Lori Elmore-Moon “The debate is not so much about the ethics of sport hunting, but about the role that zoos play in promoting the use of animals. Turning zoos into a collection of displays for industries or interest groups that cause harm to animals is simply not suitable for these institutions in this day and age’ .” –Wayne Pacelle, Vice President of the Humane Society of the United States At left, Ramona Bass to her 11 years ago, as her four-year-old daughter repeated things she’d learned at pre-school about endangered animals and pollution. Bass says she was horrified. “That’s the kind of philosophy we want to confront,” she said. “We are constantly bombarded with messages that hunters are bad and that the earth is doomed. Part of the idea behind Texas Wild! was that I wanted people to look a little farther than the negative messages they hear all the time.” To critics, however, the new incarnation of the Fort Worth Zoo is less a dream than an example of a public-private partnership gone bad. Built in 1909, the zoo is billed as the oldest in the state in continuous operation. Although it is still owned and partially funded by the city, in 1991 the city council turned over management to the private Fort Worth Zoological Association, a group made up of members of the city’s most prestigious families. Ramona Bass is president of the Fort Worth Zoological Association and co-chairman \(along with rancher and the Texas Wild! campaign, to which the Bass family donated $10 million of their own money. The Association’s 10-member executive committee, which includes Bass, along with several of her friends and Bass family retainers, appoints and reappoints itself. To be sure, in many ways the Association’s management has been good for the Fort Worth Zoo. In fact, in this era of diminished public investment, it may have saved it from almost certain decline. In the decade since the takeover, donors have given millions of dollars to renovate existing structures, improve living conditions for the animals, and increase the zoo’s involvement in animal research and species survival programs. Ranked among the top zoos in the country, it attracts more than 1.5 million visitors every year. But some wonder if the zoo and the city of Fort Worth have given Bass and other major donors too much influence over the zoo’s message. When plans for Texas Wild! were announced in 1999, the exhibit was denounced by officials from the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, a conservation group affiliated with the National Wildlife Federatidn, and the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. After the exhibit opened in June, Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States sent a letter to zoo officials urging them to revise the exhibit. Pacelle says the public looks to zoos to be caretakers of wildlife. “The debate is not so much about the ethics of sport hunting, but about the role that zoos play in promoting the use of animals,” he wrote. “Turning zoos into a collection of displays for industries or interest groups that cause harm to animals is simply not suitable for these institutions in this day and age.” Officials from other zoos around the country refused to comment for the record about Texas Wild!, except to say that it is “unusual.” Most had heard about it and several expressed personal reservations, but not for the record. Officially, some zoos as well as mainstream conservation groups have jumped on the tell-the-rest-of-the-story bandwagon, especially since Ramona Bass announced in late August that she had collected donations of $200,000 to set up a Texas Wild! conservation fund in honor of her late father. That kind of cloutand moneyapparently is hard to resist. Bass says she doubts the “local people” who belong to the Humane Society and other animal rights and environmental groups find the exhibit offensive and blames criticism on “political correctness, radical environmentalists and animal rights extremists.” “They need to face the fact. People aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “It would be impossible to say if people would just go away, then the animals and the world would be a perfect place.” P.A. Humphrey is a writer living in Burleson. 9/14101 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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