A small institution outside of Tucson, the ASDM is in the tradition of the transcendental naturalist, the tradition that has also given us Walden Pond and the Sierra Club.
The ASDM was established 23 years ago through the efforts of two men: Bill Carr, an iconoclastic naturalist who had previously created the nature trails and trailside museum system at Bear Mountain Park in New York; and Arthur Pack, a long-time patron of worthy nature projects. Since its creation, the ASDM has developed along the lines Carr and Pack envisioned, a place where nature is celebrated as well as displayed and explained. The Desert Museum draws 400,000 people a year; not a huge number, comparatively, but enough so that officials are beginning to think about limiting visitors. They don't want the problems that go with the crowds at other zoos. Donations, bequests and fees from members, 7,000 of whom are located across the nation and the world, come close to equaling gate receipts, and the zoo can probably afford to turn cash customers away.
The patrons of the Desert Museum are an especially sophisticated lot. They are often people who have memorized their Peterson, read their Klauber and Krutch and have come to Tucson especially to visit this establishment. When they get there they tend to look at it slowly, studiously and lovingly. Indicative of the character of both the place and its customers is the fact that the ASDM is probably the only institution of its kind that does not employ armed guards during visiting hours.
The ASDM staff has always objected to its exhibitions being thought of as "just a zoo." "None of us are old-style zoo types," says Merv Larson, the present director, principal designer and guru. "The staff is largely made up of people who have an interest in natural history, some talent for building things and who want to experiment with finding ways to communicate their ideas and feelings about natural history. We try to display and describe certain features of this particular region."
Museum-style exhibits deal with such phenomena as plant succession, the effect of rainfall, drought, erosion, ranching and agriculture in this desert region. The famous Tunnel Exhibit is a gallery of underground dens occupied by living desert creatures that a visitor can illuminate with switches. What many believe will be the finest exhibit of its kind anywhere, the Earth Sciences Center, is now being constructed. It is a beautiful display of geological phenomena set inside a limestone cave so realistically created that in the walk and climb through it, visitors will have experiences not unlike those of spelunkers in wild caverns. Among other things, the grotto will be furnished with pack rats, cave amphibians and bats that are free to come and go.
Ingenious as the museum displays are, sensitive as the ASDM is about being called a zoo, it is the frankly zoological exhibits that have been responsible for the popularity of the place. Though it has only about 220 species, all of which are native to Arizona or Sonora, the ASDM nevertheless offers a better collection of North American fauna than any other zoo in the country. Beyond being a recommendation for the Desert Museum, this illustrates a glaring weakness of American zoos. Despite pious talk about conservation education, most zoos generally either ignore or, in comparison to exotic imports, perfunctorily display North American fauna, the animals whose fates are most directly affected by the zoo-going public.
The location of the Desert Museum has enabled it to be an interesting zoo while showing only animals found nearby. The area that includes Arizona and the Mexican states of Sonora and the two Bajas encompasses an enormous variety of habitats: the desert, of course, but also subtropical swamps, deciduous woodlands, prairies, cold-water streams and pools, Alpine meadows and crags. In consequence, this is one of the richest zoological areas of the world. A regional zoo in Arizona can (as one in Indiana cannot) legitimately display creatures that for most Americans are exotic. The ASDM exhibits six species of cats; also, bears, wolves, a variety of hoofed stock, curious lesser beasts such as the coatimundi, a great many flashy birds and impressive-to-spooky reptiles.
High-fidelity naturalism, placing animals from scorpions, frogs and small rodents on up in exceptionally accurate habitat tableaux, is the essential style of the Desert Museum. The results are remarkable. For example, meeting a bobcat in one of the grottoes at the ASDM is visually very much like meeting it in a dry gulch in the Baboquivari Mountains, which are in fact visible from the museum grounds through the surrounding forests of saguaro cacti. With all the artful rock work in the world, the same experience cannot be created by putting an African lion in the remains of an Eastern woodland thicket and showing him against the sights, sounds and smells of the Bronx.
There are moments when naturalism is pushed close to its limits at the Desert Museum. Occasionally, a bobcat, among other examples, will drift down from the mountains, slip through the saguaros and show up on the museum grounds. Or a terrible squeal will now and then be heard. It signifies that a wild rabbit or ground squirrel in the course of foraging has wandered into a cat grotto and there, naturally, become the prey of a cat, just as he might in the Baboquivaris.
Perhaps the loveliest of the ASDM tableaux is a pair of stream-fed cottonwood shaded pools, like those sometimes found gouged out of rock in the mountains of southern Arizona. They are constructed so that visitors are provided with both overlooking and underwater views of river otters, beavers, associated waterfowl, fish and amphibians. There are some well-traveled fanciers who believe these are the best zoo exhibits in the world, suggesting the possibility that zoological display can be raised to the level of fine art.