at the Bronx Zoo
The Satya Interview with
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 AZAs Sumatran Rhinoceros Species
Survival Plan. Doherty supervises the care and management of the Zoos
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.
Whats the job of a zoo curator like?
Curators are responsible for anything to do with the animal collection
and that includes designing the exhibits. Were 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 visitorsits
a real challenge to get a message across because theyre not coming
here to be educated.
Were 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. Were constantly
helping each other and exchanging advice. Its a wonderful job
because of the variety; theres 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 cant afford that. Yes, we entertain,
but now were trying to educate, to get a message across about
what is happening to wildlife and to wild places. Were 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 were saving the habitat for
many other animals who live in the same forests as them.
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 it.
There is more and more information available that we can pass on; but
there is still a lot that we dont 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.
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 dont think thats
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 theyre
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
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 were
using all the time. One of our concerns was, would people pay attention
to such a long list of products? Ive 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. Were not saying,
"Dont cut down the forest," but we are saying, "lets
be more careful about how we cut down the forest; lets 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. Were throwing away things that people in developing countries
wouldnt think of throwing away; they couldnt 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. Theyd
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 cant 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 society.
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. Its worked out very
well. Now there are a lot of species survival plans.
Im the coordinator for the Sumatran Rhino SSP. Its 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. Theyre 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 whats the survival plan?
I dont 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 shes never carried a pregnancy to term,
though we dont 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 didnt know what we
know about gorillas today. Most zoos that had gorillas kept them in
pairs, but they didnt 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 successfully.
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,
Timmys 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. Hes also the peace maker among the females
and he doesnt 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; hes been here 10 years
now. He still looks pretty good. Hes 41, and thats pretty
old for a gorilla, probably like 82 in human years.
Gorillas have great personalities. Every one is different and theyre
all named. People come to the zoo to see gorillas. They say, "I
saw that gorilla when I was a kid." Theyre 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 thats
not so easy. If you had a family and you moved, the children may not
fully understand why youre moving, but at least you can try to
explain and hopefully calm their fears. Unfortunately, we cant
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 didnt
understand why we were moving them, they dont understand this
new facility. Now I think theyve 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 dont 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 the wild?
Yes, there have been a number of themnot 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 animalunique 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
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 shouldnt
be kept captive at all, that no matter what efforts are made, its
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 dont know any
other life. That doesnt mean that we cannot treat them well; I
think that if you look around the zoo youll 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 themveterinarians
and keepers who ensure that theyre healthy. The keepers arent
getting rich working here; they come here because of their love for
Do you consider yourself to be an animal advocate?
I think that the fact that were working here makes us animal
advocates. Were all here because we care about the animals; we
want whats 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 weve blown it. They should
be able to survive out there. Right now its a very tenuous situation,
but we want them to stay in nature. Theyre much better off in
their natural habitat just because thats where they belong. Well
bring them into captivity if we have to but we really dont want
to. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer places in nature for many
of these animals and its 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 thats the best thing we could do,
to have dialogue.