Where each day holds a memory

June 20, 2008|By Donald P. Hutchinson

There is a children's book that sits on a table in my office - a gift from a colleague - and I smile each time I see it. The book is Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Zoo, and the smile comes because, well, now I do run the zoo. It's as challenging as anything I have ever done in my career.

This year, I have been tested by learning the ins and outs of a new business - one that includes a complex administrative structure, 55 buildings on 135 acres, 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, 225 employees and, of course, 1,500 live animals.

Each day brings to bear a new discovery, or an "aha!" moment, such as the birth of a baby elephant or the sounds of children squealing with delight as they ride on the back of a camel. Then there are other, more poignant moments, some of which are unseen by the public, that are part of the reality of caring for, and about, live animals.

It's the latter type of moment that was experienced here at the Maryland Zoo on May 24. It was a beautiful day - sunny skies, a warm breeze - a fine way to start the Memorial Day weekend. Our staff was gearing up for the first truly lovely spring day - the kind that draws the community outside to enjoy time with family and friends here at the zoo. Volunteers, educators, special events staff all were on hand to help our guests with their journey to the zoo from the Maryland Wilderness to Africa, with a little "Brew at the Zoo" festival thrown in for good measure.

But behind the scenes, our animal care and veterinary staff were preparing to say goodbye to a longtime zoo favorite, Gretchen the giraffe. Her progressive arthritis had taken its toll, and the decision had been made to humanely euthanize her. What a striking contrast this somber scene was to the laughter and excitement of our guests who were watching the penguins and polar bears splashing about.

I took this all in and realized that this is what happens at the zoo every day. It is a microcosm of life filled with very public moments and very private moments behind the scenes as our staff of biologists, researchers and veterinarians work on behalf of the animals here at the zoo and those in the wild. Here, science and technology work hand in hand with education and fun to showcase animal care and conservation. It's an unusual mix, but not uncommon at zoos and aquariums around the country, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Salisbury Zoo.

It just reminds me that at a time when children learn more about the world around them from television and computers than from personal experience, we offer fun, safe opportunities to view living wild animals up close. Zoos and aquariums are also active conservation organizations that work to study and preserve the species and habitats of the animals they display - including our work on behalf of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, polar bears in the North, penguins in South Africa and Panamanian golden frogs, to name a few.

It has been widely reported that we are at a critical juncture at the zoo - very true. We are working diligently to shore up the business end of our operations and keep the zoo moving forward. To that end, we have put together a business plan that aims to develop dependable annual sources of public and private funding and find money for a capital program to address deferred maintenance and pay for some new exhibits. In a few weeks, a team from the American Zoological and Aquarium Association will visit to assess our progress in upgrading the zoo. We hope it will be decided to continue our accreditation. But regardless of the outcome of that review, we plan to work hard to make the zoo excellent in coming years.

What has also been widely reported is the depth of caring and compassion the zoo staff has for the animals it cares for daily, as evidenced by stories about the birth of Samson the elephant and the death of Gretchen, our "Lady of the House." This is just part of the zoo experience as we see it every day.

The zoo is a place full of life and stories - funny stories, sad stories, public stories and private stories. But I have to admit, as I run the zoo, that we have here in Baltimore a wonderful zoo that is a place for your friends and your family to create your own stories. Judging from the comments I have been getting from visitors lately, they may be some of the best stories you ever tell.

Donald P. Hutchinson is CEO/president of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

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