Not open for public display is an environmental chamber for tuataras, located in the basement of the Reptile House. The tuatara is a primitive reptile, one of the surviving links to the age of the dinosaurs. It is found only on a few New Zealand islands. The government of New Zealand has permitted the export of a very few pairs to major zoos, in hopes of establishing breeding colonies. Last year the St. Louis pair laid 11 eggs in the temperature-, humidity and light-controlled terrarium. The eggs, the first produced in this country, were infertile, but the prospects for future hatchings are thought promising.
A splendid feature at St. Louis is the Charles Yalem Children's Zoo, a thoughtfully designed compound opened in 1969. Children's areas have been installed in many zoos and most feature some sort of supervised child-animal contact program. St. Louis has developed this sort of intimacy to perhaps its ultimate limits. Children can not only mingle with and touch the traditional kids, fawns, llamas and guinea pigs but also Kodiak bears, timber wolves, jaguars, kangaroos, ferrets, kinkajous, birds of prey and pythons. Thus far there have been no accidents or unfortunate incidents.
THE SAN DIEGO ZOO
It did not get its start in the world as the ward of a public agency or a committee of affluent Establishment leaders. Rather, the San Diego Zoo was the inspiration and creation of a physician, Harry Wegeforth, who in 1916 decided his city needed such a place. Wegeforth devoted 25 years and his formidable promotional talents toward achieving this end. During hard times, which were frequent in the early days, Wegeforth was not above begging seal food from fishing boats, putting clandestine taps on the San Diego water mains, or staging, as a fund raiser, a battle royal between a king snake and a rattlesnake. On one occasion, Wegeforth wanted a pair of elephants but did not have the money to pay for them. He approached a potential donor, who said he would only pay for white elephants, whereupon Wegeforth had a keeper douse the elephants with talcum powder. The ruse did not fool the moneyman, but its audacity charmed him, and the check for the elephants was forthcoming.
While the San Diego Zoo no longer has to resort to such outrageous hustles, the need to support itself by its own devices remains. Though it is located in Balboa Park on municipal land, only about 2% of the Zoological Society's $14 million yearly budget (far and away the largest of any zoo in the country) is contributed by the city. Otherwise it is dependent upon donations, gate receipts and concession sales. An interesting consequence rises from this situation. San Diego is ahead of all zoos in employing public relations people: it has eight, the Bronx two, Washington two and St. Louis only one.
"We can maintain and improve this zoo only if we generate income," says Charles Bieler, one of the few major zoo directors with a sales rather than a zoological background. "In Southern California there are 14 big outdoor attractions—Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Sea World, etc.—and all of us are competing for the entertainment dollar. We promote and market our attraction aggressively, because it is a matter of survival and we think the survival of this institution is important."
Few zoo fanciers would dispute Bieler's point that the San Diego Zoo is worth saving. With 1,100 species and subspecies and 4,000 specimens, San Diego's is by far the largest terrestrial collection in the U.S. More than a hundred species are officially regarded as rare or endangered; and other animals, such as the koalas (which are among the superstars), are seldom seen in zoo displays. San Diego has especially good and varied exhibits of marsupials, primates, felines, wild dogs, antelope, waterfowl, pheasants, parrots, birds of prey, turtles, tortoises and snakes.
The zoo and its adjunct, the Wild Animal Park, constitute one of the premier breeding institutions in the world. Fifty-four species of mammals reproduced at the zoo last year. A recent coup for the park involved cheetahs, which reproduced successfully for the first time in an American zoo. Good management and weather have contributed to the propagation record, but necessity may also have had something to do with it. Ever since the days of Harry Wegeforth, disposing of zoo-bred animals has been an important source of income. The $100,000 or so the San Diego Zoo spends annually to acquire new specimens is obtained by selling or trading animals it has raised.
In San Diego, zoological stamp collecting is not viewed as it is at other zoos. "One reason reducing collections is so fashionable right now is that a lot of the old-line zoos are in financial trouble," says Clyde Hill, the curator of mammals. "To a degree it is a matter of rationalizing what they are forced to do. I still believe that it is important for the public and important for zoological reasons to have a few major zoos which maintain comprehensive collections. For example, a pair of chimpanzees may be sufficient for a smaller, essentially local zoo, but here we exhibit two species and three subspecies, 12 animals in all. I think displaying variety in a family, a species, a genus is worthwhile."
The strength and to some extent weakness of the comprehensive approach is illustrated by the San Diego collection of Canidae, which includes 13 species and subspecies of wolves, foxes and wild dogs. The variety is unmatched and is a treat for those with a special interest in this family. However, many visitors seem to walk briskly by the display, giving the impression that once they have seen one or two dogs they have seen them all. There is some reason for this. The dog runs are located on the side of a canyon, ranked one next to the other. The enclosures are adequate, each a series of unadorned concrete ledges, but being so similar they make it appear that an Arctic fox is more or less the same as an Australian dingo.