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Ex-city zoo curator Ingrid Schmidt-Buchanan dies

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Baby orangutang Sarah is flanked by Rio Grande Zoo general curator Ingrid Schmidt-Buchanan, left, and “adoptive mother” Edna Moore, wife of zoo director John Moore, on a flight to California, where Sarah was to be featured on a February 1985 episode of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

Baby orangutang Sarah is flanked by Rio Grande Zoo general curator Ingrid Schmidt-Buchanan, left, and “adoptive mother” Edna Moore, wife of zoo director John Moore, on a flight to California, where Sarah was to be featured on a February 1985 episode of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

Ingrid Schmidt-Buchanan was known as the Madam of the Cat House – that’s “cat,” as in lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs, said her son, Sean Schmidt.

During her long career working at zoos in Germany, Omaha and Albuquerque, Schmidt-Buchanan helped to raise as many as 50 newborn big cats who were ill, injured or rejected by their mothers.

She was also a pioneer, becoming one of the first women to work in zoo administration as a supervisor and collection curator at a time when zoos were operated almost exclusively by men, and she was among the early zoo officials to push for keeping animals in larger spaces that more resembled their natural habitats.

Schmidt-Buchanan helped start the Cheetah Species Survival Plan at the Rio Grande Zoo to breed cheetahs in captivity, thereby decreasing the need to remove them from the wild and in many cases introduce zoo-born animals to the wild. The program later served as a model for animal breeding programs at other zoos throughout the country.

Schmidt-Buchanan died at her Sierra Vista, Ariz., home on March 17 from complications of lung cancer. She was 72. At her own request, there was no funeral or graveside service, her son said.

Schmidt-Buchanan became one of the public faces of the Rio Grande Zoo, often traveling aboard the Albuquerque Journal’s corporate jet, piloted by publisher Tom Lang, to pick up baby gorillas, polar bears, and other animals from zoos and holding facilities around the U.S. and Canada.

As a thank-you to Lang, the zoo named a baby polar bear “Lear” after the publisher’s jet, and named other animals after members of the publisher’s family, said former zoo director Ray Darnell.

She was born Ingrid Hartz in Germany and even as a child had an affinity for animals. She rode and showed horses, and took part in equestrian events, said her son. Later, she got a job as a general keeper at a zoo in Recklinghausen.

At age 19 she moved to the United States and she and a former husband, Larry Schmidt, started a horse stable operation. Her passion, however, was with zoo animals and she took a job at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., where she began to work with large cats.

She relocated to Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Zoo in 1972, at the request of former zoo director Bruce Stringer, who learned of her reputation working with big cats, and her knowledge of hoof stock, said best friend and former co-worker Letitia Peirce.

Schmidt-Buchanan retired from the zoo 25 years later.

“The animals took to her and she took to them. She was like the ‘animal whisperer.’ She would walk by a pen of antelopes and say that third one on the left doesn’t look quite right, and then a day or two later the keeper would find that the animal was sick.”

Schmidt-Buchanan started out as a keeper. “In those days they rotated around and did everything, but she really liked the hoof stock and the big cats,” said Peirce, a now-retired docent and executive secretary for the New Mexico Zoological Society, which later became the New Mexico BioPark Society.

After working as a general keeper, “Ingrid became the education director and taught the zoo docents. There were only about six of them in those days. Today, there’s well over 200 of them.”

Eventually, Schmidt-Buchanan became the mammal curator and finally the general curator, overseeing the entire zoo collection and supervising the keepers. It was a job she took seriously enough that she’d sometimes gather the keepers together to watch her as she got on her hands and knees to scrub the floor of an animal exhibit, finishing with the exclamation, “and that’s how you do it!” Peirce recalled.

Before Schmidt-Buchanan’s tenure, zoo keepers “were a bunch of older guys who thought all you needed was a strong back and a strong stomach,” she said. “Now there are men and women and they all have college degrees in biology or zoology or wildlife management or animal-related subjects. Ingrid was certainly involved in pushing for that change and getting more women into the profession.”

Catherine Hubbard, manager of the Rio Grande Botanic Garden, previously worked in zoo education when Schmidt-Buchanan was her supervisor. “Not only was Ingrid a true pioneer who helped bring women into the profession, in the early 1980s, she and former zoo director John Moore pushed changes at the zoo to transition it from cages with cement floors to the more naturalistic enclosures,” she said “It was important for animal welfare reasons – and for Ingrid, it was all about the animals – but it was important for public education reasons, too.”

Today, the naturalistic habitat enclosure is the standard at zoos, Hubbard said.

Darnell, the last director under whom Schmidt-Buchanan worked before she retired, said “Ingrid was very disciplined and very directed and when she started on a task, you knew it would get finished and done right.”

He added that she was key in helping to get the “Zoo Music” program started. She was also a founding and board member of the International Society of Zooculturists, or ISZ, and edited the society’s newsletter for 14 years. When the ISZ later became the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA, she served as a founding board member for the new organization as well.

Schmidt-Buchanan is survived by her husband, William Buchanan of the family home in Arizona; son Sean Schmidt of Seattle; son Michael Hartz of Albuquerque, currently of Bagram, Afghanistan; and grandson Joshua Hartz of Houston, Texas.

Friends can make donations to the Ingrid Schmidt Fund through the New Mexico BioPark Society. The fund supports the efforts of female zoo professionals as they advance in their careers. Donations can be made online at bioparksociety.org/support/SupportUs_MakingaDonation.html or by calling the BioPark at 505-764-6212.

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