By Matt Cole
My favorite place growing up was a zoo near our house. My mom -a single mom with no other kids and little resources- took me there almost every day.
Oppenheim Zoo was the gift of Max Oppenheim to the community in 1943 and it was free to everyone since the day it opened.
While Oppenheim Zoo was the traditional image of a zoo back then – animals behind bars- Max Oppenheim did the best he knew how given that era’s resources to give back to the next generation. He couldn’t have known how his generosity would affect our lives and countless others.
Fast forward 40 years, the image of a zoo has radically changed. In fact, their entire purpose has changed. They are no longer places to put exotic animals from far away lands on display. The modern zoo is a place to protect and rehabilitate animals whose very existence is seriously threatened in the wild.
The modern zoo is here to educate humans as to what they are doing to the planet and the habitats of these beautiful and fragile creatures.
The Zoo, a smash hit on Animal Planet, is currently the best weapon to help in the fight. The show chronicles the efforts of Director Jim Breheny and his team at the Bronx Zoo in NYC as they work to help save various endangered species, treat injured animals, breed those whose numbers are dangerously low in the wild, and sometimes re-release and re-introduce animals to their native lands.
Doing all of that does no good, if the public is not behind you. So, education is critical to their efforts. Having a hit show has been extremely helpful.
For Mother’s Day this year, I decided to repay some of the time she spent with me at the little zoo near us. I decided to take my mom to New York City to spend a day at the Bronx Zoo and meet some of the cast –human and otherwise- that she follows almost daily at home.
Walking in it is nothing short of overwhelming. Not only is it truly massive, they also do a great job making each area look and feel like the actual native habitat. It’s clear wherever you go, that it was designed to remind us that we live in the animals’ world, they are not in ours. Almost half of our day was spent at the Gorilla habitat where my mom was –as far as she was concerned- visiting with her good
friend Ernie the silverback gorilla and his family.
As the Zoo’s Director, Jim Breheny, put it “we thought we were building a place for humans to watch gorillas. We found out that we were actually building a place for gorillas to watch humans.”
Even the [human] food court is next to a lake that is home to hundreds of beautiful flamingos.
As a highlight of the day, I bought us two spots on their new Animal Ambassador Tour –the crown jewel of the Zoo’s new Wild Encounters Program- where after a 2 hour golf cart tour of the Zoo, hosted by our own private VIP Host Amanda, she was taken to a private building to meet several of their animal “cast members”.
A two-toed sloth from South America, an aardvark named… wait for it… Dyson, an American alligator, a python, and several cats from Africa were all brought out one by one for an up close and personal meet & greet with question and answer sessions.
Just one day at this special place and it is immediately clear that there has been a paradigm shift in the world of zoos from a “place to watch animals” to a sort of educational headquarters in the battle against the human destruction of the natural world.
Max Oppenheim had a vision that became a reality of a place where everyone could go to experience the beautiful creatures of this world in the hopes that it would light a torch inside the hearts and minds of the next generation.
That torch still burns today in the strong hands of people like Jim Breheny, his wife and colleague Kathleen LaMattina, and so many others on their team who have dedicated their lives to both saving these animals from extinction and changing how we humans see our place the world around us.
Mom(Joanne Cole) with Kathleen LaMattina (star of The Zoo)
Ernie the Silverback Gorilla
Grover the Hyacinth Macaw
Female gorilla and 2 year old baby (One of Ernie’s 5 wives)
Me, Mom, and VIP Tour Guide Amanda
Dyson the Aardvark