By Mary Delach Leonard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 15, 2006

St. Louis Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner doesn't limit his concerns to those 90 acres in Forest Park where nearly 3 million visitors a year oooh and aaah at the lions and tigers and bears.

Bonner's zoodom is a far-flung place that stretches around the world - to Ethiopia where Grevy's zebras are fighting to survive and Guam, where Micronesian kingfishers are doing the same - and back again to the Show-Me state, where hellbenders are having a rough go in Ozark streams and American burying beetles still aren't feeling our love.

"The Zoo is a little bit like an iceberg," Bonner will tell you. "What you see when you visit the Zoo as a casual visitor is just the upper little tiny piece of it. What's really interesting is happening where you can't see it. It's happening in places around the globe."

Bonner shows readers the whole iceberg in his new book "Sailing with Noah: Stories from the World of Zoos" (University of Missouri Press; 301 pages; $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paperback). He reminds us of the zoos of old - do you remember the chimp shows? - and describes zoos of the future. He has a message, and it comes across clear.

"Wild things are saved in wild places," Bonner says. "Zoos have a very important role in facilitating that. We're vital. We're critical. We can make an enormous difference. But wild things are saved in wild places."

Wild things

Bonner's book is a travelogue as well as a collection of animal stories. He details the conservation efforts of American zoos around the world with firsthand accounts of his visits to those places, connecting the dots among animal and people and land. His description of the remote conservation center for endangered lemurs in Madagascar, for example, explains why the island's rainforest has been slashed and burned.

Bonner, 52, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia University and taught at the University of Michigan. Though he left the world of academia to become director of exhibits at the St. Louis Science Center, and then director of the Indianapolis Zoo, Bonner is still a teacher - but one with a sense of humor who can relate scientific abstracts to everyday life.

As author, Bonner might be his own harshest critic, sometimes apologizing to readers before launching into what he fears will be particularly dull territory. With the book just now arriving in area stores, Bonner said his writing has been critiqued by only one group outside the zoo world: his wife's book club.

"They said some really interesting stuff. None of them sat down and read it cover to cover. What they all said was they would read a chapter and stop and think about it. Which, was, I thought, a very nice thing," Bonner said, then admitted. "You know, you kind of want to do a nail-biter where people can't put it down."

While short on nail-biting suspense, the book does tackle controversial topics, including his recent skirmishes with animal rights activists who argue that elephants should not be exhibited in zoos because of space limitations and cold climates.

"They will say that we have elephants for economic gain, which is absurd," Bonner said. "If they ran a zoo, they would know that elephants are an incredible financial drain. But we also feel that if we didn't make that investment that people wouldn't care about elephants. I'm not sure the ivory ban would have been successful were it not for the fact that people do care about elephants. If people didn't give a damn, elephants would be gone."

'The world changed'

Bonner argues for animal welfare vs. animal rights, while conceding that, in the past, zoos sometimes acted in ways that would be considered inappropriate by today's standards. Obvious examples are the live animal shows of old that many St. Louisans still remember fondly. Though those shows were stopped years ago, the Zoo recently came under fire from the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA demanded that the Zoo take responsibility for a female chimp named Edith, being kept in questionable conditions at a non-accredited facility in Texas. Edith, who was born at the Zoo in 1964, was originally sent to Louisville - now an accredited facility, Bonner points out - and she would be welcomed back to St. Louis if the Texas facility would give her up, he said.

Though he challenges PETA's approach, calling it sensational and self-serving, he believes that zoos have a responsibility to do right by the animals born on their premises.

"Talking about Edith is not a bad thing," Bonner said. "It's a good thing to understand. Because times were different, that doesn't mean you don't have some obligation to do everything you can today - and we have done everything we can. The world changed."

Bonner believes zoos must do a better job educating people about wildlife and the need for conservation, both at home and around the world. Which is why he gets as excited talking about the Zoo's efforts to preserve Ozark amphibians - hellbenders - as he gets when discussing the beloved pandas of China. He knows it's a tougher sell, but Bonner wants people to be concerned over the declining population of American burying beetles, another conservation project of the Zoo.

"I'm glad that we picked some animals that aren't charismatic in the usual sense of the term - that didn't have big, brown eyes and lots of nice fur," Bonner said. "Amphibians are great bellwethers. They're great canaries in the coal mine, and trust me when I tell you that the American burying beetle is a canary, too."

Jeffrey Bonner will sign copies of Sailing with Noah on Saturday, April 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Zootique gift shop in The Living World at the St. Louis Zoo.

Bonner will discuss conservation at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 24, in the Shoenberg Auditorium at Missouri Botanical Garden. A reception and book-signing will follow. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com