Life at the Bronx Zoo
The *Satya* Interview with James Doherty
*Jim Doherty* has been General Curator of the Bronx Zoo since 1979 and is
the Carter Chair in Mammology. He is a Professional Fellow of the American
Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) and serves as Species Coordinator for the
AZA's Sumatran Rhinoceros Species Survival Plan. Doherty supervises the care
and management of the Zoo's 6,000-plus animals, and is recognized as a
leading mammal expert. Last month *Satya* caught up with Doherty to talk
about life at the Zoo and about some of the more pressing issues with which
he is concerned.
*What's the job of a zoo curator like?
*Curators are responsible for anything to do with the animal collection and
that includes designing the exhibits. We're the people who know what the
needs of the animals are and how to exhibit them because we know what kind
of environment they come from.
We hire the keepers who have degrees in subjects like biological sciences,
animal science, animal behavior, psychology or anthropology. They actually
are the ones who get to know the animals best because they work so closely
We write the graphics to try and educate our visitors-it's a real challenge
to get a message across because they're not coming here to be educated.
We're involved in many species programs because so many of our animals are
endangered. There are a lot of cooperative efforts between zoos in this
country and in other parts of the world. We're constantly helping each other
and exchanging advice. It's a wonderful job because of the variety; there's
no such thing as a normal day.
*What purpose would you say zoos serve?
*I think that zoos were intended to be recreation areas where people come to
be entertained. Today we can't afford that. Yes, we entertain, but now we're
trying to educate, to get a message across about what is happening to
wildlife and to wild places. We're hoping that visitors go away with a
greater appreciation for wildlife and wild places, and caring about what
happens to them. If we save a habitat for the gorillas, for example, then
we're saving the habitat for many other animals who live in the same forests
*How does the zoo educate people about habitat conservation and endangered
*If you go through the Congo Gorilla Forest you will see a wealth of graphic
educational material. The challenge for us is finding creative ways to get
this material to the visitor so they will read it, and not just walk past
There is more and more information available that we can pass on; but there
is still a lot that we don't know. We want the visitor committed to working
with us, supporting us, helping us.
The people who come through the Congo Gorilla Forest have each donated three
dollars. At the end of the exhibit there are kiosks and they get a chance to
show us what kind of a project they want their three dollars used for in
nature. The money is not to be used at the zoo. Because the Congo Gorilla
Forest exhibit is so popular, we believe that we will be able to have $1.5
million for conservation work in Africa every year. That's fantastic.
*What role do zoos play with regard to species extinction and habitat
conservation in the countries of origin?
*We used to think that we were a reservoir of genetic material and that we
would have animals available for reintroduction. For example, if the
gorillas disappeared in Africa, well, we have a pretty sizable captive
gorilla population here in North America, we could take some of the gorillas
from zoos and reintroduce them. I don't think that's likely to happen now.
We do work with some endangered species in nature, although acting mostly in
an advisory capacity. So many animals are endangered. The animals are
getting more and more crowded into smaller and smaller areas; they are, in
many cases, living in mega zoos in nature. In other words they're living in
populations that have to be managed by man. So we are trying to help our
colleagues in other parts of the world manage their own animal populations.
*The display in Gorilla Forest shows how the destruction of rainforest
begins with a road. Does the zoo attempt to educate the public about how
their daily lifestyle choices affect the environment?
*Yes. We have a rainforest gallery in the Jungle World exhibit that tells
that story very well. There are graphics on jungle products, foods and
medicines. There is a light box next to each with examples of some of the
products coming from rainforests, things like wood products, fabrics and
rubber; various fruits and coffee; and a variety of medicines all derived
from tropical plants.
There are so many things coming out of the rainforest that we're using all
the time. One of our concerns was, would people pay attention to such a long
list of products? I've seen people stop and scan those lists even though
they may not read the whole thing. We want people to go home thinking about
being less wasteful. We're not saying, "Don't cut down the forest," but we
are saying, "let's be more careful about how we cut down the forest; let's
be more careful about everything that we do."
Americans are role models for people in many parts of the world though often
we are not good role models because we are a very, very wasteful society.
We're throwing away things that people in developing countries wouldn't
think of throwing away; they couldn't afford to. They reuse cans, bottles,
paper and cardboard over and over again until they are worn out. But these
people want to live the way we do. They'd love to have television and a car.
They want the things that we have. So they often exploit their resources in
order to raise their standard of living. In many cases, they can't afford to
think about conservation the way we can in this country. I think we have a
responsibility to try and be less wasteful, to do more recycling and so on.
We could show people in the developing countries that we are a caring
*What is an AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP)?
*North American zoos cooperate to manage all the members of one species as
one population to get the greatest genetic diversity and maintain a healthy
captive population so there never needs to be any thought of bringing other
animals into captivity. It's worked out very well. Now there are a lot of
species survival plans.
I'm the coordinator for the Sumatran Rhino SSP. It's an extremely small one
because there are only a few in captivity. This is a very sad story because
this is one large mammal that will probably go extinct in our lifetime. They
are found in Southeast Asia, in Malaysia, in Borneo and other parts of
Indonesia. Because of poaching and habitat destruction, they are
disappearing rapidly. They're being killed for body parts, including horns
and organs, to sell in Asia. There is not a large enough captive population
to sustain this species. The reason we have any still remaining in zoos is
that they are long-lived.
*So what's the survival plan?
*I don't think that there can be one; Sumatran Rhinos are just doing too
poorly in nature. There are only three in North America, all in the
Cincinnati zoo. One is very old and appears to be post-reproductive. One is
very young, but she's never carried a pregnancy to term, though we don't
know why. There certainly are other rhino species that are not having
problems like this.
*What are some of the most successful SSPs?
*The gorilla is a good example. This has worked because people have been so
willing to cooperate. Years ago, we didn't know what we know about gorillas
today. Most zoos that had gorillas kept them in pairs, but they didn't
breed. It now appears that maybe they grew up like brother and sister even
if they were not related. Once the SSP for gorillas started, gorillas were
moved around the country, swapped, put in different situations. The quick
turnaround was remarkable. Gorillas that had been in captivity for 20 years
or more and had never shown any interest in reproducing began to breed
We have a gorilla here, Timmy, who was wild born in Africa in 1959, and was
at the Cleveland zoo for 28 years. He never reproduced in all that time and
then the SSP recommended that Timmy come here. In 1998, Timmy's eleventh
baby was born here at the Bronx Zoo and he only came here in 1990. He is the
most wonderful father and protector of the baby gorillas. He's also the
peace maker among the females and he doesn't fight with any of them. He gets
along with everybody so well. This was an animal that a lot of people said
was going to come here and die. I expect he will die here; he's been here 10
years now. He still looks pretty good. He's 41, and that's pretty old for a
gorilla, probably like 82 in human years.
Gorillas have great personalities. Every one is different and they're all
named. People come to the zoo to see gorillas. They say, "I saw that gorilla
when I was a kid." They're bringing their own children to see the gorillas
that they saw as a child.
*Will the program require Timmy to go to another zoo?
*It would be recommended if he were younger, but at 41 that's not so easy.
If you had a family and you moved, the children may not fully understand why
you're moving, but at least you can try to explain and hopefully calm their
fears. Unfortunately, we can't do that with the gorillas.
We were very worried when we moved the gorillas into the Congo Gorilla
Forest because most of them were born in the old ape house. They didn't
understand why we were moving them, they don't understand this new facility.
Now I think they've forgotten the ape house because it was so old and small
in comparison to what they have now. I expect Timmy will stay here just
because of his age and because of the fact that I think there is stress when
you move animals. I don't think he deserves it. Also, we like him here. But
if we were told to move him, we would do it.
*Have there been successful programs to reintroduce captive-born animals to
*Yes, there have been a number of them-not as many as we would like. A few
years ago, we were involved in a program for the black-footed ferret. In the
mid 1980s, the black-footed ferret was the rarest mammal in the world. They
were thought to be extinct. Shame on us for allowing this animal-unique to
the western part of the U.S.-to disappear. With all the resources we have,
we killed them off. But a small wild population was found in Wyoming. We
brought them into captivity and set up a successful captive breeding
program, and eventually reintroduced them.
The Arabian oryx antelope, once found all over the Arabian Peninsula, was
killed off completely by people shooting them for sport. A captive breeding
program was started in Arizona. Then the country of Oman said that they were
interested in reintroduction and were willing to protect the oryx. So oryx
that were four or five generations in captivity were reintroduced to the
Arabian Peninsula. There have been some hunting setbacks but the animals
have done remarkably well. The desert in that part of the world is an
extremely harsh environment; these are animals that had water and food put
in front of them in zoos, and then they had to go out and find water and
grazing grass. And they did it. Their numbers have built up quite
dramatically from the small number of animals that were reintroduced.
*What would you say to people who feel that animals shouldn't be kept
captive at all, that no matter what efforts are made, it's an unnatural
existence for wild animals?
*Very, very rarely do we bring animals from nature today. We would be much
more likely to put animals back than to bring them into captivity.
Ninety-seven percent of the mammal collection here was born in this or some
other zoo. The three percent that were born in the wild are mostly the old
gorillas, who have been in captivity for many years, and some old rhinos.
These captive animals are ambassadors to the people who come here,
representing the animals that are found in nature. For the gorillas and most
of the animals we have, captivity is all they know, they don't know any
other life. That doesn't mean that we cannot treat them well; I think that
if you look around the zoo you'll find that we do treat them well. These
animals live a much better life than they do in nature. They live longer,
have medical care and better nutrition. They have no predators and they have
wonderful people caring for them-veterinarians and keepers who ensure that
they're healthy. The keepers aren't getting rich working here; they come
here because of their love for the animals.
*Do you consider yourself to be an animal advocate?
*I think that the fact that we're working here makes us animal advocates.
We're all here because we care about the animals; we want what's best for
them. There are about 600 mountain gorillas surviving in nature today and
Africa is where they belong. They are not in captivity; they are not in
zoos. I hope that we never see them in zoos. If we do, then that means that
we've blown it. They should be able to survive out there. Right now it's a
very tenuous situation, but we want them to stay in nature. They're much
better off in their natural habitat just because that's where they belong.
We'll bring them into captivity if we have to but we really don't want to.
Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer places in nature for many of these
animals and it's not fair to let them go to extinction.
*Do you feel that there are any key issues that people are not "getting"
when they criticize zoos?
*They should come and walk through here with us and hear us talk to them
about the animals and how much we care. I do believe we care as much as they
do. I think that's the best thing we could do, to have dialogue.
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