Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
It wasn’t the most comprehensive collection of animals, but then, it wasn’t exactly a zoo.
Back in 1925, city employee William Grieves used the Water Plant, then located at Tijeras and Broadway NW, as the location for displaying a number of animals – two bears, two mountain lions, a porcupine, a snake and a bobcat.
About the same time Aldo Leopold, a district forester with the U.S. Forest Service, persuaded the Albuquerque City Commission to purchase 63 acres along the Rio Grande to establish a “riverside park.”
Leopold, widely regarded as the father of wildlife ecology, was instrumental in establishing the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico as the country’s first official wilderness area in 1924.
Leopold also got support for the zoo from Clyde Tingley, a powerful politician who served on the City Commission and later became the commission chairman and then governor of New Mexico.
In 1927, local residents donated 17 acres of land specifically for the zoo, along with a donation of animals, including buffaloes, ostriches, camels and 12 monkeys. The animals from the Water Plant display were added to the conglomeration, and the Rio Grande Zoo was born.
The ABQ BioPark Zoo, as it is now called, will celebrate its 90th anniversary today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Zoo admission will be half price.
Visitors will encounter discovery stations in the gazebo just inside the courtyard entrance, featuring historical photos, maps, marketing material and text detailing the history and evolution of the zoo, Tingley Beach and the BioPark system.
While that nascent zoo had only a handful of animals and employees, the ABQ BioPark Zoo today is considerably larger. Of the BioPark’s roughly 150 acres, the zoo takes up 64 acres, the aquarium and botanic garden 54 acres, and Tingley Beach 33 acres. The zoo is home to 117 species of animals, and it is staffed by more than 225 city employees.
On this 90th anniversary celebration, it is important to remember the legacy of Aldo Leopold, said BioPark marketing coordinator Greg Jackson.
“He was a conservationist and a naturalist and he wanted to start the zoo to protect wildlife and nature,” Jackson said. “That’s exactly what our staff is doing now. Fundamentally, we want to foster a respect for wildlife and nature and the environment.”
Zookeeper supervisor Shelly Dicks noted that in 1927 “the primary goal was to keep the animals alive” and to display the animals in exhibit areas designed so visitors could see them. Zoo management “had recreation in mind.”
Today, there is still a recreational component, but the emphasis is on creating a habitat where the animals can thrive, while providing visitors with educational context about the animals, their natural environment, and conservation and breeding efforts to keep populations alive and healthy in the wild, Dicks said.
Fran Dever, one of the longest serving docents at the zoo, said the facility has undergone a “sea change” since she first started volunteering there in 1985.
“The zoo was smaller and most of the exhibits were primitive by today’s standards,” she recalled. “Animals were displayed from inside wire cages – some of them were pretty big cages – but they were cages. Now the animals are in more naturalistic habitats. The zoo has worked very hard to reproduce the habitats where the animals would live in the wild.”
Signage and interpretive education were not a priority 30 years ago, Dever said. Signs identified the animals, but there was little context and information.
“Now, virtually nobody leaves the zoo without having learned something important,” she said.
The care of the animals has also been transformed with the higher caliber of the keepers and the addition of enrichment toys and activities to engage the animals mentally, she said.
“When I first started, keepers didn’t know a whole lot about the animals they cared for,” she said. “Their job was to keep the cages clean, the animals fed and to notify the veterinarian if something seemed amiss.” Today, many of the keepers have master’s degrees and specialized knowledge and training in the handling of the animals.
Dever said she began volunteering because she had been widowed, maintained two jobs to pay the bills and “was looking for something to do on weekends besides clean my house.”
A frequent visitor to the zoo, she was relaxing on a bench one day inside a free-flighted bird exhibit where a volunteer was lecturing about the birds and answering questions.
Dever learned from the woman that a docent class was being offered Saturdays. She immediately signed on. Since the zoo has been incorporated as part of the BioPark system, Dever has also had training and is a docent at the Botanical Garden and is a volunteer at the aquarium.
“The people of Albuquerque are smart enough to recognize what a heck of an asset the zoo and the BioPark are to the city,” she said. “They have voted to support every single bond issue – and overwhelmingly. That says a lot.”