“Let’s go to the zoo!” It’s a popular suggestion that appeals to everyone of all ages in homes both in Roswell and around the world. Zoos are favorite education/recreation centers both globally and locally. In fact, did you know that more people visit the zoos in this country than attend all the sporting events put together?
At this time, our community has a chance to create a zoo that steps up and goes beyond anything Roswell (or any other city) currently offers and likewise boosts our image, credibility and pride. And the best part — costs would be minimal.
Zoo animals are often referred to as “wild.” Or, that they somehow miss the “wild.” In the real world of zoos, the animals are typically more domestic than wild. That’s right, most zoo animals are born in captivity and have become adapted to zoo environments and their visitors. They could be classified as “Zoo Domestics.” Even the food is specially prepared. Zoo animals raised in captivity are, in fact poorly equipped to handle “the wild.” After a few generations, they are no more “wild” than most horses, goats or even household cats.
In the response to the PETA offer that appeared in Jeff Tucker’s article on August 8, a big step forward was taken. City Attorney Aaron Holloman was precisely on target in making the city of Roswell’s position clear. It outlined the city’s intention to begin a public planning process to upgrade the existing zoo.
Along with the federal USDA regulating authority for zoos, animal rights organizations do have an important place in providing oversight. However, aside from the zeal that drives a rightist organization as they descend on zoos, these organizations themselves need to be open to scrutiny.
There are three areas of strength that underscore the Roswell zoo as it strides toward the future: First, the condition of the animals of the zoo: The animals in Roswell’s zoo are in superb condition including the bears regardless of any shortfall in the aged facilities. That brings me to the second component: Roswell zoo’s staff under Director Marge Woods continues to boost their commitment to outstanding animal health. They are in lock-step with the city which provides for the zoo’s support. Finally, there is a large cadre of visitors on which the zoo depends, who make great use of the zoo for recreational and educational purposes. These three broad components, inseparably integrated, are key to the success of any cultural initiative, whether it be zoo or museum.
As is pointed out in the article, a master plan that outlines the zoo’s future is not just desirable; it is crucial. A master plan however, needs to be a living entity in order to accommodate changes and upgrades as needed; it must not be carved in stone. That said, the public should be reassured that those aspects of the zoo that are especially attractive need to be retained. To change everything for the sake of change is unnecessary and carries the risk of losing significant numbers of loyal visitors. Furthermore, any zoo plan needs to be sure that visitation is maximized not only for local residents but for all visitors that come to Roswell.
Two years ago, when Mayor Kintigh asked me to review the zoo’s performance it was clear that the existing master plan needed updating in order to meet current and future needs. However, my task was cut short due to two interruptions: First, the city was confronted with a budget cut and second, the city manager at that time resigned. However, the “can do” spirit among employees, volunteers and enthusiastic citizens along with an ad hoc committee provided the inertia that enabled us to take the first steps in tackling two very important initiatives; (1) a visitor attendance survey to measure the usage of the park (and provide a baseline for future planning) and (2) an accurate landscaping and facilities plan in order to guard against duplications of effort.
The preliminary evidence gathered at that time underscored the zoo’s enormous popularity for all ages, including families, the elderly and the young. Remarkably, during my survey I did not see signs of youngsters immersed in electronic social media devices, thereby being oblivious to the animals and the natural world around them. This study needs to be completed in order to identify attendance fluctuations and enable future planning with a minimum of errors.
We can overhaul the old zoo and create new components or “inserts” to boost and broaden its appeal among its visitors. Perhaps a “Zoo Beyond.” That is, beyond anything that exists now.
Zoos across the country need to consider whether this is time for a sea change and, if so, make those changes happen. We, here in Roswell have a unique opportunity that most zoos seldom get — a chance to renovate. And now, at this time and with careful planning we can be something entirely new and at low cost.
We can implement a completely new zoo program in Spring River Park that embraces what is already working, as well as include some exciting new components such as an animal contact area where youngsters can touch an Angus cow and feed a duck. Immersion exhibits would enable visitors to wander through a small, enclosed forest populated with Kookaburras, iguanas and small anteaters (Tamandua). Selected domestic breeds can create astonishment when adults and children alike see an African Ankole-Watusi cow, Fighting geese and Guinea pigs up close.
Out of doors, however, we have another huge world that, sadly, zoos typically ignore. With careful, strategic planning we can capitalize on this resource by attracting many of our exciting local species into the zoo and greatly enhance the visitors’ experience. hummingbirds, thrushes, blackbirds, roadrunners and many more would be attracted and become part of the entire zoo experience. Ground and rock squirrels and prairie dogs already make their homes here.
In fact, much of the popularity of these invited animal guests would be based on the birds not being confined to a cage. However, because the “Zoo Beyond” concept would also be highly attractive to many other animal species in the area, the existing perimeter fence around the zoo would need to be upgraded in order to keep out those animals like coyotes, dogs and disease-bearing feral cats that would want to move in.
Can we do this? Absolutely. Costs for the initial stages would be near zero if we initially focus on the local animals, particularly the avifauna. Birds can be attracted for the cost of feeders and the food to put in them. Trained volunteers can go with and supervise visitors in the proper ways to feed and interact with several species that would select the park as their home. In short, with only a few more resources than what we have at hand, we can create a completely new, multi-faceted exhibit program that would fascinate and expand the visitor’s educational experience.
There are several advantages to this new kind of zoo. First, ongoing attendance continues with the added opportunity for visitors of all ages to ask knowledgeable staff or volunteers about the animals around them. Second, animal rights organizations become a minimal issue since many or most of the animals in the zoo are attracted from outside the park. Third, the city and its residents are spared the enormous cost (usually in the millions of dollars) for a completely new facility. Fourth, the zoo is elevated to the status of a cultural center equivalent to the best museums. Fifth, the opportunity for visitors to become participants in domestic animal programs such as the 4-H or FFA is created. And there are more.
Properly designed to attract visitors of all ages, young people have a place to gravitate to, participate in and renew their spirit which can help reduce crime levels by giving our young people alternative opportunities.
The most beneficial news is that a completely new zoo concept, long on imagination and based on experience does not need to cost a lot of money. In fact, properly implemented a new zoo for Roswell can include concepts new to the industry, satisfy the views of those who want to see animals with more freedom, and quite likely cost less to maintain. Even for a relatively small city like Roswell on a finite budget a fabulous zoo, in keeping with its world class showcase of museums, can thrive.
Ray Pawley is an animal researcher and zoo consultant who lives in Arabela. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.