Franklin Park Zoo isn’t my grandfather’s zoo, or the one my father took me to eons ago. It isn’t even the zoo I took my children and grandchildren to. It’s becoming a jewel of a zoo, with animal attractions for people of all ages, from the entertaining antics of the prairie dogs to the graceful elegance of the giraffes, the gorillas (including famous silverback Little Joe), and lions to the calming beauty of the butterfly house. Natural setting play areas and enhanced landscaping all contribute to the experience, making the visitor feel at one with the environment.
But the zoo today is much more than that. It has thrived under the dedicated leadership of President and CEO John Linehan, who for 30 years has overseen the care and management of hundreds of animal residents and 155 zoo employees. (Some are at the smaller Stone Zoo in Stoneham.) Today, in an era where climate change poses an existential threat to the planet and possibly thousands of species become extinct every year, Zoo New England is playing a role in preservation of species and sustaining biodiversity. Some sources predict as many as half of all species will go extinct by the middle of the century.
By integrating conservation, education and research into its programs, Zoo New England is doing what we can’t depend on our political leaders to undertake. Animals are bred with careful attention to genetic makeup and can be sent all over the country to breed with suitable mates. The zoo is collaborating with the Broad Institute on genomic studies of different zoological species. Veterinarians do research on parasites and disease that threaten the disappearance of one species, whose disappearance would then spur extinction of species related in its complex ecosystem. Amphibians, for example, are among the most endangered.
Zoo New England’s chief veterinarian Eric Baitchman has been dealing with the endangered Panama golden frog, threatened by the chytrid fungus. And that’s just one project. While most of us weren’t looking, giraffes have quietly slipped onto the list of endangered species, with fewer than 100,000 remaining. Who can imagine a world without these magnificent creatures?
Baitchman has also initiated the One Health Program, where fourth year Harvard Medical students do a rotation at the Franklin Park Zoo. The program explores the relationships among animals, people and the ecosystem. Medical students learn to use their clinical intuition to care for creatures who can’t tell them where it hurts.
When I was a small child, my father would take me to the Franklin Park Zoo. There were some bored camels and some unhappy looking deer. The saddest of all, however, was the elephant house. The space was bare and smelly. Three miserable looking elephants were chained to the concrete floor, their exercise limited to swishing their trunks. Lifting one leg a few inches. Putting it down. Lifting another leg a few inches. Putting it down. It was pitiful, and a far cry from what visitors find today.
Zoo New England (the formal name for the Franklin Park Zoo and the Stone Zoo) has been transformed. It is well worth visiting and, even more, supporting, even if your children and grandchildren have gone beyond the traditional zoo visiting days. It is so much more than entertainment. It is a player in the mission of saving the planet. It is walking the walk, even when our national leaders are barely talking the talk.