New zoo director greets Dolly and friends and tells his plans for all the kingdom


Dolly stretched her trunk across a fence and waggled her ears in welcome to Roger Birkel, the newly appointed director of the Baltimore Zoo yesterday. Mr. Birkel, touring the 1,200-acre park where he starts work April 17, returned a greeting to the African elephant and said he was happy that his new post has two of the pachyderms, his boyhood favorite.

Mr. Birkel, a St. Louis native who worked his way up from zookeeper, plans to enhance the zoo's education, research and species survival programs, while creating closer ties with the city's other cultural organizations. "Our mission will be to inspire our visitors to protect the planet. And to deliver that message in a fun, exciting way," he said.

"No other cultural institution appeals to as broad a spectrum as the zoo," he added. "We pique curiosity and that leads directly to learning. We're going to make sure that every exhibit in the zoo will involve education in some way."

During a 25-year career at the St. Louis Zoo -- the last eight as director of animal collections -- Mr. Birkel was involved in the design and construction of naturalistic animal exhibits such as the "Jungle of the Apes." He will oversee the opening of two similar habitats here this year: the Leopard's Lair in April and the Chimpanzee Forest in July.

Mr. Birkel, an amateur photographer, introduced himself to the zoo staff with a slide show, and told keepers not to be surprised to see him stalking animals with his camera in the early morning hours.

Zookeepers were pleased to know that their new chief started out feeding antelopes.

"The director has to understand how the zoo functions," said senior bird keeper James Bollance, 33, of Hampden. "It's great to have him here."

A nationwide search led to the hiring of the Mr. Birkel, whose "blend of animal management expertise, fund raising and operations experience and community involvement was . . . just what we were looking for," said zoo board President Michael Hankin.

St. Louis Zoo director Charlie Hoessli said Baltimoreans will be impressed with the new director.

"You're getting a good guy, one of the strongest people on my team," Mr. Hoessli said. "But a good zoo needs great public support. I urge the citizens of Baltimore to give Roger all the support they can."

Mr. Birkel said the dynamism of the Baltimore community encouraged him to accept the post. "The variety of institutions is incredible: the small museums, the science center, the aquarium and the new Columbus Center. I want to reach out to all the different cultural institutions here and find ways to work together. . . ."

The zoo enjoyed its best year ever in 1994, welcoming more than 600,000 visitors. That was a 12 percent increase over the previous year, and capped a decade when zoo attendance more than doubled.

Mr. Birkel said he wants that growth to continue. He also pledged to help the progress of the zoo's research and species survival programs.

He headed the national species survival program for the Madagascar black lemur and helped coordinate programs for the lion-tailed macaque and the snow leopard. "We'll look at expanding cooperative breeding programs with other zoos as a way to ensure a healthy and diverse gene pool," he said.

He praised the zoo's research, especially veterinarian Mike Cranfield's avian malaria study, which has won praise from the National Institutes of Health.

The study examines the effect of the disease on penguins, which are not exposed to it in their native habitat. Avian malaria cannot be contracted by humans, but scientists hope to gain knowledge beneficial to humans by studying the disease in birds.

About 80 of the penguins crowded around the new director yesterday.

"It helps if you slip a fish in your pocket," he said.

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