A Life Devoted to the Modern Conservation Zoo: A Conversation with Zoo Legend Rick Barongi
May 14, 2017
The year is 1990 and Disney wants to build a fourth Florida theme park around animals and containing a replicated African safari. However, there’s one problem: the Imagineers who design the park knew little about how to build naturalistic habitats for animals and meet their needs. When Disney consulted legendary Bronx Zoo director Bill Conway, he recommended contacting Rick Barongi, then Curator of Mammals at the San Diego Zoo. While others likely would have said a massive safari recreating Africa in Central Florida couldn’t be done, Barongi took on the challenge and within a few years was working full time as the designer of the animal habitats at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998. Luckily, I got to do a phone interview with him about undertaking this challenge and his entire 40 year career for Zoophoria.
Barongi’s career began in the 1970s at the now-closed Jungle Habitat in New Jersey (a safari park run by Warner Brothers) and then at the also-closed Lion Country Safari in Irvine, California (its sister park in southern Florida is still open.) “At those safari parks back in the 70s you just made sure people didn’t roll down their windows at the wrong time,” he recalled. Some of the animals were particularly problematic. “The tigers would bite tires like butter so you had to keep them away,” said Rick. “They also liked to jump in the back of pickup trucks. The tigers were a lot smarter than the lions. The baboons would jump on the cars and eat the rubber on the roof of the car.” He reflected on how safari parks were very much in style in the 1970s but have since declined because “most zoos offer a lot more interactive exhibits than just driving through the animals.”
After working for a bit at the San Diego Zoo, Barongi was hired as Curator of Mammals in 1982 at the Miami Metro Zoo (now named Zoo Miami), a brand-new facility which had only opened two years before. The loop of the zoo primarily for Asian animals had already opened but Rick was there for the design and execution of the African habitats. At the time, almost all of the zoo’s exhibits were moated since the moral rock in the soil made it easy to build them that way. “You have a natural moat if you dig deep enough,” he explained. “Those moats were good containment. It was hard to get out of them. I designed a lot of the barns next to them.”
Although destructive Hurricane Andrew in 1992 really hit the zoo hard and it took a long time for them to recover, Rick feels the exhibits he designed have stood the test of time, are quite large and make it easy to see the animals.. Looking back he wishes the exhibits had more variety. “All the carnivore and hoofstock exhibits at Miami are very manicured and neat,” he said. Barongi feels the zoo has done a great job at continuing to expand and has benefited by having so much room to grow it can build out.
When Bargoni came to the zoo, it was “a young zoo with a young staff” who had a lot of fun and “acquired a lot of animals.” Even Ron Magill, who is now the spokesperson for the zoo, was just a young reptile keeper at the time. Rick remembers moving the giraffes from the city’s former zoo, the Crandon Park Zoo, to their new naturalistic habitats at the new zoo. “They’re separated by about 15 miles and we had to go down the Dixie Highway as giraffes stuck their heads out of the truck,” he recalls. “We had to slow down for lights to get them to put their head down. It made it in the headlines.”
While the Crandon Park Zoo had giraffes, Rick had to turn to other zoos to assemble a wide variety of other animals including an impressive array of hoofstock. Although Miami already had Asian elephants, they brought in African elephants for the Africa expansion because “they have the land for it, something few zoos do.”
One particularly noteworthy addition when Barongi was curator at Miami was its pair of white tigers. “The director at the time wanted white tigers for the tiger exhibit,” he says. “Cincinnati was the only place who bred them so I flew out there and picked them out. They were $60,000 each. We got them in and they were a big hit.” The white tigers spent the rest of their lives at the zoo and did very well. They were especially popular with visitors.
In 1988, Rick became curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo, which was in the midst of a massive redevelopment of a large portion of the world class zoo. The AZA Exhibit of the Year winning Tiger River had just opened and he was at the center of the development of many new exhibits, including the phenomenal Gorilla Tropics, which moved the zoo’s gorillas from cages to a “much bigger and greener” state-of-the-art habitat. “The challenge with Gorilla Tropics was they needed more gorillas,” Barongi recalls. “We were able to get gorillas from Philadelphia- including a breeding age female named Josephine- and some smaller ones from Cincinnati. We had a charter plane go get the gorillas and we had to introduce them together. It went well and they’ve had a lot of babies. It’s a very popular exhibit.” In fact, for many years, a photograph Rick took of gorillas in the wild was found at the sign of the exhibit.
Being one of two curators of mammals at a massive zoo had its surprises. Sometimes it could be the animals as it was with a group of sun bears. “When we built the sun bear exhibit, we gave them grass,” says Rick. “I got a small group of 5-6 bears and they loved the grass but the keepers would throw out sunflower seeds and raisins in the grass. They would think there was more and they would keep digging. They rolled up the grass like a carpet.” Designers had to adjust the habitat to meet this change.
However, Barongi feels the much more difficult part of being curator was dealing with the staff. “The difficulty is always the people, not the animals,” he says. “Animals (from the curator’s point of view) are much easier to manage than the people. You spend more time with people issues than animal issues. If you design a great habitat and have good keepers, the animals are fine. However, if you have keepers who are not observant and don’t care about conservation, you’ve got problems.” During Rick’s time at San Diego, he observed a shift in mentality among the staff. “When I came, a lot of the keepers were retired from the military," he explains. "You had a lot of these older guys who were taught to clean the exhibits and hide away. We transitioned into more educational, enthusiastic keepers, who engage more with the public.”
Since Barongi’s time at San Diego, he feels the exhibits have gotten even better and praised Tiger Trail at the San Diego Safari Park, which opened in 2014, as the best exhibit San Diego has ever built. Serving on the exhibit awards committee for the AZA for many years, he has observed changes in the standards for excellent exhibits. “There are several different transformational periods in exhibit design,” he explains. “You start with Hagenbeck moated exhibits in the early 1900s when the emphasis was on cleaning exhibits. Then (in the late 1970s-early 80s) we got the Jon Coe designs like Seattle (the immersive exhibits at its Woodland Park Zoo set the bar for transporting animals and visitors to bioclimatic zones the wildlife comes from.) I think Congo (the gorilla exhibit at the Bronx Zoo) in 1999 raised the bar even higher since it was very dramatic how they did things.”
For his last two years at the San Diego Zoo, Rick was director of the zoo’s Children’s Zoo. He recalls not being thrilled at this assignment. “They asked me to go over there and back then it was just a petting zoo and a nursery,” Barongi recalls. “The keepers were classified differently and weren’t paid." He took it upon himself to change the children’s zoo and “make it more exciting.” Rick got the area’s keepers raised to paid positions and brought in naked mole rats, who were a big hit and even got there own merchandise.
After spending a few years consulting with Disney about their animal theme park, Barongi left San Diego in late 1993 to work on the project full time and designed the animal habitats for Animal Kingdom. The most ambitious of these habitats was the Harambe Reserve, a 120-acre recreation of an African safari. A major challenge was figuring out how to balance letting guests be able to see many animals easily while also recreating the look of the Serengeti. The head botanist on the project wanted it to “look much more like the Serengeti” but Rick warned him the animals would trample it so they compromised. They found ways to take advantage of the Central Florida climate and make it look like Africa. They even “decided to trim the oak trees to recreate Acacia trees (a keystone of the African savanna.)” Joe Rhode, who was supervising the entire park, wanted more animals on display than Barongi saw reasonable for maintaining the atmosphere. “Joe wanted like 100 wildebeests but I told him it would turn into a desert,” he recalled.
Sometimes the commercial needs of the theme park required him to make compromises in his vision namely the addition of a subplot to the safari chasing poachers and rescuing a baby elephant. “We only did the plot because the marketing people thought the safari was too boring,” states Rick. “The safari is about being in a different world and appreciating nature- you don’t need geysers and poachers.” Over time, the tastes of guests sided with Barongi as the subplot has since been taken out.
By far the most complex and expensive exhibit to design for the safari was the elephant exhibit. “Elephant exhibits are very challenging,” reflects Rick. “We were originally going to rescue elephants from Kruger National Park since they were culling them. We knew we could acclimate a family of elephants to the habitat. Then Kruger put a moratorium on culling so we got our elephants from other zoos. We had to introduce animals who didn’t know each other and it was complex but it worked out.”
Not only did Disney have to build an enormous, expensive barn, but they built recreated baobab (upside down) trees and a huge watering hole. “No one else has baobab trees and pools that are so authentic” says Rick of the elephant exhibit, which he is still very satisfied with today. Almost twenty years later, it is one of the finest elephant habitats anywhere.
However, Barongi’s favorite exhibit in the safari is the hippo exhibit, which was also challenging to build. “We knew we couldn’t get hippos from Africa and we wanted a family,” he remembers. “We had to have barns where we could hold a ton of them and introduce them to each other. The hippo river is about 700,000 gallons- no one has done that again. We had to design it so the hippos could come right out where the vehicles are.” Disney invested a lot in filtration systems for the rivers since it is “very challenging to keep the water clean in hippo exhibits.”
For the rest of the safari, Barongi designed it so you start out with the forests with the okapis and come out to a “big savanna with the giraffes.” Zebras posed a specific challenge to him since he knew they “weren’t going to play well with the other animals since they’re too aggressive.” The zebras got put in a later part of the ride to avoid this conflict. One habitat Rick feels didn’t turn out as well as he would have hoped is the cheetah habitat. “You can’t see them much from the vehicle,” looks back Barongi. “We didn’t spend the effort to make it a more visible exhibit.” However, he feels the nearby lion exhibit turned out much better. “The rocks in the lion exhibit look like the rocks in Lion King and we put trees up there,” he says. “They stay up there a lot. That was an exhibit we had to get right the first time since you don’t want a lion jumping out.”
Another challenge when designing Animal Kingdom was creating Pangani Forest, a walkthrough trek through the Central African rainforest culminating with gorillas. “We knew that gorillas, especially in a hot climate, are difficult to see up close and we would need a family and bachelor exhibit,” explains Rick. “So we did the exhibits across from each other and had visitors walk through the middle. It was tricky to do the architecture. Getting a family together is hard but we worked with Lincoln Park Zoo, who had a lot of gorillas. They gave us a family and we donated money for gorilla conservation to the zoo as a favor.”
The incredibly lush environments let visitors see these massive apes up close. “The design had to let visitors get close to the gorillas,” reflects Barongi. “With two exhibits, you’re guaranteed to see gorillas on one side or both at any time of the day. There’s a lot of shade and nothing was facing south.” He explains the rockwork casts shadows on the exhibit to give the gorillas a shaded environment for them to be active.
Some parts of the park had to be cut because of the massive expenses of building everything. Rick remembers the Tree of Life at the center of the park was originally going to have a second story and was going to have an atrium with shops and a restaurant. On the animal side, the Asian section of Animal Kingdom was going to include a water ride where visitors would see tigers, orangutans, sun bears, Komodo dragons and tapirs from a boat. However it got too expensive so “we opened Asia a year later with a walkthrough. We cut the bears and orangutans out to put more money into a spectacular tiger exhibit.” Despite these changes, Barongi feels vey proud and satisfied with what they accomplished at Animal Kingdom.
Although he had not intention to become a zoo director, Rick accepted the top spot at Houston since “they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” At the time, it was a “city zoo” that needed significant improvements so he made the deal he would direct the zoo if it became privatized. “When you privatize the zoo, it’s a lot more attractive to donors and you can spend the money more effectively,” Barongi explains. “I put a task force together so we could make the zoo better. The city didn’t want to run the zoo anyway so we formed a new society and board to run it. That enabled the Houston Zoo to get better every year. “
While Barongi was director, attendance at Houston increased from 1.4 million to over 2.5 million and the zoo was dramatically transformed. The accomplishment he feels most proud of while at Houston is building the zoo’s conservation program. “You can’t run a zoo today without conservation- you’re not doing your job,” reflects Rick. When he came in 2000, the zoo didn’t have much of a conservation program at all and it had to be entirely restructured. “Now it’s an incredible program,” Barongi says. “The culture of conservation at the Houston Zoo is throughout the entire zoo. Everyone feels like they’re playing a role in saving animals in the wild. Saving animals is what we have to do and animal welfare should be taking care of animals on site and in the wild.” The zoo now spends over $3 million annually on field conservation, leagues above most zoos. They also do an annual hour long special on a conservation project every year.
Several renovations and new exhibits came during Barongi’s tenure. One was the transformation of the small mammal house, a “disaster from the 60s I closed down” with cubicles for exhibits. “We gutted the whole things and made it better," Barongi said. "We did it by regions of the world by climate with meerkats outside.” The exhibit got honored by the AZA for its excellence.
Also during Rick’s time at the zoo came African Forest, which included chimpanzees, giraffes and white rhinos in the first phase. “The chimp exhibit in Africa took a lot of planning and effort,” he recalls. “The rhino exhibit was going to be a hippo exhibit with underwater viewing but it got so expensive we put a rhino exhibit in that space. We have three rhinos who grew up together at White Oak and they get along great.” The area does a great job of educating visitors about the animals, environments and cultures of Africa.
However, the crown jewel of Barongi’s time at Houston is the Gorillas of the African Forest, which he says is the “prettiest habitat we built. It was my last exhibit. We did a boardroom on the second floor looking into the exhibit although it doesn’t have as many gorillas as Bronx.”
After the marvelous Gorillas of the African Forest opened in 2015, Barongi decided to retire from zoos. “I wanted to devote more time to conservation so I retired,” he reflects. “I figured it was time for a change having worked in zoos for forty years. Houston Zoo was already there conservation wise. If we don’t devote more resources to helping save animals in the wild, we aren’t going to survive. You have to have a bigger vision that just your own zoo. My proudest achievement at Disney was starting the Disney Conservation Fund in 1995.” He feels especially positive about the future of the Houston Zoo since it is in the hands of Lee Ehmke, a zoo director who helped make the Minnesota Zoo one of the best in the world.
Rick Barongi still consults with several zoos and remains one of the most respected people in the industry. His amazing career has helped transform zoos into something greater and more worthwhile than anyone could have imagined.