They’ve come a long way since 1871 at Providence zoo

In 1871, Betsey Williams bequeathed her 102-acre farm to the City of Providence in memory off her great-great-great-grandfather, Roger Williams. The following year, a menagerie of small animals and birds were brought to a section of the park where visitors could get a closer look at wildlife. We’re talking garden-variety raccoons, guinea pigs, squirrels and white mice, among other creatures.

To understand just how far the Roger Williams Park Zoo has come in 127 years, consider some of its future inhabitants. In about two years, the zoo hopes to become the second in the country to have one or more African elephants born through artificial insemination.

“It would be groundbreaking to this area,” said Bruce C. Clark, the zoo’s director since early November.

The Indianapolis Zoo two weeks ago announced a second such pregnancy under way. The elephant calves are due in March and September 2000, after a 22-month gestation.

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Breaking new ground is something Clark, a former curator at the Kansas City Zoo in Missouri, wants to do as often as time and resources allow.

“I don’t want to slide on the (zoo’s) reputation,” Clark said. “I want to fulfill the expectations of the community but not rely on the track record of the zoo.”

Given its rich history, that would be easy to do.

From its humble start, the zoo spread throughout the entire Roger Williams Park. By the 1960’s, bison, deer and bears were housed on a hill across from the Dalrymple Boathouse. Sea lions swam in the pool below the Casino. Elephants, birds and farm animals were located on the present zoo grounds.

AT THE ZOO at Roger Williams Park in the ’60s a young elephant was a prime attraftion.

In 1962, Sophie Danforth founded the non-profit Rhode Island Zoological Society to fund and manage the zoo. Within three years, the animals were moved inside a newly fenced compound where security and husbandry conditions were more easily controlled.

In 1978, the zoo closed for two years worth of renovations. It reopened in 1980 with a new Nature Center, a Polar bear exhibit, a wetlands habitat and a North American bison exhibit.

Today, the country’s third oldest zoo has 900 animals representing 150 species. It is one of three in New England accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Three years ago, the AZA awarded the zoo its Significant Achievement Award in Education for a three-year “Zooscope” program, linking scientists from around the country with local middle school teachers.

Various publications – from Yankee magazine to The New York Times – have lauded the zoo for its education and conservation efforts. Indeed, those components are what lured Clark from what he called “the comfort level” of life in Kansas City.

The artificial inseminations planned to get under way this summer were recommended by the Species Survival Plan – a group of zoos working together to preserve endangered animal species. “It’s very difficult and dangerous to move a bull,” Clark explained, referring to the male elephant.

Clark makes no bones about the value of such births – and not just in terms of species conservation.

A couple of bouncing baby elephants could be the zoo’s best seller since Triton the Polar bear born Nov. 4, 1997. Zoo officials say the cub was largely responsible for an 11-percent jump in visitors between the 1996 and 1997 fiscal years.

It is a business even though we are conservation-based,” Clark said. “There’s a recreational component here and we have to remain solvent.”

Zoo staff are readying themselves for a 14-day strategic planning session this spring. “It’s like major corporations,” Clark said. “We’ll hear probably from grass-roots employees to department heads.”

One of the zoo’s primary goals is to increase attendance during the “shoulder months’ on either side of the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, Clark said. To facilitate the transition from a one-season to four-season zoo,” officials hope to raise enough money over five or six years to build several all-weather structures for both animals and people, he said.

Clark doesn’t foresee a problem.

Public officials have been historically “very pro-zoo,” Clark said, adding “because there’s such a fondness from the community for the zoo, we’ll be able to support it.”

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