Theodore Reed dies at 90; leader in the modernization of zoos
Upon joining the staff of the National Zoo in 1955, veterinarian Theodore Reed was greeted by antiquated animal dwellings — some dating to the 1890s — and a budget so spare he bought medicine for his new charges at a local drugstore and wheedled reimbursement later.
Within a year he was running the Washington, D.C., zoo, which struggled along until a horrific event galvanized its keepers: A toddler was pulled into a cage by a lion and mauled to death in 1958.
The tragedy led Congress to appropriate funds that allowed Reed to vastly modernize the wildlife park. Over the next quarter-century, he was at the forefront of the transformation of zoos from barred enclosures into verdant, open showcases. He also pushed for them to serve as scientific research facilities, a now commonplace occurrence.
Colleagues regard Reed as a giant in the field but to the public he remains best known as the zookeeper who accompanied two panda cubs from China in 1972 as they flew to their new home, which is officially known as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Record crowds soon lined up to see Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, whose mating and pregnancy travails turned into a national obsession.
Reed, 90, died July 2 at a nursing facility in Milford, Del., from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, Mark Reed, executive director of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan.
“If you wanted to see what was next for zoos, you looked at what he was doing,” Douglas G. Myers, executive director of San Diego Zoo Global, told The Times last week. “He was a very important man to the zoo world.”
As zoos evolved into propagators rather than procurers of animal life, Reed encouraged a cooperative breeding program between zoos and in the mid-1970s established a National Zoo farm in rural Virginia devoted to breeding endangered and rare species.
“Thirty years from now, if we don’t continue these programs, we won’t have anything but some guinea pigs, dogs and cats and a few pigeons,” Reed said in 1986 in The Times.
The animals he encountered day to day were far more exotic. A hippo once chomped on his left hand, resulting in 80 stitches, and a chimpanzee named Jiggs took a huge bite out of his right hand, partly impairing Reed’s finger motion.
Reed took full responsibility for the chimp bite, saying he had let his attention wander, then added with his characteristic humor: “I don’t blame the chimp, but I’ll never forgive him for smacking his lip afterwards.”
During an era when diplomacy often meant giving a memorable pet to the nation’s children, Reed regularly picked up animals from around the world, including gazelles from France, Komodo dragons from Indonesia and a white tiger from India.
When Sudan presented some cranes, Reed decided to refer to them as “migratory cranes” because the actual name was “common European crane,” which he deemed politically incorrect.
To avoid diplomatic snafus, he insisted that animals be donated with proper names that reflected their native lands.
Before the famous pandas joined the national menagerie, the many name suggestions included “Dick” and “Pat” in honor of President Nixon and his wife, whose historic visit to China had spurred the gift.
“I decided that if they didn’t have Chinese names when I got there, they were sure going to have them by the time I left,” Reed said in 1977 in the Washington Post.
“Panda-monium,” as the Smithsonian called it, followed the arrival of Ling-Ling and her fellow panda, Hsing-Hsing. Reed sometimes expressed frustration over the media frenzy surrounding the animals’ prolonged mating dance, which often required scientific intervention.
While fielding delicate questions at a 1980 news conference following Ling-Ling’s artificial insemination, Reed said: “I feel a little embarrassed about this whole thing. This is a private and intimate thing between the two pandas.”
Ling-Ling gave birth five times but none of the cubs survived. She died in 1992; Hsing-Hsing lived seven more years and became one of the zoo’s most popular attractions.
Reed’s affability was apparent early on. He once “closed a deal for an African water civet in the elevator” at a zoo directors meeting, he said in a 1959 Times article.
His “pleasant personality” also helped when he had to present the zoo’s budget each year to Congress, said William Conway, former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo. He worked with Reed on a forerunner of what is known as the Species Survival Plan.
“Until Ted came along, the National Zoo was sort of a quiet side puddle of the Smithsonian,” Conway told The Times last week.
Theodore Harold Reed was born July 25, 1922, in Washington, the younger of two sons of Ollie and Mildred Reed. Because his father was an officer in the Army, Reed lived in the Philippines and other spots around the world but grew up mainly in Kansas.
The only way the color-blind Reed could qualify for the military during World War II was to go to veterinary school, according to his son. Before he could graduate, his father and brother were killed in action within a month of each other in 1944.
While studying at what is now Kansas State University, Reed was exposed to working with zoo animals by the veterinary school’s dean, who also was director of a local zoo.
After receiving his veterinary degree in 1945, Reed traveled around Oregon as an assistant state veterinarian and eventually settled in Portland, where he joined a private clinic. He was assigned to care for animals at a zoo and a racetrack “and fell in love with zoo work,” his son said.
Before his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Crandall, died in 1978 she arranged for Reed to go on a date with her oncologist, Dr. Sandra Foote. She became his second wife 33 years ago.
Besides his wife, Reed is survived by two children from his first marriage, Mark Reed of Wichita and Maryalyce Jenkins of Wellington, New Zealand; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.