Cameron Park Zoo will be strutting in a mighty way next weekend. Marking its 20th anniversary, the zoo is showcasing all exhibits, complete with zoo keepers doing talks about the animals in their charge. Prices will be rolled back to what they were when the zoo opened in the park on July 18, 1993 — 37 years after it opened as the Central Texas Zoological Park at the old Blackland fire station near the regional airport, leasing land from the city for a dollar a year.
That explains how general curator Johnny Binder, 59, can go around talking about his 40 years at the zoo on occasion of its 20th anniversary. He worked when the zoo was chain-link fence, bars and concrete at the edge of town.
But what’s on view now is only half the story behind Cameron Park Zoo. Binder, zoo director Jim Fleshman, 52, and others on staff are often involved in far-flung conservation and research projects, some local, others in the wilds of Asia and Africa, largely funded by the Cameron Park Zoological & Botanical Society. Besides ensuring populations of wild animals from which zoos draw upon, these projects feed into the local zoo’s educational outreach — an area likely to increase in coming years.
All that makes for a better-informed public when it comes to what they see at the zoo and how animals fit into a vast global ecosystem. All of us could do with more understanding about that.
“It affects you directly,” Binder told me. “Everything that disappears in the world is going to eventually come back to man. If our environmental air quality and water quality and everything cannot sustain a frog, eventually it is going to get to us.”
Example of their work: Efforts to build a permanent nest for bald eagles at windy Lake Waco. When an eagle nest there collapsed in 2011 and the eaglets in it drowned, Wacoans privy to the eagle family through the dedicated, sharp-eyed work of local wildlife photographers Spencer Moore and Brian Boyd were crestfallen. The Central Texas Audubon Society and Cameron Park Zoo officials, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, focused on something more reliable for bald eagles than dying trees in watery peril ever since the lake level was raised seven feet a decade ago.
“So we’re building a massive tower,” Binder said of the $30,000 lake project. “We’ve received some grant money through Audubon, some that the zoo has raised, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has helped fund this project. It’s a huge pole that will be there for a long, long time. It’s actually 50 feet tall and will be 10 feet into the ground and there will be a permanent nest with webcams so you can get on the computer and watch the progress of the eagles nesting and the chicks hopefully.”
Binder says the eagle nest should be up and ready for habitation later this summer.
He’s also been working with the Waco Wetlands to re-establish a small, harmless snake where it once flourished.
“It was recorded in 1917 as the most abundant population of checkered garter snake anywhere in the United States, right here around the Blackland airport,” he said. “Since then we’ve been in such a drying trend — drought conditions especially since the 1940s — that the snake has gone extinct. It really requires a lot of wet aquatic-type habitats and a sustainable food source. So with the wetlands, we thought what a perfect time (to re-introduce this snake locally).”
So in another partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the University of Texas at Tyler’s Ophidian Research Colony “we head-started some little neonate baby checkered garter snakes that were just as cute as they could be. We introduced them to the wetland site last year and this year we’ve had a sighting of two juvenile babies.”
Projects abroad can be more harrowing, including one in which Fleshman works with several other zoos to help Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority officials better estimate animal populations so that any hunting opportunities granted don’t decimate animals integral to both the ecosystem and tourism. And there’s the project that took Binder to Java to help in the survival of the rare Sumatran tiger — a species our zoo has had notable success in breeding since then.
“I went over there (to Java) in 1996 and we actually took dentists,” he said. “A lot of these cats had bad teeth. We did like root canals on 35 tigers — whatever it took to get these animals back in the jungle.”
For a lively interview with Jim Fleshman and Johnny Binder, tune in to KWBU-FM 103.3 for “On the Record,” at 3 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Monday, produced by KWBU and the Waco Tribune-Herald.