New director comes to zoo with zoom in hand A Druid Hill Safari

June 10, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

A leopard crouches in the tall grass, locking its eyes on a man standing less than 20 feet away. As the animal gets ready to pounce, Roger Birkel grabs his camera and starts clicking away.

"She's stalking us, isn't that great?" exclaims the new director of the Baltimore Zoo.

Not that Mr. Birkel, an avid photographer, is quite as brave as this scenario makes him sound. There is, after all, an iron fence separating cat from camera. But Mr. Birkel, who came to Baltimore in April after 25 years at the St. Louis Zoo, has proven his picture-taking mettle in environments far more hostile than the relatively friendly confines of Druid Hill Park.

Like the time he was on safari in Africa and decided it would be neat to have some pictures of a charging elephant.

"I have a series of photographs of an elephant charging at a distance, and then a little bit closer, and then a little bit closer, and then a big blur," says Mr. Birkel, laughing softly at the memory. "That's when Ellen [his wife] said, 'Come on, let's get out of here.' "

Spend a few hours with the zoo director as he tools about in his motorized golf cart, and it becomes clear that Roger Birkel the photographer is the perfect complement to Roger Birkel the animal lover and conservationist.

Camera in hand, he's always looking for the perfect angle, the perfect light, the perfect background. Spend enough time trying to photograph animals, he notes, and you see how they'll react in a given situation, how well they interact with zoo visitors, what times of day they are most active.

"It's a great way to learn animal behavior, plus you have some opportunities here that you never have in the wild," he says, waiting patiently for a group of neon-pink flamingoes to strike the right pose.

At 49, Mr. Birkel realizes his job as the man in charge of the zoo is just about every kid's fantasy. Hasn't everyone, at some point, daydreamed about how cool it would be to have a job at the zoo?

"I do appreciate that," says Mr. Birkel, who enjoyed something of a coming-out party last night at the 12th annual Zoomerang, the Baltimore Zoo's major fund-raiser. "It is a great adventure every day."

He doesn't really know where the impetus came from to make zoos his career. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his mother, who managed a handful of government buildings in the St. Louis area. Recently he started looking through old photo albums and realized "it seems like every other photograph I'm at the zoo."

Whatever the reason, nature was in his blood. He started college at the University of Hawaii, majoring in oceanography, but ended up earning a degree in anthropology from Lindenwood University in Missouri.

Shortly before graduation, pretty much on a whim, he applied for a zoo keeper's job.

"I figure it was more out of curiosity, to see what it was truly like to be close to those animals," he explains. "I knew the animals intellectually, I knew them from watching them at a distance, but something different happens when you actually become a part of that animal's daily life.

"I don't think the intention was to stay in zoo work. But, as many zoo people have found, when you try it, you like it."

On this sun-soaked morning, about two hours before the zoo opens its doors to the public, Mr. Birkel takes a visitor on a photo safari of his new domain. The tour begins in what is known as "the valley," an expanse of trees and shrubs that rolls gently downhill from the main gate to the children's zoo entrance and includes cages dating to the facility's Victorian-era beginnings.

Chartered in 1876, Baltimore's zoo is the third-oldest in the nation. But it had fallen on hard times by the early 1980s, still confining its animals to the dismal, cramped cages of another era.

In the past decade, though, the zoo has undergone massive renovations, and many of its animals have been moved to more spacious, natural-looking habitats. Under the leadership of former zoo director Brian Rutledge, a revamped children's zoo has won national acclaim and an African watering hole gives visitors an idea of what it might be like to actually journey through the Serengeti.

The changes have worked. Last year, the zoo attracted a record 611,000 visitors. And more improvements are on the way.

A new chimpanzee house opens later this summer. Then zoo officials will focus their attention on modernizing the valley, making it both more visitor- and animal-friendly.

That sits fine with Mr. Birkel, whose vision for the valley includes everything from huge expanses covered by nets, where birds and humans can mingle freely, to a re-creation of the Australian outback.

Standing at the head of the valley, outside the zoo's gift shop, he trains his camera on the rolling terrain, and his viewfinder takes in everything from a prairie dog village to a pair of frolicsome polar bears to a flock of sleepy flamingoes, standing on one leg, unaware that their slumber is about to be disturbed by a couple thousand screaming kids.

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