Reading Between The Lions
Wednesday - February 22, 2006
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The Honolulu Zoo family (from left): Leland Ching,
Carol Arnott, Charlotte Koo, Cathy Salvador and
Picture yourself in the heart of a national park in East Africa. You are sitting in an open vehicle watching a gathering of cheetahs, antelope and playful baboons congregating at a waterhole for a morning drink. Suddenly, four lions appear at the top of a ridge, striding majestically down to the waterhole with all the confidence that only the king of beasts has. They commandeer the space. The other animals give way, but not far, since a lion in view represents less danger than one that is not seen. The lions reach the water, drink their fill and peacefully lie down, asserting their ownership of the land.
I had the privilege of enjoying that scene some 30 years ago. I didn’t know it then, but it was a “chicken skin” moment. I’d been reading about lions, but being among them took me into an entirely different world. It was precisely then that I decided to get into the “business” of working with animals. But just being involved with animals was not going to be enough. I wanted to find ways to share my feelings about the natural world and endeavor to connect people with that world.
Quite often fate enters the picture regarding one’s direction in life. I hadn’t thought of how I’d reach my goal, but just like the lions appearing at a magical moment, so did an offer for employment in a zoo. Believe me, those of us who have made a career in zoos never forget those first days on the job. Having the opportunity to spend every day with animals, and getting paid for doing so, is exhilarating.
I quickly discovered, however, that there are aspects involved with a zoo that transcend merely caring for and exhibiting animals. For one thing, it is no longer acceptable to display animals in concrete, box-like cages. Naturalistic habitats allow animals to behave as they would in the wild. Of course, we don’t let our tigers stalk, chase and prey on antelope, but we do create ways for them to patrol their territory and work a little to obtain their “kill.” We always look for ways to maintain physically and psychologically healthy animals. To do that, we must convert our old-style zoo into a modern one, which is expensive. The payback, however, is tremendous. Repeat visitors to our zoo see more “soft” habitats and animals that are content. We are currently changing the Honolulu Zoo from a hodgepodge grouping of exhibits into a tropical zoological garden. In essence, we are building a living art gallery that displays nature in as beautiful an environment as possible.
Not only is it expensive to build new exhibits, it’s also costly to operate a zoo properly. Our first priority is to take care of the animals, but we must also provide our visitors all the amenities to ensure comfortable, safe and meaningful experiences. Since we wish to share our world with as many people as we can and our orientation is teaching the importance of conserving that world, we must make visitation affordable. While we are a non-profit, we still have to pay our bills. To offset some of the cost, we charge admission . Our support group, the Honolulu Zoo Society, also helps us meet financial obligations. One way you can help is to become a member of the society and contribute to our growing success.
There are those in our profession who are purists. They are concerned that we may get obsessed with raising money and drift toward becoming commercialized. We will never compromise our mission in order to generate a dollar. For example, baby animals are very popular and usually are a highlight to attract visitors. But we must be responsible caretakers and not allow animals to reproduce beyond our capability to care for them. Baby animals grow into adults quickly, so we make sure there is space available in other accredited zoos when it’s time for them to move on. As much as we’d like to show you the “cutest of the cute,” today’s zoos have more responsible animal management programs.
There are others who think that it is too expensive to have a zoo. Think of the loss if our 42 acres were turned into a parking lot or a series of high-rise buildings. Just like preservationists devote their lives to maintain masterpieces of art, we believe in conserving masterpieces of life.
We bring animals to you for enjoyment, for you to learn about nature, for an opportunity to escape from the urban hard-scape. We also take you to the animals. A safari to Kenya and Tanzania are scheduled for October. As zoo director, I’ve taken groups to Africa and continually am told “this is by far the best trip I have ever taken.” Connecting animals with people is our business, and we’ll continue to strive to find different ways to do that. Zoos are important resources for their communities. More than 140 million people visit zoos and aquariums in our country every year. You may not be able to afford to go to Africa, but you can come to the zoo, sit among the animals, and enjoy experiences that relate to life.
Next Week: Coralie Chun Matayoshi, CEO American Red Cross, Hawaii Chapter
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