Where the Animals Are


This 25th anniversary of Earth Day is a fitting time to recognize two windows on the world for Baltimoreans: One is the angular building with a rain forest in its attic that continues to be a signature for the city's Inner Harbor renaissance, the other a verdant urban oasis in Druid Hill Park.

The National Aquarium and the Baltimore Zoo are cultural gems of national, even international caliber. Charm City may still suffer bouts of an old inferiority complex over its lack of big-league football, or in comparisons with its boorish brother at the south end of the capital parkway. But few cities have an aquarium to match Baltimore's, and the local zoo offers a more pleasant visit than the steep-sloped, user-unfriendly National Zoo in Washington. The children's zoo at the Baltimore facility last year was ranked best in the country by a national zoo guide.

But why celebrate the aquarium and the zoo on Earth Day? Some people contend such facilities denigrate animal life. That couldn't be further from the truth.

The conservation work at zoos and aquariums aims to preserve animals and protect their habitats, even to replenish them in the wild. It is not wholly a new role. In 1907, the Bronx Zoo, of all places, nurtured the few remaining American bison, returned them to the heartland -- and saved the breed.

Roger Birkel, the St. Louis native who last week began as the new director of the Baltimore Zoo, said the zoo's conservation ethic helped convince him to come here. The zoo has already played a part in the strengthening populations of the rare lion-tailed macaque, a monkey, and the black-footed penguin. The zoo also participates in a "species survival program" as part of the Bethesda-based American Zoo and Aquarium Association. a data base to keep zoos aware of one other's husbandry work, to reduce inbreeding -- sort of computer-dating for fauna.

A priority of American zoos, including Baltimore's, is to redesign their spaces to reflect the greater sensitivity that has dawned since Earth Day. Baltimore's African Watering Hole allows rhinos and zebras to mingle in the open air. A 50-foot oak will become a cat perch in the "leopard's lair" to open next month. And an African forest, with monkeys and crocodiles, will be unveiled later in '95. The hope is that eventually the Victorian-era, iron cages at the zoo's entrance will be demolished in favor of an "International Valley" of open-air exhibits.

The National Aquarium, on the other hand, hasn't had to remake its face. Its design, which pioneered an '80s wave of aquarium centerpieces for urban revival, has been amazingly resilient. But like the zoo, the aquarium too has undergone a transformation from a showcase for animals to an ER for their survival.

A parking meter in the aquarium raises money for rain-forest preservation by exhorting passers-by to "give change to make a change." It has been the most successful program of its type in the country. The $180,000 it has reaped over four years has led to the protection of 5,000 acres of rain forest.

Another meter was recently installed to save coral reefs. The aquarium's Project ReefAction is to spread the word that one-quarter of all marine species live on coral reefs and yet two-thirds of them are suffering from chemical pollution, dynamite fishing and mining for shells.

The aquarium, which just re-opened its popular coral-reef exhibit, is undertaking its project in concert with the State and Commerce departments, the Nature Conservancy and the Center for Ecosystem Survival. Anti-aquarium zealots should contemplate this: Would the Nature Conservancy align with a group that's anti-animal?

The irony of the National Aquarium is that but a fraction of its focus is on the troubled Chesapeake Bay. Yet its more global focus is purposeful: It's a reminder -- so vital in the current, stingy scope of politics -- that problems that aren't part of our daily world will eventually affect us, too.

There is no more lasting contribution by the aquarium and zoo, though, than their impact on children. You only have to see the easily-bored MTV and Mortal Kombat crowd hypnotized by a sand tiger cruising the shark tank or by a polar bear at the zoo making like Anita Nall, doing flip turns in its pool, to realize the intimacy and educational clout of these experiences.

And don't take such opportunities for granted. Baltimore's newkeeper-zookeeper, Mr. Birkel, recalls lecturing grade-schoolers in East Africa. As he discussed lions and tigers and elephants, he had a startling revelation: These children never had occasion to see these animals either.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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