” raising public awareness and getting people to care about the plight of her wild endangered cousins.
“The ambassador concept is that captive animals are contributing to their kind in the wild,” notes Hutchins.
Field based conservation today entails much more than mere research, observation and documentation. The guiding principles, according to WCS officials, are discovery, involvement and protection. In fact, WCS field staff now spends most of its time engaging, training and educating the local governments and populations around the world to care about their environment and wildlife.
Joshua Ginsberg, director of the Asia program, oversees all conservation projects in the world’s largest continent. He said that his work includes convincing governments to protect wildlife, meeting with locals and explaining the dangers animals face.
Tigers are just one of his priorities. His staff has been meeting regularly with Chinese and Russian officials to try and influence their policies. In China, where the tiger is revered for its strength and power, tiger parts are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat arthritis and increase male vitality. Ginsburg’s researchers have met with several alternative medicine students and were shocked to discover that the students were unaware that the tiger is an endangered species. Due, in part, to these efforts, the Chinese created a tiger reserve in 2002. In Russia, where development has infiltrated deep into the tigers’ habitat, the government has responded positively and has now placed limitations on development and poaching.
The WCS has been even more active, and successful, in Africa, most notably in Congo and Gabon, where leaders, influenced by research provided by WCS staff, have decided to impose strict limitations on logging and have set aside large territories for natural wildlife reserves. Following a visit at the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest in 2000, the President of Congo decided to cancel the planned logging of the Goualogo Triangle, a 100 square mile rainforest in central Congo. Gabon recently declared its first-ever national park system, creating 13 new national parks, spanning some 10,000 square miles.
And the efforts are not limited to faraway lands and governments. Thanks to the efforts of WCS members and friends, President George W. Bush signed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act into law in December 2003. The new law bans the interstate trade and importation as pets of big cats – such as lions and tigers – and is an important step in ending the big cat pet trade in the United States
Not everyone is convinced about the success of zoos. Some animal rights advocates argue that there is no such thing as a good zoo. Since the groundbreaking publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1973, animal rights advocates have become much more vocal and powerful. Many consider conservation simply as a buzzword that zoos use to garner justification for their continued existence.
“It’s a show,” said Rollin, who refers to conservation as “fluff.” He maintains that the focus on saving species obscures the injustice of not treating animals as individuals.
“The animals didn’t choose to be ambassadors. You are still doing something which violates the animals,” he said. “Ultimately, I’d like to see the zoos whither away. Let the animals go wild.”
Defenders of zoos argue that the ethical justification for zoos is that in the larger scheme of the world, there is a higher priority to species over individuals. However, this argument includes a crucial caveat.
“Our first responsibility is to take care of the animals we have. Our second responsibility is to conservation abroad,” Hutchins said. “[Zoos] have to be involved in conservation but first you have to take care of your own. If you have animals in captivity, you have to take good care of them.”
Many critics still maintain that the zoos themselves exploit wildlife for their own purposes. However, Hutchins asserts that zoos work for conservation and not the other way around.
At the other end of the spectrum of critics are traditionalists who think that zoos should stick to their knitting and not forget the main reason for their existence or their customer base.
“Let’s be honest: The reason people go to zoos is to see the animals up close, preferably doing something entertaining,” Hyson wrote in an editorial article in The Washington Post last May. “Like it or not, the zoo business is show business.”
Hyson noted that more Americans go to zoos every year than go to all professional football, basketball, hockey and baseball games combined. He said that there has always been an inherent tension between what the zoo wants to provide and what the visitors want to experience. This was apparent even back in 1956, when retiring Director of the National Zoo in Washington William Mann, a respected scientist in his own right, advised his successor: “Don’t run [the zoo] for the scientists. It belongs to the visitors, and I’ve always tried to give them a good show.”
While Hyson praised the Bronx Zoo for its unique stance on conservation, he admitted that at many zoos “sometimes the PR claims are ahead of reality.” However, among animal lovers, there is no argument over the overall source of animal suffering.
“Humans are the problem,” said Ginsberg, in a dig at the prevailing notion that humans can also be the solution. “Extinction caused by humans is a thousand times greater than any other reason.”
Nonetheless, he asserts that the WCS is not an advocacy group — and tends to engage, rather than distance itself from, those who have abused nature and wildlife. There are essentially almost no places left on earth where human activity does not affect animals. This has led to a more activist approach to conservation and a greater sense of urgency among its proponents.
“It’s too late for a laissez faire attitude for wildlife. We’ve already done too much,” said Hutchins. “We have to act now. The next few decades will be critical.”
It the face of such trying times, the Bronx Zoo has stepped up to the challenge, heading the movement to protect wildlife. Ginsberg, like many others, states that the WCS is at the forefront of what a zoo can do. He argues that to have a great conservation organization you have to also have a great zoo.
“Only a hand-full of zoos are engaged in field based conservation,” he says, before adding, “but there is only one zoo that does what we do.”
The main reason the Bronx Zoo has been able to distinguish itself as it has is that it has money, something not all zoos have in abundance.
“Zoos and aquariums are conservation and scientific institutions, but they have economic limitations,” explained Hutchins.
“It’s going to come down to, are we going to get the money? … Money is the bottom line. If you don’t have money, you will not accomplish anything.”
No other zoo can afford to spend so lavishly on conservation projects. To pay for its programs, the WCS spends $130 million a year, far more than any other zoo in America and more than even the World Wildlife Fund. The budget allocated to the Bronx Zoo is $42 million, while the international budget is $32 million and rising. Despite the financial crises that have plagued most other American zoos, the Bronx Zoo continues to grow. Last year, its operating revenue and support rose by 11 percent from the prior year. Its budget and scope of operations are on par with behemoths like the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History.
The overall revenue is generated from three primary sources: government funding (city, state and federal), general admission and concessions, and individual donors. As is the case for most zoos, government subsidies are a critical source of support. Last year, the WCS got $36.5 million, $24 million of which came from cash-strapped New York City. However, as many other zoos have also discovered, taxpayer dollars come with certain restrictions.
“The money is to exhibit animals to the people of New York, for the education and entertainment of the people of New York,” explained Henry Stern, who for 14 years served as Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, the department that authorizes the New York City budget for the Bronx Zoo. “The city is not in a situation to pay for the preservation of animals in Africa and Asia.”
In the midst of a dire budget crunch, homeless advocates were wondering why the city was shutting shelters but not zoos. In fact, at one point, Mayor Bloomberg threatened to shut down the Prospect Park Zoo.
Unlike most other urban zoos in America, the WCS charges admission ($11 a person, $8 for children) and allocates all further income from concessions within the park to its operating budget. But with the number of visitors decreasing, held down by the fall in foreign tourists after 9/11 and the lingering recession, this hardly supports the organization.
So, like the city’s art museums and the New York Public Library, the WCS has relied heavily on philanthropy, beginning in the Gilded Age, with the generous support of prominent, wealthy New York families.
“They have always been unique,” explains Hyson, an assistant professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who is currently writing a cultural history of American zoos.
“They have history, funding and also a history of funding,” he explains. “They have been able to realize in practice much of what the rest of the zoo world can only talk about in theory.”
That legacy continues to this day. With its successful fundraising department and a long list of commercial sponsors, the Bronx Zoo has had to rely less on the government funding it receives than other zoos do. Like the city, donors tend to say how they’d like their money spent, but unlike the city, they are more inclined to support extinction projects, with their money directly earmarked for conservation in remote parts of the world. The money for international projects, for instance, has come exclusively from gifts, foundations and grants.
The 2003 annual report is filled with more than eight pages of individual donors totaling thousands of names. The zoo’s long list of corporate partners includes, among others: Pepsi, Fleet, Hess, Jaguar, Fujifilm, AT&T, Yellow Book and Barnes&Noble.
The growth has been described as self-generating, as the funding for the international program has grown methodically over the past five years. However, the “life-changing event,” as one zoo fundraiser referred to it, was a matching $25 million donation from an animal-loving, avid bird-watching retired stockbroker. The Robert W. Wilson Fund challenge grant makes up a huge chunk of the budget for international projects.
With all the talk in the Bronx swirling around conservation, it’s often easy to forget that the Zoo still falls within the characteristics of a traditional zoo as well. Hyson, the historian, defines a classic zoo as an “exhibition of captive animals displayed regularly to the public for purposes of entertainment and education.” Yet, while the Bronx Zoo has long evolved into an institution focused on research and conservation, the revolution has filtered down, influencing the traditional roles of zoos as well, namely, entertainment and education.
The days of elephant rides and sea lion shows are long gone. Cages are a thing of the past and the new and improved exhibits put a great deal of emphasis on the physical and psychological needs of the animals. All AZA-accredited zoos have strict codes of professional ethics and mandatory standards. Establishments in violation of these codes risk losing their accreditation, thus joining the ranks of the frowned upon, non-official, roadside-like animal collections. Researchers in the field have attested that the observations of captive animals have helped them in their work as well. Lattis, who oversees all the exhibits at the five WCS-run parks, said that the guiding principle is to make a contribution to the wild through the zoo exhibits.
The Bronx Zoo’s education director strikes a similar chord.
“We want people to be concerned and to care about the animals,” he said. “Our mission is to build a constituency for conservation.”
Seated in his basement office, his desk cluttered with notes, the bespectacled man in a white shirt and tie looks just like any other bureaucrat. That is, until you notice his orange tie, adorned with little gray elephants.
“I just love animals and wildlife and have forever,” Donald Lisowy says shyly.
Lisowy is not a zoologist — he is a teacher. As the Curator of Education at the Bronx Zoo, his role has increasingly changed along with the overall evolution of the zoo. The Bronx Zoo was the first zoo to open an education department in 1929.
Zoo goers, especially children, are much more sophisticated these days thanks to the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Animal Planet. The Zoo runs several science-based education programs, aimed at teachers and children of all grades. In many Bronx schools, the programs have already become part of the regular curriculum. The education program reaches more than 1.7 million schoolchildren in the New York metropolitan area and in school systems in all 50 states and in 15 other countries.
Lisowy, an avid New York Yankees fan, who grew up in Long Island and remembers coming to the zoo as a child, believes deeply in his role.
“There is a higher calling to what we do,” he said. “Our message is one that will benefit the entire planet; not one culture, not one society, not one country, but the entire planet.”
In the past, education was limited to providing visitors with generic information about the animals on display. Now, visitors are given status reports of the state of the species. At “Tiger Mountain,” for instance, visitors not only learn facts about Alexis; they also learn about the wild tigers in Asia, the dangers they face and what the WCS is trying to do to protect them. Much of the display is based on reporting from Goodrich and others in the field.
“I would like the visitors to leave with more… I’d like to set higher goals,” said Lisowy. “If someone leaves happy – that’s a single…I’d like someone to leave saying ‘I saw an elephant, but you know what, I learned that there are fewer and fewer of these animals in the wild, and there are organizations out there that protect these animals and perhaps I can get involved,’ that would be a home run,” he concluded.
Last spring, John Goodrich was sleeping on a beach in the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik (reserve) in the Russian Far East. He had just returned from retrieving the deserted collar of another poached tiger and was feeling quite discouraged. Suddenly he was awoken by the sound of something running along the hill above him, followed by rocks tumbling down the slope. Ghoral, small mountain goat-like animals, began scolding. He quickly leaned out of his tent, on the shore of the Sea of Japan, and pointed his radio-tracking antenna up the hill in the direction of the falling stones. A beep-beep-beep confirmed what he’d instantly guessed. Olga was within 100 yards.
Goodrich has been tracking her since he arrived in Russia in 1995. Olga, a 13-year-old Siberian tiger, is one of three-dozen tigers Goodrich has been studying. However, as the first radio-collared Siberian tiger ever, she is unique. She was captured as a cub in 1992, fitted with a radio collar and tracked ever since. During this time, Goodrich has caught her an additional half-dozen times to replace the batteries of her collar. He has gotten to study her every move and claims to know her even better than his own housecat.
“She’s a very special cat,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “She doesn’t live in a protected area. She lives in an area where there are hunters and farmers and all kinds of human activity, and despite all that, she has survived.”
From the sounds above, Goodrich deduced that Olga’s prowling on the hilltop has scared the ghoral in his direction and he floated gently back to sleep as Olga’s signal soon faded away.
The next morning, Goodrich woke up and gently stepped outside his tent. He could hardly believe his own eyes. Olga’s tracks were in the sand, less than ten yards from the door of his tent. It was Olga, not the ghoral, who had stumbled in his path and disturbed his sleep. He followed the tracks and discovered more, those of three cubs. This would be Olga’s sixth litter, an amazing feat for a tiger in her perilous environment.
Following the trail, he found the remains of a ghoral. Typical of most tiger kills, all the meat was gone and only the skull, bits of hide and four leg bones were left. Also typical, the remains had been scattered by the playful cubs.
Goodrich’s research has shown that humans cause more than 80 percent of tiger mortality. Over the years, he has seen tragedies unfold many times, watching tigers he has tracked for years succumb to poachers’ bullets, disease, or passing cars. Sometimes, he admitted, all his work seems almost futile. But then he stops and remembers Olga.
“Tracking her gets me thinking about her,” he said, before adding. “If Olga can survive through all of that, then there is hope for tigers.”