The Value of the Desert: A Conservation with Karen Sausman, Retired Director of The Living Desert

The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California is dedicated to connecting visitors with wildlife and plants from deserts around the world. It all began with the vision of Karen Sausman, who served as the facility’s director from its inception in 1970 to 2010. She began as director in a time when women were not supposed to be keepers much less directors and is regarded as one of the field’s legendary directors. Here is her story.

@ Karen Sausman

“I was born and raised in Chicago to a loving but poor family,” Sausman remembered. “We couldn’t afford to do things that cost money so my father took me to the Lincoln Park Zoo because it was free and wasn’t too far away. We had no pets and lived in a tiny apartment in the city so the zoo became the place where I could see animals.” Her love for the zoo continued when she attended Loyola University Chicago, only a few miles away from the Lincoln Park Zoo. “I wound up spending time at the zoo in between my classes and my job,” Sausman said. “During the winter, I would sit in the Lion House. I got to know a lot of the keepers because I was there all the time. They said there are volunteer jobs in the nursery so why can’t you see if you can be a nursery volunteer. I applied to be a volunteer and slowly but surely was accepted to do part-time work. I worked part time as a "swing keeper" My time there convinced me that I really wanted to be in that world but there were no women in that world. Women keepers at Lincoln Park Zoo weren’t even called "keepers" but rather "zoo attendants". They wouldn’t acknowledge women in the zoo business unless you were a secretary.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

After graduating Loyola with a degree in computer science and education, Karen moved to California to go to graduate school. I was accepted at Redlands University as a student of Dr Gerald Gates, an herpetologist. We put together a program for me that included genetics, taxonomy, ecology and animal behavior. I was his graduate student assistant raising a local species of lizard for his research and so I was able to put to use my knowledge of managing reptiles that I learned from Eddy at Lincoln Park. I also was able to use my knowledge of computer programming to create programs to manage the data he wanted collected for his research. I eventually also worked for other professors at Redlands programming for them which helped pay for attending college. I never took any loans to go to school. I just worked nearly full time while going to school to pay for it.

@ Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

After finishing her graduate work, “I was very practical,” Sausman reflected. “I had to be. I was living by myself and had to pay my own bills, buy a car and put a roof over my head. I tried work in related fields including a stint as a Park Ranger at Joshua Tree National Monument (which is now a National Park) and even teaching junior high school math and science in Palm Springs.

But Sausman still had a dream to enter the world of zoos. . “I would drive to the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo and introduce myself to people,”

@ Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Sausman also began going to zoo meetings. She particularly credits one unsung hero in the zoo world for helping her connect with the zoo community. “I joined the AZA because I had a girl friend named Suzie Reif, who was one of the first women to become a zoo director although she never had the title. We met at Lincoln Park Zoo were she was also a volunteer. She left the Lincoln Park around the same time I did to go first to Tucson and then on to East Africa. She worked with George Schaller in Tanzania on lions before she got sick and had to return to the US Tucson to work for company that specialized in making equipment to tract animals in the field. Reif officially became "Manager" of the City of Tucson's Reid Park Zoo, which at the time was not much more than just a menagerie although it did have some interesting species.

@ Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

“She died way too young of the illness that forced her to leave Africa, which was a big blow to me. Suzi and I went to the 1968 AZA meeting in Los Angeles right after the new zoo opened. We were the only two women "delegates" at the meeting. I actually remember being asked at the registration table whether I was a "lady or a delegate!"

@ Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

While teaching science and math in Palm Springs and working for the Park Service, Karen Sausman would often go to Tucson to visit Suzie. They often visited the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, a unique institution that only concentrated on the wildlife ecolgy of the Sonoran Desert. The Desert Museum's approach to display and education greatly inspired Sausman and she got to know many of the staff quite well, including its director at the time, Bill Wooden. “Finally Bill Wooden said they had lost their graphics artist was aware that I did graphics so he offered me a graphic artist job at the Desert Museum,” she remarked. “He said it would be tough as the only other women who worked there were the secretaries in the office and a single woman in the education department. He said he had seen my work and knew I could do it.”

@ Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Then a twist came when Wooden was approached by a group of people from Palm Springs looking to start a nature center that would talk about the desert. “They were looking to hire a staff member and Bill Wooden said it’s kind of strange but the gal who has all the skills you need is in your town,” Sausman recounted. “Having not even moved to Tucson yet, I called Bill Wooden saying I don’t know what to do. He told me nature centers were how the Desert Museum was started and, that since the museum would be here, I had nothing to lose and should give it a try.” This nature center would become The Living Desert and Karen Sausman would spend the next four decades running it.

@ The Living Desert

Sausman pointed to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum as core inspiration for her work at The Living Desert. “I loved the concept of the Desert Museum,” she reflected. “I absolutely love the desert and it was all about using animals to educate visitors about their adaptations to their environment.. In the sixty's zoos were just beginning to think they should be more than a menagerie.” Conversations with forward zoo thinkers including Gerry Durrell and William Conway made Sausman realize zoos should be first and foremost about the care and breeding of endangered species and educating visitors about the need for conservation of wild lands and wild species.

@ The Living Desert

“I said to myself that’s what zoos should be doing and certainly what The Living Desert should be doing,” she elaborated. “We should help people understand how animals live in their environment and concentrate on species in need of conservation breeding programs. Those were the two premises I brought to Living Desert but the board that hired me just wanted a nature center. I decided I’d give them a nature center concentrating on educating visitors about species adaption's to the desert environment and then expand over time.

@ The Living Desert

The Living Desert thus began as simply a nature center on “raw desert about twenty miles from Palm Springs.” Karen Sausman was, for the first few years, the institution’s only employee and had full responsibility for everything. She began by just doing nature trails before beginning to start exhibits for small animals. “I developed lots of walking trails and wrote the trail guides,” Sausman stated. “The first animals were small local animals- kangaroo rats, burrowing owls, lizards and snakes. I immediately started doing comparative exhibits between local species and species from deserts on other continents - comparing a hornviper from the sands of Africa with the sidewinder of our local desert explaining that a sand dwelling snake would look and move in the same fashion anywhere in the world. Same with plant material. We did a lot of comparative displays about convergent evolution. Since The Living Desert was a private not-for-profit organization I was immediately also introduced to the world of fundraising. We never had guaranteed funding from anywhere and the Board was clear that we would never borrow money to pay our bills.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Putting The Living Desert on a financially stable path while growing was incredible difficult. “I had to be very frugal and very careful because I had to feed the animals,” Sausman explained. “I just took it one day at a time and it just grew. I carefully nurtured the dream and got the trustees to believe in the dream. They also had to believe that I wouldn’t run the place into the ground. We stayed true to our mission about explaining the desert and protecting desert's plants and animals. Slowly I introduced the Board to the concept of doing "deserts of the world"I Every year we added a few more gardens and animal exhibit. For the first couple years it was just me. Once the first buildings were built in 1971 I added a maintenance man and a lady to sell tickets and books from our gift shop. Six years in I finally hired my first more senior staff - a curator of education.”

@ The Living Desert

One of Karen Sausman’s responsibilities during the early years of The Living Desert was helping rehabilitate animals. “We did rehab and I would be the one taking the calls to get a rattlesnake off the church steps,” she remembered. “I would have baby hummingbirds on my desk. I took all the animals in and raise them, which made the local community happy.” The zoo continued to accept local native animals for decades on. We were still doing that when I left even though most zoos had stopped doing local rehab,” Sausman said. “It was one of the things I refused not to do. We set up separate facilities for rehab. It was one of the things that helped us connect to the people of our local communities.”

@ The Living Desert

It took a long time before The Living Desert began to have larger, more exotic animals. “The first large animals we had were bighorn sheep in 1976,” Karen Sausman recalled. “California Fish and Game knew our local wild population of bighorn sheep was dying out so they caught all these sick lambs but had no place to put them. I told the Board that these sheep are from the mountains behind us and that we could assist Fish & Game by building an enclosure for them. I also started building aviaries for non-releasable birds of pray.” In 1978, the park got slender-horned gazelles and then Arabian oryx in 1980. “Jim Dolan (the late longtime General Curator of the San Diego Zoo) wanted to give me a group of endangered slender-horned gazelles to establish another conservation breeding group but I didn’t know if my board was ready,” she stated. She invited Jim to a Board meeting. “Jim went in and told them how important it was for San Diego’s northern neighbor to take in these gazelles and breed them." The exhibit was a success and the gazelles bred almost immediately. Two years later San Diego sent us Arabian oryx. "We had the perfect habitat and lots of space for them.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Overtime, The Living Desert would come to have giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, jaguars, mountain lions, warthogs, meerkats, hyenas, African wild dogs and a number of other species from the world’s arid regions. It will be adding lions and rhinos in 2020. “One day at a time, Living Desert grew as I could move forward one way or another,” Sausman commented. “We had something good for us- Palm Springs is the winter home of many wealthy people. The negative was initially if they wanted to give to zoos, they would do that at "home". Giving lareg donations to facilities near their winter home in the desert was not common. I was very happy with whatever money they gave me and stretched those dollars as much as I could. I had to really control the costs of construction. I made inroads by always being respectful of people's willingness to give donations no matter what the amount. I always delivered on my promise. I never took their money and spent it on something else. On every dollar I asked for, I gave it exactly to what I promised.” This lead our original supporters to be willing to get their friends involved in funding things for The Living Desert.

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Karen Sausman became heavily involved in developing computer software to aid in the development of conservation breeding for endangered species in American zoos. Nate Gale and Ulie Seal were leading the way on the development of studbook software at the time. What few studbooks that were being kept were all manual records. “Since I had some skill in computer programming, I volunteered to work with Ulie and Nate Flesness as an intermediary between them and the US zoo community,” she explained. “I was on the first board of ISIS - the International Species Information System.” The Living Desert became one of the most active institutions in encouraging and maintaining early computerized "studbooks' for a number of critically endangered desert hoofstock including Arabian oryx. Over time Karen found herself managing 5 studbooks and attending various workshops around the US and Europe to help introduce computerized record systems and management programs to zoo professionals.

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Back at Living Desert Sausman found ways to use the local natural desert landscape to help create a stronger conservation messages to visitors. “We’re standing in the environment so the story seems more meaningful,” she elaborated. “Most of our exhibits talk about how animals and plants have evolved to live successfully in the desert no matter which continent they were on. That’s what it is all about for us- explaining how a North American kit fox or North African fennec fox can live in the desert. At the same time since financial resources were always a concern, I said if we build exhibits, we should do endangered species. Most of our species in the African section are things that need help and the same will ultimately be true in the Australian section. I often said to my staff and board the best thing we can hope for is to get people to realize that there are fascinating animals and plants in the desert - that it is not just a vast empty wasteland.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Karen Sausman credited Eagle Canyon (opened in the 1980s) as the facility’s first major exhibit similar to those found at larger zoos. “The concept was designed by herself and Merv Larson "on napkin" one evening at an AZA meeting. Ultimately the final design and construction of the rock work was done by the Larson Company. Merv was responsible for the early immersion exhibits at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and then had started his own company. He had retired just before construction started on Eagle Canyon. “He came out of retirement to do it." The area was dedicated to a wide variety of species in immersive habitats including mountain lions, kit foxes, bobcats and eagles. It was the first real zoo exhibit we had where the major donors would say "this looks like an exhibit at my zoo back home.”

@ The Living Desert

The momentum gained from Eagle Canyon continued with the development of the African section, centered around a replicate of a Maasai village, which we called "Village WaTutu." “I knew I needed a place to relax and also have restroom at the southern end of the park in the African sections. No one would pay just for a restroom so I needed a major animal exhibit to help pay for a restroom,” Sausman noted. “I also needed a place for people to get a cold drink and browse a gift shop. I wanted to do something that really looked like an East African village done at the actual scale of a true African village with similar materials.” Karen Sausman always enjoyed the exhibit design and construction process. “Habitat design is always the fun part,” she added. Creating that special balance between the needs of the animals and the needs of the visitor in a safe but exciting immersive exhibit is a challenge that she relished.

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

Built over several phases, the African area features cheetahs, striped hyenas, Grevy’s zebras, addax, meerakts, Amur leopards (representing Arabian leopards), African wild dogs, greater kudu and reticulated giraffe among others. “We did striped hyenas and Grevy’s zebras since they’re true desert species,” Sausman explained. “All the antelope were desert antelope. I wanted Arabian leopards but the SSP asked us to do Amur leopards, who aren’t desert animals. We accommodated them by putting in air conditioned dens, cold rocks and a lot of shade and desert plants.” While giraffes are not typically perceived as being a desert species, it was decided they were appropriate since there are populations that live in semiarid regions.

@ The Living Desert

One major benefit to The Living Desert's ability to continue to fund expansion and increase its annual visitation was the tremendous population growth around it. “The population of the Coachella Valley has grown tremendously which brought a much larger and diverse permanent population,” Sausman remarked. “In the early years - from 1970 through to the early 1980s, the only time the Valley would get up to 30-40,000 residents was during the influx of people in the winter months. Now the Coachella Valley is the permanent home to hundreds of thousands of people.” This population increase has led to more people utilizing what The Living Desert has to offer. “Of the facilities 1200 acres, the zoo and gardens only use about 150 of the acres- the rest is laced with walking trails some of which climb over 1000 feet in elevation right on the property,” Sausman said. “Lots of people hike and jog on them all the time. For our members it kind of like their own community park. The cities really grew around us. We were in the middle of nowhere when we started.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

One major focus of the conservation and breeding efforts of The Living Desert was small cats, a personal passion of Karen Sausman. The zoo has had excellent breeding programs for black-footed cats, sand cats, Arabian wild cats as well as cheetah. “I built the first sand cat international studbook,” Sausman noted. “I took several genetics courses in grad school and continued to read current materials on the genetics of conservation breeding programs and related topics. "I’ve always been drawn to hoofstock, canids and felines." To this day she has stayed involved in research on various issues related to both cats and dogs.

@ The Living Desert

“I feel really good that I helped spur along some of the early efforts for zoos to transform from menageries where the rarity of the species and the number of species on exhibit was a serious measure of the standing of the zoo, to facilities that made a serious contribution to the conservation of species,” Sausman reflected. “Several directors such as George Rabb, Bill Conway and others had a willingness to push against the folks who just wanted big, diverse collections. If I did anything for the zoo community, it was helping push the importance of conservation and education. The other area I’m most proud of is my early years with ISIS as it grew.and the early development of computerized animal management programs. I was able to bring some knowledge and energy to the table in terms of expanding conservation work in our facilities.”

@ The Living Desert

She recounted her role in a very interesting piece of AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) history. “AZA, then AAZPA, used to be part of the National Parks and Recreation Association (NPRA) and our "newsletter" was a pages inside their magazine,” Sausman recalled. “Then at AAZPA's annual meeting in Salt Lake City in 1971, we decided that zoos were not being considered as professional conservation and education facilities. The directors of the zoos were beginning to see zoos were being consider as no more important or valuable than a golf course or a ferris wheel. We realized we were capable of doing something far more serious than just being the local place to go on a Sunday to see some strange animals. This lead us to vote to start our own independent organization and stand alone. There were only about 200 people at this meeting when we voted to leave the NPRA and I was one of them. Once the vote took place, we suddenly found ourselves with two problems - we had no money and no way to communicate to the directors that were not at the meeting. Suddenly they were trying to figure out how to tell all the people not at this meeting so I offered to do an AAZPA newsletter. The first AAZPA Board members actually each donated funds right at the meeting to have some money to start making things happen."

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

I started off my visible career in AZA as newsletter editor from that October forward. That was the AAZPA's free-standing activity. "I stayed newsletter editor for seven years, all run out of my house.” Sausman would later end up on the board of AZA serving twice. She also served as President of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums - WAZA. “It was exhilarating and exhausting,” she looked back. “”It was a very satisfying experience- so much to learn."

@ The Living Desert

Karen Sausman has always told people that her goal in participating in the AZA and other related organizations as part of her career was to be recognized as simply a "professional," not a "woman professional". “I often told other young women not to come to this as a woman but as a professional,” she commented. “To this day, that’s my opinion on all such things - people need to be recognized for their professionalism, whether they’re a man or woman, purple or green.” That being said, she takes great pride in how gender dynamics have changed in the profession. “I remember listening to a paper given by a staff member of the Bronx Zoo in the 1970s at an AZA meeting bemoaning the fact that now that the Bronx had some women keepers they may need to change the shovel size. An actual formal paper! I never let Bill Conway forget that.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

By 2009, The Living Desert was welcoming half a million visitors a year and had become recognized as an important international desert conservation and education facility. However, its visionary decided it was time for the organization to move on without her. “Eventually I just felt I could look myself in the mirror and say you’re not bringing the same level of energy that you have brought for all these years. If you’re not doing that, your institution deserves better. I just didn’t have the absolute "fire in my belly." I feel any institution needs from its executive director. I said I’d leave after forty years. Initially my board didn’t believe me. In 2009, Sausman retired from The Living Desert an absolute legend and pioneer in the field. Since then she has received the Marlin Perkins Award from the AZA and the Heini Hediger Award from WAZA for her contributions to zoos.

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

“I hope we [zoos] will always keep getting better because we continue to be needed - there is still so much that we can do,” Karen Sausman concluded. “Zoos are getting better and better at what they do. I pray to God the day won’t come where people truly think they can see an elephant or giraffe on TV and have the same experience as standing near the actual animal. I wanted to do what is important to me, which is trying to connect people, to nature, particularly the desert. I did that to the best of my ability. I spent forty years of my life creating The Living Desert from nothing. To not try was not an option. I spent every day getting people to understand the importance of natural places.”

@ The Living Desert

@ The Living Desert

#LivingDesert

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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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