Changing the zoo from a caged to a natural look

Q & A

April 05, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

If you haven't been to the Baltimore Zoo in recent years, get a ready for a shock -- the cages are vanishing.

In his 12-plus years as zoo director, Brian A. Rutledge has set about dismantling the iron bars and stone enclosures in favor of interactive exhibits with naturalistic environments -- changes readily apparent in the new children's zoo, an African watering hole and, coming next year, a chimpanzee forest.

Many of the animals roam freely now -- or so they seem in their spacious homes, until the zoo closes for the night and keepers cue or coax the animals into dens concealed by realistic sculpted rock and sandstone. There is growing focus on endangered species and their shrinking natural habitats.

Attendance has climbed from 200,000 or less to half a million annually -- without the flamboyant showmanship of the likes of Arthur Watson, who ran the zoo for 32 years and generated publicity with a TV show, finger-painting chimps and donkey-tail art.

Q: How close is the zoo to eliminating stone-and-bar cages?

A: We are probably, in the worst-case scenario, within five years of being out of all iron bar exhibits. All the old archaic exhibits should be gone. The entire main valley, what we are now calling the International Valley -- the stone shed, the classic this is what the Baltimore Zoo was for so long, will be gone within two years.

It will take a little longer to build our Earth Conservation Center, an $18.9 million project that will deal with terrestrial environments from all over the planet. That will close the old Mammal House, and bring the end of barred cages.

We will remove all the bars except for the round cage, where we used to have hyenas. We will keep that as an historic exhibit.

Q: Do you get much feedback from visitors on what they like the most?

A: Without any doubt our most popular exhibit is the children's zoo. That doesn't surprise us at all. The watering hole also has been extremely positive. Kids just love the rhinos.

You couldn't pick a more appropriate species to have kids be enthralled with. The five species of rhino are the most endangered animal on the planet right now. The black rhino alone has fallen from 50,000 animals in the wild 20 years ago to just over 2,000 now.

Q: The rhino, African elephants, Siberian tigers -- we've seen them slaughtered in recent years, horns and bones turned into decorative arts or medicinal remedies. Are we seeing a time of larger numbers in captivity than in the wild?

A: We certainly are in that position with the rhinos, whose population dependency is going to be in captivity. The poaching threat has been greatly reduced for elephants. The huge threat that they face now is population growth of humans and loss of habitat.

The Siberian tiger is, for all practical purposes, extinct in the wild. There's probably 800 animals left, spread across the whole of north Asia, and being killed daily. The odds on their long-term survival are almost nil. The fall of the Soviet Union was really tough on wildlife. There's no police prevention anymore; there's no controls.

The Asian population on this planet continues to involve itself in some culturally embedded but ecologically unsupportable habits. Tiger penis soup is a huge marketable item in China and other Asian nations, as the traditional medicine treatment for impotence. Tiger bones are in some cases more valuable than gold, ounce for ounce.

Q: Are zoos their last refuge?

A: I hear that zoos are the last stronghold for the future of these animals. But it's almost like a nonfuture. We don't want to support a situation of survival of the sexiest. The future is to protect habitat.

The thing that's really endangered that we all try to talk about, the reason we build the exhibits the way we do, is habitat. We lose individual species to poaching, but we lose thousands of species when we lose habitat, and we lose all potential for their future. What we're here for is to convince people that wildlife and wild lands are worthy of their caring and support, and worthy of continued existence.

Q: After a decade of rebuilding and changing, is there anything you would do over again?

A: The elephant exhibit -- I knew it at the time, but we have a very limited budget to work with. It has been very successful, but it's much more architectural than I would like for it to have been. I would preferred to have no visible buildings, an absence of man-made structures.

We built a 4-acre exhibit for elephants for less than 2 million bucks, and that's not an easy thing to do. So we had to compromise in ways that we have not compromised since. You see the building. You see the fence. The pools look like pools; they don't look like natural watering holes. But I think the public has enjoyed it immensely. The elephants certainly have.

Q: The exhibit is so large, the animals can seem a little distant.

A: It depends on what the elephants are doing. Some people are plenty close -- they get wet; the elephants throw water on them. The elephants can be as close as probably 16 feet from the public. That's as close as you could safely let people be from an elephant.

That was not the case here in the past. They used to let people a whole lot closer to them. But it wasn't safe.

Q: What changes are on the drawing board?

A: It's pretty much all laid out. The chimps, the International Valley and Earth Conservation Center, a South American region, Austral-Asian region. When we get that done, we've pretty well used up the existing zoo space. In addition, we hope to build an overhead cable car that will fly people from the Woodberry light rail station to the zoo entrance.

But there's a lot more to the zoo than bricks and mortar construction. We want to do more for the animals of our state and greatly increase our education department's capacity for outreach.

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