There was a time when the Atlanta zoo was regarded as a kind of animal concentration camp. One keeper ate rabbits from the petting zoo, and other animals lived and died there in unnatural ways.
All that was before Director Terry Maple came along with his imagination and enthusiasm and organizational skills. Six years later and halfway through a $50-million renovation, the zoo is respected in the zoological world, and Terry Maple is a very tired man.
“This zoo has been enormously difficult to build. It has taxed me in every imaginable way. It has taken every ounce of energy I’ve had,” Maple, 43, said.
Willie B. probably does not appreciate the effort, though he has benefited from it. The popular lowland gorilla, named for former Mayor William B. Hartsfield, lived alone in a cage for 27 years. Now he lives in a lush, jungle-like habitat.
There are new displays of flamingos and rhinos; a Masai Mara exhibit for giraffes, lions and elephants; a replica of the Indonesian rain forest for orangutans; a Sheba Sumatran tiger forest, where tigers will be bred under the auspices of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
“We opened those exhibits fast and furious. We recovered faster than any zoo ever recovered. And the pace was painful,” Maple said.
But the growth period was not as painful as the zoo’s situation at the time Maple arrived. Parade magazine had rated the zoo one of the 10 worst in the nation. Just $10,000 was budgeted each year for zoo maintenance.
Twinkles, a 15-year-old elephant, died while on loan to a traveling circus in North Carolina. In addition to the rabbits that wound up on the keeper’s dinner table, at least eight other zoo animals perished. The decapitated body of a baboon was found in a dump truck.
The name was changed to Zoo Atlanta, but Maple and his staff envisioned more than that. They wanted to build a firm foundation of support.
Membership in Friends of Zoo Atlanta has swelled from 5,000 to more than 53,000, making it the fifth-largest nonprofit zoo support group in the country, said Cheryl Moody, director of membership.
Attendance has risen and is expected to exceed 900,000 visitors this year, up from about 260,000 in 1984. Adult ticket prices have climbed from $2.50 to $6.75.
The zoo’s budget, less than $1 million in 1984, is $7.7 million this year, and the staff has been expanded to 115 from 40.
After ending 1989 with a $48,000 deficit, the zoo is on the verge of operating in the black, said business manager Dennis Baker. This year’s goal is amassing a $500,000 surplus to help the zoo weather the lean winter months.
All this requires a kind of showmanship that has become a fact of life for modern zoos. Recent promotions for Zoo Atlanta included Father’s Day at the Zoo, the chance to adopt a lovebird on Valentine’s Day, and a “summer beach party” in February, billed as the Zoo Atlanta Beach Bash.
The zoo’s progress has not gone unnoticed. It has regained its membership in the zoological parks association and has been widely praised by zoo professionals.
“Terry Maple is a natural leader, and he has an incredible commitment to wildlife and wild places,” said Robert Wagner, executive director of the association. “He has brought those things as well as his incredible enthusiasm to Zoo Atlanta, and all have just fallen into place behind him.”
Llewellyn Haden, chairman of the zoo’s governing board, said, “He, in many ways, is the zoo.”
Maple, a psychology professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who had served as deputy director and curator of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, said his tenure is something of an accident.
He had intended to stay three months, he said, but “I got sidetracked into building a local zoo.” Now he is considering going back to academic life so he can have time for his family and to write a book.
“I am not writing my resignation,” he said. “I am totally committed to this place. The question is, ‘Can the old zoo director squeak out a book somehow and still be zoo director?’ There are not enough hours in the day.”
In the same breath, Maple also spoke of the challenges that lie ahead for the zoo. Besides financial challenges and promotional challenges, there are the bear exhibits--an embarrassment, he said.
“It’s strictly an animal welfare issue,” Maple said. “They’re one of the last vestiges of the old zoo. It’s hard to accept that they exist.”