San Antonio Zoo CEO discusses conservation work, new film Escape from Extinction

click to enlarge The San Antonio Zoo has been working to replenish the whooping crane population since the 1960s. - Courtesy of San Antonio Zoo
Courtesy of San Antonio Zoo
The San Antonio Zoo has been working to replenish the whooping crane population since the 1960s.
In the new documentary Escape from Extinction, filmmakers explore the incredible conservation efforts of zoological organizations across the globe that are trying to prevent what scientists are calling the “Sixth Mass Extinction.” Through interviews with some of the world's leading animal welfare specialists and conservation scientists, the film highlights the work of the people who are trying to keep what experts say could be the extinction of one million species from the planet from happening.

The San Antonio Zoo is featured in Escape from Extinction as one of the leaders in animal conservation. From its work in helping replenish the whooping crane population starting in the 1960s to its efforts to save the Puerto Rican crested toad and Micronesian kingfisher, the San Antonio Zoo is doing all it can to continue protecting and restoring animal species worldwide. In 2016, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums honored the zoo for its Whooping Crane Recovery Program.

Last week, the Current caught up with Tim Morrow, President and CEO of the San Antonio Zoological Society, to talk about its conservation department, how it has changed over the last six years and how he thinks a film like Escape from Extinction will assist in helping maintain a healthy wildlife population.

Escape from Extinction is currently playing at local theaters.

Before we get into the film, how is the zoo doing financially because of the pandemic? We, of course, have seen all the things you’ve been doing like the Drive-Thru Zoo. Can you give us an update?

Sure. So, when we closed, we lost all our income. People think we're funded by the city, but we're not. We depend on visitors and donations. So, we lost all our income and really had to scramble. We really could not sit on our laurels. We had to get to work and try to do some creative things to keep us all going. We went through the typical things other businesses did. We had to furlough 70% of our employees. We made salary cuts, expense reductions and all the things most businesses were doing. We launched the [Drive-Thru Zoo] once the stay-at-home order was lifted. It was a huge hit from the beginning, which allowed us to bring our furloughed employees back. Now, we’re open, and people are comfortable with wearing masks. I think people feel safe coming to the zoo because it's outdoors and there's a lot of space to walk around and enjoy nature. Right now, we're just really working hard on fundraising.

One of those fundraisers happened in April, Lucky’s 60th birthday celebration, which is a great segue into the film. Sixty years isn’t an age an elephant would likely reach in the wild. What does that say about the care Lucky has received from the San Antonio Zoo?

It is a testament to the care that animals get at accredited zoos and, specifically, Lucky with our animal care staff and veterinarians. A lot of people know the story of Lucky. She's been here since 1962. She would have died in the wild years ago. The average life span is around 46 to 48. She has basically no teeth left, so we grind her food up daily. We have a team of three veterinarians, three vet techs and an animal care staff to take care of her and our two other elephants, Karen and Nicole. We have become so good at understanding what they need.

Back when you started at the zoo in 2014, Lucky was one of the only things people wanted to talk to you about. People were worried about her care. Six years later, is it safe to say you made the right decision in not moving her? I mean, since then, you’ve expanded her area and brought in two elephants who get along with her, but you didn’t move her out like some people wanted.

For sure. Before I even officially started at the San Antonio Zoo, I came and met with the staff just so I could hear from the frontline team who takes care of her every day. I wanted to know what they thought about moving her. Everyone agreed across the board that she wouldn't survive the move at her age. So, we’ve expanded the habitat and made that better and brought [Karen and Nicole] in and really focused on the enrichment of the animals.

For many animal rights activists, 2013 was a turning point for their cause with the release of the documentary Blackfish. I know the film focused solely on Sea World, but as a zoo, what were some of the challenges you faced because of its release?

The biggest lesson I learned going through that experience was that you have to tell your story and be proactive about telling it or someone else is going to come and make up one for you. SeaWorld was not really touting all the rescue work they were doing. So, when [Blackfish] first came out, we were in defensive mode from the beginning. So, we really focused on telling our story about the care we give Lucky and about how we agree with the animal rights groups that she is an individual. She has a personality. I think the turning point for us was when we upgraded the animal habitat and the zoo. That was important to the public. It wasn’t the zoo of yesteryear any longer. I think Blackfish and animal rights activism really push that.

In the last six years, how have the animal conservation efforts grown at the zoo?

We've really grown our conservation department. We’ve released horned lizards into the wild. We've grown that department and have an incredible, dedicated staff. We’re doing so much conservation right here in San Antonio from around the world – China, Japan, Peru, Chile, the Gulf of Mexico, you name it. Worldwide conservation is really our mission and it’s what drives us. Inside our hippo building, we’re breeding an endangered species – the Puerto Rican crested toad. It's the only toad that is native to Puerto Rico, and it's critically endangered. We breed these toads here and package up thousands of tadpoles every year and ship them to Puerto Rico to be rereleased into the wild.

click to enlarge The zoo's conservation efforts include a breeding program for Micronesian kingfishers. - Courtesy of San Antonio Zoo
Courtesy of San Antonio Zoo
The zoo's conservation efforts include a breeding program for Micronesian kingfishers.
The San Antonio Zoo gets a nice shout out in the new documentary Escape from Extinction about the work the zoo has done in helping replenish the whooping crane population over the last 80 years.

Yeah, in the late 1800s, there was over 1,300 whooping cranes in North America. And then by the 1940s there were less than 20 on the planet. In 1967, we had our first whooping crane birth. Then, in subsequent years we had more eggs and eggs. Now, there are over 800 whooping cranes. We also just bred a Micronesian kingfisher. There are less than 140 of those birds left on the planet. They were wiped out on the island of Guam during WWII.

How do you think a film like Escape from Extinction is going to help tell your story?

I think the movie is going to help tell our story in a compelling way. I think it’s really going to help show all the hard work that is happening. You know, I enjoy talking to people who have a bad perception or an old perception of zoos because I would say that 99% of them, when I tell them or show them what we're doing, develop a new appreciation for zoos. I've become friends with some of the people that were very vocal against zoos. They understand what we're doing now. I think they've seen how things have evolved over the last five years.

Something I learned in the film was that zoos and aquariums can be accredited. San Antonio has an aquarium that is not accredited. Should an aquarium like that be allowed to operate?

I've never been there myself, so I can't really speak to how they're operating. I do think that biological locations should strive to be accredited. (Note: San Antonio Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Zoological Association of America and Humane Certified by American Humane.) We’re very proud of that. I think people feel much better about going to [zoos and aquariums] knowing they are accredited. They know that these animals are well taken care of. It's an investment to become accredited because you have to rise up to the highest standards.

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