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

The white brick building feels medieval, the doorways too small for 21st-century girths and the hallway too narrow for two people to pass without an awkward side shuffle. Open rooms offer brief glimpses of bizarre scenes: a technician examining blood smears of Red River hogs, a PhD stirring a rattlesnake with a stick, a baby moose on a hospital gurney.

A few hundred feet away on the public side, bored kids are staring at an empty polar-bear exhibit and a dad is muttering about the $10 price of parking. A few people strain their necks for a look at Buddy and Pedro, the purportedly gay penguins. But back here beyond a fence next to the snow leopard exhibit, this is where a true magical menagerie tour awaits.

"We call it the hidden zoo," says Bill Rapley, the executive director for conservation, education and wildlife, as he clops down the narrow hallway of the Toronto Zoo's Animal Health Centre. "It's where the real work of this zoo takes place and no one really gets to see it."

The zoo has hidden it so well, in fact, that when city councillors were debating the fate of the municipally owned Toronto Zoo last month, there was barely a mention of the ongoing activities on this side of the fence. They referred to it in terms more suited to Canada's Wonderland or Disneyworld – a tourist trap, plain and simple. Mayor Ford led the charge, asking rhetorically what taxpayers were doing in the zoo business. And so the decision was made: Sell or lease the zoo.

How exactly that transaction takes place now rests with the city manager, but the decision immediately caught the interest of several international theme park operators, including Parque Reunidos, a Spanish behemoth that runs the likes of BonBon-Land and Dutch Wonderland.

Dr. Rapley insists the spectre of a private operator doesn't bother him. But it has to. His life's work is at stake.

"In many respects, the history of zoos is the history of some noble zoo director aspiring to some higher goal of conservation research," says Jeffrey Hyson, a zoo historian at Saint Joseph's University and author of a forthcoming cultural history of American zoos, "and then running up against the reality that these institutions still exist more for recreation, more for families to see exotic animals up close."

Quirks and consequences

Dr. Rapley dodges a few wooden crates in the hallway marked "Caution Live Animals." There's no telling what's inside them. The animal centre we're touring ships or receives enough animals every day to keep a few couriers busy. Today there's a porcupine coming in and some endangered black-footed ferrets heading out to a Midwest American "boot camp" where they'll be trained for reintroduction to the wild.

We head into a low-ceilinged room reeking of antiseptic. Heavy steel tables inside can accommodate anything up to the size of a polar bear. Shelves are lined with medicine bottles, rubber hose and, curiously, a jar of K-Y Jelly. But it's surprisingly small, no bigger than any human hospital facility.

"You can imagine how difficult it would be to X-ray an elephant's leg in here," says Dr. Rapley. "This is all original, all 1974 construction. Even then it was not to the level we really needed."

Dr. Rapley was hired as the zoo's first vet in 1973. He was fresh off a 15-month internship at the San Diego Zoo and the new Toronto facility offered a good chance to practice his new skills close to his hometown. As a kid, he was obsessed with nesting birds around his home in Stoney Creek, Ont. He even brought a few home. He was hooked. Aside from a seven-year break in the eighties, he's worked at the zoo since he was hired, making pioneering breakthroughs in the emerging field of animal science and defining the "higher purpose" referred to in the zoo's purpose statement: to protect wildlife and habitats, advocate on wildlife issues and pursue green initiatives.

The old vet seems at ease here in hospital, so content to walk around rattling off facts and figures about hormone analysis and the various tranquilizing drugs he's helped pioneer that he ignores the startling scene taking place in the operating room as we pass by.

"Oh, that's just more of the bat work," he says, looking at a pink tube trailing from an operating table where two vets bend over something minuscule with wings. I can't resist and sidestep my way from the tour to have a gander. But I still can't quite tell if the subject is an animal or an eggplant.

Chris Dutton, one of the staff vets, rushes over to explain. The eggplant is actually a bat.

"So we're looking at bat surgery?"

"Well, yes, a bat biopsy, actually."

The set-up is much like a human surgery – anesthetic, scalpels, scrubs – but the process far more delicate. In the adjacent recovery room, another bat convalesces upside-down under the watchful eye of a vet student, one of dozens who come from Switzerland, France, Australia, Norway and elsewhere to study in a PhD program here run through the University of Guelph.

It turns out iron deficiency is a big killer of bats around the world, Dr. Dutton explains. The research staff are doing liver biopsies to figure out why some maintain healthy iron levels and others don't. The results could help solve the riddle of globally increasing mortality rates of the winged critters.

The conservation and budget clash

It's worth considering how all this would look to a private-sector bean counter. By the numbers, the zoo loses upwards of $11-million a year, a shortfall that its current owners, the taxpayers of the City of Toronto, have to make up in the form of an annual grant.

So, a new operator would face the immediate conundrum of carving more than $11-million from the zoo budget. And it's not difficult to see where they'd start. This year alone, conservation and education projects will sop up $12-million – all efforts tied to that higher purpose. "For that they become recognized pretty universally as one of the world's best zoos," said Bill Peters, national director of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "Within the zoo community, with the amount they have invested in research, breeding, conservation and species management, they have earned an outstanding reputation."

This altruistic side of the zoo's mandate doesn't pay particularly well, yielding just $1.7-million in the form of government grants and feed royalties.

"If you're approaching it strictly from budget-management approach, that's what you would go after, the costly conservations stuff. It doesn't put bums in the seats," said Mr. Peters. "But this work is fundamental to what zoos are in the modern zoo world."

The rough formula is hard to ignore: zoo minus conservation equals instant profits. Or, as Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant and registered lobbyist for Parque Reunidos, put it, "for a major company to come in with the capacity to take on this kind of product and responsibility, they are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart; they will expect returns."

Dr. Rapley refuses to venture into this kind of financial speculation. His chief executive officer will, but cautiously. "To eliminate the city's contribution, you would be looking at a smaller footprint for the Toronto Zoo," said John Tracogna. "It would shrink."

Reconciling the mandate with earning profits

Toronto came late to the metropolitan zoo. Large U.S. cities had embraced the concept for a century by the time the Metro Toronto Zoo opened in August, 1974. It was a time of shifting priorities in the business. What started in Ancient Egypt as aristocratic menageries intended to flaunt wealth and worldliness were slowly converted to public attractions with the ultimate goal of animal conservation, reflecting a boom in ecological awareness during the 1970s. Since that time, the Toronto Zoo has played an integral role in saving dozens of endangered species, including the trumpeter swan, black-footed ferret and Vancouver Island marmot.

"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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