Craig Pugh loved the Detroit Zoo as a youngster. "It was my second home,'' says the executive director and CEO of Lowry Park Zoo. Pugh, 56, studied science with plans to be a physician, but working with a conservationist in Africa put him on a different path. While employed as managing editor in a textbook publishing firm, he was offered a job as associate director of communications at Chicago's famous Brookfield Zoo, and he jumped at the chance. He was director of the Palm Beach Zoo before becoming deputy director of Lowry Park Zoo in 2005 and getting the top job in 2010. The zoo's goal, Pugh says, is for its guests to have up-close encounters with animals. For example, the bird experts have trained a squad of colorful macaws to sail low over the crowd near the entrance. To show off an upcoming feature, Pugh lets Tampa Bay Times staff writer Philip Morgan feed prickly pear cactus to Al, an Aldabra tortoise that's bigger than a lawnmower . Pugh talked with Morgan about his work and the inspiration for it.
So the public will be able to feed the tortoises?
That's exactly the point. We want to make sure that the public has a unique experience up close with some of the most extraordinary animals on the planet. And the Aldabra and Galapagos represent the two largest tortoise species on earth … We'll be offering that later this summer.
How did you folks come up with the macaw flyover?
We saw with Raymond James Stadium, during the national anthem, planes from MacDill Air Force Base fly overhead. And that seemed to be a good inspiration. We could have a signature experience also.
What made you want to work with zoos?
I received a scholarship to go to South Africa for high school, and then another scholarship to complete a junior year abroad, and returned to South Africa intending to study biochemistry and genetics …
I was raised in Michigan as an only child, but suddenly I had four "brothers'' in my foster student family, one of whom was a conservationist … And he asked, "Can you ride (horses)?" "Yes.'' "Can you shoot?" "Yes.''
So we spent several days on horseback in what was then South-West Africa, now Namibia, to coax a female rhinoceros and two male rhinoceroses out of a farmer's field so that no harm would come to them … And that was really the transition point for me, thinking, this is exciting work. Because the reason for understanding can you ride, can you shoot, was so that we could protect the animals against poachers. We were able to work with law enforcement to isolate some poachers in that particular area, and I realized there was very serious work to be done to focus on prevention of extinction of species. And it involved science, community relations, understanding of international policy.
So bringing the public and animals together is part of it?
We focus on providing people an opportunity to be close enough to animals that they'll care. You've got to be close enough to care … And when you care, you then can act well on their behalf, whether it's in your own back yard as a gardener or conservationist, or whether it's supporting public policy at an international level, or whether philanthropic support to support major efforts, whatever you have the capacity to do.
What are the most threatened species?
Here at the zoo in Tampa, we're focused on conservation programs that directly benefit more than 90 species at risk of extinction. Here's a vivid example: Our children's zoo, Wallaroo Station, is an Australian-themed children's zoo. We had common gray kangaroo that were delightful. Over the past years, we recognized there are other species that are at higher risk of threat from extinction. For example, the yellow-footed rock wallaby. It looks like a little kangaroo. A child can still enjoy being up close to an extraordinary animal from Australia, and we're also using our limited real estate in a way to benefit a species at risk of extinction. …
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In the ark of species conservation, it's important to note that when you have mammals, you usually need to have as many as 200 of a particular species to make sure that years from now there is still a viable breeding population. So you have to make sure every decision about an animal at your zoo or at any of the other more than 220 zoos that are also accredited … (ensures that we) are using our real estate to the best benefit of animals at risk of extinction.
What are your favorite animals?
I think working at a zoo, you appreciate the uniqueness of every animal. And veterinary science and animal husbandry, we know a lot about dogs and cats and horses and cows and animals that are like them. But for most of the other animals, at Lowry Park Zoo, we know remarkably little about the full range of their unique needs as an individual, as a family, or on behalf of their species. And some fascinating individual animals here include the Okapi, which is a rare forest giraffe. The one born here this year was the 106th born in North America. You think of the enormous way this little baby doubles its size in little more than a month, and it's like, how does it do that? What are the stories that it has to tell us that we haven't been able to unlock yet? ...
But each animal has its own unique story. I think that's why we're surrounded by colleagues who are just passionate about animals in their care.
What's on the drawing board for the future at Lowry Park Zoo?
The most important immediate project is for us to construct a new animal hospital that will enable us to provide the best care at the zoo. The hospital is still the same size it was 25 years ago. We have been fundraising for a veterinary hospital and conservation and animal science center. The veterinary hospital is the center for medical, surgical, pharmacological care for a wide variety of species. And we will also have a window to the public. Guests can come off a public walkway, be able to tour and have a view of what goes on inside the inner workings of this veterinary hospital.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.