St. Louis Zoo president envisions championing wildlife

Monday, May 10, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Zoo's president arrived here two years ago with big ideas and relatively little zoo experience. But employees are enthusiastic about Jeffrey Bonner's new programs, unveiled last week, to expand the zoo's conservation efforts.

Bonner believes the zoo also can excite visitors and change the way they think about conservation.

Bonner says St. Louis Zoo visitors soon will see a change in their beloved institution, one that carries a sober message of conservation and responsibility. The new zoo will confront destruction of the wild, the slaughter of endangered species and the hard choices people face to help the environment.

"What we have failed to do is really show people the world around us. In Africa, the loggers are putting in the roads, and the hunters go in with their AK-47s and slaughter every animal they see.

"Ten years ago the prognosis for gorillas and chimps was pretty good, but now there is a crisis. You go to the marketplace and you see all of their heads and hands -- piles and piles of heads and hands," Bonner said. "We are not showing that photograph, but you can't duck the hard emotions. And that's what we've been doing -- we've been ducking it."

Bonner, 50, worked for nine years at the Indianapolis Zoo before arriving here, where he proposed new programs to expand the zoo's conservation efforts.

"He is not just interested about what we do in St. Louis, but what the zoo does in the world," commissioner Susan B. McCollum said at the time.

Supporting conservationLast week, Bonner announced the establishment of the WildCare Institute, an initiative that will support 12 conservation centers from the Missouri Ozarks to as far away as Africa, Peru, Mexico, Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands.

Working with conservation groups, zoos and universities, the institute will survey animal populations and detect the threats to various species. Scientists also will train indigenous teachers, park rangers and farmers on how to care for their environment.

To Bonner, who has a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and who studied agricultural changes in India as a Fullbright Scholar, the human element matters.

He cites the hellbender, a once-common giant salamander in Ozark streams whose numbers are declining. One theory is that growth hormones in cattle feed are entering rivers and damaging the male hellbender's sperm.

"If that theory is correct," Bonner said, "are we willing as a state to ban the use of hormones as an additive to cattle feed because that may be what it takes to preserve the environment so hellbenders can live? Do we have the political will, the economic will, to make the kind of changes we need to keep our streams running clear and pure, and will we even care about the ugliest amphibian that ever lived?"

Bonner's proposal -- setting aside a portion of land to remain hormone-free -- addresses both commercial and environmental concerns.


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    "Conservation ultimately requires compromise," Bonner said. "I think people struggle with that all of the time, but if you look at the big picture, there are ways of balancing your lifestyle with the good you do."

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