Something Fascinating: A Conversation with Ray Pawley, Retired Curator at the Brookfield Zoo

Ever since it’s opening in 1934, the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago has been regarded as a leader in the zoo field. One of its prominent figures was Ray Pawley, who served as Curator of Herpetology, as well as General Curator, Curator of Birds, Public Relations and Special Projects from 1964 to 1998. Working under four directors including the legendary late Dr. George Rabb, he was there when the zoo was beginning to modernize as well as become a bigger player in conservation roles. Here is his story.

Prior to working in accredited zoos, Pawley was involved in the commercial zoo field and pet industry. “My first job was Assistant Curator and Lecturer at the Black Hills Reptile Gardens in South Dakota’s Black Hills when I was sixteen,” he recalled. “Back then, as now anyone from the commercial animal field was considered to be perhaps less than clean. When the Mackinac Bridge opened, connecting Michigan’s two peninsulas, I opened a zoological attraction that ran for three summers. The experience was invaluable; it instilled in me a strong sense of discipline and elevated my curiosity about visitor motivation. Accordingly, I conducted one of the first zoo visitor satisfaction surveys, the results of which have paid dividends throughout my career. To succeed, I had to attend to every operational detail.

From there, I went on to manage two pet corporations in Detroit; a wholesale supply and three retail outlets in a department store chain. Fundamentally and from the beginning, I was exceptionally fortunate to work for very principled and talented business people. Later, I was developing a big commercial zoo attraction in Florida only to learn that it was intended to become a bankruptcy enterprise. When I told the owners that I needed a two-year guaranteed salary they objected. At that point I called Marlin Perkins, Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo where I had previously interviewed for a Zoologist’s position. Marlin said the position was still open and urged that I come to Chicago.” For the next four decades, Pawley would work at zoos in the Windy City.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

By this time, Marlin Perkins had established the Lincoln Park Zoo as a leader in the zoo field. “Marlin was embarking on a new television documentary series called Wild Kingdom,” Ray Pawley remembered. “He needed someone with working television experience who could manage the animals to script. So for two years I worked on Wild Kingdom as well as managed the reptiles, small mammals, docent lecturers, etc. at the zoo. However, when Marlin moved to St. Louis, the entire Wild Kingdom operation moved with him. Because he started his career in the Saint Louis Zoo he was eager to go back there.” At the time Pawley started at the Lincoln Park Zoo, there was a motivated employee staff consisting of well-trained animal keepers as well as four to five zoologists to supervise (as well as learn) from them.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

During his time at Lincoln Park Zoo, the future curator was learning more about big zoo operations. “For example, the diets in the Small Mammal House were state of the science as of that time, but some inadequacies were apparent," Pawley stated. "Marlin gave me a directive to completely overhaul the small mammal diets. I had to prepare specific nutrition profiles for each species in the building. I learned about nutrition content and food presentation techniques which any staffer would have found very valuable. I also improved the exhibits for the Reptile House to the point that it became the busiest facility at the zoo.” As great as this experience was, he saw an expanded opportunity to move across town to the Brookfield Zoo, located in Chicago’s suburbs. “Although Brookfield’s reptile house was in serious need of upgrading, I felt that with administrative support I could make it an outstanding visitor experience and a proper home for the reptiles.” Pawley remarked.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

When Ray Pawley came to the Brookfield Zoo, it was in a state of transition since longtime director Robert Bean had retired. “The Brookfield Zoo was a favorite among visitors but the staff had become tired and supervision was largely casual,” he explained. “There were growing problems with infrastructure, particularly with the HVAC in many of the buildings. The entire Zoo was in need of a major overhaul, especially behind the scenes." One of the four directors during Pawley's tenure was Ron Blakely (later founding director of the Sedgwick County Zoo.) “Blakely wanted me to come to Brookfield Zoo as Curator of Reptiles and after one year he succeeded in bringing me in," he said. "The minute I came through the door he said I wasn’t going to be just Curator of Reptiles but that I needed to also take a General Curator position. Ron Blakely was a shaker and mover; he did not march to the beat of anyone else’s drum. When Blakely left to start the zoo in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. Peter Crowcroft from Australia took over for several years, followed by Dr. Rabb who then became Director."

@ Brookfield Zoo

Dr. George Rabb was the stabilizing influence that the Brookfield Zoo needed at that time. One of the first Ph.D.s to work in an American zoo, he came to Brookfield Zoo in the '50s and brought with him a focus on academia. “Since his arrival, George Rabb had always wanted to be director.” Pawley stated. “The zoo was in an ongoing renewal mode and the zoo exhibits were beginning to modernize. George gave his encouragement to the new improvements that were being made in the Zoo. He only hired curators who had a Ph.D. that were fresh out of school or new to the field. He would attempt to shape their thinking and guide them in the work they were doing. However, there was considerable employee 'turn over' among most of the academicians unless they were able to move to an 'associate' relationship with the Zoo. I was the only exception by not having a Ph.D. "

@ Brookfield Zoo

“George emphasized attempts to apply research to zoo needs," Pawley continued. "He also mandated that curators publish articles on animal behavior of the species of their choice. Earlier in his career, George would select a species of particular interest to him and then Mary Rabb, his wife and the librarian, would patiently take countless hours of notes, sometimes for a few years. Ironically and unfortunately relatively little information derived from these studies would spill into the public sector. In fact, in George’s opinion, he expected that the academic community would be the basic corridor to major discoveries. Because conservation was a major focus he would encourage curators to get involved in endangered species population studies. George’s personal focus were okapis, wolves and amphibians about which Mary would accumulate the data. "

@ Brookfield Zoo

During his career, Ray Pawley moved through various curatorial positions. “Most of the time I was curator of various animal departments, often simultaneously, as well as media public relations," he elaborated. "I was assigned several special projects over the years. My broad background and commitment to each of the taxonomic groups lead to a variety of assignments. For example, George realized that birds would be needed for the large African section of Tropic World so I was put in charge of acquisitions, collecting the birds in Kenya for Tropic World as well as for the Milwaukee and Lincoln Park Zoos, then bringing them through quarantine in Florida, which altogether required nearly three months of long hours.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

“At one point when I was curating both the birds and herps, George insisted that I pick one department or the other," Pawley recalled. "I wanted to stay with the birds because I was developing management plans for Trogons, plus an exhibit where the public could watch the extraordinary aerial dynamics of Flycatchers and Rollers as they snatch insect prey out of the air, and also planning to set up a modified wind tunnel for soaring birds which would enable visitors to observe a vulture or an eagle, close up, riding on a column of air. However, mostly for internal political purposes I reluctantly decided to stay with the reptiles and amphibians.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Pawley recalled using the flexibility given to him by George Rabb as an opportunity to experiment in several ways. "One of my efforts involved the creation of basking sites for lizards where the animal, by positioning itself at a predetermined location, could activate a micro-switch to 'turn on the sun' to meet its thermal needs," he commented. "This would have saved significant energy costs and done away with the need to keep heating lamps illuminated throughout the day—but it was never implemented."

@ Brookfield Zoo

"As the Reptile House infrastructure was renovated the collection flourished and visitor attendance grew," Pawley noted. "Although the annual budget increased little from year to year, it was the keepers’ collective ability to focus on efficiency without sacrificing attention to detail that enabled the department to succeed. The staff could give the animals the careful attention that was required and the visitors were delighted with our product. Success could be measured not only by visitor attendance coupled with a spartan budget, but also by the species that were bred and raised, by their longevities, and by the often-complex strategies that were developed so that every reptile or amphibian was fully visible, stress-free to the public. Even Eastern Coral snakes, which were exhibited so that the animal was clearly on view throughout the day, would thrive for up to a decade due to staff efforts to minimize chronic environmental stress."

@ Brookfield Zoo

"My long-term capabilities were, in part, due to my experience, discipline, creativity and my background with exceptional mentors," Pawley reflected "These were huge advantages which my Ph.D. colleagues seldom had. Most, for example, even saw the zoo visitors as a nuisance who were continually disrupting their behavioral studies. Contrariwise, I was endlessly curious about the myriad dynamics of the visitor/animal interface to which end I would devise innovative exhibits that were intended to grab the visitors’ attention. The buildings I managed would eventually become very popular; the Reptile House was consistently the most visited public facility in the Zoo, regularly attracting 60% of the total zoo-going attendance (1 million people per year). Although a newly-opened exhibit facility might forge ahead in attendance for two or three years, it ultimately could not compete with the Reptile House. The zoo staff and administration basically expected the visitors to be satisfied with what was offered. For example, if the animals were not clearly on view, the public was expected to find them. My approach on the other hand was to treat the visitor and the 'visited; equally so that the animals were comfortable and that the visitor had an uninterrupted sight-line to the animal(s)."

@ Brookfield Zoo

Pawley spent countless hours watching the public trying to better understand how they engaged with the animals. One example of an unanticipated problem involved the increased length of time visitors began spending in the Reptile House. "As a consequence, and as the Reptile House became increasingly popular, lines of visitors would form at the building entrance," he stated. "Obviously, we needed to move the people through the building more rapidly in order to eliminate the lines. To that end, and because visitors invariably turned to their right when they entered the Reptile House, they would slow down, spending altogether too much time looking at each of the exhibits! To speed up the visitor transit time we began modifying each exhibit by placing an 'ethnic enticement' on the left-hand wall of each exhibit. Examples included a hammer and sickle in the Amur Rat Snake exhibit, a Maasai spear in a Puff Adder enclosure and a human skull with a copperhead coiled in the cranial cavity, resting its head in the eye socket, and so on. This was nothing more than a subliminal prod but It worked. A visitor, glancing at the next exhibit to their left would be drawn irresistibly to that enclosure, and then to the next and so on. By using the 'carrot technique' to pull visitors through the Reptile House we eliminated lines. Ultimately the message I wanted every visitor to take away was: 'I can’t wait to come back and see the Reptile House again.' Thus, every time a visitor returned, exposure to our educational messages was repeated and hopefully enhanced."

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Improving living conditions for the animals was a never-ending quest. “I had to work on humidity levels, temperature levels and their fluctuations, often for species-specific daily and seasonal cycles," Pawley explained. "Although the Reptile House had been originally built in the late ‘20s to accommodate reptiles and amphibians, the standards of herp husbandry had rapidly evolved beyond what the building was capable of providing. Because my predecessors failed to recognize the needs of these animals at species levels, mortalities were high and public visitation was abysmal. The infrastructure overhaul to convert deficiencies to assets, took several years but in the end, and based on the numbers we were able to achieve breeding and longevity records on par with any reptile facility anywhere. Our first-time breeding programs for Green Crested Basilisks and African Hinge-backed Tortoises garnered AZA Edward H. Bean achievement awards. Detailed creative management plans enabled us to successfully keep such 'first time' species as Galapagos Marine Iguanas for several years as a group, an event that resulted in two articles published in the International Zoo Yearbook (London)."

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The Reptile House Pawley worked at no longer exists. “Curiously, neither Chicago Zoo has a Reptile House as such," Pawley remarked. "By the time I left Lincoln Park Zoo, the Reptile House was the most visited building in the Zoo. After I left, and after a succession of curators the building (which was Chicago’s first aquarium) was over-hauled into a restaurant. At Brookfield Zoo, the same thing happened and ultimately the Reptile House was converted into an office building.” Both zoos maintain reptiles and amphibians but only as components of their greater animal collections.

@ Brookfield Zoo

From before the 1970s to after the 1990s, the role of the zoo animal care staff became more transparent to the public. “Earlier on, when I came on board the keepers and upkeep staff were relatively invisible.” Ray Pawley reflected. “Over time, we encouraged the keepers to become more visible and responsive to the visitor and their questions. Some keepers were very good at interacting with the public while others became bored. Eventually, a better and more consistently satisfying alternative was the growing role of the volunteers and docents.”

@ CZS

One of the first major projects constructed at the zoo during George Rabb’s tenure was Tropic World, a giant indoor rainforest building featuring a variety of wildlife (chiefly primates) from the rainforests of Africa, Asia and South America. “The conditions for the primates in the old primate house was very constricted and Tropic World gave them, as groups, greatly increased amounts of quality space.” Pawley recollected. “There were some dissatisfactions with certain design features of the building including from the veterinarians. One of the doctors lamented that any contagious disease would become a veterinarian’s nightmare because the entire building was too big to be wheeled into an autoclave!”

@ CZS

“Much of the design of Tropic World was based on extrapolations from the literature,” Pawley continued. “Specialists conversant about the needs of baboons or orangutans or gorillas based their opinions on what was found in field studies. Much of the footprint of Tropic World was laid out to meet those needs, as they were understood at that time. The idea of Tropic World was to manage and control the animals’ welfare in an indoor environment the year around rather than expose them to inclement outdoor weather. The behavior of the primates had to be considered at every level including dominance. For example, access doors to off-exhibit quarters needed to be designed in such a way that a high-ranking animal could not station itself at a portal and intimidate other individuals that needed to enter or leave those quarters. In spite of its drawbacks, Tropic World has proven to be very popular with visitors over the years.”

@ CZS

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Following the construction of Tropic World, the Brookfield Zoo built a new and larger Seven Seas with a Pinniped Point (i.e. housing for seals, sealions, walrus, etc.) in 1987 to replace the aged and highly popular Seven Seas built in 1960, the first dolphinarium in the Midwest. "State of the art science and art materials were used in its construction," Pawley recalled. "Glitches happened, and the most problematic was when the top coat of pool paint sealant began separating from its cement base. The surfacing of the entire pool needed to be replaced. However, the sealant could not be removed by sand-blasting due to its abrasion-resistant qualities; the entire surface needed to be carefully ground away with hand-operated sanders, requiring more than a month of work. Fortunately, this huge problem was covered by warranty!"

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

Among the animals relocated to the new facility was the Walrus Olga, who had been the Zoo’s star personality as she interacting with her admiring crowds. "She could whistle (to coax visitors to come to her end of the pool) after which she would often expel a hose-sized steam of water from her mouth, drenching the crowds, and then clumsily belly-plop into the water," Pawley remembered. "Unfortunately, being an aged animal, she died a year later. A replacement was needed but since Olga’s arrival, the Marine Mammal Act had been passed and no further walruses had been brought into the country since that time. In fact, Walrus could not even be brought to the 'lower forty-eight' from Alaska. My challenge was to acquire a replacement walrus which required careful integrative planning on several levels. First, the acquisition. After many months the Moscow Zoopark, generously made available a young male and female (of Laptev Sea origin). Because the tusks of these walruses were beginning to grow they would probably need medical attention. Next, we had to work closely with both the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce (both are co-regulators of the Marine Mammal Act of 1972) to arrange for this 'first' importation of these animals since the passing of the Act. The entire program needed to be carefully sequenced to insure a smooth, uninterrupted transition from beginning to end within the internal procedural framework of the Zoo. Along with two Russian walrus keepers, the animals finally arrived successfully at the Zoo and were introduced to their new home."

@ Brookfield Zoo

"There are many issues that need to be addressed and then resolved for each species during the exhibit planning and management stages, a task that is never complete," Pawley reflected. "Animals are not machines and species management practices must continually evolve. Over time, by listening to and watching the animals, new insights are gained. Coupled with studies of the same species in nature, realistic management solutions should be the outcome. Because requirements differ from species to species, so do needs of individuals within a species. Replication of wild 'furniture' to meet zoo animal needs such as swimming or climbing are just as essential to zoo animals with the added caveats that (A) the keepers must be able to provide efficient care for the animals and that (B) the visitors can readily and conveniently see them. It's like people who need to swim or climb for recreation can do so at the local YMCA or other sports-related facility."

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One of Ray Pawley’s most interesting stories from his time at Brookfield Zoo involved a special assignment by Dr. Rabb for him to locate a pair of Giant Pandas that could be loaned to the Zoo, partially because Brookfield was the first Zoo to exhibit a Panda (Su Lin) in 1936. “Knowing quite well that I would probably not be able to succeed in this effort in spite of my connections with the Beijing Zoo, George was apparently satisfied that this would be a fool’s quest," Pawley recalled. "However, like most zoos in the world (including those few national zoos that had received Giant Panda gifts), Brookfield was seemingly oblivious to the marvelous successes by Jean Schoch at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City who was raising Giant Pandas. 'Jonni', as he was known, was incredibly insightful into animal needs generally and had succeeded in developing a Giant Panda breeding protocol that was almost humorous in its simplicity and had become entirely productive. No place anywhere was raising Giant Pandas. Within a year the Mayor of Mexico City and the Zoo officials had agreed to loan two of their young Giant Pandas to Brookfield Zoo. However, to my dismay and Brookfield Zoo’s “loss of face” with the Mexican officials, George, who was at first supportive, then ultimately changed his mind, giving no reason for cancelling the loan with Mexico’s National Zoo in Chapultepec.”

For decades, the Brookfield Zoo has been recognized as a leader in breeding Okapis. Later this led to a partnership with the White Oaks Okapi protection/conservation initiative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Back in the ‘50s, Robert Bean had been instrumental in acquiring one of the first Okapis to come out of the Ituri Forest.” Pawley said. “John Ringling North of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, who had the only other Okapi in North America, made their animal (of the opposite sex) available on loan to Brookfield Zoo. The resulting calf was the first birth (1959) of this species in a U.S. Zoo. Years later, George and Mary Rabb conducted observations on the reproductive physiology and behavior of this species, including the documentation of estrous cycles. Thanks to the generosity of a circus director, John Ringling North and the efforts by Robert Bean the Okapi breeding program had its successful genesis.”

@ CZS

Another major focus of the zoo was amphibian conservation in spite of the severe limitations of space. Consequently, Ray Pawley put much thought and effort into informing the public about these overlooked but very important life forms. “Typically, because these animals are quite small, there is little opportunity to generate interest among the public," he stated. "My strategy was similar to the plan for exhibiting reptiles: to frequently select for the notorious and/or large species because we can educate the public just as effectively with big specimens as with small—maybe more so. Thus, among amphibians the large Blomberg’s Toad or Goliath Frog would be selected over the smaller kinds. Although tiny, an exception was the group of highly-colored Poison Arrow Frogs which were very popular."

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Ultimately, we made discoveries about several amphibian species we kept on exhibit. For example, additional new information was learned about Goliath Frogs resulting in our recording their high-pitched, squealing vocalizations plus the video-taping of combat bouts. If my tenure had continued I would have tried breeding this species and then, armed with that knowledge, travel to the Cameroons to hopefully set up local frog-farms as cottage industries among several villages near the “fall line” (Goliath Frog habitat) of the country. Farming these huge frogs for food would generate badly-needed income for villages while reducing pressure on the wild populations.”

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During the last few years of Pawley’s tenure at the zoo a Galapagos Tortoise rearing program was undertaken with the cooperation of the “Life Fellowship” enterprise in Seffner, Florida where the zoo had sent their female tortoise on a long-term loan for their substantial breeding program. According to Pawley, the progeny from half of the eggs laid by the Zoo’s female were returned to Brookfield Zoo to be reared for eventual distribution among those zoos that had given up any pure-bred adult animals for conservation breeding purposes. “These youngsters were of mixed ancestry and thus were not suitable for endangered species programs except as exhibit and educational animals.” Ray explained. “At Brookfield Zoo, these tortoises were given preferred diets and their growth rates were relatively rapid. The youngsters were sent to other zoos in the U.S. and abroad so that the public could see these fascinating giants and become educated about the value of endangered species programs.”

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One of Pawley’s last assignments at the zoo was helping design the Swamp, an indoor exhibit replicating the swamps of the American Southeast. “I was responsible for transporting the first large alligators to the Swamp from the SeaWorld of Texas, in San Antonio," he added.

@ Brookfield Zoo

Pawley was involved in state conservation efforts, serving for over 17 years in a Governor-appointed position on the “Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board” and retiring as Assistant Chairman. He also served for a decade as a charter board member of the Willowbrook Wildlife Haven that was involved with educating the public, species reintroduction research, wildlife rehabilitation and conservation. He was an Associate of the Department of Zoology of the Field Museum and the Moscow Zoopark. He has a bibliography of over 150 articles (some peer reviewed) and several community awards.

@ Brookfield Zoo

In 1998, Ray Pawley retired from the Brookfield Zoo after over three decades of service. "Two things led me to retire,” he recalled. “First, I felt constrained to a certain extent in a zoo environment. Second, I wanted to get back into the business world so that I could self-fund, if need be, further research questions that had long been simmering in my head. Also, George Rabb wanted me to leave so that he could hire a Ph.D. curator. In fact, we were both eager for quite different reasons to see me move on.” Since that time, Pawley has boosted his involvement in finding answers to research questions, continued with his consulting service and became active in non-zoo business activities.

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Asked about his opinion regarding zoos as a career choice for others, Pawley emphasized that attitude and aptitude can make for an outstanding difference in boosting one’s performance at any level in a zoo, from a keeper position to the directorship. “The curator and the director must be on the same page about how to interface between the animals, the public and the employees from line function to the director," he explained. "This must be achieved within the constraints of the budget. The zoo world has been around a very long time and is not going away. Zoos are a never-ending opportunity for innovative, committed people who want to step up to the plate and do their best.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

In conclusion, Pawley had some insights to offer regarding zoos of the future, which he calls his concept for "The Zoo Beyond.""In tomorrow’s zoos, as is the case today zoo animals will be primarily ambassadors for wild areas and the species that inhabit them," he reflected. "However, the only specimens involved in reintroduction programs will be raised in environments approved for that very purpose. As we learn more about domestication processes of the past, and people become greater pet enthusiasts, an increased demand and fascination for dogs, cats and horses will open wider opportunities for new relationships with other life forms in the home and yard. Over time, today’s urbanites will form closer connections with the kinds of small mammals, birds, fish and reptiles that can be kept in their apartments while suburbanites with their small gardens should be encouraged to expand their efforts and begin raising exotic breeds of egg-layers, wool producers and meat providers. The role for an expanded emphasis on all manner of domestic life forms will provide new opportunities for zoos. Several examples already are present in various forms in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and other countries. The 'Zoo Beyond' will not require any major changes among the operational infrastructure that characterize today’s zoos. Components including conservation initiatives, species rehabilitation, management studies, all would continue and evolve. Hopefully innovative revenue-generating strategies will emerge and boost budgetary limitations of zoos to new levels."

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"In partial response to those individuals and groups who object to zoos, new opportunities to connect zoo audiences more closely to native wildlife will result in a greater public respect for the various wild species, brought up close, that inhabit their area," Pawley continued "A zoo based enterprise where hummingbirds, vultures, flycatchers, soft bills, seed-eaters, ground squirrels and more can be approached, observed and even interacted with at some level can be achieved through a variety of techniques. Beginning with birds, several kinds of reptiles, and mammals such as prairie dogs, foxes, raccoons and skunks could be seen up close by the public, not unlike some of the opportunities presented by ZOOMAT in Chiapas. Research into the recovery of extinct species is inevitable and, should successes take place, this sea-change would result in engaging new experiences for zoo visitors. The opportunities that exist among the huge variety of Pleistocene animals that have disappeared in less than 10,000 years is enormous. So what kinds of experiences will a visitor of future zoos enjoy? Quite likely they will encounter much of what is seen today in zoos but with added life forms from the agricultural domestic sector."

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"There will be opportunities for closer proximities between the public and the animals," Pawley continued. "Visitors can choose to feed a llama, drive a team of Clydesdales, hold a boa constrictor, throw a ball for a Retriever or walk through true immersion habitats among selected species. The practice of feeding Giraffes a stalk of celery or a carrot is already under way at certain zoos and is bound to lead to other kinds of closer animal encounters over time. Visitors will be able to stroll through a zoo facility that attracts a wide variety of species from the surrounding area providing an opportunity for a crowd of on-lookers to watch local vultures or Sandhill Cranes flock to a feeding site only a few feet away. A youngster can give a handful of greens to a local species of rodent, or toss food to large catfish, carp or alligators. On another level, equally educational, people can watch baby chickens hatch, feed grain to a group of Buff Orpingtons, see exotic chicken breeds and maybe close the loop by enjoying a snack of chicken wings at an adjacent fast-food outlet. "

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"Visitors to zoos know when they see something fascinating," Ray Pawley concluded. "They may not be able to articulate what they want in advance, so it is up to us in the industry to create what it is that the public wants to see and make it available. The only limitation to giving our visitors heightened and exciting creative zoo-based opportunities will be our ability to imagine new zoo horizons—and keep them affordable. "

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