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New director comes to zoo with zoom in hand A Druid Hill Safari

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A leopard crouches in the tall grass, locking its eyes on a man standing less than 20 feet away. As the animal gets ready to pounce, Roger Birkel grabs his camera and starts clicking away.

"She's stalking us, isn't that great?" exclaims the new director of the Baltimore Zoo.

Not that Mr. Birkel, an avid photographer, is quite as brave as this scenario makes him sound. There is, after all, an iron fence separating cat from camera. But Mr. Birkel, who came to Baltimore in April after 25 years at the St. Louis Zoo, has proven his picture-taking mettle in environments far more hostile than the relatively friendly confines of Druid Hill Park.

Like the time he was on safari in Africa and decided it would be neat to have some pictures of a charging elephant.

"I have a series of photographs of an elephant charging at a distance, and then a little bit closer, and then a little bit closer, and then a big blur," says Mr. Birkel, laughing softly at the memory. "That's when Ellen [his wife] said, 'Come on, let's get out of here.' "

Spend a few hours with the zoo director as he tools about in his motorized golf cart, and it becomes clear that Roger Birkel the photographer is the perfect complement to Roger Birkel the animal lover and conservationist.

Camera in hand, he's always looking for the perfect angle, the perfect light, the perfect background. Spend enough time trying to photograph animals, he notes, and you see how they'll react in a given situation, how well they interact with zoo visitors, what times of day they are most active.

"It's a great way to learn animal behavior, plus you have some opportunities here that you never have in the wild," he says, waiting patiently for a group of neon-pink flamingoes to strike the right pose.

At 49, Mr. Birkel realizes his job as the man in charge of the zoo is just about every kid's fantasy. Hasn't everyone, at some point, daydreamed about how cool it would be to have a job at the zoo?

"I do appreciate that," says Mr. Birkel, who enjoyed something of a coming-out party last night at the 12th annual Zoomerang, the Baltimore Zoo's major fund-raiser. "It is a great adventure every day."

He doesn't really know where the impetus came from to make zoos his career. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his mother, who managed a handful of government buildings in the St. Louis area. Recently he started looking through old photo albums and realized "it seems like every other photograph I'm at the zoo."

Whatever the reason, nature was in his blood. He started college at the University of Hawaii, majoring in oceanography, but ended up earning a degree in anthropology from Lindenwood University in Missouri.

Shortly before graduation, pretty much on a whim, he applied for a zoo keeper's job.

"I figure it was more out of curiosity, to see what it was truly like to be close to those animals," he explains. "I knew the animals intellectually, I knew them from watching them at a distance, but something different happens when you actually become a part of that animal's daily life.

"I don't think the intention was to stay in zoo work. But, as many zoo people have found, when you try it, you like it."

On this sun-soaked morning, about two hours before the zoo opens its doors to the public, Mr. Birkel takes a visitor on a photo safari of his new domain. The tour begins in what is known as "the valley," an expanse of trees and shrubs that rolls gently downhill from the main gate to the children's zoo entrance and includes cages dating to the facility's Victorian-era beginnings.

Chartered in 1876, Baltimore's zoo is the third-oldest in the nation. But it had fallen on hard times by the early 1980s, still confining its animals to the dismal, cramped cages of another era.

In the past decade, though, the zoo has undergone massive renovations, and many of its animals have been moved to more spacious, natural-looking habitats. Under the leadership of former zoo director Brian Rutledge, a revamped children's zoo has won national acclaim and an African watering hole gives visitors an idea of what it might be like to actually journey through the Serengeti.

The changes have worked. Last year, the zoo attracted a record 611,000 visitors. And more improvements are on the way.

A new chimpanzee house opens later this summer. Then zoo officials will focus their attention on modernizing the valley, making it both more visitor- and animal-friendly.

That sits fine with Mr. Birkel, whose vision for the valley includes everything from huge expanses covered by nets, where birds and humans can mingle freely, to a re-creation of the Australian outback.

Standing at the head of the valley, outside the zoo's gift shop, he trains his camera on the rolling terrain, and his viewfinder takes in everything from a prairie dog village to a pair of frolicsome polar bears to a flock of sleepy flamingoes, standing on one leg, unaware that their slumber is about to be disturbed by a couple thousand screaming kids.

Looking up from his camera, he notes that this setting probably hasn't changed all that much in nearly 100 years. Where possible, he says, he'd like to see it preserved. One cage in particular, empty now but so old that Mr. Birkel believes it could be an original from the 1870s, could be left as an exhibit showing what zoos used to be like, or maybe even transformed into a sort of enclosed sidewalk cafe.

Mr. Birkel stops in front of the prairie dogs -- the closest thing the zoo has to professional models.

His lens focuses on a little baby hovering near its mother, an adult covering its eyes as it cleans itself, a pair of adults flattening themselves and sliding down an incline like children perched atop a Flexible Flyer.

"Everybody loves these little guys," says Mr. Birkel, who rose from zoo keeper to director of animal collections in St. Louis.

He was, in fact, about to celebrate his 25th anniversary at the zoo there when he got the call in mid-January from a search committee in Baltimore: Would he be interested in interviewing for the director's job here?

The committee considered 40 candidates for the job and wound up interviewing eight. They were impressed with Mr. Birkel.

"He has not only a good background in animal management, but an understanding of the business aspects of running a zoo," says Michael D. Hankin, an executive vice president at Alex. Brown & Sons and president of the Baltimore Zoo's 36-member board of directors. "He understands the development side, the need to raise large funds to support the zoo. We just thought he was a very balanced candidate."

It didn't hurt, Mr. Hankin adds, that he gained that experience at a zoo Baltimore would love to emulate. The St. Louis Zoo is in the same sort of urban setting as Baltimore's, but manages to attract 2.5 million visitors a year -- making it the city's second most popular tourist attraction after the Gateway Arch.

Mr. Birkel admits it was hard leaving his native St. Louis. But he liked what he saw when zoo officials first brought him to Baltimore in February. After talking it over with his wife, Ellen Stokes, the St. Louis Zoo's marketing director, he decided it was time for something new.

"It was obvious [Baltimore zoo officials had] spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that they want this zoo to be among the finest in the world, and they were willing to commit the effort to make it so," he says. "That coupled with the setting of the zoo . . . I just love what can happen here."

As executive director, he's the man in charge of tapping that potential. It's largely his vision that will dictate what happens to the valley and what projects get tackled after that. He'll set the tone for the zoo's staff of 175 and help keep the private and public money flowing.

Certainly, there were disadvantages to coming here. Baltimore's $8.5 million zoo budget was just over half what he was used to in St. Louis, for one.

It's the zoo's setting here, however, that appeals to Mr. Birkel the most. Only about half its 160-plus acres are being used, providing tremendous opportunities for growth. Driving visitors around the grounds, he takes as much delight in pointing out old concrete fountains that haven't dispensed water for decades, or the wrought-iron fence surrounding a lake that once teemed with boats, as he does in showing off the zoo's black-footed penguin colony.

But animals are the showpiece of any zoo, and today's photographic foray winds up in Africa -- or at least the Baltimore Zoo equivalent. It's about 30 minutes before the 10 a.m. opening, and both the animals and the day are starting to heat up.

Mr. Birkel's shutter is moving fast and furious now.

"Look at the haircut on this character," he says, pointing his camera at a pelican who looks like he had Johnny Rotten for a barber.

He takes advantage of a pair of vultures sitting less than five feet from the walkway -- "Vultures make great subjects," he notes. "They love to just perch and wait."

Then it's over to the white rhinoceros, who is munching contentedly on grass, her ears moving in the direction of even the slightest sound.

"Are you listening to us?" Mr. Birkel asks as he snaps away. "Are you hearing what we're saying?"

Like any good model, she acts as though the camera isn't even there.

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