William Conway, who reimagined American zoos, died at 91


William G. Conway, a conservationist who redefined (but failed to rename) the Bronx Zoo, and who helped redesign America’s urban wildlife parks into pleasant natural habitats designed to generate support for endangered species worldwide, died Oct. 21 in New Rochelle, NY He was 91 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by the Wildlife Conservation Society, where he had spent most of his career. He joined the company in 1956 as Assistant Curator of Birds and retired in 1999 as President and CEO.

Dr Conway resolutely transformed the company’s iconic attraction in the Bronx from a famous but dusty cloister for neurotic caged specimens into a collection of lush natural environments where animals likely felt most at home and where visitors benefited from a more authentic educational experience. .

Under his watch, the Bronx Zoo opened the petting zoo and exhibits such as World of Birds, JungleWorld, Baboon Preserve, and 6.5-acre Congo Gorilla Forest.

“Today, the Bronx Zoo / Wildlife Conservation Park contains more examples of progressive zoo exhibit design than any other, almost all based on concepts by William Conway,” David Hancocks, architect and designer of zoos and natural centers, wrote in “A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future” (2002).

“The rationale for removing an animal from the wild for a show,” Dr Conway said in an early report, “must be judged by the value of that exhibit in terms of human education and appreciation, and the relevance and effectiveness of the exhibit in terms of the continued contentment and well-being of every wild creature.

Dr Conway’s tweed outfit and his use of Britishisms as “cheerio” suggested he was from the Midlands rather than the Midwest (he was born in St. Louis).

But New York officials discovered there was a flint negotiator behind that facade in the 1980s, when the conservation society assumed city government responsibility for the management and renovation of municipal zoos. impoverished Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.

By the time Dr Conway retired after 43 years, the company was involved in more than 300 conservation projects in 52 countries. During the previous decade, attendance at the city’s zoos and aquariums had increased from 3.1 million to 4.4 million; the company’s budget had more than doubled to $ 78 million; membership had tripled to nearly 95,000; and private fundraising had doubled to $ 21 million.

Dr. Conway tactfully named the animals after wealthy benefactors: Astor the Elephant for the Company Matron Brooke Astor; 11 giraffes for James Walter Carter, a coal tycoon. When asked in 1999 if only oligarchs got naming rights, he told the New York Times: “I admit that there are a pair of gibbons at JungleWorld named for my wife and myself.

Dr Conway “has redefined what zoos and aquariums should be and how they should function,” Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo, said in a statement after Dr Conway’s death, adding that the company and as president of the American Zoological Association, Dr Conway focused on “care, ethics, integrity and conservation” including the exchange of animals between zoos to improve the odds of reproduction and genetic diversity.

One metric that hasn’t increased at New York City zoos is the number of elephants, now down to two in the Bronx. (When a 180-pound bull calf was given birth in 1981, Dr. Conway proudly said, “This is the first elephant born in the New York area in about 9,500 years, although I guess it was. a mammoth. ”)

In 2006, after several elephants at the zoo died from disease or injury, Mr Breheny announced that no more elephants would be acquired. (Dr Conway said flamingos and penguins were his favorite animals anyway.) Instead, the company would be devoting its resources to their conservation in the wild.

In recent years, the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights organization, has pursued a habeas corpus case to free one of two elephants still in the Bronx, a female named Happy, on the grounds that she does not. is not.

While Dr Conway was acclaimed by his colleagues as an environmentalist, he infuriated the public when he stepped into another realm: semantics.

In 1993, he replaced the word “zoo” (too evocative of confusion and disorder, he said) and renamed the famous Bronx institution International Wildlife Conservation Park (it was previously the New York Zoological Park).

The name change prompted Daniel Berger to write in The Baltimore Sun: “Endangered species demand their preservation, as does language. In his On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire responded more succinctly by delivering a proverbial “Bronx cheer.”

Eventually, demonstrating that language and reasoning distinguish humans from other animals, authorities retained the name “Bronx Zoo” atop a small sign that read “Bronx Wildlife Conservation Park.”

“One in 10 voters in the United States lives within 50 miles of this zoo, and most will never see any wildlife other than starlings, pigeons, cockroaches and rats,” Dr. Conway told the Times in 1972. “We want to convince city dwellers. this fauna is worth preserving.

Dr Conway wasn’t famous for his sense of humor, but he wasn’t always without a smile, either. In 1968 he wrote an article titled “How to Expose a Bull Frog: A Bedtime Story for Zoo Men”. He once described architects as the most dangerous animals in captivity.

In 1962, he cheerfully appeared on the CBS-TV show “To Tell the Truth,” alongside two impostors also claiming to be the youngest director of a zoo in the United States. Actress and journalist Betty Furness was the only panelist to guess he was the real William Conway.

In 1982 he published a plaintive letter, allegedly written by a chimpanzee, which concluded: “I have been made aware that not all human beings are indifferent to the need to find substitutes for monkeys and great apes as animals. laboratory. A colleague drew my attention to a recent address by the dean of a prominent oriental medicine school who said in part: “Those who would like to enter the field of medical science should prepare for self-sacrifice. “

William Gaylord Conway was born November 20, 1929 in St. Louis to Frederick and Alice (Gaylord) Conway. Her father was an artist.

When Bill was 4, he started setting up a personal menagerie by collecting butterflies, which he presented to his elementary school after graduating. As a teenager, he volunteered at the Saint-Louis zoo.

After graduating with a zoology degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1951, he worked at the St. Louis Zoo and helped establish the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs before settling in the field. from the Bronx Zoo with his wife, Christa Berthoud, a wildlife photographer. They lived there for a time with a parrot named Jimmy, who Dr Conway said had “absolutely wonderful and unsavory vocabulary.” They then moved to New Rochelle.

His wife is his only immediate survivor.

In 1961, when Mr. Conway was 32, he was appointed director of the Bronx Zoo. Five years later, he became CEO of the New York Zoological Society, as the Wildlife Conservation Society was known at the time. He was appointed president of the company in 1992.

In 1999, he said he was leaving because he told the president of the company that 70 seemed like an appropriate retirement age. “I made a terrible mistake,” he told The Times. “I should have said 95.”

Alex traub contributed report.


About Author

Comments are closed.