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Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

conservation

Inside Toronto's hidden zoo Add to ...

“Toronto was part of a new era of zoos often referred to as utopian zoos,” says Dr. Hyson, the zoo historian. “They were built around a conservationist framework and they were taken out of an urban setting so they could sprawl a bit more.”

But that mandate has always seemed at odds with the unavoidable carnival-like atmosphere of the public attraction, with its downtown parking rates, pizza vendors, cotton candy and liberal doses of anthropomorphizing. This paradox is at the heart of most zoos, where public displays of cruelty are a necessary means of subsidizing the very humane work going on behind the scenes.

“These new zoos keep saying they are more advanced, more humane than the previous generation,” said Dr. Hyson. “But then they keep having shows or ‘name the animal’ contests, or have stuffed animals in gift shops – these things that undermine the central message.”

For $15-million, staff say they can bulldoze the wall between the visible zoo and the hidden zoo. Their proposed Wildlife Health Centre is a 20,000-square-foot building with large public windows looking onto the treatment room, operating room and clinical lab. Closed-circuit televisions would project microscope images and surgeries.

“People will be able to see the fascinating work back here, the blood cells being counted, the parasites in the feces and so on,” says Dr. Dutton, completely deadpan. “Places like Disney do this sort of thing already.”

Proselytizing a higher purpose

Before I can ask anything more about the bats or the K-Y Jelly, Dr. Rapley is drawing me into another cramped room. This one looks like a hoarder’s grow-op, humid as a Mississippi summer and packed with aquaria. “We are a little hemmed-in,” says Andrew Lentini, the zoo’s amphibians and reptiles man. He’s spent the day watching over endangered turtles recovered from a disreputable Toronto pet store and a Massassauga rattlesnake that’s kept under lock and key. But his focus right now is the Puerto Rican crested toad. A threatened species, the crested toads resisted captive breeding for years until zoo staff began experimenting with piped-in sounds. They started by playing recordings of chirping males and then gradually cranked up the humidity while adding the sound of a rainstorm to simulate Puerto Rico’s rain-soaked breeding season. The result was an irresistible auditory aphrodisiac. The zoo has been shipping thousands of tadpoles south ever since.

I linger to think about this Barry White for amphibians for a second, but Dr. Rapley wants me to see all the little zoological innovations lurking in every corner of the Scarborough facility. Zooming from exhibit to exhibit by electric golf cart, he calls on keepers to explain their hidden ingenuity, such as the Toronto Zoo Diet, specialized food-and-vitamin blends that nutrition staff have become so adept at formulating that they are sold around the world; like the research on why stressed-out bison don’t breed; like best practices for freezing camel semen; like the skill of recognizing a good, firm ferret testicle.

“You have to time it right,” says mammal curator Maria Franke. “If the male ferret is shooting blanks, you’ll lose any chance of breeding for a whole year.”

If this is a tour revealing the zoo’s higher purpose, Dr. Rapley is its chief proselytizer. Within an hour, the golf cart is nearly out of juice and he pulls me into a boardroom with Mr. Tracogna, the CEO. I begin asking about the zoo’s uncertain fate and his enthusiasm begins to wane.

“You know, I’ve been around zoos for 31 years, under different directors and politicians,” Mr. Rapley says. “There are always ups and downs. As long as we remain dedicated to the animals, we’ll be fine.”

And if they’re not?

“My whole life is here,” he says. “People in society forget about nature and the environment. They get so wrapped up in social media, television, that they take our environment for granted. My job, our job, is to remind people we share the same earth, they same water, the same air. And we’ll keep at it.”

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