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The Wildlife Conservation Society's mission is to save wildlife, to teach ecology, and to inspire care for nature.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is an organization dedicated to saving wildlife and natural environments; in 1999 it boasted about 85,000 members and 140,000 subscribers to its Wildlife Conservation magazine. The Society employs 60 full-time conservationists and over 70 research and conservation fellows, who conduct hundreds of field studies throughout the world. WCS also lobbies for international legislation to protect wildlife and works to increase the public's awareness of the dangers faced as a result of natural resource destruction. WCS highlights this awareness at its urban centers in New York, which include the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, and the Central Park, Queens, and Prospect Park Wildlife Centers. The Bronx Zoo is the largest urban zoo in the United States and home to about 6,500 animals. More than four million people visited the Society's zoos in 1997, half of them school children.
WCS traces its history to the family of venerable environmental groups that sprang up in the late 1800s as a response to the large-scale clearing of American wilderness. Only three other major private conservation organizations in the United States predated WCS: Audubon Society (1886), Sierra Club (1890), and Boone and Crockett Club (1887).
Attorney Madison Grant is credited with the idea of creating a zoological park in New York City. Theodore Roosevelt, as president of the Boone and Crockett Club, itself created to save game animals from extinction, helped sponsor the enterprise. The New York Zoological Society was chartered in 1895, with an aim to create a wildlife preserve in New York City to foster an appreciation of the natural world among the populace. It also aimed to be a kind of Noah's Ark, to shelter representatives of species facing extinction. In 1897 it commissioned its first field study, on the effects of hunting on the Alaskan fur seal population.
In 1906, William T. Hornaday, previously chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution, was named as the first director of the New York Zoological Park (which became known as the Bronx Zoo), a position he would hold for 30 years. Hornaday was an ardent conservationist and helped introduce legislation to protect ducks, bison, fur seals, and other species endangered by overhunting. Hornaday selected the site for the world's largest zoo, which opened on November 8, 1899. Although New York City provided $425,000 to the Society's building fund for construction of the zoo, prominent citizens such as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller contributed an additional $250,000 in start-up capital. Moreover, about 1,000 $10-a-year memberships were issued. Moreover, in 1902, the Society gained management of the New York Aquarium, founded in Manhattan in 1896, from the city's government.
The Society's field studies proved valuable from the onset. The findings from the Society's first field study, conducted by Andrew J. Stone, led to the Alaskan Game Act of 1902. Eminent biologist William Beebe embarked upon a massive survey of Asian pheasants in 1909, covering 50,000 miles during his studies. Seven years later, Beebe would be tapped to head up the Society's first Tropical Research Station in British Guiana.
Closer to home, the Bronx Zoo became an important center for animal preservation and study. It was the first zoo to hire a full-time veterinarian and would establish the first modern animal hospital in 1916. In addition, William Hornaday led the Society to help open three bison reserves in the Midwest, beginning with the Wichita Mountains Forest Reserve in Oklahoma, which was started in 1907 with 15 bison supplied by the Bronx Zoo.
In 1913, the Society published Hornaday's Our Vanishing Wildlife, a book that would profoundly influence public policy in the United States, helping establish legislation to spare migratory birds from hunting. Moreover, the Society helped form the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918 to protect that species in California. Aiming to inspire an appreciation of ecological diversity through observation of wildlife in captivity, the Society founded the first formal zoo education program in 1929. Moreover, its commitment to conservation escalated as it fought to save the white rhinoceros from government-sponsored slaughter in South Africa. The New York Aquarium and Bronx Zoo proved popular diversions during the Great Depression, allowing the Society to continue to fund field studies and to enhance its facilities.
A Broadening Society Focus: The 1940s--70s
Although the New York Aquarium in Battery Park closed its doors in 1940 when construction on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel commenced, the Bronx Zoo was thriving. At this time, the Society received new leadership. Fairfield Osborn and Laurance S. Rockefeller, named Society president and board chairman, respectively, in 1940, would oversee a long period of growth. Under Osborn and Rockefeller, the Society broadened the scope of its mission, building on Hornaday's concern for animal species by emphasizing global responsibility for the environment as well.
The zoo's next projects focused on the creation of natural environment exhibits. An innovative, open habitat known as African Plains was installed at the Bronx Zoo in 1941, a savanna environment recreated for zebras, antelopes, and other grazing animals and birds, with lions kept apart on an island on the other side of a moat. One year after the installation of the Bronx Zoo's first Children's Zoo in 1941, a Farm-in-the-Zoo was opened as well with a similar educational mission.
The Society's global conservation concerns were discussed in the Society-sponsored book Our Plundered Planet, published in 1948. Also that year, the Society established a division devoted to conservation issues, which would become the Conservation Foundation. Moreover, the Society began backing the operation of a research station at Wyoming's Jackson Hole Wildlife Park. Research would become a hallmark of the modern WCS. Other projects included supporting the work of Olaus and Margaret Murie, who did exploratory studies in Alaska, leading to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1957, the Society celebrated the opening of a new aquarium on Coney Island. The city and the Society had agreed to share the expense of building the new facility, which had been many years in the planning stages.
Financial support for the Society, its causes, and its facilities continued to gain momentum, as generous donations were received from wealthy philanthropists, corporations, and general membership drives. In the 1960s, the Society was able to establish funds for several of its efforts, including the African Wildlife Fund, which supported studies and preservation projects in Kenya, Zaire, and Uganda, and a general fund for new and improved zoo exhibits. In 1964, a newly renovated Aquatic Bird House reopened to the public at the Bronx Zoo, 65 years after its original debut. Other new zoo exhibits and facilities followed, notably the World of Birds in 1972. Like African Plains, the new additions sought to recreate as faithfully as possible the residents' natural living conditions.
The Society's commitment to the study of wildlife continued during this time. Field biologists backed by the Society focused on seabirds, African elephants, humpback whales, primates populations, and tropical rainforests. At the Bronx Zoo, scientists studied social behavior among animals with the aim of improving breeding success; for some species, this represented the last chance before extinction.
Renovations in the 1980s and a New Name in the 1990s
In 1980 the City of New York turned to the Society for help in renovating three aging municipal zoos. The Central Park, Queens, and Prospect Park Wildlife Centers opened under Society management between 1988 and 1993. The three zoos focused, respectively, on tropical, temperate, and polar habitats; North American habitats; and children's exhibits. The Society also implemented an active outreach program in city schools during this time.
A cooperative effort among zoos and aquariums in breeding endangered species was initiated by Society President William Conway. It was known as the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Species Survival Plan. Politically, the Society remained active as well, helping sponsor legislation in New York to curb the trade of exotic birds.
To better reflect its role in saving wildlife across the world, and not just as the operator of a New York zoo, the New York Zoological Society became known as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 1993. By this time, WCS was funding studies and developing nature preserves in Brazil, Tibet, Zaire, Papua New Guinea, and the Congo. The protected acreage established by WCS during the 1990s amounted to an area the size of California.
Among its many notable successes in the 1990s was in establishing its historic Paseo Pantera (Path of the Panther) program in 1994, which united the Central American nations in preserving a corridor of tropical habitat where panthers and other large wildcats resided. WCS also launched the Global Tiger Campaign to protect the species by preserving its prey and educating Asian consumers about the illegal tiger trade. Moreover, in 1998, a WCS biologist uncovered a new deer species in Burma, known as the leaf deer among locals in the remote Himalayan region. By this time, the conservationist's art had expanded to include comprehensive medical care, elaborate breeding programs, and genetic engineering in some cases. Closer to home, WCS continued to study amphibians in the Great Swamp north of New York City.
WCS had expanded its global conservation efforts into more than 50 countries by the late 1990s, reaching even into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, where land mines and barbed wire from the Korean War had kept developers out of the habitat of tigers and cranes. Political conflict complicated WCS's efforts in Rwanda, Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). WCS planned to open a six-and-a-half acre exhibit called Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo to raise public awareness for that area's unique, dense rain forest. WCS also planned to give zoo visitors the option of earmarking their admission fee for a particular field project.
In addition to preserving wildlife at home and abroad, WCS sought to educate the public, particularly children, about the importance of conservation. Toward that end, a new Children's Zoo was opened in 1997, and WCS even began educational programs for schoolchildren in Papua New Guinea and in China. WCS hoped to engender in future generations an appreciation for wildlife, and in June 1998 it held its second Pan American Congress on the Conservation of Wildlife through Education. Interestingly, the conference was conducted entirely on the Internet, using chat rooms for live chats with important figures in the conservation business as well as electronic bulletin boards for posting important papers on a variety of subjects.
In 1998 WCS reported an operating deficit of about $24,000, a relatively small amount that WCS attributed in its annual report to a 'three-year trend bringing operating revenue and expenditures in line with one another.' WCS stressed that visitors to the zoos, aquarium, and parks contributed 36 percent of the Society's revenues and that those facilities were all experiencing healthy sales. The WCS operating budget included about $19 million in funding from the City of New York, and an additional $2 million from Federal funding for conservation and education programs. The remainder of WCS's 1998 revenues of $78 million was generated through contributions, investment income, grants, and subscriptions to the Society's publication Wildlife Conservation.