by Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 9, 2004

Perhaps the only wild creatures Melody Noel studied in law school were F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz. But today, Noel is an expert on penguins, cheetahs and addaxes.

"Farmers in Botswana are shooting cheetahs because they eat their livestock," Noel said. "It's going to take some creative solutions and some time to work through the problem."

Noel has no background in biology, but she is married to St. Louis Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner. And anyone who lives in Bonner's world -- whether for two decades, like Noel, or two years, like the Zoo's 1,000 employees -- invariably adopts his passions.

"I am a perfect example of a convert," said Noel, who practices domestic law. "These are not things I thought about before, but he knows how to get people fired up." Now Bonner wants to convert St. Louisans and one of the city's most beloved institutions. Soon, he promises, visitors will see a new sort of St. Louis Zoo, one that confronts the destruction of the wild, the slaughter of endangered species and the hard choices the public must face if it wants to change the world. This new Zoo that Bonner envisions looks a lot like the old one: The train still runs, sea lions still flip for fish and Raja still roams the sprawling River's Edge. But with the fun comes a sober message of conservation and responsibility.

"What we have failed to do is really show people the world around us. In Africa, the loggers are putting in the roads, and the hunters go in with their AK-47s and slaughter every animal they see.

"Ten years ago the prognosis for gorillas and chimps was pretty good, but now there is a crisis. You go to the marketplace and you see all of their heads and hands - piles and piles of heads and hands," said Bonner. "We are not showing that photograph, but you can't duck the hard emotions. And that's what we've been doing - we've been ducking it."

The human element

Bonner, 50, arrived here two years ago with big ideas but relatively little zoo experience. He worked for nine years at the Indianapolis Zoo - a midsized park that relied on Bonner to grow its budget, programs and reputation. When interviewing here, Bonner proposed new programs that would expand the Zoo's conservation efforts. He argued that zoos - with their diverse animal collections, skilled scientists and millions of devoted visitors - could act as the wild's most powerful ally. St. Louis Zoo commissioners agreed and promised him the resources to step up efforts in Central American forests, African deserts and the Midwestern plains.

"He is not just interested about what we do in St. Louis, but what the Zoo does in the world," commissioner Susan B. McCollum said at the time.

Last week, Bonner announced the establishment of the WildCare Institute, a multimillion-dollar Zoo initiative that will support 12 conservation centers across the globe, including sites as close as the Mis souri Ozarks and as far-flung as Africa, Peru, Mexico, Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands. In conjunction with leading conservation groups, zoos and universities, the institute will survey animal populations and detect the threats to various species. Scientists also will train indigenous teachers, park rangers and farmers on how to care for their environment. To Bonner, who studied anthropology, the human element matters most.

"The environment is never the problem. It's the people that are the problem - always the people," he said.

Take, for instance, the hellbender, a once-common giant salamander that resides in Ozark streams. Hellbender numbers have slipped during the past decade, and one theory is that growth hormones in cattle feed are leeching into the river system and damaging the male hellbender's sperm.

"If that theory is correct," Bonner said, "are we willing as a state to ban the use of hormones as an additive to cattle feed because that may be what it takes to preserve the environment so hellbenders can live? Do we have the political will, the economic will, to make the kind of changes we need to keep our streams running clear and pure, and will we even care about the ugliest amphibian that ever lived?"

Bonner's answer - setting aside a portion of land to remain hormone-free - recognizes both commercial and environmental demands.

"Conservation ultimately requires compromise," Bonner said. "I think people struggle with that all of the time, but if you look at the big picture, there are ways of balancing your lifestyle with the good you do."

In Bonner's case, he drives a sport utility vehicle, eats meat and wears leather shoes.

"There are people who wear plastic shoes because they don't want to hurt animals, and that's sort of an example of how people don't understand the interconnectedness of things," Bonner said. "Plastic shoes take oil to produce, and taking oil from the ground, no matter how careful you are, causes environmental damage and habitat loss, which is just a very san itized phrase for disease, suffering and death of animals.

"That's not to say you can't wear plastic shoes. It just shows that once you understand the interconnectedness of things, you see there are no simple answers."

Landmark experience

Unlike predecessor Charlie Hoessle, Bonner did not grow up chasing snakes and studying zoology. Rather, Bonner, the eldest of six sons born to former Fort Zumwalt School District superintendent Philip Bonner and his wife, Lu, wanted to teach. Bonner earned his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1982 at Columbia University. As a Fulbright scholar, he traveled to India to study agriculture changes. The research informed his book "1979-1980 Land Consolidation and Economic Development in Northern India: A Case Study," a work so dry that Noel compares it to stereo instructions.

Bonner then hopped on the tenure track at the University of Michigan, but he quickly tired of the politics of publishing and academia. In 1983, he returned to St. Louis to serve as the director of exhibits at the St. Louis Science Center. During this time, Bonner met Noel. They have a son, Nate, who will graduate from the New England Culinary Institute this month.

After a decade in St. Louis, Bonner accepted the post of president of the Indianapolis Zoo.

When Hoessle announced he would resign after a 38-year career, Bonner applied. He came highly recommended by zoo leaders, who consider him a new breed of president - one who is as comfortable drafting global zoo and conservation policy as he is chatting with schoolkids and wealthy donors. Syd Butler, president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, says Bonner "has the skills of a teacher," and Jerry Borin, director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, calls Bonner "a big-picture person."

"He is always two or three steps ahead but he brings people along," Borin said. "That's important in the zoo community. We are not that large of an industry, and by nature we have to cooperate."

Though Bonner said he long considered the St. Louis Zoo the nation's most enjoyable zoo, he hesitated to come here. First, he and Noel had come to love Indianapolis. Bonner also worried that he would be shunned by a staff and community that so adored the legendary Hoessle. Those fears were never realized.

Bonner praises Hoessle for letting William Boever, who manages the Zoo's daily operations, do his job. "I can give you examples where you get one of these silverbacks who won't let go," Bonner said.

"Everything was so much easier in some respects than I thought it would be. I think a lot of the commissioners worried this staff would be change-resistant, and that was completely, perfectly wrong."

Bird curator Mike Macek, who will lead the WildCare Institute's conservation projects, said Bonner's vision of conservation matched the Zoo employees' own.

"People have really responded to his ideas," Macek said. "We were ready for this."

But is the rest of St. Louis? Bonner believes that if the Zoo can awaken visitors' innate attachment to animals, it can change the way people think about conservation. Bonner still vividly recalls an early trip to the Belle Isle Zoo in Detroit.

"I don't remember a thing I learned in first grade," Bonner said. "I mean, I must have learned something, because I can count; I learned the alphabet. But I do remember going to the zoo. And there was this guy with these big rubber gloves, and he picked up this big electric eel and put it in a metal grid with lights, and all of the lights discharged. That's what we call a landmark learning experience, and they're not predictable. I could have become an electrical engineer or an eel monger just as easily as a zoo director. You don't know why, but for some reason it's so important that you've never forgotten it.

"I honestly believe that's ultimately what zoos can do. There is something natural here that be life-changing."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com