Canada's Conservation Mecca: A Conversation with William Rapley, Retired Director of Conservatio

With over 700 acres and 5,000 animals, the Toronto Zoo is one of the largest zoos in the world and one of two premier zoos in Canada (the other is the Calgary Zoo.) One of the most special aspects of the zoo is its strong conservation and research programs, especially ones centered around Canadian wildlife. The zoo has extensive initiatives to protect everything from polar bears and giant pandas to black-footed ferrets and Vancouver Island marmots. For decades these programs were run by William Rapley, who retired earlier this year. He was also the zoo’s first veterinarian and paved the way for cutting-edge animal care and nutrition. Here is his story.

@ William Rapley

With a background in field biology and nature studies Dr. William Rapley studied zoology and veterinary medicine at the University of Guelph. “I was fortunate to work with Dr. Lars Karstad at that time,” he remarked. Rapley started his career in zoos with an 18-month stint at the San Diego Zoo and its new sister facility, the San Diego Wild Animal Park (since renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.) The park was under development and opened to the public in 1972.

@ SDZ Global

During his time in San Diego, he got a very special mentor. “Dr. Charles Schroeder, who had been a zoo veterinarian was then the director of the zoo,” Rapley recalled. “He was the one who pushed for the Wild Animal Park. I had lots of opportunities to talk to him quite often and his vision of breeding programs and conservation was important. This was helpful to me and he was a mentor. Charles was a tough guy and worked a lot in research. Veterinary medicine has always been strong at the San Diego Zoo. When he pushed for the park, he was courageous and persistent. Every time I visit and the facilities I am so impressed. At the Wild Animal Park there are big spaces, large herds of animals and natural settings and space. It really is quite a spectacular setting.”

@ SDZ Global

“Fortunately, my San Diego ties have lasted throughout the years,” Rapley reflected. “Dr, Art Risser and many staff have been most helpful. The CEO Doug Myers provided insight for Toronto’s master plan. Over the years I have worked on many projects with San Diego especially with giant pandas and polar bears.” When he was there, he worked with Dr. Charles Sedgwick and others in veterinary science. “Dr. Murray from UC Davis was there in my time,” Rapley recalled. “In conservation, San Diego has been amazing.”

@ SDZ Global

In 1973, Rapley took on the challenge of becoming the first veterinarian for a brand new massive zoo: the Toronto Zoo, which opened the next year. “This project was massive in scope and was quite a challenge,” he remembered. “It was a megaproject- just massive. Today there are around 350 exhibits. The approach was to use new landscape immersion techniques and there were a lot of issues. The goal was to emphasize preventive medicine techniques. Animals were coming in from all over the world and some diseases such as tuberculosis were present in zoos at the time. Parasites were very important. We established an extensive screening and quarantine system in as many as forty locations. We utilized the old Riverdale Zoo site and established farms to be able to have facilities to bring in these animals and keep zoo populations as clean as possible."

@ Toronto Zoo

From the start, Rapley was determined the zoo’s animal health program would be the best it could be. “I was a real strong believer in preventive medicine,” he stated. “I worked with the Pathology staff at the University of Guelph to complete a post mortem exam on all animals to determine their health staff. Dr. Kay Mehren, who I knew from San Diego, joined the staff in 1974. In a few years, we were able to set up a residency program and that became the doctor of veterinary science program. We hired the first zoo nutritionist in 1974, Sergio Oyarsum, who had a masters of science degree in animal nutrition. We started a scientific feeding program from day one. Where possible there was a centralized and controlled feeding program and the staff knew exactly what was being fed and we kept track with diet sheets. This allowed for study of the nutritional status of each species. Back in the era there was a problem with a lack of knowledge for wildlife species and nutritional requirements.”

@ Toronto Zoo

In 1982, Rapley left the zoo to work in science teaching and research at the University of Western Ontario. “I completed part time graduate work in the environmental toxicology field,” he remembered. “Working with the Canadian Wildlife Service I had the opportunity to do a project to reintroduce bald eagles to Southern Ontario. From a studied population in Western Ontario 8—10 week old nestlings were hacked back to artificial nests of bald eagles in Southern Ontario.” This project helped bring the species to the region. “Today we have about 70 successful nests of bald eagles in the region,” Rapley said proudly.

@ Toronto Zoo

Rapley came back to the zoo in 1989, this time as director of Conservation, Education and Wildlife. He feels one of the most important things about the zoo is its connection with the local national park. “The Toronto Zoo occupies 710 acres in the Rouge Valley area which is also an important nature reserve in the middle of Rouge Valley National Park,” he said. “We have a long-term partnership with Parks Canada and do fantastic educational outreach programs to connect people to nature.

@ Toronto Zoo

A focus of the Toronto Zoo will continue to be on Canadian endangered species and habitats. For over 30 years the Toronto Zoo has had a very extensive wetlands program. “There are an array of conservation and outreach programs such as Frog Watch Ontario and Turtle Tally,” commented Rapley. “The zoo also has been actively connected to colleges and universities. Toronto Zoo usually has around 90 university students working in the summer on everything from animal care to education to conservation.”

@ Toronto Zoo

Rapley admitted Canadian Domain is his personal favorite part of the zoo, which is home to several flagship Canadian animals in a valley. This area opened in 1976, two years after the park did. “We had a monorail system that ran through the valley but we had problems with that,” he said. “It was designed by the same people who did the Wgasa Railway at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The Western pond is my favorite place and has been restored.” Unfortunately the area is inconvenient for guests since it can only be accessed through a steep hill but has maintained its “historic herds.”

@ Toronto Zoo

The zoo has been vital to the conservation of several Canadian species including the wood bison. “Back in 1977 when we started on the wood bison, there were very few left,” Rapley explained. “We have worked very diligently in Canada at helping the wood bison. Our zoo is still involved with research grants and studies with this species and again with many partners across Canada. Embryo studies continue and artificial insemination has successfully minimized the need to ship individuals long distances for breeding. In Canada, we have Canadian endangered species programs and work with CAZA. I was able to serve on many AZA committees including nine years on the ones for Wildlife Conservation Management and Field Conservation. It’s my feeling if we have animals in zoos we have the responsibility to connect them to doing something for their habitat and conservation. We’ve been able to learn a lot more about the biological needs of animals in human care and the wild.”

@ Toronto Zoo

Two species in which the Toronto Zoo has been instrumental in saving are black footed ferrets and Vancouver Island marmots. “We started black ferret conservation in 1989 when we worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Fish and Game and the National Zoo,” Rapley said. “In 1991, the Toronto Zoo received a grant from Environmental Canada and has been a major breeder of black-footed ferrets since 1992. The ferrets got out to various places where they’ve been reintroduced in the wild to about 23 locations in the U.S. and Mexico. We eventually were able to bring them back to Grasslands National Park in Canada. “ When the zoo started working with Vancouver Island marmots, their population was down to only 25 animals. “We had to learn how to breed them. Working with the Calgary Zoo and the government of British Columbia, we were able to learn how to breed them. Now we have 400-500 of these marmots in the wild.”

@ Toronto Zoo

@ Toronto Zoo

The zoo has helped bring back Canadian birds as well. “I’m an avid birdwatcher and one project I worked on was the trumpeter swan reproduction program,” Rapley said. “They’d been gone from Ontario for over 200 years and the project was led by Harry Lumsden and Bill Carrick. Eggs were obtained from the west and Alaska and numerous birds were reintroduced them to ponds and marshes. Now we have over 1000 trumpeter swans and over 100 pairs nesting in the eastern part of Ontario and the wild populations in Western Ontario are growing. It’s great to see that species back.”

@ Toronto Zoo

William Rapley well understands the importance of zoos in conservation. “What we’ve found is that as governments cut back programs there are opportunities for zoos to take some of the projects,” he said. “There are so many things that go against nature and wildlife. If we can have a success, this is a worthwhile thing. It’s a real jolt in the arm for people to not give up and do what they can. I have traveled to many countries working on programs from primates to Komodo dragons to hornbills. The big thing is you have to have the habitat right to do it. You also need partners to make it successful.” The zoo does a variety of local programs such as a migratory bird day and adopt a pond.

@ Toronto Zoo

Rapley feels it would have been better if the zoo was built in phases rather than at all one time. “We should have done what North Carolina did where they built one continent at one time,” he said. “It would have been better to do less at once since we did so much at once. The decision was made to have six tropical buildings and we built them all at once.” As a consequence, a lot of the zoo needed to be updated over time. “When I came back, we did a master plan that we projected for 25 years that would cost $173 million,” he remarked. “We have completed over 600 projects of varying sizes since 1991 up until I retired. “We rebuilt much of the zoo.” A lot of Rapley’s focus was on developing a “conservation education program,” one of his biggest accomplishments during his time in Toronto.

@ Scott Richardson

One of the biggest projects of the master plan was to redevelop the African Savanna, an area that opened in 1998 and the zoo’s largest project. “We had an African Savanna at the zoo in 1974,” Rapley recalled. “We basically had to gut and rebuild the holding facilities. We centralized the building and redid the area. I always like to have bigger and better areas and finding innovative ways to view the animals.in planning the revision of the African Savanna six zoo staff traveled to Africa for a month with zoo design guru Jon Coe to work on initial planning.The new African Savanna made improvements to viewing and handling. ” Not everything they wanted came to life in the final project. “In our dreams we looked at a giant indoor elephant and rhino facility with a pond and indoor underwater viewing,” Rapley remembered. “That project cost was way over the budget at the time. We considered underwater viewing of the hippo area as well. We had seen it done so well at Toledo. There’s only so much money you can raise and so much you can accomplish with an organization."

@ Toronto Zoo

The African Savanna that opened turned out to be a walking safari complete with an African market and immersive landscape replicating the continent’s open plains. Visitors get up close to African icons such as lions, white rhinos, spotted hyenas, cheetahs, baboons, zebras, warthogs and a variety of antelope. “The zoo’s first white rhinos came in 1976 from the San Diego Wild Animal Park,” Rapley said. “They were from a group who had been rescued from South Africa. One of them Bull produced four young and lived to be at least 45 years old. The Indian rhinos have done very well here too. We’ve been fighting the poaching crisis. The keepers are always trying to help as well with Bowling for Rhinos. They’ve raised millions of dollars to protect rhinos. We work with Laika in Kenya and our vets have made trips out there to help rhinos.”

@ Toronto Zoo

One of the highlights of the entire zoo is located in the African Savanna: a fantastic habitat for olive baboons featuring plenty of rocks, hills and a crashing waterfall. “We saw the olive baboons in Africa and I would do photography while our project manager Paul Harpley would do drawings,” Rapley said. “A lot of rockwork in the baboon habitat was based on an actual huge rock formation in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. It has a massive outcropping, much larger than what we show at the zoo. Everything in the African Savanna is based on something we saw in Africa.”

@ Toronto Zoo

Another major project that occurred during William Rapley’s tenure was Tundra Trek, a replication of the frigid environment of the North Pole and a modern habitat for the zoo’s polar bears. “Tundra Trek turned out very well,” he said. “Paul Harpley and I went to the Arctic and we became partners with Polar Bear International. Right now we work with York University on polar bear research. We were inspired by what had been done by Detroit, Toledo and San Diego. We were able to make the space for the polar bears six times as big as it was before including large natural areas and allow the bears to be shifted around. We made it so the bears could get away from each other and from eyesight. With our facility, we can separate them or put them together depending on the time of year. We do training sessions with the polar bears. This is not only great for their welfare but helps us do metabolic studies and blood collection.” He noted the facility has fostered positive behavior in the polar bears.

@ Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo has had some great success breeding polar bears in the new facility. However, Rapley’s work with conservation of the lords of the Arctic has gone beyond the zoo. He was on the committee to plan Journey of Churchill, a groundbreaking polar bear habitat complex at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. “They took it to the next level,” Rapley praised. He also noted the work the zoo has done for global polar bear conservation. “We were early ambassadors to Polar Bear International,” Rapley elaborated. “We attended many meetings to work on doing things for polar bears. We’ve sent our staff up to Churchill. At the zoo we did a lot of studies with nutrition for polar bears. We study how what they eat is being metabolized. We’re trying to find out about the actual nutritional needs of polar bears.”

@ Toronto Zoo

Rapley has also been involved in conservation for gorillas, who live in a multi-part facility at the zoo. “I did a field project in 1993 on gorillas with the bushmeat crisis in Cameroon,” he explained. “We put on a field called Invisible Zoo about this type of work. I was on the steering committee for the bushmeat crisis group and we worked on education. We then supported the project for the primate center in Cameroon. Some of my staff have gone several times. We have supported research studies of the conservation society over there and tried to help where we can with gorillas.”

@ Toronto Zoo

For most of Rapley’s time at the Toronto Zoo, the zoo was working on landing rare giant pandas. “We were really interested in giant pandas as far back as 1989,” he remarked. “We were charter members of the Giant Panda Foundation and went out to China several times. Politics would get into it. We had a plan to have a nice Chinese garden and lots of features for them but then politics slapped in.” Rapley never lost investment in the conservation in giant panda conservation and the iconic species finally came to Toronto for a five year stay in 2013 (starting next year they will spend five years at the Calgary Zoo.) “We were able to work on getting the pandas and the four American zoos who have them were very cooperative. We renovated an Amur tiger habitat and built a giant panda habitat over them. I worked out pretty well.”

@ Toronto Zoo

The zoo has been fortunate to welcome the birth of giant panda twins during their stay. Even though they will be leaving next year, Rapley expressed great pride at the collective work zoos and conservation grounds have done for giant pandas. “I have been pleased that we’ve gone to 67 reserves in China that are working together,” he said. “Breeding in human care was always challenging but we’ve gone to 500 in human care in just over a decade. We’ve learned a lot about their nutrition, bamboo and diseases. We’ve come a long, long way with that species. You’ve got hundreds of other species that have been protected through this program. Giant pandas are just a flagship.”

@ Toronto Zoo

After over 40 years of service, William Rapley retired earlier this year but feels very confident in the future of the zoo. The Toronto Zoo is now working on an outdoor habitat for orangutans and will eventually be building an underwater viewing area for hippos and a renovation of Canadian Domain. The zoo will continue to have a strong focus on conservation. “In looking back at the history of the Toronto Zoo since 1973 it is important to recall how many people have taken programs, worked or studied at the zoo,” Rapley reflected. “Many have been connected to nature and have gone on to become biologists, conservationists, veterinarians, zoo directors or staff, volunteers, academics or advocates for wildlife and animal welfare. We have helped people contribute to nature, environmental issues and wildlife conservation whenever possible.”

@ William Rapley

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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