Great Potential: A Conversation with Dan Wharton, Former Director of the Central Park Zoo and Senior

While volunteering at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Dan Wharton became aware of the visions and ideals of the zoo of the future. He would soon go to the New York Zoological Society's Bronx Zoo and would stay there when the society transitioned to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Wharton spent 13 years as Director of the Central Park Zoo and finished his career as Senior Vice President of Conservation Science at the Brookfield Zoo. Here is his story.

@ Dan Wharton

Dan Wharton’s desire to work with animals started when he decided to be a farmer at age four. “When I was five, my family moved to California and not long after, I saw San Diego Zoo’s Zoorama,” he remembered. “I was mesmerized watching a curator holding a young wallaby. I knew at that moment I wanted someday to work in a zoo, too. My parents were very supportive of my interest in animals, allowing me to have dogs, cats, rabbits and large collections of ducks, chickens, geese and other birds. Eventually we moved to a small farm in Idaho where I could work with some of the larger domestic animals as well.” After high school, Wharton got a degree in psychology from the College of Idaho, spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in agriculture in Ecuador and came back to complete a Masters in International Administration in Vermont.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“The Master’s program I entered allowed students to concentrate on virtually any international endeavor so I specialized in two areas, international conservation organizations and the emerging role of zoos in wildlife conservation," he continued. "In this program, I was able to serve as an assistant to several environmental NGOs at the new United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya. After I returned from Africa, I finished my master’s work by writing several zoo-related papers on captive breeding while volunteering at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. While volunteering, I was asked to organize random boxes of books and journals into a library - and also to see if I could figure out what to do with these ‘damn (i.e. ISIS –now Species360) forms’ that were stacked up in a closet. I never before enjoyed anything so much in my life. By the time the library and ISIS were functioning, I had read most of the zoo classics and was familiar with the newsletters of most American zoos. And I was familiar with the status and history every animal in the Woodland Park Zoo collection.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

At that time in 1974, Woodland Park Zoo was just starting a revolutionary master plan that would showcase animals in an ecological context and immersion of guests into similar landscapes. “It was really exciting being at Woodland Park Zoo,” Wharton reflected. “Working at a zoo that is rethinking itself is as good of a start to a zoo career as one can get.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Next, Wharton received a Fulbright Scholarship to study zoos and zoology in Germany. “The world class zoos outside of the English-speaking world were in Germany at that time," he recalled. "My internship site was the Allwetterzoo (the all-weather zoo) in Munster, Westphalia, a brand new zoo that had been completely rebuilt only a few years earlier. It was a great opportunity to become involved with another collection and meet zoo colleagues in Europe. Like most Fulbright Scholars, I was also a student at a university and was able to do some research in genetic management modeling at the Zoologisches Institut, Westfalischer Wilhems Universitat." Some of the ideas he worked on at the Zoologisches Institut would later be the basis for his doctoral work. Wharton received his Ph.D. from Fordham University in 1990.

@ WCS

@ WCS

After returning to Woodland Park Zoo in 1977, Wharton spent a year assisting the then-Curator of Education, Helen Freeman while continuing to watch the zoo’s masterplan unfold under director David Hancocks. In 1978, Wharton was selected as a curatorial trainee in the Mammal Department at the Bronx Zoo under renowned General Curator James Doherty. “Jim was an amazing mentor,” Wharton recalled. “Jim’s genius was not just in mammal biology but also in his remarkable ability to visualize how the details of animal husbandry can work best in exhibit design. All of the Bronx Zoo curators and director William Conway were exceptional. Curators and animal mangers at that time included Don Bruning, John Behler, Christine Sheppard, Pete Brazaitis, Fred Sterling, Gus Walz, Pat Thomas and others. They could give you an opinion about anything you were pondering which I felt put me in that enviable position of being one student with ten teachers.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

By the early 1980s, animal care practices at the Bronx Zoo were steadily evolving. “Jim and I began discussing aspects of animal care that didn’t really fall within taxonomic categories,” Wharton recalled. “That are things that go into the animal management process that are common to all three departments (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) and we wanted to sharpen our handle on these areas. We agreed to create a department called Animal Management Services, where we could put the library, animal records, keeper training and animal research into one coordinated effort, i.e. informing the animal management process with both in-house records and research - and with external resources that pertained to the issues at hand. It really worked to put that all together. We had a great team of young zoo professionals including Nilda Ferrer and Steven Johnson in Animal Records and Library/Archives. Scientists Michael Hutchins and George Amato were tackling several of the research questions. One of the projects with lasting impact was the ‘subspecies dilemma’ and the role of molecular genetics in addressing it.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Particularly exciting to Wharton was being at the Bronx Zoo when William Conway became Chairman of Species Survival Plan Committee (SSPs) and Dr. Conway invited Wharton to serve as a committee member. “Zoos had been aware for quite some time that several species that had gone extinct in the wild were still doing fairly well in zoos. SSPs were a way to make this phenomenon more a matter of science and planning instead of lucky coincidence,” he explained. “We were already witnessing the beginning of a population crash of Siberian tigers in zoos, among the most charismatic species in our collections. But without a breeding plan, every zoo bred them when they were rare, and every zoo stopped breeding them when the offspring could no longer be placed in other responsible zoos."

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

"As everyone now knows, boom and bust would eventually lead to disappearance from collections,” Wharton remarked. As an SSP Committee member, Wharton often represented the Bronx Zoo at species planning meetings across the country. Through his Animal Management Services Department, he worked with ISIS (now Species360) in the funding of what became the ARKS system of computerized animal records that could easily be sent to the large database in Minnesota. Wharton would go on and to chair the SSPs for snow leopards and gorillas for many years, initiating the North American Regional Studbooks for both. Like all the SSP chairpersons, he did this as a professional “volunteer.” Volunteers were an excellent place to begin but it was not a perfect system.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“Even in the 1980s, Bill Conway and I were discussing the fact that SSP management would eventually need to be professionalized,” Wharton continued. “The science we were trying to implement had to respond to the curatorial realties of space and animal exhibition, always a delicate balancing act. We envisioned fulltime coordinators who would manage multiple species as their first priority both in daily activity and in their continuing training in population science and management strategy. SSPs are very unique in the world of conservation since they have the potential to be especially powerful in rescuing and sustaining some very critically endangered species - and do it with cultural institution dollars.” The issue regarding SSP coordination is still relevant today.

@ WCS

@ WCS

In 1994, Dan Wharton moved from his curatorial position at the Bronx Zoo to succeed Richard Lattis (who had become WCS’s Senior VP, Living Institutions) as Director of the Central Park Zoo. Only recently rebuilt, CPZ was the first of three “City Zoos” to become a part of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

At just six acres, the Central Park Zoo was tiny compared to the Bronx Zoo’s 265-acre campus. “There were three phases of Central Park Zoo history,” Wharton recounted. “The first was the menagerie that spontaneously began in the 1860s, never having been a part of the famous Frederick Law Olmstead plan when New York’s Central Park was constructed. Despite its unorganized beginning, the old Central Park Menagerie was very popular and continued to grow in a sort of jerry-rigged fashion well before the construction of the Bronx Zoo in the late 1890s.”

@ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“Then, Robert Moses, 'master builder of NYC,' came along many decades later and decided that Central Park needed a modern zoo,” Wharton continued. “The design, funding and building of the old Central Park Zoo all took place in 1934. That was the same zoo, managed by the New York City Parks Department that by the 1960s had fallen into such disrepair that it was blasted by the media as ‘the worst zoo in America.’ For too long, there had been a major disconnect between the Parks Department and the rapidly changing needs and standards of the modern zoo. Thanks to New York’s philanthropists and City government, the argument was made that the management of the 'worst zoo' should be turned over to the Bronx Zoo/New York Zoological Society, one of the best zoos in the country – and a contract was signed in 1980.” By 1988, the new Central Park Zoo, officially named the Central Park Wildlife Center, was opened to the public to great acclaim.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

However, rebuilding the zoo meant significantly scaling back the zoo’s animal collection. “You might say that WCS started at the other end of the telescope,” Wharton elaborated. “The idea was to have an interesting animal collection that didn’t require some of the ‘big five” that you often expect to see in the quintessential zoo. Polar bears, very popular in the old Central Park Zoo, were the one very large animal that remained, now housed in a beautiful naturalistic exhibit with a large pool and rocky structures to climb on. After that, the largest animals were sea lions and Japanese macaques and everything else was relatively small.”

@ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

The most famous resident of the Central Park Zoo in the modern era was Gus the polar bear. “Gus was a very interesting part of Central Park Zoo for more than 20 years and came to represent one of the most positive stories ever about behavioral enrichment,” Wharton remembered. In the early 1990s, an aggressive behavioral enrichment program was used to address Gus’s stereotypic swimming. “We hired animal behavioral consultants to make sure we weren’t missing any opportunities,” Wharton explained. “That resulted in stepping up enrichment and eventually adding interesting features like an endless pool mechanism to make the pool function like a river and ice machines that automatically dropped “snowbanks” into the exhibit, great for hiding enrichment treats. We pulled out all the stops with toy rotation, treats frozen in ice, everything possible and indeed there and there was a measurable difference in Gus’s behavior. We often said Gus was afraid he would miss something fun if he spent too much time in repetitive swimming.”

@ WCS

“At one point, we heard that there was to be some investigative reporting about Gus’s swimming behavior," Wharton continued. "However, we invited all journalists who wanted to write about it to come meet with us so we would have an opportunity to describe the problem in great detail and show them what we were doing about it with behavioral enrichment. Long story short, the headline was that Gus was 'in therapy' with an 'animal psychiatrist.' We never used terms anything like that but New Yorkers were thrilled and Gus became a big time celebrity for years. People Magazine named Gus as one of the Top 25 'people' of 1996.”

@ WCS

“The Central Park Zoo presents a unique zoo experience in six acres,” Wharton reflected. “The perpetual challenge was to make the most of the space we had. Also, to a certain extent, there was still some marketing and awareness-building when I arrived in 1994. The zoo had been closed from 1981 to 1988 during renovation so, oddly enough, there was a significant perception the zoo was still closed. When I first arrived, the attendance figure was 600,000 guests despite it being in the middle of Manhattan. One interesting bonus to all the publicity about our behavioral enrichment program was that several years later, the movie company Dreamworks decided to use our detailed attention to animal well-being as a metaphor for how precious New Yorkers are about their city. The result was the movie Madagascar in which Central Park Zoo animals love their home and are horrified at being sent back to 'nature.' To this day, millions of children have the DVD of this movie – and many want to see Central Park Zoo. This plus other improvements and human-interest stories have had a noticeable impact on Central Park Zoo attendance (now often receiving one million visitors).”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

What this small zoo lacked in space it strived to make up in quality experience. “There was a question of making these six acres work in an optimal fashion,” Wharton explained. “One of our objectives was to present the zoo in as always ‘sparkling,’ which required really on-the-ball maintenance and an amazing horticulture staff. What was a minor issue in the Bronx Zoo’s 265 acres would easily stick out like a sore thumb at Central Park Zoo.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

“When something was out of repair, we had to be strategic about fixing it without having a major disruption to the guest experience. Sometimes this meant work before the zoo opened or after it closed. It was a constant juggling act, but I have to say that extraordinary staff found this to be a worthwhile challenge and they really made it work. We had great people working in all areas of the zoo including Bob Gavlik, Nancy Timm, Todd Comstock, Pete Brazaitis, Don Moore, Jeff Sailer, Annarie Lyles, Yula Kapetenakos, Dave Autry, Poet-in-residence Sandra Alcosser, Bruce Foster, Tony Brownie, Alison Power, Leslie Lannon, Luz Diaz, Tom Lennox, and educators Laura Maloney and Ayo Moon.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Despite size and contrast to other more traditional zoos, the Central Park Zoo had a loyal following. “One of the gratifying things about working at the Central Park Zoo was that New Yorkers absolutely loved the zoo,” Wharton noted. “They were super loyal to it and everyone was very much on board with the modern renovation (Kevin Roche/John Dinkeloo). I can’t remember a single complaint about the composition of the collection, something I fully expected. Visitors really understood the animals, the conservation messaging and its juxtaposition to one of the biggest cities in America. Central Park Zoo is often called the jewel of Manhattan.”

@ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Interpretation of the exhibits was also critical. “We included wildlife conservation messages everywhere,” Wharton added. I felt we had the opportunity to be creative with interpretive signage as our small space lent itself to having all guests experience special presentations with some reliability. We emphasized the Education Department’s 'Zoo Theater,' where we had aspiring New York theater actors and actresses do conservation-themed scenarios as part of our interpretation of species diversity, animal behavior and conservation. Costumes and puppets helped to make a point. We even had some outreach with Zoo Theater, where the whole theater troupe was asked to perform in various schools and other venues.”

@ WCS

One of Wharton’s biggest initiatives at the Central Park Zoo in conservation interpretation was the project launched as the “Language of Conservation.” “In this case, we had two things in mind,” he elaborated. “We recognized, as do most zoo professionals, that text-heavy graphics tend to cause people to glance over them and not read them. And for good reason. When you’re in a zoo viewing the spectacular beauty of animals, you’re having more of an emotional reaction to the animals and not so much an academic one. So, secondly, we thought about how to match our graphics with the visitor sense of excitement and we decided it was worth experimenting with the words of the most brilliant poets from around the world, from all historical periods.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ WCS

“The poetry itself represented humanity’s interest in, and love of, wildlife – and the human responsibility to protect wildlife in the modern world," Wharton noted. "Central Park Zoo collaborated with New York City’s Poet’s House on the original proposal to IMLS and not only received the funding requested, but the proposal itself was declared one of the best ever received by IMLS. By collaborating with a poet-in-residence and John Fraser from WCS graphics department, we were able to merge an elegant professional public arts presentation of poetry that matched the genuine sentiments of biologists and conservationists.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

The Language of Conservation project was powerful and very effective. “Our follow-up studies were remarkable as we found the retention of concepts was exceptional and greatly added to the aesthetic experience of going to the zoo,” Wharton remarked. “As an example of the communication power of poetry, there is one line from one poem by W. H. Auden that, to me, sums up the reason for the entire conservation movement: A culture is no better than its wood. Later, the Language of Conservation concept was replicated in various ways at the Bronx Zoo and five other zoos around the country, again funded by IMLS."

@ WCS

While plans for a state-of-the-art snow leopard habitat began when Wharton was director (it opened in 2009 after his departure), the largest addition to the Central Park Zoo during his tenure was the Tisch Children’s Zoo. “The original Lehman’s Children’s Zoo, dating to the 1960s, remained open during the 1980s renovation of the main zoo," Wharton explained. "As soon as the main zoo opened in 1988, plans for a new children’s zoo experience began. Oddly enough, we experienced a delay in design and construction when a small vocal group objected to the natural history theme while asserting that the old children’s zoo’s story book theme (e.g. three little pigs’ house etc) was what everyone was expecting. But WCS was going to have none of that and eventually the natural history theme won out. The Tisch Children’s Zoo opened in 1997 to excellent reviews and, most importantly, it was exceptionally well received by the target audience, the kids themselves! It was a great opportunity for them to engage in informal learning by sitting inside a giant egg, a turtle’s shell or listen through a fox’s ears. It was, and is, an absolutely beautiful 'secret garden' kind of experience.”

Judith Wolfe @ WCS

@ WCS

In 1998, Wharton was asked by former editors Terry Maple and Don Lindburg to become the third Executive Editor of Zoo Biology. “I couldn’t have asked for a better complement to zoo directing with this birds-eye view of much of the research conducted in zoos around the world,” Wharton noted. He served as Executive Editor for over 12 years, stepping down in 2011.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

After nearly 30 years with WCS, Wharton retired in 2007 from WCS as Director of City Zoos (Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, as well as Central Park Zoo) to become Senior Vice President of Conservation Science at Chicago Zoological Society. “Two of the major players at CZS were President Stuart Strahl and Senior VP of Education, Alejandro Grajal, two highly-valued colleagues who also came from WCS,” he noted. “They were looking at restructuring the animal and conservation science departments and a new position evolved – and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to assume this position.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

Wharton had a number of responsibilities. “The Brookfield Zoo needed some upgrades and replacements of exiting exhibits," Wharton stated. "For instance, polar bears and other bears were in grottos that were completely out of date and a high priority for all of us was to develop what was to become the Great Bear Wilderness, an exhibit complex with both brown bears and polar bears, and bison. It also became another venue for the 'Language of Conservation.;”

@ CZS

@ CZS

Also important was the development of the CZS’s animal welfare programs. “On the science side, we developed the Center for the Science of Animal Welfare,” Wharton elaborated. “It was a very exciting concept and we were able to get to a place where we really knew how to develop the tools to be able to assess animal behavior with a detailed look at their overall psychological health. It wasn’t just assessing animal stress but also animal well-being in what I liked to call ‘animal-directed management. Working with the scientists Nadja Wielebnowski and Jason Watters at CSAW was a really exciting part of my tenure with CZS. The hosting of animal welfare symposia and the development of animal assessment tools (as well as the science to make this possible) was an important step forward in zoo animal management and will continue to be an important part of the zoo profession’s future development.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

In 2011, Wharton retired for the second time. “You come to a place where you have to commit to six or ten more years or decide if you are at an obvious stopping point,” he remembered. “That’s essentially what it all boils down to, especially when you consider that imagination is always going to be beyond budget, and all the more so during an economic downturn.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

To this day, Wharton thinks about the future of zoos and their role in conservation. “There are a lot of things I would be interested in pursuing further if I were still actively involved,” he concluded. “For instance, I believe we could develop programs to find, encourage, and train those kids (like many of us used to be) who are right now passionately involved with their brilliantly-managed terrariums/aquariums and other animal projects. And for a long time, I’ve been interested in our collective obsession on how zoos can play much bigger roles in wildlife conservation. There are unique opportunities that only zoos are pre-adapted to take on, in fact the possibilities are so numerous that it invokes the famous statement from Peanuts’ Charlie Brown: ‘In all this world, there is no heavier burden than great potential.’ I am confident that we will realize it sooner or later.”

@ Grayson Ponti

#BronxZoo #CentralParkZoo #BrookfieldZoo #WoodlandParkZoo

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