Breeding Endangered Species and Educating People About the Diversity of Life: A Conversation with Ed

Ed Maruska has one been regarded as one of the classic silverback directors of the zoo field. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, he led the Cincinnati Zoo to being one of the premier institutions in the country and helped establish breeding programs for endangered species within zoos. Maruska made several innovations during his tenure including opening the first insect exhibit at an American zoo and integrating gorillas in family groups. Although he has been retired since 2001, he remains a legend in the field. Here is his story.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

When asked how long he was interested in animals, Maruska said, “As far back as I remember.” “My aunt related a story where she took me to the Brookfield Zoo at seven years old and couldn’t take me out,” he recalled. “I had an inherent interest in animals and wild things. My only outlet for those interests growing up in Chicago were two fine zoos, the natural history museum and the aquarium. I remember cutting school to go out to the Brookfield Zoo and going underneath the fence in Salt Creek. The zoo was in my blood!” Maruska began his career working at Lincoln Park under legendary director Marlin Perkins. He moved up to being head keeper at the zoo. “Marlin was obviously quite an affable person on TV and did Zoo Parade at Lincoln Park,” he said. “Boy, he was a tough taskmaster. He had a way about him. Marlin was a good man to work with and I learned an awful lot just by observing him."

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In the early 1960s, Perkins’ assistant director went over to the Cincinnati Zoo and recruited Ed Maruska to go with him. “Cincinnati was one of the lowest paid zoos in the United States,” he remarked. “They had a zoo director named Jack Husser who knew nothing about animals. Many of the employees didn’t know how to read and write. It was a pretty bad place and Bill brought me in to tighten things up. It was a salty day in July when I came for my interview and they used to have a food and home show that had nothing to do with the zoo. They sold yard sticks and BB guns. Some kids were putting political stickers on the backs of waterfowl. I told my wife we’re going to turn around and go back home. Then I walked around the zoo and saw it had some potential. I saw many animals I had never worked with before. They had a fine collection of cats and a good group of rhinos, which they didn’t have at Lincoln Park. So I went into the interview and was hired.”

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

In 1964, Ed Maruska became the Interim Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and three months later became director full-time. One of the perks of the zoo when he got there was they had an opera house on site. “They had opera, which was wonderful since it brought in a different crowd,” Maruska noted. “The problem with the opera was it was a big eyesore of a building and sat right in the middle of the zoo. Then they moved the opera to the music hall even though we wanted to build a new building on the edge of the zoo. However, that gave me an opportunity to raise that building and get a lot more room to make major changes in the zoo.” He had a lot of work to do to change the environment of the zoo. “There was a lot of concrete and bars at the zoo,” Maruska stated. “Not a friendly place to see animals.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Maruska began efforts to change much of the zoo. “I took a group of architects to visit almost every zoo in the United States,” he remembered. “There were only two I left having a good feeling about- SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. one thing I came away from on that trip is landscaping is important and helps soften the environment of the zoo. I wanted to develop an island in the center of Cincinnati where people wouldn’t feel like they were in Cincinnati but in nature. We removed buildings, fixed up others and heavily planted them out of sight. With Gorilla World, we spent more on landscaping than on the animals that lived there.” Today, the Cincinnati Zoo is gorgeous and lush as a result.

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

One advantage Ed Maruska had to modern day zoo directors is it was much easier for him to acquire animals. “We had the freedom of what we wanted to do to build our collections,” he stated. “Then we observed the world was drastically changing and we were losing animals at an alarming rate so more legislation was put forth. Back then we just had a handful of animals extinct but now it’s a pretty grim world. We’re facing the sixth mass extinction largely at our own hands. It’s preventable! Today, zoos have proved their role but a zoo director today has a much more difficult time managing a zoological park. We had the freedom to be more creative. Zoos now are probably one of the most heavily regulated industries besides banking.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“We had the relaxation and freedom to be creative,” he continued. “We still had to depend on the wild for many birds and reptiles we exhibited. Importation is now severely restricted. I remember when I started in the zoo industry there were 60,000 black rhinos in the wild while now they’re 5,000. We’re losing about 100 elephants a day. Less and less space for wilderness. Now they’re even realizing our national parks like Yellowstone aren’t big enough. I’m proud zoos are part of that battle but it’s an uphill battle.”

Lisa Hubbard @ Cincinnati Zoo

However, Maruska’s generation set the foundation of what modern zoos are all about. “Our whole reason to be is we operate in four different areas- conservation, recreation, education and research,” he explained. “Conservation, education and research had to become more important. At Cincinnati our strength lied in animal husbandry and we developed a major collection. As president of the AZA, one of my first charges was to develop an animal management plan. In discussion with Bill Conway, we started this plan and it happened. Then we developed the Species Survival Plans where zoos could collectively manage animals. It was about breeding, recording and managing our populations. collectively so we could keep a species going for hundreds of years.”

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

A major focus of Ed Maruska’s directorship was breeding and research. “One of the roles we wanted to play was to become active in the research area,” he reflected. “We became good at breeding animals. We had more gorillas born than anybody. We started to keep gorillas in groups rather than pairs. Gorillas live in a group in the wild- why would you keep them in pairs? When I started we had four gorillas in two pairs and two of those animals never got along together. I remember taking a small gorilla called Penelope and telling the keepers I want these animals switched. Lord behold the keepers said the big male will kill her but that led to our first gorilla being born.” The zoo soon became known as the nation’s sexiest zoo because of its breeding success. Maruska noted the zoo’s particular success breeding cats, reptiles and amphibians. “As we bred animals, we kept the zoo on the front page,” he added.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo’s breeding record culminated in the creation of the Center for the Conservation of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), a facility of biologists at the zoo dedicated to reproductive research. “We had a good group of people involved,” Maruska recalled. “We had a reproductive director named Betsey Dresser who started CREW and created a lot of reproductive techniques. I remember she went to Los Angeles, collected embryos from bongos and implanted them in eland, which led to the first recorded instance of one species giving birth to another. One of my colleagues said why would you want to be involved in reproductive research but we knew our animals wouldn’t always reproduce on their own. CREW has done a lot not just with animals but also with plants. With wild animals and places having such trouble, we need all the help we can get- parks, zoos and natural history museums telling the story and working as hard as they can to save what they can.”

Lisa Hubbard @ Cincinnati Zoo

No story justifies Ed Maruska’s claim as much as the zoo’s breeding program of the Sumatran rhinoceros. “Sumatran rhinos are one of the rarest animals on earth,” Maruska stated. “They’ve been around for 30 million years and are very primitive animals. There’s probably less than 100 in the wild today. We got involved in a Sumatran rhino trust and convinced the Indonesian government to give us some of these animals” However success didn’t come easily. “Every time we put our rhinos together they’d fight terribly but I felt strongly if we could determine estrus that’s when we would be successful. I hired Terri Roth because she was interested in rhinos. Terri’s the one who, through hormone work, developed a pattern where we could determine estrus and that’s when they would breed rather than fight. In the wild they’re very solitary animals who only get together during breeding. We had our first Sumatran rhino born, a director result of our reproductive research.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“My first major animal habitat was a large bird aviary on a steep hill,” Maruska said. This area would become known as Eagle Eyrie and still stands at the zoo. “They can actually fly in there,” he elaborated. “That exhibit was where we bred the first Stellar’s sea eagle born in a zoo in the U.S. That exhibit is still standing I’m happy to say.” It was the first part of a massive fundraising campaign that redeveloped much of the zoo. “We started a major fundraising drive where we raised over $10 million in the late 60s-early 70s,” Maruska recalled. “That was the bedrock of a master plan to develop the Cincinnati Zoo and turn it around. One of the major parts of the master plan was Gorilla World, which opened in 1978 as one of the first naturalistic habitats for the apes. “I went on one of our trips to San Diego and at the time they were experimenting with keeping gorillas collectively in a group,” he stated. “I always thought that was the best way to do it so we built a major outdoor display for them.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

@ Cincinnati Zoo

In the 1970s, Ed Maruska decided to create an exhibit that had never been done before. “Nobody was paying much attention to invertebrates but 95% of all life forms are invertebrates so we decided to incorporate a major insect building,” he noted. “Many of my colleagues thought I was bugs myself. The then director of Toledo said better men than you have tried it. We tried it, pulled it off and it become one of our most popular exhibits. It became a worldwide phenomenon. National Geographic picked it up and people filmed it.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Many challenges came with building the Insect Zoo. “We had to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture it would be safe for us to import exotic insects,” Maruska remembered. “Gradually, we got their confidence and they let us propagate those animals. During the winter you have to have a sustainable group of insects to keep them there. During the summer all you had to do was open the window and insects would fly in. My zoo connection to invertebrates was no one in North American zoos was accepting the challenge of exhibiting them and telling their story. I thought it would be wonderful to tell they’re story and why they’re so important. We’re losing our honey bees at a rapid rate and they save us millions of dollars. I don’t know if we could survive without insects- they pollinate our plants and keep our food chain in tact. No one was telling that story so I convinced two little ladies on our board we needed to do that. We developed the first walkthrough areas which has become popular in many zoos and even conservancies. Everyone said it wouldn’t work but we developed it and at any time we have 50-100 butterflies fluttering around.” The exhibit won the AZA Exhibit award in 1979, one of the first zoos to do so.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“One thing that we have always strived for in our zoo is the global plan for conservation as a presentation of diversity,” Ed Maruska reflected. “The whole theme of our insect building was to demonstrate diversity and its importance. In that sense I wasn’t saying it was a menagerie collection but it was about keeping a diverse collection that would demonstrate the diversity of life globally. That became part of our education thrust in the community. Zoos at one time didn’t care about breeding animals or maintain animals in natural surroundings. Our old cat building was nothing but barred and titled cages. When you’re designing a display you should keep animals in a natural context. You’re illustrating the way an animal occurs in the wild.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“The parts of the old zoo with the bars and everything were the dirtiest part of the zoo,” he continued. “As we opened up, cleaned up and landscaped it, the public was very thoughtful and looked for waste cans rather than putting it on the ground. We started to utilized wood rather than concrete. The public immediately saw that and began to respect that. They respected theser were nice areas to be in and wanted to keep it nice. Now it’s a clean zoo and it’s generally self-induced.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Ed Maruska also understood the importance of guest amenities in the success of a zoo. “We provided, and they’re still doing that, better food facilities, better viewing areas and opportunities to let guests get closer to the animals,” he said. “They’re providing shelters for people. The zoo has many adult programs and a good volunteer force. They really area an integral part of the community and the zoo is well loved by the community.“ The Cincinnati Zoo has also put a strong emphasis on green initiatives and environmental sustainability. “They’re putting a great emphasis on climate and how to conserve energy,” Maruska noted. “They’re leading by example. They have added solar power panels in the parking lot that generate electricity. All kinds of marvelous things they’ve done- our buildings are green licensed facilities and area energy efficient.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

However, to Maruska the animals always came first and he led changes in the behavior of guests. “We used to have a carnival area in the zoo but I convinced the board of trustees thatit brought out the wrong behavior in some kids. We used to pick up baskets full of stones and rocks out of the zoo. Teachers would come to the zoo and let the kids run rampant and have a free for all. I replaced the rides with animal rides- at that period of history they were more in keeping with a zoo than all these mechanical rides but eventually I proved we could eliminate them too by getting better exhibits. I got rid of the Food and Home show as I convinced the board we could do it with animals alone.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“Part of what I inherited when I took over the zoo unfortunately was the animal show- elephants performing circus tricks and chimps on motorcycles,” Maruska remarked. “ I never liked that. Getting rid of something so popular was difficult so little by little we replaced though. We got rid of the common chimps then. We still have animal demonstrations but it’s done with an educational theme and shows an animal’s natural behaviors rather than inducing a behavior that’s human like. We have a wonderful bird show that does a remarkable job educating the public. We show how fast the cheetahs can run by coaxing them with a mechanically operated lure.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

A major focus of the Cincinnati Zoo starting during Ed Maruska’s time was education. “We decided zoos shouldn’t be a place where people throw stones at animals but where we have more meaningful visitors and school groups,” he stated. “Now our school programs are wonderful. They even have a school right in the zoo itself where they teach a number of courses. It was all part of our drive to impress upon people the problems wild animals are facing and the need to understand the role they play in keeping the delicate balance that makes our world a safe and beautiful place to live.” Maruska takes pride in the Cincinnati Zoo’s education department still being one of the very best out there.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The exhibtry of the Cincinnati Zoo went to the new level with the opening of Jungle Trails in 1993. It featured rainforest animals such as orangutans and bonobos in an immersive replication of their natural habitat. “I was standing at the bottom of the parking lot at the Bird House and visualized a wonderful orangutan display,” Ed Maruska recalled. “We decided we would fill it in and it became Jungle Trails. One dictate I had on it was I didn’t want to see any moat or sign of constraint. I wanted visitors to feel they were in the same world as the animals. The whole thinking behind Jungle Trails was to take a person from Cincinnati and immerse them in the rainforest of Asia and Africa.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

@ Grayson Ponti

“We built artificial trees among natural trees and I insisted the trail itself had natural mulch so you remained on a forest trail,” Maruska continued. “We had lots of vines and I can’t tell you how many trees we planed. You don’t feel like you’re in Cincinnati- you feel like you’re in a wilderness area. You don’t see any barrier and all those spaces are natural.” In addition to orangutans and bonobos, the area also featured a variety of monkeys, lemurs, lorises, pottos and birds.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo became one of the few zoos to house bonobos, also known as pygmy chimps. “I always liked bonobos,” Maruska said. “We all aspire to be like bonobos.They’re a wonderful animal and are always active. Common chimps always reminded me too much of us.” The Cincinnati Zoo has had great breeding success with bonobos.

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

As Ed Maruska became more successful and experienced, he began to be recognized as one of the industry’s silverback directors along with names such as Bill Conway, George Rabb, Charlie Hoessle and Clayton Freiheit. He noted he respected his colleagues but also had healthy competition with them. “There’s always friendly competition,” Maruska stated. “I learned an awful lot from Bill Conway. He’s a remarkable guy but we used to get head on head with issues. In the early days of the gorilla SSP you were competing with each other for animals and who was better than who. It was a form of healthy competition with mutual respect and admiration for each other.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

One of Maruska’s accomplishments was being president of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “I was president of the AZA from 1978 to 1979 and gave my acceptance speech at the Saint Louis Zoo,” he remembered. “Marlin Perkins was there and he was so proud of me. The AZA when I started in the 60s was parts of parks and recreation- zoos were thought of as pure recreation back then without much educational value or redeeming qualities. We were smelly, dirty places that mistreated animals. we’ve come a long way since. With the accreditation program zoos have become a tough regulating force and that’s brought professionalism to every branch of the zoo world. the husbandry developed in zoos is now used in the wild and it’s often the reason for their survival in the wild. I remember going to Tasmania when they were working with rare parakeet species in the wild and I could see them use our techniques.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“Everywhere I go I see zoo techniques,” Maruska continued. “We’ve become very important conservation organizations. Of course that’s something New York has done for many years but the zoo world in general has awoken to it. the most important thing is we’re working outside of our boundary fences. We’re looking to broaden our appeal and zoos certainly have appeal.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

In 1999, the Cincinnati Zoo became one of only three zoos in America to have a manatee rehabilitation center. “I visited the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa and I was impressed by their manatee facility as well as the fact they were doing conservation work with a major exhibit,” Ed Maruska recalled. “They were rescuing manatees and I thought the manatee was just a neat animal. My staff wanted me to do a shark exhibit but I thought that’s really the work of the aquarium and we don’t need to get in the shark business. On the other hand, I thought manatees would be a good idea and found out Columbus was toying with the same idea. We went out and decided we might take the whole building and devote it to Florida. We’d talk about manatees and their conservation but also all the alien plants and animals introduced to Florida including species like piranha and Burmese python.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“The next point was we had to convince Fish and Wildlife we’d be a viable place,” Maruska said. “I said we have a lot of traffic going back and forth with Florida and the funds to do it. We became a rescue center right in the Midwest.” Since that time, several manatees have been rescued and rehabilitated by the Cincinnati.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Ed Maruska’s last exhibit was a renovation of the Elephant House. “The elephant building had been their since the 1920s and was shaped like an Asian temple building,” he said. “It’s really a landmark and our research has pointed out it’s the exact center of Cincinnati. One of our board members wanted to tear it down but the building was put on the federal registrar. We did some quick remodeling and made it better for the animals.”

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

In 2001, Ed Maruska decided it was time to retire. “It’s never an easy thing to decide to retire,” he reflected. “I still go to the zoo pretty often. It’s clean, their educational message is strong and they’ve got a lot of new signage they’d develop. Their African exhibit was really well done but I would have rather done a West African theme since everyone has done an East African theme and I always wanted to do something different. One thing I wanted to do really badly was a new reptile building but I could never get the right people excited about reptiles.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

In 2002, Maruska became interim directors of the Los Angeles Zoo to help turn the zoo around while Woodland Park Zoo legend Dave Towne consulted with GLAZA, the zoo’s fundraising arm. “In the 1990s, Terry Maple, Dave Towne and myself were brought in by the local people to go over the Los Angeles Zoo and make a report,” he recalled. “There were a lot of accusations of mismanagement and keeper unrest. They had a fundraising branch and weren’t even talking to them. I was with a few guys in the mayor’s office and they made me interim director. I was there for 13 months. I got the zoo society and management working together and, to my knowledge, they’re still working together. You can’t have a fundraising body and not talk to them! I think we raised $3 million while Dave and I were there. We came up with a lot of exhibit ideas and showed what could be done by using landscaping. We accomplished a lot in a short deal of time. We got an animal management plan started and had a great time doing that.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

“Today there’s a greater responsibility on zoos because of our global condition,” Ed Maruska concluded. “Now they’re literally saving species that would have otherwise gone extinct like the California condor and the Arabian oryx. The sad part for me is when I see what happens and continues to happen in the wild. My legacy is taking a failing institution, which it was at the time, and turning that into a world-class institution that continues to excel. I built a base that’s hit some bars that will be pretty hard to lower. I set them pretty high- education, conservation, research , recreations. When you’ve got action and animals behaving naturally, you have greater visitor appreciation. It’s a world we share with animals and, as humans, we need that.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

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