The Evolution Into a Modern Zoo: A Conversation with Larry Sorel, Director of the Seneca Park Zoo

Opened in 1894, the Seneca Park Zoo is located in Rochester's Seneca Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. For the last twenty years, the zoo has been directed by Larry Sorel. His immense animal knowledge, leadership and cooperation with Monroe County and the Seneca Park Zoological Society has allowed the zoo to flourish and grow. Currently, the zoo is undergoing a major expansion and renovation that will bring species like giraffes, zebras, gorillas and red pandas to the zoo and new habitats for species like orangutans, white rhinos, snow leopards and lemurs. Here is his story.

@ Larry Sorel

Larry Sorel has loved zoos his entire life. “I can’t remember not being involved in zoos,” he recalled. “At first, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian and that’s what I first went to school for. However, I enjoyed my freshmen year a little too much and did not maintain the grades needed to get into vet school. I switched to straight biology studying systematics and evolution. In the long run, that was better for me [as] in hindsight I wouldn’t have wanted to be a vet. That would have been too narrow for me.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Sorel began his zoo career in Los Angeles. “My in-laws moved to LA and knew I wanted to work at a zoo,” he remembered. “The Los Angeles Zoo with the permanent sunshine seemed a fun place to go. I took the civil service test, scored high enough and became a zookeeper. I worked everywhere in the zoo except the nursery and the reptile house.” Sorel eventually ended up settling in the Australian section. In fact, he was involved in the push to bring koalas to the Los Angeles Zoo. “A good friend and I actually initiated the acquisition of koalas at the zoo as we kept asking Warren Thomas [the director] about it,” Sorel remarked. “We were intimately involved in the whole process. That [situation] set me on a career path that landed me here.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

At a certain point, Larry Sorel decided he wanted to move up the ranks in zoos. This was sparked by a program at the Los Angeles Zoo where animal care staff had the opportunity to be exposed to the responsibilities of curators. “I didn’t want to be a direct animal care person for the rest of my life,” Sorel said. “Many of the keepers at the zoo were older and had a bad knee or back and I didn’t want my body to break down like that. I also wanted to have a broader impact.” To move up, he needed to move to another zoo and ended up becoming curator at the Peoria Zoo in Peoria, Illinois. “That got me on the path of small zoos,” Sorel noted. “It had a traditional main building, if you will, that was the whole zoo originally as well as a couple acres outside for mostly domestics and some birds of prey. Ultimately, we brought in zebra and started looking for sea lions.”

@ Peoria Zoo

Next, Sorel served as Assistant Director at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana. “[At the time] Potawatomi was very much a city zoo,” he explained. “Peoria was run by a parks district, which had a little broader view of its purpose. Potawatomi was restricted in funds and has some city management challenges. I was able to learn a couple of things.” However, soon Sorel moved down to the Chehaw Wild Animal Park in Georgia to run its animal facilities.

@ Potawatomi Zoo

“Chehaw was a wonderful place from a geographic standpoint,” Larry Sorel elaborated. “It stood in an oxbow of a creek and was inside a park of pine forest. The zoo had a lot of large field like mixed hoofstock exhibits. It was about to set on the path of growth with a $6 million bond issue. We did things like rebuilt the entrance, added a climate controlled biome building for reptiles and built a couple different primate exhibits. We were really beginning to set on a growth route not just in physical plans but expanding our outreach, conservation and education.”

@ Chehaw

@ Chehaw

Sadly, tragedy struck the Chehaw Wild Animal Park in 1994. “South Georgia was the beneficiary of 25 inches of rain in 24 hours,” Sorel remembered. “We were flooded and lost a number of animals. Clearly it was a very traumatic experience. I worked with the city administration and the park to recover and plan the direction forward.” Still, the incident weighed very heavily on the zoo professional. “I had to take a step back, do some self-reflection and ask myself does this take too much out of me,” Sorrel reflected. “The low coming out of the flood was very devastating. Obviously, the keepers were more directly affected than I was but I had a great emotional connection to the facility and animals. I found myself not being able to make simple decisions without it being dramatic.”

@ Chehaw

@ Chehaw

Soon enough, Larry Sorel decided to resume his zoo career. “After spending some time in introspection, I decided yes this is what I want to do, this is what I am and this is what I have to do,” he elaborated. “If not, I will never feel fulfilled in my professional life. I knew I wanted to be a director and have that kind of impact.” In 1997, Larry Sorel was hired as the Director of the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, where he has been ever since.

@ Seneca Park Zo

@ Seneca Park Zoo

When Sorel came, the Seneca Park Zoo was a small zoo just beginning to modernize. “We were ten and a half acres and really just beginning to make a turn into what I call modern zoological practice,” he explained. “There had been an 8 million bond that built Rock Coast (home to polar bears, sea lions and penguins), which I inherited and opened. [Besides Rocky Coast] it was a 1950s-style zoo with lots of chain link and bars. The management was also very 1950s- the director before me was very patriarchal. The zoo is run by Monroe County with the zoological society functioning in a support role. [At that time], neither side talked to each other by directive. It was kind of chaotic.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

Ron Kalasinskas @ Seneca Park Zoo

Larry Sorel felt strongly the culture of the zoo had to change in order for it to reach its full potential. He immediately worked to solve the relationship between the county and zoological society “One of my first conversations with the county was we’ve started to build some success but we’ve been successful in spite of ourselves, not because of ourselves,” Sorrel recalled. “I built bridges between the two organizations and worked towards combining them at least operationally. I also needed to change the keeper staff. The keepers were old school- if you knew what to do, that qualified you to be a keeper. They didn’t talk to guests, do programming, show initiative or talk to other zoos. It took me five years but I was able to bring our keeper staff into the 21st century by hiring keepers who understood part of their role is talking to guests, participating in education and interpretation and our mission is not just to be a place where residents look at animals but where conservation and education are key components of what we’re doing.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

The zoo and the zoological society began to work more collaboratively together. “We’ve created one of the best dual organizations in the country,” Sorel claimed. “We were ahead of the curve and a lot of other places have caught up in working out the inherent tension between the two organizations. We get such tremendous support from the county and have been able to build very good relationships with the county executives in finance and management backing. We’re functioning very well.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

While the Seneca Park Zoo has been increased in size to 16 acres, the small size of the zoo creates challenges. “We have had close to 400,000 people through the gates this year,” Larry Sorel explained. “When [those numbers] are basically compressed from May to October on 16 acres, that’s a lot. Things have to be closely managed [as we need to] keep it clean and manage the intensity of the guest experience.” However, the zoo soon will be larger. “We’re a third of the way into construction on a 4.5-acre expansion,” Sorrel added. “By the end of next year, we’ll be 20 acres large and have close to 500,000 visitors. Dealing with numbers of guest is a wonderfully challenging experience. We also have to be creative in how we use space. As we build and grow, we take advantage of every square foot we have for the guests.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

Larry Sorel built off the foundation set by Rocky Coasts (which has welcomed several sea lion pups and 110 African penguin chicks) to turn Seneca Park Zoo into a quality institution. A major focus has been letting guests see the behind-the-scenes work of zoo staff up close “Our philosophy and direction is we open up traditionally behind the scenes spaces to our guests in a controlled fashion,” Sorel elaborated. “We let people into the elephant barn and see what the keepers do with our elephants. [In our animal hospital,] our treatment room and operating room are part of the guest experience. in [the upcoming African expansion,] the rhino and giraffe stalls will be visible and we’ll have dayrooms for guests to watch them in the winter.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

The Seneca Park Zoo opened Step Into Africa in two phases, home to African elephants, lions and baboons. “Step Into Africa was driven by the need to provide better homes for our elephants,” Sorel remarked. “They were in the original main building in a very small space, which was one of the things I knew I wanted to change when I walked in the door.” In fact, the new exhibit ended up saving the life of one of the elephants. “We were the last zoo to artificially inseminate an elephant [as old as ours],” Sorel remembered. “This was right before it was decided by looking at science and success that if an elephant hadn’t given birth by their early 20s the likelihood of success was very small. Our calf died in utero and we had to pull it out through cesarean. Our female survived but she wouldn’t have if we hadn’t built the new habitat with an elephant restraint device. It’s a testament to the physical structure of the exhibit and the intense dedication of the keeper staff that she survived.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

Marie Kraus @ Seneca Park Zoo

It was eventually dedicated to theme Step Into Africa around the Ngorongoro Crater, a crater in Tanzania teeming with wildlife. It also is known for being an area where the local Maasai people have learned to coexist with wildlife. “It’s hard to explain but at the very north end of the zoo there is an overlook that looks down into the rest of Seneca Park and a large lake,” Sorel remarked. “With the rock wall, it is very evocative of staring down at the Ngorongoro Crater from the lodges above it. We elected to use the exhibit to try to talk about the success of Ngorongoro Crater in integrating conservation with the people who live there. That spurred significant growth in our conservation programs and how we steer our conservation efforts.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

@ Seneca Park Zoo

The Ngorongo Crater inspired the Seneca Park Zoo’s approach to conservation projects. “We don’t want to be the dominate white western nation when we’re fighting for the conservation of the animals,” Larry Sorel continued. “If we don’t accommodate and include the indigenous people in our conservation efforts, we’re going to fail. We do that [not just in Ngorongoro Crater but also] with our partnerships in Borneo, Madagascar, South Africa and locally in the Bergen Swamp. We take the local people into account and make sure they’re onboard, involved and benefit from what we’re doing. As we grow our conservation in Africa, we’ll make sure our partners do that. It’s not domination but integration. Our education program is all built around how you can be successful in conservation and allow the local people to benefit from the land.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

@ Seneca Park Zoo

While the first phase of Step Into Africa concentrated on elephants, the second phase brought back lions to the zoo. “I think the lion exhibit is one of the best in the country,” Sorrel stated. “It’s on a hillside so they’re displayed very well. We built a kopje rock with heaters for the winter and misters for the summer. You can see them on the kopje and go through a different kopje and have nose to nose viewing with the lions. We have a safari bus that gives penetration into the exhibit. We challenged the architects to think of this as theater. You’ve not just building a habitat. You’re creating a stage for people to suspend disbelief. They came up with having a tour bus stuck in the mud. Guests can get on both floors and look at the lions from different perspectives. The hood has become a favorite for one of our females.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

@ Seneca Park Zoo

“We also added a fossil and historical piece to show how the land is and why animals live in [Ngorongoro Crater,]” Sorel continued. “We added baboons and a Maasai village since they’re integral to the edges of Ngorongoro.” Currently, Step Into Africa is being expanded to include giraffes, white rhinos, zebras, ostriches, naked mole rats, hyraxes, plated lizards, elephant shrews and African birds. “We’re going to interpret the entire habitat,” Sorrel added. In upcoming expansions, the zoo will add a Himalayan exhibit featuring snow leopards and red pandas and a tropical complex featuring gorillas, orangutans and Madagascar wildlife that will replace the zoo’s 1930 original main building.

@ Seneca Park Zoo

@ Seneca Park Zoo

Larry Sorel and his staff ensure the Seneca Park Zoo is at the forefront of providing optimal animal welfare and rich guest experiences. “The guest experience is just about making sure all the basics are taken care of- the restrooms are clean, the signs are appropriate and the guest amenities are as positive as they can be,” he elaborated. “We’ve emphasized the guest experience everywhere from animal care to the gift shop to maintenance. Being forward facing to our guests is crucial to what our job is and what the zoo is. Staff are encouraged to talk to guests, answer questions and explain things. We’re small and intimate enough for guests to have experiences with staff. People who have a positive experience will be more willing to absorb our education and conservation messages. Everything we build is very guest-oriented.”

Lori Whitney-Brice @Seneca Park Zoo

Wayne Smith @ Seneca Park Zoo

“Zoos will continue to look at how we will be relevant to the next generation,” Larry Sorel reflected. “My career arc is very similar to the arc of how zoos have involved. I used to just want to be around animals and say aren’t they neat. That was how zoos were with some exceptions such as the Bronx Zoo (Bill Conway) and the Brookfield Zoo (George Rabb). I have evolved and it’s followed the arc of zoo evolution. It’s hard to justify animals in human care if you’re not doing conservation and education. We’ve evolved to being fundamentally place-based conservation organizations with significant efforts both here and abroad. We used to say we were doing conservation by breeding animals, which mainly helps us have populations to interpret to our guests and inspire them to do the real work of fundamentally preserving animals in their natural habitat.”

Kennth Vaneps @Seneca Park Zoo

“As we go into the future, interpreting those animals more broadly and putting that out front is imperative,” Sorel elaborated. “That’s where we’re going. We know through research that if we let people know the real, on the ground conservation we’re doing, we’re much more accepted as an appropriate place rather than perceived as what we were forty years ago. We’re showing them we are doing great things, growing it and living it.”

Tina Fess @ Seneca Park Zoo

Sarah Michaels @ Seneca Park Zoo

“I’m most proud of having achieved that personally and bringing the zoo to that point,” Larry Sorel concluded. “The other thing I’m very proud of achieving is, for the first time two years ago, we were able to have a strategic business and master plan adopted by the county which lays out the growth of the zoo for the next fifteen years and the conservation work that’s the foundation to it. It got politicians to see the zoo has a higher purpose.”

@ Seneca Park Zoo

#SenecaParkZoo #ChehawWildAnimalPark #PotawatomiZoo #PeoriaZoo #LosAngelesZoo

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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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