The prodigal son is home! After 15 years, I'm back in my childhood stomping grounds, the Toronto Zoo. Sprawled across 260 hectares of Scarborough's Rouge River Valley, it's Canada's largest. And no, I didn't actually live here, but with no cat and no dog -- thanks again for the aquarium, Dad -- I really, really wanted to.
At the zoo gates, a tribe of school-children and pairs of young lovers -- the zoo's two biggest groups of customers -- peruse a posting of this year's "zoo babies." That stork's been busy. Already, it's delivered just over 200 animals, from pygmy hippo to Arctic wolf, and it's only half-finished.
But not everyone is gushing over the new arrivals. Critics fear our cash-strapped zoo is breeding its babies to win back an adoring public distracted by the Ex, Canada's Wonderland, Mel's moose, you name it. And they worry about the fate of babes who too soon become adults in a zoo with no room to house them and no natural habitat to return them to.
Cooing couples But there aren't any Chicken Littles around this morning as I queue up behind eager kids and cooing couples waiting to hop the zoomobile for a 5-kilometre tour past the zoo's six geographic pavilions and many of its outdoor exhibits. I squeeze into the back seat alongside some kids. We've been promised -- I mean warned -- that ours are the bumpiest, meanest seats on this train, so we're as happy as warthogs in muck.
First stop on the tour: the Barbary apes. These misclassified monkeys are cute enough, but it's the newest member of the band, his little arms wrapped tightly around his mother, who steals the show. Our guide points him out and we deliver a collective "Aah," a response to be repeated again and again for the other pups, calves, cubs and chicks glimpsed en route. The adult animals barely rate a glance.
The zoomobile nears the giraffe enclosure, and our guide calls for silence. "The two mama giraffes are due to deliver any day," she chides us. "We mustn't disturb them." The little kids around me clasp their little hands over their little mouths.
The scene's precious, but I soon find out how contentious the birth of the cute 'n' cuddly is. "Zoos lure people in with their babies," fumes Rob Laidlaw, director of Toronto-based Zoocheck Canada Inc.
For its part, the zoo's officials insist that economics do not dictate breeding, and that they work hard to avoid unnecessary births. But the zoo has grown increasingly dependent on $13 ticket sales that are harder and harder to make. Visitor attendance has dropped from an all-time high of 1.5 million in 1995 to 1.1 million last year. Attendance this year is down 10,000 from projected numbers. "All the rain this year and the heat last year have lowered zoo revenue a great deal," explains city councillor Raymond Cho, chair of the zoo's board of management.
Before Toronto's amalgamation, and Mayor Mel Lastman's pledge not to increase taxes, the Toronto Zoo received two-thirds of its funds from the city, but that has dropped to about one-third.
"Animals don't vote," Cho says, "and council spends money on those who do."
My trek shows how important those adorable little creatures are in enticing customers to make their journey to the outer reaches of Scarborough rather than to more accessible attractions.
When I step down from the zoomobile, racked with pain (and wishing I'd heeded our guide's warning), I head into the Indomalaya pavilion where I brush up against some of the biosphere's winged insects, lush plants and guinea fowl on the gad. It's like being in Borneo. The troops of young lovers and giddy schoolkids follow me in. But I alone stand transfixed by the spectacle of a Malayan bonytongue, a huge freshwater fish 500 times the size of the angelfish and tetra I husbanded as a kid.
Everyone else has raced up to the top of the pavilion -- to the "real animals," I hear a fourth-grader say, "the orangutans."
The zookeeper has her answer ready for my question. "Our two-and-a-half-year-old baby orang isn't on display today," she explains. "He's out on Mondays and Wednesdays."
The babe obsession of zoo-goers is not lost on William Rapley, director of biology and conservation. "We have over 63 species of fish on display at the zoo, but visitors are primarily interested in the mega-vertebrates -- the mammals and primates," he says. "The babies are especially compelling, and they encourage children's interest in wildlife and habitat protection. There's nothing more affecting than walking up and seeing a moose with her calf."
Infant fixation By the end of the fall, the zoo expects to have had about 460 births, up over last year's total of 354, not including the invertebrates -- spiders, butterflies and beetles.
But zoo watchers wonder just how good an education that's fixated on animal infants is, and what will happen to the little ones when they become adults.
"They don't stay babies for long. What then?" asks Laidlaw, whose group, Zoocheck, was founded in 1984 to monitor Ontario's 60-plus roadside menageries, game farms, circuses and zoos.
He points out that last year the zoo mated its lions and produced a male cub, Simba, who's an unnecessary birth at a time when lions and tigers are selling for $100 -- they're that common. Simba's father, with whom he shares an enclosure, is likely to kill the cub in a show of dominance. (The zoo's mammals curator, John Carnio, is now preparing to sell Simba to Parc Safari Africain in Quebec to prevent such an occurrence.)
Zoo retraining Danielle DiVincenzo, director for the Toronto chapter of Ark II, says that if the Toronto Zoo wants to educate children about animals in the wild and their vanishing habitats, "it needs to retrain.
"You can't just breed young animals, pass children by them and call it teaching."
Richard Farinato, a zoo director for 15 years and now national director of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, says that while zoos profess mandates of wildlife preservation and community education, he thinks their focus continues to be breeding babies.
"Why is the Toronto Zoo breeding 400 animals this year anyway?" he asks, pointing out that the majority of the animals are not even on "species-specific program" lists for endangered life administered by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "These newborns are the usual pap and fodder that get people through the gate. The sexier the baby animal, the better."
Of the 354 animals born at the Toronto Zoo in 1999, only 58 were part of an SSP, or an endangered species.
"Perhaps more telling," Farinato says, "is a look at the budget for Canada's premier zoological garden, specifically its expenditure column." Indeed, a study of the Toronto Zoo's 1998 annual report shows that only $58,055 of its $24-million budget (most of it spent on salaries for 400 staff) was earmarked for endangered species operations. "Now, if you contrast that with the money they get from admissions, parking and souvenirs," says Farinato, "you ll see that a zoo is first and last a business."
As species recovery manager for the World Wildlife Fund, Cathy Merriman agrees with Farinato -- to an extent. The WWF is funding the Toronto Zoo to breed in captivity Canada's most endangered species, the Vancouver Island marmot, a member of the weasel family. "We hope to eventually return those animals to their natural habitat," Merriman says. But the WWF has declined to fund others of the zoo's captive breeding programs because there simply isn't any habitat to return the animals to.
Since the Toronto Zoo opened in 1974, it has reintroduced only three species of animal to the wild -- the black-footed ferret, the red wolf and the wood bison.
"Globally, 26 hectares of forest is lost per minute, and that's not including wetlands, deserts or ocean," says Merriman, "so the wholesale breeding of animals in captivity in the name of returning them to the wild isn't the real answer. If the habitat is gone, why breed?"
Increasingly, Laidlaw says, the zoo is selling what it breeds. Each year, the number of births nears the number of animals transferred, sold or loaned out to other zoos, game parks and breeding centres.
General manager Cal White says the zoo deals with only AZA- or CAZA-accredited (Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions. Yet when he glances at the 1998 list of the trading partners, the Humane Society's Farinato comes across two names that are neither AZA- or CAZA-accredited.
While most of the zoo's animals are indeed sent to accredited institutions, White explains, a small number are sent to equally reputable "recognized" institutions.
Yet there is no guarantee that an older animal that's not so cute any more and can no longer breed won't eventually meet a bad end, says Laidlaw. "After repeated transfers from one animal institution to another, an animal stops being tracked by the zoo where it was born."
Laidlaw wants zoos to opt for cradle-to-grave responsibility of its animals. "I'd like to see a passport system instituted that would track the whereabouts of all wildlife held in captivity. Then we could trace an animal transferred from the Toronto Zoo, not just for six months but for six years."
"In Ontario," continues Laidlaw, "I've seen black bears confined to a 10-by-12-foot cage, standing on wire floors, with no shade from the sun, for a decade or more. I believe many of these animals must at some point have come from reputable zoos. With a passport system, we'll know exactly where."
Late in the afternoon, I step into the zoo's administration offices for a chat with members of its team of biologists and veterinarians. I'm relieved to find that, contrary to what many animal activists may think, these men don't have two heads and they don't eat their young.
In fact, if they chose to be vets in private practice tending to Toronto's pampered pooches and cats, they'd double or triple their incomes, so theirs is plainly a labour of love.
"From a marketing standpoint, it wouldn't make sense not to exhibit our babies," admits White, "but not once has the business side dictated our breeding policy. If that were the case, I'd be telling Carnio (curator of mammals ) to breed the gorillas and the polar bears."
Male aggression and compatibility, especially with the large solitary animals, is a constant concern. In fact, the zoo has opted to sterilize its male polar bears to prevent unwanted and problematic births.
"Really," White reiterates, "if breeding babies were all we were about, we'd be advertising our births everywhere -- 'Baby boom at the zoo!' The media runs a blurb about the babies. We do not promote them." (Still, the next day's Toronto Star would feature a full-page zoo ad with -- you guessed it -- the cutest giraffe calf you've ever seen.)
Good breeding The vets and biologists have been instructed to stay and answer my questions until midnight if that's what it takes, but after a couple of hours I set them free. I mean, there hasn't been this much talk of bloodlines, pedigrees, good breeding and inbreeding since the last meeting of the Son and Daughters of the South in Calhoun County, Georgia.
But the zoo's curator of mammals, John Carnio, gets in one last point. He maintains that, conservation aside, it would be cruel to deny animals that live to mate and nurture young the chance to do so, if only once or twice in a lifetime.
I save the best for last, a visit with an old acquaintance I haven't seen in 15 years -- Bull, the zoo's male white rhino. In the paddock of his enclosure his newest bride and their baby boy munch on grass. Like every other babe, this little guy isn't without groupies, and I have to push my way past the crowd to get my eyeful.
I get nervous--where's Bull? But I eventually find him indoors giving some kids an anatomy lesson.
Four of them, standing by the rail, look on in amazement at the leathery-skinned Ceratotherium with the horns of keratin that would likely cost him his life were he in our native Africa.
"He s giving birth," yells one of the kids.
"But how can a boy have a baby?" his younger sister demands.
I look at their mother, but she's not talking, and the zookeeper standing beside Bull is likewise quiet. Perhaps she's thinking "I'm in charge of the rhinos, not the birds and the bees." I get ready to open my big mouth, but one of the kids beats me to the punch: "He's not having a baby, he's got a boner!"
We all laugh, except Bull. He's too excited. No, he's no bouncing bambino -- not with that thing between his legs -- but he's still wowing 'em at the ripe old age of 37.