Troubled menagerie

Zoo: In tough fiscal times, zoos struggle with being both scientifically sound and fun enough to attract ticket buyers.

November 16, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The collection of animals that resides in Druid Hill Park is part of a millenniums-old human tradition.

"It depends on how you define a zoo, but if you take the broad aspect of the keeping of wild animals, native or exotic, you can trace its origin all the way back to the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China," says Vernon Kisling, editor of Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens. "Back then, virtually every civilization had a collection of wild animals."

And elephants - just as they are in the story of the Baltimore Zoo's financial problems - were often on center stage.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in last Sunday's Perspective section incorrectly stated that protests by animal rights groups stopped zoos in San Diego and Tampa, Fla., from importing 11 African elephants from Swaziland. Though delayed by protests, the elephants eventually arrived at those zoos.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Elephants have always fascinated people throughout history," Kisling says. "In the old days, if some ruler wanted a favor from another ruler, the gift of an elephant always made an impression."

Keeping such collections was expensive, so it was the province of the wealthy. In the Middle Ages, European royalty had exotic animals in their palace gardens. When U.S. troops moved into Baghdad, they found that Saddam Hussein had a similar collection on his palace grounds. The phenomenon crossed cultural boundaries - in 1519, Cortez found 300 people tending to a menagerie in Mexico.

The term "menagerie" fell out of favor with the Enlightenment. The animal displays that opened in various European cities in the 18th century were known as zoological collections.

That was soon shortened to zoo. But because that word has developed negative connotations, many zoos are "conservation centers." Whatever the name, historian Jeff Hyson says the bottom line is still the same. "When you get right down to it, people still want to see animals do entertaining things," says Hyson, an assistant professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia whose book on the history of American zoos will come out next year.

And therein lies the difficulty facing Baltimore's zoo and many other such facilities across the country. Once, zoos were a source of a city's pride, underwritten by its government and provided free to the citizenry. Now, that type of image-enhancing investment goes to sports stadiums.

The financial difficulties of the Baltimore Zoo that led to cutting 20 staff positions, lending out its two elephants and removing 400 other animals came after a $700,000 reduction in state aid. A sniper alert that canceled school trips and a rainy summer that kept down attendance, along with a sagging economy, were also blamed.

Zoos today have to perform a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, they must be scientific and educational institutions worthy of the kind of public and philanthropic support that goes to museums and symphonies. On the other, they had better be fun for kids or they are not going to attract paying customers.

Nothing performs that role better than what are known as the "charismatic megavertebrates" - big animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, bears and, of course, elephants.

"One of the problems that zoos have as they try to remake themselves as environmentally sensitive education centers is that at the same time they are trying to create a more complex image of nature, they are still giving names to the charismatic megavertebrates," says Hyson. "They are still giving them birthday parties, still using them in their [public relations] campaigns."

Such anthropomorphism might not be scientific, but it sells tickets. It is not just two African elephants leaving Baltimore; it is Dolly and Anna.

Their absence will be felt. Until it was passed in recent years by the panda, the elephant was at the top of the megavertebrate heap in popularity.

"I think a lot of people would say a zoo is not a zoo without an elephant," says Nigel Rothfels, author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. "Certainly in the 19th century - and this is absolutely true in the case of Europe - elephants were one of the two or three animals that people expected to see at the zoo."

The elephant played an important part in the history of the Baltimore Zoo. With a charter that dates to 1876, it is among the oldest in the country, ranked by some as behind only zoos in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. It flourished in the late 19th century but then fell on hard times, in part because of competition from private menageries of exotic animals.

By the 1920s, Baltimore's zoo was a small and sad collection of animals. Then there was a move to bring an elephant to town. Parks officials said the animal was too dangerous, but public pressure - and fund raising - brought in the pachyderm.

She had name - Mary Ann - and a new home. A lion followed. Bears were added. Grandiose expansion plans were announced. But the zoo foundered as the Depression and World War II took their toll on public support.

The modern version of the zoo began with the appointment of Arthur Watson as the zoo's first director in 1948. He ran it for the next four decades.

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