Modern-day Noahs

Compared to Dr. Kurt Benirschke, Noah had an easy time of it. Sure, building an ark was no piece of cake, but once that task was completed, as the Old Testament tells it, all he had to do was follow instructions: grab two of every animal and wait out the storm in his big boat.

Dr. Benirschke's task is essentially the same, but harder. He doesn't have to build an ark, but neither does he have any instructions to follow. He and a very special team of scientists and researchers have elected to save the animal kingdom, primarily because "somebody has to do it," as one of them puts it.

The hard parts are "how," and determining which animals merit a spot on the modern-day ark. "There's simply not enough room for all of them," Dr. Benirschke comments.

For so dramatic a task, "Dr. B.," as his associates know him, seems a very calm man. In his book-lined office, tucked away in an obscure corner of Balboa Park, he leans back in his desk chair during our interview, gesturing mildly every now and then to make a point.

The point is usually the one he has made countless times to hundreds, thousands of people, individually and in groups. He has said it so often that the words come now with a certain degree of resignation.

The point is this: "Animals in the wild are vanishing. The extinction rate has become very rapid." In 25 years, most of the earth's wild animal species -- the ones people see in the zoo -- will no longer be living in their native forests, jungles, plains, and rivers.

Until recently, if a zoo keeper wanted a new gorilla or tiger, he would hire somebody to go out in the wild and catch one. But diminishing populations and a dizzying maze of export regulations, in part spawned by the awakened environmental consciousness of the '60s, have ended this practice. If the animal still exists, it's nearly impossible to get it out of its native country.

Within the last three years or so, zoo keepers have suddenly realized that if they wish to maintain their own animal populations, let alone the world's, they had better breed their own. If not, animals will not only die out in the wild, but in zoos as well.

But breeding exotic animals is easier said than done in most cases. It requires more than putting a male and female together. They are a fickle bunch when it comes to mating in captivity, seemingly oblivious to man's now-frantic efforts to save them.

Enter Dr. Benirschke. He has assembled a team of PhDs and researchers -- apparently the only such group of scientists working at any zoo -- at the San Diego Zoo here in Balboa Park in a desperate effort to unlock the secrets of breeding exotic animals.

"People have never approached this sort of thing scientifically before. They have not had to, or have not felt the need to, because they never realized just how critical the outlook is," says Dr. Benirschke.

"Zoo people are really an ill-prepared bunch to be handling a task of this magnitude, preserving animal life," notes Thomas Lovejoy, director of the World Wildlife Fund. "Zoos have always been places for entertainment. The animals have been there for people to see. Circuses. The outlook for animals in the wild is so bad, though, that the burden has suddenly fallen on zoo keepers to preserve species. There is no place else for the burden to fall, and it requires an abrupt change of purpose for nearly every zoo in the world."

The equation is simple: no breeding, no animals. No animals, no zoos.

The San Diego Zoo, being the country's largest (in number and variety of animals, and in budget -- $26 million per year compared to $12 million for the Bronx Zoo and $7 million for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.), seemed a logical place to start. The board of directors hired Dr. Benirschke as director of research -- a position that does not even exist at most zoos, since most zoos do not regard themselves as research facilities -- and set him to work as a modern-day Noah.

Formerly a human pathologist, until he decided a few years back that too many people were studying human reproduction and not enough studying animal reproduction, his approach has been a crash course on how to apply techniques developed in research on human reproduction to exotic animals. Very little of the work breaks new ground. Most of it, says one staff member, involves picking bits and pieces out of existing knowledge and seeing how well they work on animals.

Some of the research seems almost eerie to an outsider, covering some genuine fact-is-stranger-than-fiction ground. On one floor above Dr. Benirschke's spacious office sits a mysterious, dishwasher-sized box labeled "Frozen Zoo. Twentieth Century Ark." Dr. Benirschke's plans for it might well qualify him for a guest spot on "Twilight Zone" -- but more on that later. Some of the work is more down-to-earth, but the solutions are rarely simple.

For example, the zoo had tried for years to get its cheetahs, an endangered species, to mate. One scientist took the problem on as a special project and observed that in the wild the animals are loners. Males and females do not roam together. They are together only briefly for mating. So he took the zoo's cheetahs out to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a 600-acre park where animals run free in habitats similar to their native homes, and let them loose. Baby cheetahs followed shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, few of the breeding problems yield to such simple solutions. Take the case of Bouba, the gorilla.

"Female gorillas are like people," says primate specialist Diane Brockman. "The female has to like the male." Bouba did not like Albert, her companion, and for 25 years spurned his advances. In fact, says Dr. Brockman, she intimidated and dominated Albert "from the day he was put in with her." Until he died recently, Albert was known around the zoo as "poor Albert."

The attitude of officials at the San Diego Zoo, and increasingly at other zoos, is that "the animals we have to work with here are the only animals available," as one member of Dr. Benirschke's research center expressed it. The zoo could probably get another gorilla if it needed one, but that's an ever-decreasing possibility, and not true with some animals even now. "There are too few of them remaining."

The Przevalsky's horse, also called the Mongolian wild horse, for example, is believed to be extinct in the wild, and only 300 remain in captivity, some of them at the San Diego Zoo. The Arabian oryx, a graceful, antelope-like creature , had vanished from the wild until a successful breeding program at San Diego reintroduced them to their native Jordan. They thrived.

The euphoria surrounding the success of the Arabian oryx program, though, was short-lived. The technique does not work with some other animals, who simply have no native habitat to return to. Lemur monkeys, for example, have had their home forests on Madagascar leveled for timber production. Agriculture and population expansion in the third world countries, the same forces that wiped out buffalo herds in the US, do more to decimate wild animal populations than poachers.

One particular female Arabian oryx here represents another, more serious, type of problem for San Diego Zoo officials. Though capable of becoming pregnant, it is believed she may be physically unable to survive giving birth, says geneticist Dr. Barbara Durant. Like nearly every female of the many species at the zoo, that particular oryx is a vital link in breeding efforts, simply because she is a female.

The real solutions to Dr. Durant's oryx problem and Dr. Brockman's difficulties with Bouba go far beyond efforts to get them to breed in captivity. The overall goal of preserving animal populations may run counter to more sentimental notions of animal care.

"We have to achieve maximum reproduction with the animals," explains Dr. Brockman. It is vitally important for animals such as Bouba to reproduce. Since Bouba has not done so and shows little inclination to accept a mate, zoo officials have tried artificial insemination. While I was there, William Lasley , who supervised the insemination, was scurrying about the zoo's laboratory, running tests to see if Bouba was indeed pregnant.

She was not, but if she had been, the event would have rocked the zoo world. Though common practice with farm animals, artificial insemination proves immensely more complex for exotic animals and has never been successful.

Dr. Lasley exudes a youthful buoyancy that belies his heady position as the zoo's endocrinologist. His thick moustache and constant cheerfulness suggest he would be more at home in a lifeguard station than in a laboratory.

Appearances notwithstanding, Dr. Lasley achieved a major breakthrough in the zoo's reproduction research efforts shortly after he arrived five years ago, laying the groundwork for the experiment with Bouba.

"There was a real problem with some exotic birds in that you cannot always tell males from females. They look the same." Dr. Lasley knew that females in general produce more of the hormone estrogen than males, so he began analyzing the birds' droppings for levels of estrogen.

The process not only worked -- Puerto Rican parrots are now breeding in captivity -- but also revealed when animals are ready to breed. The procedure also works with other animals, including primates such as Bouba. "Without that knowledge, we wouldn't have known when to inseminate Bouba," says Dr. Lasley.

That knowledge is the driving force behind the zoo's Vanishing Species Reproduction Center, known as the "primate pad" among zoo officials. The primate pad, a collection of monkey cages, falls under Dr. Brockman's watchful and affectionate eye and is the backbone of Dr. Benirschke's efforts to improve zoo breeding.

It is full of monkeys, most of them rare breeds but with a few spider monkeys mixed in. They all erupt into a simultaneous, frightening din with little or no provocation. Officials take daily samples so that they know when a female is ready to be mated.

The primate pad's first year has been a resounding success. Dr. Brockman took me on a tour through the pad at the beginning of May, and baby monkeys were much in evidence, including a rather large, young black-ruffed lemur nicknamed Baby Huey.

In addition to the lemurs, three adult douc langurs plus one youngun' (affectionately called "the Dukes") live in the secluded pad, well out of sight of the zoo's paying customers. They came from Vietnam, and when they arrived three years ago, the public flocked to see them. With their rose-colored faces, ringed by thin white "beards," and almond-shaped eyes, they somehow look Vietnamese, like village wise men. But the stress of being on display proved too much for them, so zoo officials allowed the Dukes to settle into permanent retirement at the pad.

Only one other trio exists in the US, and precious few remain in their native Vietnamese jungles. Large portions of their habitat and the monkeys themselves were destroyed by Agent Orange and other defoliants dropped by the US during the Vietnam War.

Most of the primates consist of three lemur varieties, and they breed quite well by themselves, without Dr. Brockman and company's aid. The primary purpose of the primate pad is to learn more about reproductive cycles in general, she says, not just those of its occupants. The knowledge can then be applied to animals that need help.

As we walked through the primate pad, one particularly cantankerous spider monkey reached out and grabbed my arm -- with the distinct purpose of guiding it to his bared teeth. Another monkey, though, a female lion-tailed macaque (endangered in the wild) proved much friendlier. She reached out and stroked my arm. She seemed a bit confused about whether or not she should groom me. The notion that we could be looking at the grandfathers and grandmothers of some of the last exotic animals seemed incredible.

Breeding exotic animals presents zoo officials with other problems. The animals, particularly the primates, either forget or never learn how to act like parents.

The most peculiar example of this was a female gorilla presented to the San Diego Zoo several years ago. She had been raised by humans and had no idea how to take care of her new baby. In fact, she rejected it. The baby survived under human care, but a graduate student from nearby San Diego State University was enlisted to teach motherhood to mama. Films failed, but hours spent cradling a doll in front of a no-doubt bemused gorilla apparently worked, the student found. Mama learned the ropes and raised the next baby.

Says zoo spokesman Jeffrey Jouett, "We frequently have to take care of a baby primate that has been rejected by its mother. This often happens in the wild, and the baby dies, but a lot of animals in a zoo are not in a social group and don't learn how to take care of their young. Sometimes the mothers are nervous with people around and reject the babies. So we take them and nurse them," much to the delight of children who can watch feedings of diapered baby monkeys through the glass windows of the zoo nursery.

"Nursing is not always instinctive," says Mr. Jouett. "The monkeys sometimes have to learn what to do." For example, female douc langurs in the wild will rush over to a new mother and pass the baby among themselves, cradling it, pretending to nurse it, and generally getting the idea of motherhood. A female douc langur born and raised in a zoo would grow up without that experience and knowledge of motherhood. Zoo officials might have to step in until the young monkey can fend for itself.

An especially critical problem facing zoo animals is inbreeding. Geneticists believe that such inbreeding leads to genetic deformity. "You need between 30 and 80 pairs of animals, in most cases, for an animal population to be able to sustain itself," says Dr. Benirschke. "That is why artificial insemination is so important to us. Genetic variety is vital."

Borrowing a male monkey may not be much of a problem, although the trauma of travel can prove near fatal for some animals, but try to get UPS to pick up and deliver a two-ton Sumatran rhinoceros.

"We sent a pair of white rhinos to China, and the transportation costs alone totaled $30,000," he says. "It would be much more effective to ship semen. We just have to learn the technique [of artificial insemination]."

Where the zoo might be reluctant to ship one of its Przevalsky's horses to, say, Germany for breeding, a move that would do much to strengthen the world population, it would be more than willing to send a container of frozen semen.

Dr. Lasley is not discouraged about the failure of his current experiment with Bouba. "It is important to gain information from failure. Being there at the right time might not have been enough." Or, it is possible that the data gathered from her sample was misread? . . ."

He emphasizes that despite quantum leaps in knowledge, exotic animal endocrinology is still an infant science. "Before, no one had any idea when ovulation occurred. We have worked on that information over the last five years. . . . Bouba is also a spectacular challenge." He thinks the next attempt to inseminate Bouba will succeed. In five years, he speculates, the practice will be common.

Artificial insemination, however, is not enough. One gorilla, producing offspring at the rate of one or two in a lifetime, cannot keep pace with the rate of extinction. The same holds true for most animals. Geneticist Durant is intent on a program that, if successful, will produce more offspring than a species would produce in the wild.

In a process called "super ovulating," females would be induced to produce an abnormal number of eggs, which would be fertilized by artificial insemination. The resulting embryos would be transplanted into domestic or more-plentiful species.

Dr. Durant has already tried an embryo transplant, using the fairly-common Barbados sheep to carry the embryo of a Cretan goat (an endangered species). She also made a similar transplant from one Barbados sheep to another. The Cretan goat was stillborn, but the Barbados lamb survived.

"Other zoos are dabbling in this sort of thing, but they don't have the money for a comprehensive program." The process has been perfected among domestic animals and is a well-established industry.

"None of us like the idea of captive animals," Dr. Durant adds, "but it's rapidly coming to the point where you have animals in zoos, or you don't have them at all, and the only way we can maintain the population is by manipulating their reproduction. It's pretty scary to think that in 10 years, low- land gorillas will be extinct in the wild, but that's what we're looking at."

"I would rather see a caged white rhino than no white rhino at all," echoes Dr. Benirschke.

What he and Dr. Durant are working up to is the Frozen Zoo, that mysterious box on the second floor of the research center. There is not much in there now. When Dr. Lasley opened the top for me, great billows of vapor from the liquid nitrogen poured out, but the box was largely empty. Soon, though, perhaps within ten years, it will contain frozen egg as well as semen samples from most of the endangered species at the zoo, ready to be shipped out or emplanted when the need arises.

It will also house frozen embryos from endangered species, waiting for a suitable carrier.

A number of technical problems stand between Dr. Benirschke and that point. "But it is almost entirely a problem of money," he says. No one, it appears, is giving money to save the animals.

"We have a minimal amount of money. When you consider the huge size of the task we have and the fact that almost all the work on it is being done by this small staff. . . ." He stops midway through his sentence, and with a tone of frustration, concludes, "Extinct is forever. People have to realize that."

The work coming out of San Diego will benefit zoos all over the world. As evidenced by the Conference on Breeding Endangered Species, zoo people have largely abandoned the parochial attitudes that once dominated their relationships with each other. There is a certain amount of waiting-with- bated-breath for the results from Dr. Benirschke.

Specifically, though, the San Diego Zoo has dedicated itself to saving three species: the Przevalsky's horse, pygmy chimps, and the Arabian oryx. That's all , just three. Other zoos will have to take up the slack for other species, and animal experts, such as World Wildlife Fund's Mr. Lovejoy, foresee just such a situation.

"Zoo directors will have to sit down and say, 'OK, you take the Siberian tigers, you take the lowland gorilla.' Zoos will have to be set up for animals, not people, and a St. Louis zoo, for instance, might not have a Siberian tiger to put on display."

Noah built his ark from wood. Dr. Benirschke's is fashioned out of much more expensive equipment and techniques. So far, there's not much room aboard the ark, and, as Mr. Lovejoy says, "Somewhere down the line, we have to decide which animals we are going to save. We can't save them all."

"Extinct is forever." Dr. Benirschke must have said that ten times during our 1 1/2 hour interview. Citing the book "Sinking Ark: A New Look at the Problem of Disappearing Species," by Norman Myers, he said that every day a species -- plant or animal -- dies out, vanishes for good. By 1990 a species will die every hour.

According to a yet-to-be-released federally-financed report entitled "Global 2000," the turn of the century will witness another 2.5 billion people on the planet, 30 percent less agricultural land, 66 percent fewer forests. Extinction will have swallowed up about 1 million of the 4 million plant and animal species in the world today.

"Extinct is forever," says Dr. Benirschke again, and again, and again.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Modern-day Noahs
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today