SSPs, TAGs and Permits: A Conversation with Alan Shoemaker, Retired Collections Manager at the River

For the first 28 years of its existence, Alan Shoemaker was a staple of the Riverbanks Zoo team. After serving as Curator of Mammals for several years, he became Collections Manager. Along with Director Satch Krantz, Shoemaker helped the zoo grow both in size, scope and reputation and become heavily involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In the zoo industry, Shoemaker became regarded as an experts in writing permits for animal acquisitions. He also was instrumental in the development of Species Survival Plans (SSPs) and Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), which were fundamental to creating sustainable populations of animals in zoos. Here is his story.

@ Michael Hutchins

With no prior zoo experience, Alan Shoemaker joined the staff of the Riverbanks Zoo before it opened. “Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time,” he recalled. “The city of Columbia was developing a zoo in 1970-1971 when I was in graduate school. I was fresh out of serving in the army in Vietnam. I watched the press discuss the zoo and how to fund it. I had never worked at a zoo before. I literally turned in my master’s thesis on a Friday and started [working at the zoo] on Monday. Morever, I worked at the same institution for my entire zoo career. That doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know why I was so lucky but I am happy I was where I was.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

When Shoemaker started at Riverbanks in 1972, the zoo hadn’t even been built yet. “I drove to the zoo one day with my coat and tie on having no idea of what to expect,” he said. “[I found] it was just a piece of property covered with recently cut tree stumps and a trailer for the first director’s office.” The team, which included Satch Krantz (who would become the zoo’s director for over forty years), started to assemble the animal collection. “The first animal we had a was a brown hyena and a hippo was number two,” Shoemaker remembered. “There was a tiger downtown at the Exxon station- Happy the tiger. The gas station owner was a big mover and shaker in the community and wanted to see the zoo be built here. He basically bought a tiger for the zoo to house, which it eventually did.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Unlike today where animals are transported from zoo to zoo, the staff at Riverbanks had to work with animal dealers. “In September 1973, the director sent Satch and I to Germany and we were picked up by an animal dealer and driven to his office in Gelsenkirchen,” Shoemaker recalled. “Satch was taken to a port with two tigers and brought them back by ship. I went on to Spain and brought three elephants back by ship. That [kind of situation] was common back then. I got to see a part of the zoo business you don’t see today. This was before the Endangered Species Art and animals got imported in large numbers. Countries weren’t worried about their wildlife back then. If you told an animal dealer you wanted six Diana monkeys, he would have them for you in a week. Now it’s much harder to export animals, which is probably a good thing. There are plenty of countries [like Brazil] that don’t export wildlife at all.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Shoemaker spent his first two years at Riverbanks in the horticulture department because there were no animals but he became a keeper/zoologist when the zoo opened. “I started from the ground up and learned my skills as I went,” he remarked. “This was a new zoo and the then director, John Mehrtens, understandably wanted to make a splash. No one came to Columbia, South Carolina on purpose so he wanted to put the zoo on the map. I worked with everything- elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, cats, bears. I got hands on experience with a whole variety of animals, both large and small.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Despite not having significant experience, Shoemaker was made the international studbook keeper for rare leopards and brown hyenas. “That was a big step for someplace like Riverbanks and an even bigger step for someone who had never worked in a zoo before,” he elaborated. While he managed leopard populations until the day he retired, the brown hyena studbook was discontinued as they were eventually phased out of American and European zoos. “There are three types of hyenas,” Shoemaker explained. “There’s striped hyenas, who breed occasionally and are not regulated. You can still get more of them and they’re still imported by animal dealers. There are spotted hyenas, who breed but are more difficult to sex (it’s very hard to sex hyenas.) Meanwhile, brown hyenas have compatibility issues and essentially don’t breed in human care at all.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“Our brown hyenas were subadults but not compatible,” Shoemaker continued. “We had to keep them in two separate enclosures, very wasteful to say the least. They’re a very solitary species. [In the wild,] a litter is born within a clan and have several females and males will raise them. Those males which are in the can are called ‘clan’ males and won’t breed. Some of the maturing males will leave the clan, returning to the clan periodically. Those in turn are the ones who breed. Think about duplicating that in a zoo setting- no one had the space or animals to do it.” It took awhile for the brown hyenas to die out of American zoos as they “live a long time, over thirty years (much longer than lions and tigers.)”

Public Domain

After Krantz became director in 1976, Riverbanks became heavily involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). “As the zoo got more involved in AZA programs, which Satch endorsed, it took more of my time,” Shoemaker remarked. “I traveled more to conferences and was an instructor at the Conservation Academy in West Virginia.” Perhaps Shoemaker’s most influential accomplishment was his heavy involvement in the development of Species Survival Plans (SSPs) and Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), which carefully managed sustainable populations of certain species. “When I started, we didn’t manage anything,” he stated. “We had maybe one or two studbooks in America and the rest were in Europe. Then the American zoological community’s engine started to turn and we developed our own studbooks. We started moving animals from state to state although still not much internationally because that’s expensive.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

While SSPs allowed zoos to develop sustainable populations of species, they also meant focusing on certain species instead of others. “I like SSPs,” Shoemaker reflected. “I helped develop them. If you look at our TAGS and regional collection plans, it’s kind of like a shopping list. The only problem is some TAGs developed shopping lists with far too many species on them, small cats and old-world primates being good examples of that. You hate to say we don’t have room to keep some of these animals anymore and need to phase them out. That’s a hard pill to swallow and some curators don’t like SSPs because they don’t like what the recommendations say. If you’re looking for a small cat, here’s what you can have legally and here’s what we suggest you get. It’s still an everyday occurrence where people come to me saying they want jungle cats or margays, which is too bad. You can’t import them, they’re not available, get over it.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“Look at marble cats and margays,” Shoemaker continued. “They are endangered species, CITES 1 and not bred in captivity in countries of origin. You’re going to tell me these countries are going to let you take these animals from the wild and U.S. Fish and Wildlife is going to let you import them? I don’t think so. A lot of the small spotted cats were here because of the pet trade in the 1960s. They lived twenty years and maybe bred once, which dragged out the agony of disappearing. Many of them weren’t managed and now they have faded away.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

However, there are many cases where zoos have successfully imported endangered animals after listening to Shoemaker’s advice. “Some zoos wanted me to help them import Malayan tapirs since they can have compatibility problems and some don’t breed well,” he stated. “I suggested they go to Singapore where they breed them freely and take their director to dinner. To quote the Godfather, show them some respect. One of the directors took what I said to heart and they have Malayan tapirs from Singapore. Don’t just send an email- go over there and build relationships with their senior staff. That’s how you get cool stuff.” Shoemaker mentioned Steller’s sea eagle as another species imported as a result of building relationships. “You’ve got to go to these places and get the key people out to dinner,” he added. “There’s still a lot of senior staff that don’t understand that. This industry is all about relationships as well as the animals.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The narrative of SSPs continues today. “Everyone has favorite animals they want to work with but sometimes we don’t have enough specimens to make it realistic,” Shoemaker articulated. “If you only have three red-tailed monkeys, you’re not going anywhere. If you don’t have the animals or the gene pools or the spaces to house them, it’s hopeless. One of the responsibilities of a reasonable collection manager is to evaluate spaces. If it takes 75 spaces to manage a single species well and you’ve only got 500 spaces for that family total, that limits the number of species you can have. That was a hard pill for many to swallow. I heard a well-known manager tell a bunch of old-world primate keepers that their species probably doesn’t have a future. They didn’t like it but he was right on the money.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

In 1989, Alan Shoemaker became Curator of Mammals at the Riverbanks Zoo. However, to the rest of the business he was known as the expert on animal permits. “To this day, I write many of the permit applications for zoos to import and export regulated animals,” he stated. “If a zoo is asked to import tiger from the London Zoo and they have no one on their staff to do it, they ask me and I write it.” During Shoemaker’s time at Riverbanks, he successfully imported and exported a number of noteworthy species including golden lion tamarins, black-footed cats, DeBrazza’s monkeys, cheetahs and leopards.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Shoemaker strongly believes importing animals takes effort. “A lot of people don’t want to take the time to do this kind of thing,” he explained. “People will ask me what’s going on and I’ll say last week or month ago, a couple of zoos imported this and that. They’ll say I wish someone would import such and such and I’ll say why don’t you. The bottom line really is they don’t want to take the time. I [took the time to learn] how to do it. Everyone knows I will really retire one day and then what are they going to do. I’ve known the people in Washington who handle this face to face for years.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“Regardless of what the species is or the application, if I think you’re going to be denied I won’t take your money or waste your time,” Shoemaker continued. “Take polar bears. Polar bears are considered a depleted species. What that means is if something is depleted, you have to change the reason it is that way. Polar bears are becoming depleted because the ice is shrinking. Zoo applicants can’t do anything about it so I will tell people don’t bother. The government is going to deny that permit application.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Alan Shoemaker’s services have been in heavy demand. “I write an application every week,” he remarked. Often Shoemaker writes permits to get ungulates from the private sector. “Our members don’t get their antelope from other AZA zoos," Shoemaker said. "Many get them from Texas ranches. When animals kept in pairs- golden lion tamarins, hippos, tigers, you’re not producing a whole lot of surplus offspring. Antelope are another matter. You’re producing far more males than you can place within AZA member institutions and most zoos don’t have the space to keep the surplus males. Well the San Diego Wild Animal Park does but not most zoos. Meanwhile, these ranches have thousands of acres where they can do all kinds of things. They can also provide antelope to a lot of zoos who want them. I can write those permits in my sleep. I even imported three elephants from Botswana [a few years ago] and it only took a month.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Shoemaker credited the late 1980s as the time when Riverbanks, a relatively young institution, began to be perceived as a quality institution among the zoo and aquarium community. “That’s when we had really got rolling and got respected,” he commented. “That was when we opened the second phase, which was reptiles. People wanted to see snakes. [By then,] our senior staff was highly involved in AZA programs. Satch was president of AZA at one point so everyone knew who he was. We knew all our colleagues and went to all the conferences. The zoo supported staff travel, which is important. You still have to have to have dinner with these people once in awhile.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Since Shoemaker was a household name among the AZA community, his words had great power. “It wasn’t until the third phase [of expansion] that we got great apes,” he recalled. “I remember going to the great ape TAG meeting and telling the TAG that we wanted gorillas. They asked why don’t you get chimpanzees. I reminded them that you all have gorillas and orangs so you don’t have to answer that question. In the public’s eyes, chimps aren’t gorillas. If you’ve only got room for one great ape, there’s gorillas and then there’s all the rest of them.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

One of the biggest changes in animal management during Shoemaker’s time at Riverbanks was the switch to managing elephants in protected contact, which ensured a barrier was always in between the largest of land mammals and their caretakers. “When I first started, we would go in with the elephants and grab them by the ear,” he remembered. “I cringe when I think of that today. I have a friend who had to go to a funeral for one of his staff after they were killed by an elephant. That’s a sobering experience.” Riverbanks became one of the first zoos in the AZA to transition to the newer, safer technique. “We had one old elephant keeper who had to swallow that bitter pill but [besides that] it was an easy sell to go to protected contact,” Shoemaker said.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

The Riverbanks Zoo boast great success with black howler monkeys over the years. “In ’72 or ’73, we went to Miami and acquired a group of freshly imported black howler monkeys from an animal dealer,” Alan Shoemaker stated. “You can say our staff was observant and we were lucky but we bred them and still have them. We’ve had as many as 12 in multiple groups. They’re wonderful animals. What’s the proper sex ratio? In Costa Rica and Columbia, you’ll see howlers in groups of a dozen or half a dozen, but those are different species of howlers. Black howlers are more pair-forming and we found that out over time. We learned that young males need to be removed from the ground when at one or two years old and the female offspring need to leave at three. They don’t get along with their parents after a point. We were also one of the first zoos to get saki monkeys. They were excellent animals and we bred a lot of them over the years.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

As Shoemaker’s career at Riverbanks went on, he saw tremendous strides in animal care. “I look at the veterinarians we had over the years and they’ve become stronger and stronger over time,” he remarked. “We’ve had excellent vets who I’ve watched over time- they were excellent choices then and turned out to be excellent choices and are still with us. We had a relationship with the University of Georgia for research purposes, which was a good idea. We thought about the psychological, social needs of the animals. We tried to never have [social] animals solitary since that would be very psychologically hard on the individual. In the 50s and 60s, if you had one of everything, that was just fine.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“When I looked at the animals we would get, I wanted animals raised by their parents since I could know I could pair them with a mate, they’d breed and raise their offspring,” Shoemaker continued. “A hand-raised animal is maybe going to present bizarre behavior problems or compatibility issues. Who needs that.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

One asset Riverbanks had in terms of staffing was its youth compared to peer institutions. “If you looked at an older zoos, you had guys there for fifty years,” Alan Shoemaker explained. “We were a much newer zoo and didn’t have that situations. Most of our keepers were college graduates [since] Satch wanted college educated people. It was not the way it was [back then] in a large city like Chicago or Milwaukee. We were hiring young people. We didn’t have to advertise for people. It was just a matter of who was best educated. In the 1980s, we started to have more female keepers. Overall, great keepers really have a feel for their animals- 2they’re their friends and respect them.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

In 1997, Alan Shoemaker became Collections Manager at Riverbanks. “That gave me more time to focus on AZA,” he elaborated. In 2002, he retired from the institution after thirty years. “My wife had also done thirty years of teaching and we were both part of the state retirement system so we retired,” Shoemaker said. “I ‘retired’ for maybe two weeks.” When he retired, Shoemaker was made an honorary member of AZA, one of the highest honors of the association.

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“I’m impressed [at how zoos have evolved,]” Shoemaker reflected. “When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife started requiring zoos to support conservation in range countries for the endangered species they wanted to import, and even if the animals were themselves in human care, that got the ball rolling. I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of financial support zoos are giving to conservation. In the past, it was optional. I really think this is a really positive thing for zoos to support and today some zoos really put their money where their mouth is. If you go to a zoo today- it could be Riverbanks, Philadelphia or Chicago, they have fewer species but bigger and better enclosures. The animals do better and I think that will continue. You look back fifty years and there were a lot of little zoos in small cities who had one elephant but they had no business having elephants. They’ve come to realize that’s probably not a good species for them. Zoos are getting rid of things they shouldn’t have had in the first place and doing what they should have done 75 years ago.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

“Riverbanks is very special,” Alan Shoemaker concluded. “Often, zoo directors come and go but Satch was a local boy [and stayed.] Satch was AZA president twice and WAZA president- no one else has done that. The new guy, Tommy Stringfellow, started here in 2002 in the nonanimal division and has had the chance to watch Satch run the zoo. He’ll do just fine. I’m proud of the work I did with AZA and my involvement in developing SSPs, TAGs and regional collection plans. That was time well spent.”

@ Alan Shoemaker

#RiverbanksZoo

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

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. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti