What's Different and New for the Animal: A Conversation with Jim Doherty, Former General Curator

While Jim Doherty spent almost his entire career at the Bronx Zoo, he grew up in Massachusetts and went to college on the West Coast. “I was looking for a curatorial job right out of college,” he remembered. “I thought I was qualified, which wasn’t the case. The new director of the San Francisco Zoo offered me a job as a keeper, promising to find me a curator job when it came around. He informed me there was a curatorial training program at the Bronx Zoo. In 1967, Bill Conway interviewed me and hired me.” Doherty succeeded Lee Crandell, who worked at the zoo starting in 1909 as a keeper and retired as General Curator.

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Doherty came to the Bronx Zoo in the early days of Dr. Bill Conway’s long tenure as director. Conway already had a strong vision for where zoos could go demonstrated with the renovation of the Aquatic Bird House. “The zoo was very much in need of an overhaul and Dr. Conway recognized that,” Doherty reflected. “Conway is the only reason I stayed in New York. I’m not a New Yorker. What made me stay is we wanted to do new things. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel but do things that were different for visitors, animals and staff. In time, Conway trusted me. “

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Jim Doherty truly became the visionary director’s right hand man in the zoo. “I probably worked closer to Dr. Conway than anybody,” he remarked. “Conway was very good, when he trusted you, about letting you be creative and do things no one had done before. It was fun trying to do new things and pretty much everything we did worked as we planned. As more animals became endangered, we focused on that more.”

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The first exhibit opened during Doherty’s tenure was Big Bears, home to grizzly and polar bears. “The bear exhibits are not what I would do today,” Doherty added. “They had already been planned. Years later, we were able to chop out some concrete in the grizzly bear exhibit and plant trees, grasses and make it more naturalistic.” Doherty and Conway’s first true collaboration was in finalizing the species and exhibits for the World of Darkness, a nocturnal exhibit opened in 1969 that was unusual in that it tackled a specific behavior, nocturnal behavior, in contrast to later projects which focused heavily on representing the biodiversity of a specific ecosystem. “We started things that were more general like the World of Birds and then went to things more specific like Congo Gorilla Forest,” Doherty elaborated. “World of Darkness was an innovative first effort at doing a nocturnal exhibit. It opened up a whole world of animals people never saw and brought it to life.”

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As the Bronx Zoo changed, so did the keeper staff. “As I grew with the zoo we were able to hire better, more qualified keepers,” Jim Doherty remarked. “In the old days, many zookeepers just saw it as a job. We were aiming for making it a career, a profession and something someone wanted to do and was prepared to do. Zookeeper is the best job in the zoo as there’s no better place if you’re interested in animals. You get to know the animals, recognize their behavior and get close to them. We turned the whole staff around to having people where it was something they wanted to do. I was the only keeper at the San Francisco Zoo with a college degree and only one keeper at Bronx had a college degree when I started. Today keepers are more involved in record keeping and understanding animal behavior.”

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“At the same time, we started hiring women keepers,” Doherty continued. “They didn’t exist prior to the mid 1970s as people thought women weren’t strong enough. I hired the first women keepers in the Mammal Department.”

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A major leap for the Bronx Zoo was World of Birds, which was partially inspired by the Aquatic Birdhouse. “Aquatic Birdhouse was an old building Conway totally renovated before I got there,” Doherty said. “It blew me away because there were all these naturalistic exhibits that looked like the habitats these particular birds came from. There was no wire and glass was used discreetly. You could hear, smell and see the birds so well. That was the start of doing really good naturalistic exhibits for the animals. We expanded on it with World of Birds to do bigger, more diverse exhibits- rainforest, desert, treetops. We showed diversity in color, size, behavior and habitats. That opened in 1972 and worked out very well.”

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During the early days of Conway and Doherty’s time at the Bronx Zoo, the New York Zoological Society did some conservation efforts even before the movement became mainstream. “There were no standards for conservation,” he stated. “There was no endangered species list. People were just grasping whatever information they could about animals. George Schaller was supported by us and he was one of the first premier animal behaviorists. We sent him off to study mountain gorillas, lions, tigers, snow leopards and giant pandas. That was really beginning of international conservation [for us.] Conway was excellent in his ability to attract people whether they were studying whales in Argentina or gorillas in East Africa. He was able to support their work and what we were doing at home.”

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The Bronx Zoo’s exhibits began to have strictly bioclimatic themes starting with Wild Asia, which turned 40 acres of undeveloped land across the Bronx River into a forested environment for Asian elephants, Amur tigers, Indian rhinos and a wide variety of Asian hoofstock. Opened in 1977, visitors see these animals from a monorail. “Wild Asia was great fun as we had this large piece of land on the east side of the Bronx River with nothing except forests,” Jim Doherty recalled. “It was a dump for the local community and unused but we turned it into a beautiful exhibit. We needed more Asian animals in the collection and by that time there was an endangered species list and we knew what animals needed protection.”

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The forest and immense space proved to be an ideal environment for large Asian mammals. “We developed habitats that would allow us to expand groups and have a message for visitors,” Doherty claimed. “We did a monorail because it was such a large area and they could get a guided tour and hear about the animals from the drivers. We trained the drivers before the season started every year. They knew the facts and where the animals hung out and it was up for them to evaluate the scene as the monorail went on.”

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“Since Wild Asia was larger than the entire Philadelphia Zoo, we could have a really wide variety of species,” Doherty said. “We had elephants, rhinos, tigers, red pandas, deer, wild cattle, cranes and other birds- a real mix of species much like what one might see in India. The first exhibit people see on the monorail is a mixed species grassy meadow with Axis deer, blackbuck and barasinga. It looked just like India to me.”

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Among the most iconic species in Wild Asia were the Asian elephants. “With the chance to do large exhibits, I wanted to do something good for elephants,” Jim Doherty remembered. “It had to be a forest exhibit and have boundaries but I didn’t want to put up walls or built a moat. I came up with the idea for cable fencing for the elephants and rhinos, which kept the animals were we wanted them but weren’t objectionable barriers. It worked for the animals and now it’s used everywhere. We were able to keep live trees in the exhibit the elephants didn’t destroy. We put battery powered cattle hot wires around and they left the trees alone.” In 1981, the facility welcomed the only Asian elephant ever born in New York. “We had four elephants who grew up at the Bronx Zoo but the male only showed an interest in breeding with one female,” Doherty mentioned.

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The elephant facility in Wild Asia was a clear departure from elephant rides, an idea Doherty had originally suggested as a way to “get animals and people in close contact. However, in 1985, the zoo decided to end elephant rides. “I started and stopped elephant rides,” he remarked. “It just felt as though we were using the animals.”

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The Asian elephants and Indian rhinos in Wild Asia were among the last of their species imported to American zoos from the wild. “We imported four young Asian elephants and two young Indian rhinos from India in exchange to sending animals to an Indian zoo,” Jim Doherty stated. “Now there are very few animals that come from the wild. It just doesn’t happen. Probably the only wild born animals at the Bronx Zoo today are the elephants and rhinos. As we learned more about wild populations, we knew they needed protection and the last thing you want to do is hurt a wild population by taking wild animals.”

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Since Wild Asia opened, the Bronx Zoo has had ample success breeding Indian rhinos. “Unlike African rhinos, we found Indian rhinos can be very aggressive when they’re breeding,” Doherty remarked. “We found they tended to only breed at night. We’d stay up with them all night when breeding activity was going on and separate them when it was over.”

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After Wild Asia, Conway built a brand-new Children’s Zoo. “We had the old children’s zoo and it was time to do something new and different,” he stated. “We were looking to do something that would really involve the kid since the big thing any zoo should be doing is trying to involve kids. If you can’t reach kids, you’ve lost it. Everything you do should be to excite, educate and commit kids to the preservation of wildlife. The Children’s Zoo gave us a way of getting kids into animal habitats and seeing them up closed. I used to walk through there and be able to tell which kids had been there before as they knew where to participate.”

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Around the same time, the Bronx Zoo did a major expansion to its African Plains region. The original part of the exhibit was the first naturalistic habitat region at any American zoo. “The original African Plains [opened in 1941] was a wonderful exhibit when it opened and is still wonderful today,” Doherty remarked. However, the decision was made to transform a much larger area into Africa. “We were looking at ways to make African Plains more naturalistic, increase space and do away with visible barriers,” Doherty said. “We wanted to make it as much like East Africa as possible. We built up wonderful herds of Thomson’s gazelle, blesbok and Grevy’s zebra. We took the old antelope yards, moved the diverse animals out, took down the fences and made it all Africa. No more yaks, bison or llamas.”

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A focal point of African Plains became the Carter Giraffe Building. “We had giraffe in the old antelope house who were on yards devoid of vegetation,” Doherty recollected. “We had a donor James Walter Carter who was a fan of giraffe and okapi and wanted to do something for the zoo. They funded this new building and allowed us to have giraffe in a big enclosure with lots of space, grass and trees. Inside we had nice stalls where we could separate females before they gave birth.”

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Since the 1970s, Conway and Doherty had planned on building an indoor tropical rainforest to serve as a bookend to Wild Asia. “Back then, the city was supposed to be a big supporter of the zoo but it had its own problems,” Jim Doherty commented. “When we built Wild Asia, it was supposed to be complemented by an indoor exhibit. The city was going to pay for the building and the Astor Foundation was going to pay the Wild Asian portion. Well, we lost Mayor Lindsay who promised us the money for the indoor exhibit. Conway was able to talk Astor into continuing to give money to Wild Asia even though we didn’t get money from the city.”

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Then, an offer came to fund the exterior of the building. “We had all the plans done for Jungle World by the architect set up when we heard about money from Mayor Koch,” Doherty continued. “We had to get the drawings submitted within 90 days and Mayor Koch, who loved the Bronx Zoo, put the project to be done by the federal government. The federal government put up the building for Jungle World but all we had was the shell of the building. It was up to Conway to raise the money to do everything inside and, with Astor’s help, he was able to get the money.”

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Opened in 1985, JungleWorld was a landmark exhibit in immersion design in zoos and has often been considered one of the greatest and most influential zoo exhibits of all time. “The idea with JungleWorld was to show a variety of animals that needed what we could not give them outside- heat and so on,” Jim Doherty stated. “We were able to have gibbons, monkeys, tapirs and crocodiles in year-round exhibits, which made it a very popular building. We were able to do mixed species exhibits like otters and monkeys living together. I wanted to have gibbons with live trees even though no one had done it and everyone said they’d kill the trees and it wouldn’t work. I said we had to do it so we did this big exhibit with lots of trees. Now the biggest problem was finding the gibbons as the forest was dense and beautiful. That’s how you’d see gibbons in nature- up in the canopy.”

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Conway and Doherty chose quality over quantity with JungleWorld. “We had orangutans in the original plan but didn’t have enough space for an outdoor habitat,” he remembered. “I didn’t want to just have them in the building so I said orangutans are out. I wanted them outside with sunlight and live vegetation.” As a result, orangutans were never brought to the Bronx Zoo.

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Unlike previous exhibits, JungleWorld didn’t center on a species or even a type of species but rather the ecosystems of Southeast Asia and the threats that faced them. “We worked very hard on ways to get that message across,” Jim Doherty articulated. “We had a team of people who wrote the interpretives. We didn’t want to do standard labels or big graphic displays blocking the exhibits- we wanted to do something different. We said why don’t we put information on the handrails, which was a great idea. Everyone could see them. The key is giving a very brief message as animals are hard to compete with.”

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JungleWorld took immersion design to unprecedented levels. “The space available for the animals was more than anyone did previously for those species in an environment,” Doherty reflected. “The mangrove swamp, rainforest [and so forth] took every effort to duplicate where the animals came from with natural materials. We had birds flying around. People were shocked to see flying foxes up there. I set up a feeding station for the bats, something that had never been done before. That added to the whole experience. We wanted to showcase the entire diversity of wildlife in Southeast Asia so we did an area that just showed insects.” After opening to universal acclaim in 1985, JungleWorld received the AZA Exhibit Award.

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The Bronx Zoo’s next project was another award winner but this time focused on the landscape of the Himalayas. Himalayan Highlands, opened in 1986, took the zoo’s snow leopards from the 1903 Lion House to a state-of-the-art naturalistic exhibit. “We were the first zoo in the country to have snow leopards,” Jim Doherty explained. “We had them in the Lion House with lions, tigers, hyenas, leopards, jaguars and clouded leopards but they were all in concrete mesh fronted enclosures. Quite old fashioned. We did African Plains to get the lions out and Wild Asia to get the tigers out. We had a successful snow leopard breeding program but they were in spaces inappropriate for any species in this old landmark building we couldn’t tear down.”

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Doherty knew exactly the right location on zoo property to replicate the home range of the snow leopard. “I knew this rock in the zoo that would be perfect for snow leopards,” he claimed. “We built it and it worked so well. We did something different as we used tension wire as the barrier between the visitor and the cats. I took George Schaller, who had studied snow leopards in Pakistan, to go see it. He asked why we had the wire because this [landscape] is so beautiful and the snow leopards aren’t going to leave this. He was probably right but we couldn’t risk.”

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As successful as the zoo was during this time, tragedy struck when a young but talented keeper was killed by a tiger in the summer of 1985. “That’s the worst thing that can happen in a zoo,” Jim Doherty said gravely. “She was a lovely woman who loved animals. She wanted to do this because this was where her heart was. We are still not sure what she was thinking [about going in with the tiger] but it’s a nightmare we’ll never forget. A horrible, horrible nightmare. You don’t get worse experiences than that. One of the most important things people should be aware of is where are the animals. You should know where they are before entering a space.”

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During the 1980s, the Bronx Zoo began finding innovative ways to stimulate animals and encourage natural behaviors. “We’d provide natural animals for behaviors by giving them things,” Doherty said. “We did enrichment for years without calling it enrichment,” Doherty elaborated. “We’d give them toys and things for them to do. For tigers, we’d give them deer hides to chew on just as they’d tear apart a deer in nature. We’d hang a deer hide on a pully and the tigers would have to go up and grab it with their claws.”

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One of the rarest species Jim Doherty worked with during his career was the Proboscis monkey. “We had the only ones in the country,” he explained. “That was very unfortunate as we were breeding them but had no breeding partners. They are very, very rare monkeys from Borneo who live in mangrove swamps and their primary diet is leaves of mangrove trees. It was important to fed them fresh leaves and we sent keepers out every day to cut branches off various trees to feed them. That kept them healthy and they did very well. Later, breeding slowed down and we sent the last two animals to the Singapore Zoo. It was the only zoo to have Proboscis monkeys and we wanted them to be part of a breeding program.”

Doherty constantly looked for ways to make the zoo the best for animals it could be. Often that meant getting rid of certain species to give more room for others. “You can’t be a Noah’s Ark and have everything,” he said. “For instance, the Monkey House was a hodgepodge of different monkeys but there was no real theme and the enclosures were very small. I thought let’s just do South American monkeys, give them more space and focus on marmosets and tamarins. Also, we had great success with the gorillas but haven’t had orangutans or chimpanzees in years. You can’t keep everything.”

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In the late 1980s, the New York Zoological Society, which ran the Bronx Zoo, transitioned to the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The reason we changed the name was to give us a more international name,” Doherty remarked. “Yes, we’re still in New York but we have these international programs and have people working in different parts of the world. We could raise money for projects in China and Patagonia and needed worldwide recognition for that.” WCS has become one of the most powerful conservation organizations in the world.

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Jim Doherty picked the brains of the field biologists of WCS to better understand the animals he was working with. “I’d get as much information as I could out of the experts who knew the animals in nature,” he recalled. Additionally, the zoo’s resources helped the field biologists do their jobs. “When George Schaller was looking for cheetahs in Iran, the Iranians were anxious to get any kind of information they could in identifying cheetahs,” Doherty stated. “We made casts of cheetah footprints at the Bronx Zoo for them to use to tell if the tracks they saw were cheetah tracks rather than those of a wolf, hyena or leopard.”

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In 1989, the Bronx Zoo opened Zoo Center, a massive renovation of the zoo’s former elephant house. “The building was so inappropriate for the elephants, rhinos and hippos that lived there so we needed to reduce the collection and do something more successful for the animals,” Doherty commented. “We tore it all apart and did something that would allow people to see the elephants, rhinos and tapirs year-round and talk about how endangered they are.”

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While now all the zoo’s elephants live in Wild Asia, Zoo Center signaled a new approach for elephant management among the Bronx Zoo’s staff. “We had a program I called voluntary contact which allowed the keepers and elephants to interact,” Jim Doherty claimed. “The elephants would be stimulated to do thing for the keepers voluntarily. The animals trusted the keepers so much. We didn’t need a veterinarian to come in if we needed a blood sample from the elephants as the keepers had such a close, trusting relationship with the elephants they could draw blood. If the elephants didn’t want to do something they’d walk away. They’d do it because they wanted to do it. One time one of our elephants was quite ill and she allowed the keeper to get blood and take her temperature without even giving her treats.”

The Bronx Zoo would again win the AZA Exhibit Award with the opening of Baboon Reserve, a slice of the Ethiopian highlands. Opened in 1990, this exhibit was the brainchild of Doherty. “I wanted to do Baboon Reserve for many years as the Gelada baboon is such a unique species,” he elaborated. “Unlike other primates, they come from a cold climate and could be outside a lot. They come from high up in the mountains of Ethiopia and are the only primates who feed off grass. We had Goat and Sheep hill, home to mouflon, ibex, aoudad and tahr, and I said why don’t we turn that whole space into an environment for Gelada baboons."

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“I thought we could get gelada baboons out of Ethiopia as one of our field scientists was studying them there,” Doherty continued. “Farmers were killing 25 or more geladas a day as they were eating their corn and wheat. I hoped we could take out baboons who were problematic for farmers but the county was reluctant to have any leave the country alive.” This change of plans gave Doherty the monumental task of putting together two harems of geladas by acquiring individuals from zoos all over the world.

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“We put together two harems of baboons, which required getting animals who had never seen each other to live with each other,” Doherty continued. “We divided the exhibit in half with one of the harems on each side and let them get completely comfortable. After a few weeks, we put the other group on the other side of the fence. One day we took the fence down but each harem still stayed in their own space. It worked beautifully.”

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Conway gave Doherty a level of freedom to explore new ideas not usually given to curators. “Conway trusted me and let me do things,” he reflected. “[Even as the field conservation scope of WCS grew,] he was able to balance both sides and keep it all going. He always knew what I was doing and I always kept him informed. He knew ahead of time what I was planning. We did things which were a challenge and no one had done before, which I loved.”

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Sometimes, Doherty would have to do hands-on work like collect fruit and nectar-feeding bats from the Caribbean. “I went down to Trinidad, collected fruit bats, brought them to New York and developed diets for them,” he remembered. “Something struck me that I never forgot- I’m taking these bats who won’t be missed in the wild population at all and I better do the right job for them so they do well in New York. We researched and made the diets out of fruits and supplements. We used hummingbird like feeders and fed them with artificial nectar. They thrived and did very well.”

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One time, Jim Doherty made the request to have more resources for the zoo’s gorillas. “For years, I would prepare a budget for Dr. Conway and would always have exhibits as addendums to my budget,” he elaborated. “I would write a few paragraph explanation of what I would want to do. We had gorillas in small concrete years that were really hot during the summer. I wanted to change that. I told Conway I’d like to tear down some walls, put soil in there, plant grass and get away from concrete. He said go ahead and do it and gave me the money to tear down the concrete. Our key veterinarian was extremely worried putting gorillas on grass would end up with heavily parasited gorillas.”

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“We planted gallon pots of various grasses from a nursery,” Doherty continued. “We never gave the tubs of grass time to get rooted so the gorillas would grab a handful of grass and pull the roots out of the soil.” Not only did this not solve the problem but it also did not give the gorillas the space they needed. The Ape House was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1950 as it was the first moated exhibit for gorillas but it no longer fit the high standards of the Bronx Zoo. By the early 1990s, Doherty and Conway decided they needed to do a much bigger project. “We both came to the conclusion independently we needed a bigger space,” Doherty remarked. “Conway said let’s do it where South America is and I said that’s right.” The concept for Congo Gorilla Forest was born.

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To make room for this new gorilla space, the zoo’s South American exhibit, old Kangaroo House and spaces for pygmy hippos and duikers were torn out and the species within them phased out of the collection. The new area would focus on gorillas, okapis, mandrills, red river hogs, African primates and a variety of reptiles, amphibians and insects from the rainforest of Central Africa. The result, opened in 1999, has often been regarded as the best zoo exhibit anywhere in the world.

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The gorillas would end up having a remarkably naturalistic and enriching space allowing them to live a similar lifestyle to their wild counterparts. “We gave them a variety of habitats- trees, rocks and logs,” Jim Doherty said. “We always hid treats in the exhibit in the morning before the gorillas came out. The gorillas could sit together or be apart. We learned the gorillas liked looking at us as much as we liked looking at them so some of them would sit by the glass watching the people all day.”

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Before the exhibit could open to the public, the zoo’s large population of gorillas had to acclimate to the new facility. “We had all these gorillas who had lived all their lives in the old ape house,” Doherty stated. “When we were moving them over, I wanted to try and tell them they were going to a new, better place. They woke up with the same keepers but in this new building where everything else was different. Over the next few weeks, we got them acclimated to their new permanent home. We opened the exhibit door to see if they wanted to explore their new home. Gorillas are very careful animals and they didn’t know what was out there so they wouldn’t go out, preferring to stay where they felt comfortable. Eventually some of the juveniles went out and then it was okay for the adults to go out and follow them.”

“We always kept the door open so they could always run back inside,” Doherty continued. “At first, they wouldn’t stay out for long but they would gradually move farther out into the space and spend more time outside. One day we closed the door [as they had acclimated.] We’d call them in and give them special treats [like] a dish with yogurt on it.”

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In 1999, Congo Gorilla Forest opened and the iconic project set a new gold standard for immersive habitat design in zoos. However, the same year also marked the retirement of Dr. Conway after 43 years of service at the Bronx Zoo. The loss was a hard one for Jim Doherty to adjust to. “It wasn’t the same after he left,” he recalled. “I missed Dr. Conway a lot. We always talked about the things we wanted to do and it would have taken another lifetime career to complete. Richard Lattis [Dr. Conway’s successor] was more cautious and less inclined to let me do what I thought would work. Conway and I always wanted to do more with animal behavior, diet and health and improve upon what we had done in the past.” Among the exhibit ideas Conway and Doherty had that never got built included a massive renovation of the World of Darkness, a state-of-the-art orangutan habitat, a modern polar bear habitat with underwater viewing, a new reptile house and an insect zoo.

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Jim Doherty’s last exhibit at the Bronx Zoo was Tiger Mountain, which let guests get nose to nose with Amur tigers in a state-of-the-art habitat. “When we were planning Tiger Mountain, we wanted to show the contact keepers and animals have with each other, how enrichment devices made life more stimulating and interesting for the animals,” he recalled. “I said we’ll do a mesh panel where you can do a demonstration every day to show the one on one contact keepers have with the tigers. That’s been extremely popular and has been developed by zoos all over.”

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Even though the exhibit opened after his retirement, Doherty came up with the idea for Madagascar, which transformed the historic Lion House into the ecosystems of Africa’s largest island. “We had a breeding center off the coast of Georgia I put lemurs on,” he recalled. “I wanted to see how zoo born animals would adapt to a wild environment and wanted to try it with a primate. The animals did very well. I had it set up so the animals didn’t associate food with the people caring for them and over time, they became completely habituated and didn’t pay attention to us. We radio collared them so we could track where they were.” This study inspired Doherty to suggest Madagascar as a future exhibit for the zoo.

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In 2004, Jim Doherty retired from the Bronx Zoo. Currently, his daughter Donna Doherty currently works there as Curator of Mammals. “Zoos are focusing so much more on endangered species but I feel they should always be trying to do more,” he reflected. “Zoos need to be aggressive and look more ahead. With so many animals endangered, you can’t just keep two or three of anything. You have to do a better job managing those animals.”

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“I’d like to think Congo Gorilla Forest, Jungle World and our other exhibits will be there for years to come and appreciated by millions of people from around the world as being innovative and doing what’s best for the animal, best for the guest and best for the keeper,” Jim Doherty concluded. “That’s so important. If all three go well, I don’t think you can go wrong. We never did orangutans, which bothers me as I wanted to do them well. You want the guests to leave with a good experience. you want them to leave happy and see something that’s different and new for the animal.”

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