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Saint Louis Zoo CEO Discusses Animals, Expansion, Conservation

(Via Flikr/Derringsdo)

Who has the best zoo?

“We always say that the best zoo is the accredited zoo closest to where you live,” said Saint Louis Zoo CEO and president Jeffrey Bonner. “I think, for me at least, it’s the quality of the exhibits, the quality of the visitor experience and, of course, underpinning that is the conservation programs, the research programs, the education programs. I happen to think that our zoo is the best in terms of the visitor experience.”

He’s not alone.

The Saint Louis Zoo topped the Zagat Survey/Parenting Magazine list of zoos in 2012. More recently, TripAdvisor named it No. 4 on its list of the world’s top zoos, and a USA Today readers’ choice poll put it at No. 2 in the U.S.

Indeed, it’s that treasured status that helped lead to a partnership with the St. Louis Symphony.

Last weekend, the two launched a partnership that will feature concerts and activities at the zoo and Powell Hall, including a Family Concert on Oct. 26 based on John Lithgow’s book “Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo.”

“We’re always looking for partners across the community, and the Saint Louis Zoo just seemed like a natural fit for us,” said Adam Crane, the symphony’s vice president for external affairs. “There’s musical themes to everything.”

Conservation And Research

It’s not all music and games, though: The zoo also manages conservation programs in 12 places around the world, including two in Missouri.

“If you look at the threats to wildlife, wild things, wild places, they seem to boil down to a pretty common cluster: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, degradation — so much of it just turns on the impact of human beings as they encroach into wild places,” Bonner said. “We’re working with the interactions of plants, people and animals and, I think, in large measure trying to mitigate the things that happen because of humanity and the impact that we have on a natural environment.”

The zoo’s conservation programs include educating indigenous people about animals and how they can live together, as well as species census work.

“By focusing on a single important species, you can really make a difference for thousands of thousands of species in the same locale,” Bonner said.

Expansion Plans

Two years ago, the zoo bought the 13.5-acre Forest Park Hospital site across Interstate 64 from its location. In the short-term, that site will offer additional parking; longer term, Bonner said he wants to see zoo-themed attractions, such as a restaurant or hotel. A gondola to get people across the interstate also has been discussed.

“We would love to do a gondola connecting that site with, actually all the way across the zoo,” Bonner said. As for the timing? “I don’t think any time soon.”

The zoo’s expansion has raised questions about admission charges, which are now set at free.

“My personal feeling is I love the zoo being free,” Bonner said. “I love the accessibility that affords to people.”

Charging admission, in fact, would be against the law now. But, said Bonner, “it can’t go on; it’s not sustainable.” Zoo officials are working to build its endowment.

“In the long run, that’s going to be the thing that keeps the zoo free,” Bonner said. “Either that, or folks in the surrounding counties will want to, at some point I think, help support the zoo. But I think it’s important to keep it free.”

New At The Zoo

The zoo’s new polar bear exhibit will open in 2015, followed by a grizzly bear exhibit.

The $15 million exhibit will include a 22-foot viewing window for visitors, a 50,000 gallon saltwater pool and a 1,000-square-foot Arctic cave room. It will accommodate a breeding pair of adult polar bears and their offspring.

In the wild, Bonner said a “legislative approach” to protecting polar bears is likely best.

“It’s not too late for bears. If we can slow, indeed reverse the period of warming that we’re experiencing now, I think bears can make it,” he said.

“When you see the new polar bear exhibit, it will be about global climate change,” Bonner said. “We won’t be talking about the physiology of bears, what we’ll be talking about (is) what’s happening to their environment and why it is important to all of us, bears in particular.”

And those much missed penguins? “They will return next spring.”

Related Events

Saint Louis Zoo
When: The zoo is observing fall hours; it is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Where: Forest Park, St. Louis
Cost: Free
More information

St. Louis Symphony Family Concert
The symphony and Saint Louis Zoo join forces for a production based on John Lithgow’s book “Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo.”
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 26, 2014
Where: Powell Hall
Cost: $8 to $19 
More information

”St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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