Native species, natural habitat

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

WATERTOWN, New York––”The Thompson
Park Zoo was one of the worst in North America until
1990,” admits a fact sheet for visitors, “when it was
closed for renovations. Its old, smelly monkey and lion
cages were turned into a visitors’ center, the old stainless
steel aviary was turned into a walk-through wetland, and
drive-by deer yards have become large natural habitat
exhibits for species native to New York state.”
That’s a quick version of a spectacular turnaround
at a former concrete-and-bars facility built 80 years ago
with contributions raised by school children. The zoo was
considered state-of-the-art then, but over the years the art
changed, as the goal shifted from public amusement to the
protection and preservation of species. Initially a huge
money-maker for the city, the zoo gradually became a
loser––and the less it earned, the less there was to spend
on upkeep and improvements.

Watertown resident Winnie Dushkind began try-
ing to turn the zoo around in the mid-1980s. After direct
approaches to public officials got nowhere, she advertised
in animal protection periodicals, urging readers to send the
city postcards of protest. She circulated photographs of the
dreary conditions. She encouraged the USDA to crack
down on frequent violations of care standards. And finally,
in 1988, the city obtained funds from the New York State
Council on the Arts with which to draft a new master plan
for the zoo. Under the plan, the city closed the zoo snack
bar, which used to sell candy for visitors to toss to the ani-
mals. Concluding that the available resources were not up
to keeping exotic species humanely, the city sharply cut
the size of the collection, getting rid of even the popular
primates. The only exotics kept today are Clyde the riding
camel and several peacocks. Except for farm animals, the
remainder of the collection enjoys space measured in acres,
rather than square feet.
Dushkind now works to bring visitors into the
zoo. “In my opinion, the lynx and cougars could stand
more room,” she says, while acknowledging that they
already have more room and a far more varied habitat than
most captives of their species. Wolves and elk have some
chance to roam; a similar exhibit for black bears is under
construction.
Where Dushkind once cringed as she entered the
zoo gate, she now calls each visit “a most enjoyable expe-
rience––one million times better.”
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