Photo Courtesy Webster-Kirkwood Times.

Photo Courtesy Webster-Kirkwood Times.

by Don Corrigan  (Webster-Kirkwood Times)

I used to think that zoos were a place to get away from it all; a refuge from all the madness outside the zoo walls; a quiet place on a warm weekday afternoon to contemplate, while watching animals sun themselves.

Maybe this was actually in another lifetime, before my reincarnation as a news guy. Zoos seem to be in the middle of everything now — making headlines, filling the blogosphere.

Recall the May story in which the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla was shot and killed after a 4-year-old boy slipped into the animal’s enclosure. Voices were raised against the zookeepers’ actions in accounts from CBS to ABC to the BBC — never mind all the mindless chatter on social media.

Closer to home, our St. Louis Zoo has had its moments in the media glare. Zoo news controversies have involved  animal exhibits, Halloween displays, demands by some to bear arms among the bears and, of course, recent debates over whether the Zoo was meant to be “born free.”

My favorite in the annals of Zoo brouhahas was the controversy over a Darwin exhibit. Some critics thought  the Genesis story should be brought in for a fair and balanced rejoinder to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

For folks who lean toward the Genesis story, I suggest a trip to the  Creation Museum in Kentucky, where a life-size Noah’s Ark was recently unveiled. The museum is a wonder. I’ve made the pilgrimage and have my “Prepare to Believe” souvenir hat.

However, I prefer to get my science from experts, like at the St. Louis Zoo. I appreciate how the Zoo is now using its new guest, Kali the Polar Bear, to explain how climate change affects the habitat for animals in the wild.

I also appreciate a chance to sit down for a talk with Charlie Hoessle, Zoo director from 1982 to 2002 and a treasured resident of  Sunset Hills.

Here’s a synopsis of Charlie’s take on some recent zoo controversies:

•On killing the gorilla. “The zoo in Cincinnati had no choice but to shoot the gorilla. Human life has to take precedence over animal life in such a dangerous situation.”

•On guns: “I am a gun owner and have pistols, rifles and shotguns. But guns don’t belong in school or a zoo. It will be chaos if we get to the point where people bring their AR-15s with them to the zoo.”

•On a zoo’s purpose: “Our St. Louis Zoo has become an extremely important scientific resource on animals and for worldwide conservation purposes. The amusement mission is still there, and the Zoo is there for people to have fun.  They can come and learn as much or as little as they want.”

•On born free: “The Zoo’s founders argued it should be ‘born free.’ Some  people have become vocal wanting to charge admission. I see real value in keeping it accessible to poor kids and immigrants who would be affected.

“We get lots of tourists who spend time in St. Louis and help the economy because our Zoo is free. When you charge admission, you have to pay for gates, guards, ID checkers and more.”

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