Zebra Watch at the Baltimore Zoo

DANIEL BERGER

July 04, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

A magical sight is three zebra galloping across an African plain-- even if the plain is a small patch of Maryland grass. They are free, yet mysteriously joined as if harnessed in a troika. They start together, stop together and almost-touch the whole way.

This is what you would never see in an old zoo cage with a solitary animal standing forlornly on concrete doing nothing all day, all life.

In that cage, you might see the markings more clearly: the marvel of the individual animal. But the trade-off is not even close. The gallop, admittedly seen from farther away, is much more exciting and informative. That's why the new ''African watering hole'' at the Baltimore Zoo is such a pleaser.

Of course these animals are still in a zoo. They cannot leave. Their diet is regulated. Many are taken into cages each night. They are not in their natural habitat, merely an artistic simulation. Probably they are not fooled. Just as probably, they are grateful for every freedom compared to cage confinement.

The Baltimore Zoo grew out of exhibits distributed across the great Druid Hill Park and was fenced in only in 1970. It is money-poor and land-rich. Much of the park was fenced, and is held in reserve.

If you were investing in zoos, the attraction of Baltimore's would be those 158 acres, most of them undeveloped and available for future expansion. It is a wealth that most long-developed zoos do not have.

The African habitat, with a wonderful walk-through aviary, joins the ''Maryland wilderness'' that opened three years ago. Along with the 1986 elephant enclosure and the expanded tiger cage, they give the Baltimore Zoo a critical mass of modern habitat exhibit that make it worth recommending.

The African exhibit is part of the trend in zoos everywhere toward simulated habitats. That's a lot of capital tied up in fake rock. At least in a zone of mild winters this can be done keeping the people outdoors, so that costly buildings are for resident animals only. But these complex exhibits are expensive to operate, with more labor expended tending animals in more extensive surroundings.

The first such sophisticated habitat exhibit in Baltimore was the rain forest atop the National Aquarium, which is now being emulated in better-funded zoos across the land. (If this rain forest is in the Aquarium not the Zoo, a pond you can walk dryly under while otters play about your head is in the Zoo not the Aquarium.)

The expansion of exhibits at the Baltimore Zoo comes at a critical time in its history and the world's. The zoo is run by a non-profit society but still needs governmental subsidy, which Maryland has taken over from Baltimore. This will not reduce the need for a greater infusion of private funds.

It exists for the people of Central Maryland. Situated between the larger and more famous Washington National Zoo and Philadelphia Zoo, it is unlikely ever to be marketed and priced for one-time visitors.

And the zoo remains within a city park that is less well-cared-for each year, the careful and lush horticulture inside the fence contrasting with the ever-larger swaths of unmowed grass outside it.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest zoos anywhere, in Regents Park in London, is stumbling to oblivion. Expenses went up and attendance down and the British government decided to end subsidy, under Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven's doctrine of survival of the fittest.

The London Zoo's death was announced, then its reprieve, then its death again, and now a six-month reprieve thanks to nearly $2 million from the emir of Kuwait. The people of Kuwait might think he has better things to do with their money, while the government of Britain refuses to underwrite an attraction that keeps London great and helps the global effort at species survival.

And in Milan, Italy, the old zoo of cramped cages was closed as unfit for the animals. Homeless humans now inhabit them.

In Kruger National Park in South Africa, the elephant herd is being culled. Drought, poverty, population growth and development threaten all the habitats of Africa. Synthetic habitats at the Baltimore Zoo (and the London Zoo if it survives) become more important. The two white rhinoceroses sent here are among the last 5,000 in the world.

So it isn't just Central Maryland but the world that needs the Baltimore Zoo. Wonderful and amazing species will die out if not preserved in zoos until humankind thinks up something better. What is Earth, after all, but a giant zoo? A notoriously mismanaged zoo.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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