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Tom Gillespie

December 16, 2011

Zoo Tales: Helping hands

ASHEBORO — Over the years, the mission of the North Carolina Zoo – to encourage understanding of and commitment to the conservation of the world’s wildlife and wild places – has often meant going beyond the park’s walls. What started in the mid-1970s as visits to local schools to talk about conservation issues has today turned into regional, national and international programs involving endangered animals and plants and state-of-the-art research in places as remote as African rain forests and savanna plains.

Whether it’s the restoration of a historical covered bridge destroyed by flooding, the rescue of rare endangered plants in central North Carolina or the distribution of food and medicine for beleaguered zoo animals half a world away in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the N.C. Zoo has reached out to help.

When summer flooding destroyed the last of only two covered bridges in North Carolina, the Zoo stepped in for a second time to preserve the local treasure by supplying salvage crews and coordinating volunteers to ready the site for renovation. The N.C. Zoo Society, the Zoo’s non-profit support and fund-raising organization, spearheaded a drive that raised more than $80,000 in private funds and in-kind gifts to finance the project.

Recognizing the heritage importance of the bridge and its potential economic value to the community, N.C. Zoo Director Dr. David Jones initiated the effort to refurbish the structure, culmination in a rededication ceremony.

A fundraising effort by the Zoo and the Zoo Society to provide assistance for the Kabul (Afghanistan) Zoo raised more than $350,000 for the zoo there and an additional $150,000 to provide assistance to the thousands of dogs, cats, horses and other domestic animals in need of treatment. The war there had left the zoo in shambles, with many of its animals starving and in need of care.

Likewise, when war broke out in Iraq, zoo animals there suffered a similar fate. Because of its experience in Kabul, the N.C. Zoo was again asked to coordinate an international effort to help save and care for the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. The Zoo and Zoo Society raised more than $100,000, initially for the direct care of the animals. When the day-to-day running of the zoo there stabilized, additional money coordinated by the Zoo Society continued to aid the zoo in training and in the supplying of food and specialist help.

Most recently, the N.C. Zoo has continued these assistance efforts for the Tripoli Zoo in Libya after the country suffered civil war.

Like animal species, plants can become endangered too. Over the past years, the Zoo’s horticulture staff has leant support for regional conservation efforts to save federally endangered sunflower and wild indigo species in nearby Montgomery County. When road widening and paving was going to destroy more than 2,000 endangered sunflowers, the Zoo temporarily took the plants until their staff could find a safe haven for the flowers near the original paving site.

In Cameroon, West Africa, the irresistible force was meeting the immovable object. Migrating herds of elephants were crossing inhabited areas, destroying an entire year’s crops in one night, in some cases. Farmers had only one choice: kill the elephants or possibly lose their crops. Working with the Cameroon government, a group led by N.C. Zoo Veterinarian Mike Loomis devised a way to anesthetize the animals and install radio tracking collars on key animals in the herd. Then, when the animals approached the farmlands on their normal migrations, farmers were pre-warned and were able to reroute the elephants with noise makers and other defense devices, saving both their crops and the endangered elephants.

Other animal conservation efforts are more local. The Zoo donated two red wolf pups – born earlier at the Zoo as part of their captive-breeding program – to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Red Wolf Recovery Program to help foster the captive-born pups into the world’s only wild red wolf population. The two-week-old siblings were transferred to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the coast and successfully inserted into the den of a wild wolf female.

While the park itself will always be the primary focus of the Zoo’s activity, it will continue its ongoing efforts to have an impact on people’s thinking and actions locally, nationally and globally.

Tom Gillespie lives in Trinity and is a journalist and public affairs specialist at the North Carolina Zoo. For more information on the zoo’s plant and animal collections, special events and education programs, go to their Web site at

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Tom Gillespie
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