Zoo stories

A key mission of Illinois' small public zoos is maintaining endangered animals. And conservationists value their efforts with such species as the red ruffed lemurs and golden lion tamarins

By Jefferson Robbins
Photographs by Fred Zwicky
taken at Glen Oak Zoo, Peoria

I t's lunchtime on a June Saturday at Henson Robinson Zoo in Springfield, and the red ruffed lemurs sprawl languidly in their enclosure. On shelves and along tree branches, they splay out their house cat-sized orange-and-black bodies for maximum cool. One male reclines in the crotch of a branch like a suburban dad on a Barcalounger - all he needs is a beer and a remote to complete the illusion. Snoozing amid the squalls of a sexually frustrated peacock across the way, this is a family at rest.

This is also the largest single family of red ruffed lemurs in any U.S. zoo: nine individuals, seven of them offspring of the other two. No small feat, considering this endangered Madagascar species is infamous for aggression among family members kept in close quarters.

Zoo director Talon Thornton - named not for an eagle's claw but for a 17th-century French governor of Canada - looks on the lemur exhibit with a bit of pride. Other zoos look on it with curiosity and envy, and they'd like to know its secret. Thornton takes calls once in a while from primate curators elsewhere, seeking to seal a truce among feuding lemur siblings.

"The black lemurs, on the other hand. ..." Thornton shakes his head. "Our black lemurs are just not compatible. We've got bite wounds upon bite wounds upon bite wounds on our black lemurs."

Still, conservationists value the work Thornton's zoo and others in Illinois have done. Maintaining endangered species has become one of the key missions of Illinois' small public zoos, a close second to their primary thrust in education.

Opened in 1970, with Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom fame as master of ceremonies, Henson Robinson Zoo is a program of the Springfield Park

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District. It takes its name from a longtime park board member whose family helped finance its creation, and in 29 years it has grown from a simple children's zoo with a focus on Illinois wildlife to a complex of exhibits holding 250 individual animals of 90 different international species.

Seventeen park districts or city recreation departments in Illinois have their own zoos, whether a small petting zoo or a multi-acre exhibit with predators not inclined to be stroked. Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo stand out as the largest, orbited by eight community zoos in the suburbs and one in Rockford. The remainder are spread throughout central Illinois, from Springfield to tiny west central Blandinsville.

Of the nine full-range community zoos, most claim yearly attendance averaging 113,000. Their budgets range from about $500,000 to more than $700,000, excluding Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoo. Those public bodies that have created zoos have often gotten some payback from their investments, through one-time ticket sales, memberships and gift-store purchases. At best, however, downstate zoos tend to regain just 50 percent of what's spent. Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria and Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington both earned back half what they spent last year. Henson Robinson, with an adult ticket price of $2 compared to Miller Park's $3, retrieved about a third of its budget.

Most zoos have outside support from local zoological societies, and often look to private support for expansion projects. Glen Oak Zoo is designing a master plan that could boost it from a seven-acre plot to a hoped-for 25 or 30 acres, perhaps tying it in with the riverfront redevelopment that's ongoing in Peoria. Zoo director Jan Schweitzer hopes to pull the project together with a mix of public and private money.

The small zoos' pockets aren't deep enough, and never have been, to delve into heavy research and hands-on conservation in the wild, unlike their big brethren in St. Louis, San Diego and elsewhere. Asked to describe their mission, most zoo directors point to education, whether through the talking info-boxes that line their exhibits or through animal handlers' visits to schools. That, they say, is their most direct path to affecting human relationships with animals.

"We think that is the best way to inspire the caring that is necessary in a child or an adult so they can go back into the world and be a part of it," Schweitzer says.

But if the visitors who stroll through the zoos' turnstiles are getting an education, it's almost incidental to their simple desire to see wild animals in a cage. And what's the guarantee that Henson Robinson Zoo's prized lemurs are clean and healthy in their little closed family group?

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Who's watching the men and women who watch the animals?

The community zoos' role as offshoots of larger governments creates one built-in layer of regulation: Thornton and his counterparts throughout Illinois must answer to their park boards or city councils. Beyond that, federal inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture pay annual or twice-yearly unannounced visits to record all conditions that could affect the mammals in a zoo's care, directly or indirectly.

In the last three years, the community zoos of Illinois have passed muster at the USDA with only the mildest notations. Peoria's Glen Oak Zoo got the most marks in an April inspection, with USDA agents noting a handful of small infractions that seem piddling when Schweitzer explains them.

"There was one where they found a bird's nest in an outdoor binturong exhibit, and we had not taken that out because it was a mother sitting on her eggs,'' she says. In addition, a freezer holding some animal feed had sprung a leak (the repairs were already out for bid when the inspectors saw it), and a cracked countertop in a humans-only kitchen was noted as a possible haven for bacteria.

Glen Oak Zoo took a very public knock in a 1989 Parade magazine article that called it one of the 10 worst zoos in the United States, based solely on questionnaires answered by 50 unidentified zoo professionals and 36 unidentified animal-welfare activists. Glen Oak protested the ranking and invited the article's author, Bernard Gavzer, to take a tour. After that visit, Gavzer wrote that the zoos criticized in the Parade piece had greatly improved, Schweitzer says. "But honestly, we hadn't changed that much." Glen Oak officials never learned the names of the "zoo professionals" and "animal-welfare activists" questioned for the article.

As intimate as USDA inspections can get, nothing sets a zoo director's knees knocking like the accreditation process carried out by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association, which calls itself the AZA for short (citing consultants' advice on attractive acronyms) and acts as an umbrella for 154 member zoos and 30 aquariums in North America.

Despite the stress of AZA inspections, public zoos ache to join. Scovill Children's Zoo in Decatur has spent years angling for a berth with the agency, and expects to spend about $350,000 to build an AZA-required animal quarantine building, starting this year. Once that's done, Scovill's application to join AZA will be filed in earnest.

"Once you're in the national AZA world, you become a real zoo," says Scovill Director Mike Borders. "It's very easy

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to get animals from other zoos if you're accredited, either on loan or to purchase."

Besides an animal quarantine space, zoos need a master plan for their educational programs before joining the AZA, plus easy access to veterinary care. They also need to show the proper level of staff training for the kinds of animals they host. (A zookeeper skilled at handling coatimundis can't necessarily wrangle a puma.) Then AZA associates descend on the candidate zoo, poring over financial records, poking through the cages and interviewing staffers right down to the intern level.

"About the only thing they don't interview is the animals," Thornton says. It's a grueling process, and member zoos submit to it every five years to keep their certification. AZA spokeswoman Jane Ballentine was a staffer at the Baltimore Zoo during one reaccreditation ordeal: "I thought our director's head was going to explode at one point," she says.

"When the USDA comes through, their standards I wouldn't say are low, but you know what those standards are," says Jackie Peeler, Henson Robinson Zoo's assistant director and chief curator. "AZA's a lot more stressful because they look at everything."

Henson Robinson's own reaccreditation was deferred for a six-month grace period after a 1992 inspection, which found that wages were lower than average and staff morale was ebbing. Since then, starting salaries for zookeepers - those staffers with the most direct contact with the animals - have been boosted from $5.40 to $10.67 an hour.

It's through the AZA that Illinois' smaller zoos conduct much of their species preservation work, submitting to the guidelines of various species survival programs, or SSPs, designed to maintain health in endangered animals' breeding populations. Each SSP is overseen by an AZA committee and coordinator with expertise in a particular species. Each year, the committees evaluate all the captive members of their assigned species in all the AZA member zoos, and decide which members get to breed. Until they get the call to breed a pair, zookeepers put their SSP animals on a regimen of contraceptive injections, or separate the sexes altogether.

With more community zoos enrolling in species survival programs, animal conservation has grown more central to their mission - a close second to education in most institutions. There are only about 300 red ruffed lemurs in captivity worldwide, and Henson Robinson Zoo's success in keeping nine such lemurs in the same space goes to the heart of what the AZA hopes its member zoos can achieve.

"We have a real space problem in zoos, and we need to keep animals in social groups as long as possible," says Ingrid Porton, primate curator for the St. Louis Zoo and coordinator of the AZA's ruffed

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lemur SSP. "It's very difficult to introduce females to unfamiliar females. Female-female aggression in ruffed lemurs is worse than male-male aggression."

Because of that aggression, large families of ruffed lemurs aren't that common in captivity. Thornton credits Henson Robinson's success to simply having "a real compatible group of animals." Porton thinks it's something more - that the zoo is willing to work toward the goals laid down for that species by AZA. "They are really my shining example to other institutions that it can be successful if you manage them well," she says.

Henson Robinson plays a part in 10 SSPs. Despite the Scovill Children's Zoo's lack of AZA membership, it too has a role in a handful of species survival programs. If you combine the SSP species of those two facilities with those of Glen Oak Zoo and Miller Park Zoo, you find that Illinois' downstate community zoos are working to preserve marmosets, Chinese alligators, radiated tortoises, cotton-top tamarins, golden lion tamarins, black lemurs, ringtail lemurs, mouse lemurs, red wolves, snow leopards, Sumatran tigers, Asian sun bears, cockatoos, gibbons, African lions, African penguins, Cinereous vultures and cheetahs. When it comes time to manage breeding, the AZA's recommendations can hit a zoo in the heart. Animals may be shipped off to foreign zoos for matchmaking with other individuals deemed compatible by their SSP. In 1991, Thornton got a call asking him to ship his favorite red ruffed lemur, Rhea, to Brussels, Belgium. The zoo there held a prospective suitor, and Thornton had to say goodbye and accept another breeding female as her replacement.

"It was very hard, because Rhea was the first lemur that I'd ever worked with," he says. "You have to put your institutional feelings aside and look at what's best for that species." Rhea, now 30 years old, remains in her Belgian zoo. Once in a while, a community zoo animal makes its own decision about what's best for its species. In March, Henson Robinson's two endangered red wolves managed to kill a plump goose that settled too close to their cage. When they pulled its carcass inside, the gate latch sprung and the pair escaped. The male was recaptured within the hour, while the female, Gillian, stayed on the run for a week - and sent her keepers scurrying to answer some 40 reports of wolf sightings throughout Sangamon County. She finally reappeared outside her old cage, exhausted and ready for a long nap.

The red ruffed lemurs, for their part, show no interest in going anywhere. Maybe they know how good they've got it.

Jefferson Robbins is a reporter for the
State-Journal Register in Springfield.

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