During a Spring evening spent browsing the vast resources of the internet, I stumbled across some intriguing information and immediately sent off an email; the subject was “curatorial favor.”
The recipient of the email was Patrick Thomas, PhD, the General Curator of the Bronx Zoo. After having read about Pat, I wrote to ask if I could visit him to learn about what he does. My motivation was curiosity, as well as the exciting prospect of expanding my perspective about curating by witnessing it in a different context.
I’ve being going to the Bronx Zoo since I was in a stroller, but last week’s visit was a revelation. I started off by signing in at the gate, and then headed to one of the administrative buildings. Pat met with me in his office, where we sat and talked.
As the General Curator, Pat oversees the entire animal department, as well as the collection plan, which is sort of like the list of works in a museum’s collection. In this case, it contains information about all of the animals at the zoo. Working with the curators in his department, Pat helps to decide which species are in the zoo’s collection, how the budget is distributed, and they insure that any newborns are genetically robust by cultivating gene diversity. He described the extensive computer database that allows staff to see the genetic profile of hypothetical offspring, based on the pedigree of the potential parents…imagine a very advanced form of internet dating. When selecting mates, Pat and his colleagues at other zoos use this program in tandem with more personalized information about each animal’s character and temperament.
Kindly obliging all of my questions, Pat talked to me about where the zoo acquires animals: mostly from exchanges with other zoos, or from private individuals. Very rarely do they ever take animals from the wild, and when they do, it’s a rescue. Pat recounted the story of the snow leopard cub that got a lot of attention in 2006: his mother was killed and he was found by a goat herder, but because Pakistan didn’t have the facility to care for the seven-week-old baby, the Pakistani government asked the Bronx Zoo to take him as part of a conservation exchange. If the zoo hadn’t taken Leo (that’s his name), he would have died, since he hadn’t had the time to learn any survival skills. As part of the agreement, the Bronx Zoo began working with Pakistan to develop a snow leopard habitat so in the future they will have their own facilities to protect the endangered species.
To my delight, Pat offered to take me around the zoo and see some animals. We traveled in his golf cart, and stopped first to see the bear cubs, all four of which were also rescued after having lost their mothers.
They played like little kids, jumping in and out of the water. Pat explained that it’s the job of the curators to design the animal habitats. Just like art curators, they have budgets they need to work within and many factors to consider, such as how to get the most out of the space, make sure the exhibit is naturalistic, and best meets the needs of the animals, visitors, keepers, and horticulturists (who plant the environment). A good exhibit encourages and replicates the typical behavior seen in the wild.
I learned that animals at the Bronx Zoo receive balanced diets and regular veterinary attention, and consequently most live longer than their counterparts in the wild. The staff periodically conducts research projects which are designed to improve the well-being of the animals in the zoo as well as those living in nature.
Next we went to see the lion cubs, who are about six months old.
They were unspeakably charming, whether pawing at their father’s face, or getting into skirmishes with one another.
When not at the zoo, Pat teaches animal behavior at Manhattan College and is an MA and PhD thesis advisor at both Columbia University and Fordham University. He says he always wanted to work with animals, ever since he was a child, and started as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo in 1978. Since then, he never left, but worked his way up from Animal Keeper, to Curator of Mammals, to General Curator. Pat says he owes a lot to his mentor, who was a curator at the Bronx Zoo when Pat started volunteering. He also says it’s his dream job, and can’t imagine wanting to leave. I indulged myself by asking if he had a favorite kind of animal, to which he responded, “large carnivores.”
Last but not least, he took me to the Congo exhibit, which is packed with information about the threats posed to the Congo’s ecosystem. We saw pensive gorillas and beautifully colored mandrills.
The exhibit costs five dollars, which goes direcly towards protecting the Congo. At the end of the exhibit, you can to decide which initiative you’d like to support, such as programs to train local Congolese rangers. Since it opened in 1999, the exhibit has raised well over 10 million for conservation projects in the Congo, including the creation of 18 national parks in Africa.
The experience as a whole was inspiring and reminded me why all institutions are so integral to the culture of New York and beyond. Especially at a time when the economy isn’t in our favor, and every institution feels threatened, I hoped that our afternoon of cultural exchange would bring downtown and uptown just a little closer. If nothing else, it was a joy to feel welcomed into a world that is not my own, but populated with allies.
Photos by Mike Femia
For information about visiting the Bronx Zoo, clickhere.
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