A Conversation with Brian Rutledge, Former Director of the Maryland Zoo

Although he has spent the past fifteen years working on negotiating conservation deals instead of working in zoos, Brian Rutledge was vital to the turnaround of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the Franklin Park and Stone Zoos in Boston. Particularly in Baltimore, he greatly boosted the reputation and quality of the institutions he worked at. “I became known as the guy who turned around zoos,” Rutledge remarked. Here is his story.

@ Brian Rutledge

In 1983, Rutledge was put in charge of the Maryland Zoo, then known as the Baltimore Zoo. “The Baltimore Zoo was really run into the ground,” he remembered. “It was a Victorian type zoo. There was an array of physical plant and employee problems. It was city run, had weak management and a miniscule budget. It was a zoo in trouble and things were spiraling down.” However, he also saw potential. “I loved the amount of undeveloped acreage,” Rutledge added. “We had room to build new attractions that could carry the zoo while the older stuff was refurbished or replaced. One of the few really good things going on at the zoo was the African penguin breeding program. We were one of the primary suppliers of them to the zoo world although it was not presented well.”

@ Maryland Zoo

Being one of the oldest zoos in the country, much of the exhibitry at the zoo was archaic. From the beginning of his tenure, he concentrated efforts on creating better spaces for the zoo’s animals. “The first thing we did was get the elephants out of that godawful old enclosure,” Rutledge said. “We had two elephants in an old stone building by the polar bears and they had maybe 20 by 50 feet inside and 50 by 50 feet outside. We didn’t have much money but we were able to give the elephants a decent lifespace, which they didn’t have before. The new exhibit had much more open space and accessibility to a pool.”

@ Maryland Zoo

“Then we did hippos and sitatungas at the north end of the old hippo building,” Rutledge continued. “That was another case where we had animals in a tiny enclosure that was inhumane so we built the hippo exhibit with a waterfall that appeared to go into the sitatunga swamp.” Today, the hippo exhibit is occupied by a flock of flamingos but the water-loving sitatugna antelope still occupy the marshy exhibit built during this time. In some cases, Rutledge chose to phase out certain species rather than build new homes for the. “We had gorillas in the old mammal house but we went them to other zoos as that was no place to keep wild animals,” he stated. “That was where all the primates were and they basically lived in cells. The male gorilla went to Dallas while the female went to Ohio. There was an orangutan in there as well and I sent her to another facility. We wanted to get the animals out of that building as quickly as possible.”

@ Maryland Zoo

When looking for a project that would greatly improve the zoo experience, Brian Rutledge had the idea of building a great children’s zoo. “We started looking for what would drive change at the zoo,” he explained. “I thought a children’s zoo would be a likely place to begin but I didn’t want to do a half-baked job of it. We did it in three phases with the barnyard first.” The children’s zoo, named Maryland Wilderness, turned out to become one of the best children’s zoos in the nation.

@ Maryland Zoo

@ Maryland Zoo

“We had a lot of fun with Maryland Wilderness,” Rutledge recalled. “We drew a whole array of exhibits we thought would work and found a company that would work with us. We wanted to have children experience being the animal they were observing to fully appreciate the animal they were seeing. They would hop on lily pads, go into a beaver lodge, go into a bird’s nest. That’s all immersion exhibitry. All those were very meaningful to the children.” The most unusual feature of Maryland Wilderness is an underwater tunnel that goes through the state-of-the-art river otter habitat. “We really let the kids feel like they’re in the water with the otters,” Rutledge added. “The otters would interact through the acrylic tube and really were interested in the children.”

@ Maryland Zoo

Maryland Wilderness turned out to be a huge success and a game changer to the zoo. Around the same time, the zoo became privatized. “I was working for Maris Shaper and, when he became governor, we took the zoo to a deal of being state property and funding but privately managed,” Rutledge said. “We got our primary budget support from the state. That’s how we became the Maryland Zoo.”

@ Scott Richardson

The privatization of the zoo as well as the new exhibits helped greatly improve morale and professionalism among its staff. During the municipal days, the zoo had a “lost of cases where the city councilmen would tell them who they should hire.” “The biggest thing was giving the keepers responsibility and a better place to work,” Rutledge explained. “It’s hard to keep enlightened keepers inspired in a crappy place. I let them see a new way coming and made them want to be part of it. The lesser staff went away and better people came in. The other thing was very regular communication and meetings so the staff understood what they were doing. The keepers developed relationships inside rather than outside influences.”

@ Maryland Zoo

Brain Rutledge continued to take the Maryland Zoo to the next level with the opening of the African Watering Hole in 1992. “The best thing at the zoo when I came was the giraffe and lion exhibit and there was a long walk with nothing to see,” he recalled. recalled. “We wanted to build up that area.” The result was a mixed species immersive habitat for white rhinos, zebras, ostriches and antelope. “We were giving space to animals and containing the people,” Rutledge elaborated. “The boardwalk helped make people feel part of the exhibit and even let them go into it. We maximized the space for the wildlife and gave a much more realistic and educational view of the animals.”

@ Maryland Zoo

@ Maryland Zoo

Tremendous care was taken to effectively and resourcefully create the illusion of being at an African watering hole. “We were able to use the old hippo house for rhinos, who were a new species to the zoo,” Rutledge said. “We modified the building to make it the night house and made it disappear into the background of the exhibit. We took the zebras out of those dungeonsque buffalo yards at another part of the zoo into this bigger space. We got rid of a lot of internal containment, planted Sudan grass and had the watering hole serve as a moat to the space. Everything was done with the intent of creating an African atmosphere and blending into the park behind it. you get the impression of enormous space.”

@ Maryland Zoo

@ Maryland Zoo

A major challenge to Rutledge was the lack of funding available to keep up the zoo’s improvements. “We grew our operating budget and the public not only came in larger numbers but stayed for longer and spent more money,” he commented. “However, we did everything on a fairly small budget. Baltimore wasn’t used to spending much money on the zoo and it took a while to change it. we had to get people to recognize it wasn’t an inner city zoo but a regional attraction. We were unable to do more for many of the animals I wanted to do more for but we only got as far as we got.”

@ Maryland Zoo

Despite this, Rutledge continued to make things happen at the Maryland Zoo. He not only increased the zoo’s quality but also its conservation initiative. “We became engaged in the larger array of international trips to get people educated than any zoo in the country,” Rutledge remarked. “We also engaged in local conservation with woodrats and others who needed attention. We did conservation in Africa and Asia too.” Onsite, the zoo began construction of exhibits for chimpanzees and leopards as well as an aviary.

@ Maryland Zoo

By 1994, Brian Rutledge had serious differences with the Maryland Zoo’s board of directors. “They wanted it to become more of an attraction than a conservation education institution,” he elaborated. “There was interest in things like white tigers, which are like a genetic sport. We need to be teaching about nature.” Frustrated, he resigned in the middle of the year. “It was time for me to go,” Rutledge reflected. “I’m very proud of what the team did there. We worked really hard to change it around.”

@ Maryland Zoo

One of the people who he credits the most for his success at the Maryland Zoo was William Donald Shaffer, Baltimore’s mayor and later the governor of Maryland. “Shaffer wanted what was best for his people,” Rutledge stated. “One of the best things that ever happened in Baltimore is when I first got there I got in a fight with Shaffer and he was impressed I stood up to him. He let me do more of the zoo than he ever would have if not for that fight. When he was done, I left.”

@ Maryland Zoo

In 1996, Rutledge was recruited to be director of Zoo New England in Boston, which oversees the Franklin Park and Stone Zoos. “When I came the New England zoos were state municipal zoos with a lot of open space,” he remembered. “The animals had very little of the zoo and the budget was not in much different than the one in Baltimore. My focus when I went into zoos was to turn them around from zoos in trouble. We didn’t have as much to work with for awhile but we made quite a difference in those zoos.”

@ Zoo New England

Despite being a major city, Brian Rutledge learned finding community support, enthusiasm and funding for the zoo was minimal. “It was a tough situation,” he reflected. “It was a very difficult community to work in. They were not receptive to turning the zoo around.” Much of the Franklin Park Zoo’s problems came from years of insufficient funding, low attendance and lack of maintenance and development. The zoo also was in the red for years because of spending $26 million on the indoor Tropical Rainforest building in 1989, what was supposed to be only one of a series of buildings. “The Rainforest was a huge expense to build and a huge expense to operate,” Rutledge added. “We made it better while I was there but it was very limited in the way it was built. We tried to design an outdoor gorilla yard to add to it but people didn’t get convinced it was worth it. We were able to modify the interior and did great things with the wild dogs and cheetahs outside though.”

@ Zoo New England

Rutledge had to think of ways to greatly improve the animal and visitor experience on a shoestring budget. “I had to do a lot with very little money,” he said. “We did a very inexpensive kangaroo walkabout which had a big impact on the public. We added a farmyard to the children’s zoo.” In one instance, the improvements resulted from taking advantage of already existing topography. “There were huge lawns with nothing on them,” Rutledge said. This inspired him to turn an empty field into a savanna for giraffes, a brand new species to the zoo.

@ Zoo New England

@ Zoo New England

“The African area with the giraffes and zebras was just a grassy lawn when I got there,” he elaborated. “We let the animals come down from the old antelope house and let them use this space. We only spent $30,000 fencing it and adding observation towers at the corners. We built a giraffe barn as well. we didn’t change much at all- we didn’t have the money for that. However, we changed the zoo dramatically and made the lives of the animals better with little money.”

@ Zoo New England

At the Stone Zoo, Rutledge also worked to bring up the zoo’s game. “We did a new snow leopard exhibit on a stony hillside,” he stated. “That’s a pretty darn successful snow leopard exhibit. We also did the tundra walkabout with the reindeer and snowy owls. We did a lot with a little.” Also, Rutledge worked very hard to raise the conservation efforts of Zoo New England at both the Franklin Park Zoo and the Stone Zoo. “We did conservation as an absolute effort of force,” he remarked. “We got a local foundation to fund several years of research on African wild dogs in Zimbabwe. We made sure we talked about what we were doing in Zimbabwe at the zoo. We also tired to do things with herps and release programs. We had interpreters who talked about conservation and we made sure it was part of what we talked, taught and did.” In 2001, Brain Rutledge ended his zoo career to focus on grassroots conservation.

@ Zoo New England

“I feel most proud of the Maryland Wilderness children’s zoo and the African Watering Hole,” Rutledge reflected. “I enjoyed the process of doing those exhibits. Thank goodness for the people who make these things come to life! I’m inspired at how zoos continue to engage themselves with conservation. The messaging is better than it was but we still need to make sure we’re drawing people to nature rather than just display nature to people.”

@ Brian Rutledge

#MarylandZoo #FranklinParkZoo #StoneZoo

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