By Debra Rich Gettleman
“In a perfect world,” explains Bert Castro, President and CEO of the Phoenix Zoo, “We wouldn’t have zoos.”
I admit, that wasn’t the first thing I expected to hear in my interview with the head of the Phoenix Zoo and his conservation co-collaborator, Oren Ben Yosef, Director of the Safari Ramat Gan Zoo in Ramat Gan, Israel. But, he continued, “We’d have animals that were out wild and free and, you know, enjoying nature along with humans.”
Since Phoenix and Ramat Gan have been sister cities for over 2 decades, the two men have developed a strong connection. After meeting at a zoo conference in Argentina, they felt compelled to find a joint project, and began brainstorming about what they could do together that would be meaningful. According to Castro, “We sat down and said, you know, we really ought to commit to doing something more than just being sister zoos. We should try to find common ground to build on our relationship.”
Since both men are passionate about conservation, and both zoos share similar missions that include a responsibility to save endangered wildlife, they came up with the idea of working together to save Israel’s Eurasian griffon vulture population, which is rapidly disappearing with only 200 birds still in existence. “We decided to make a photo exhibition together because conservation is something you can’t do alone,” opined Ben Yosef. Enlisting the talents of zoo members and volunteers, the photo exhibition was born.
Since Phoenix is home to the Rüppell’s Vulture, a distant cousin of the Griffin, The Phoenix Zoo was keenly interested in saving the Griffon vulture and through several conversations, and a generous donation from the Phoenix Zoo, the men developed a photo exhibition that could show how Ramat Gan Safari was doing conservation. They wanted to show the behind the scenes work that zoo goers don’t usually see. With the Phoenix Zoo’s art committee and Ramat Gan’s education team, the exhibition was born and opened in Tel Aviv for the zoo’s 100th anniversary. That exciting exhibition is now on its way to Phoenix for an October 15th unveiling.
After joining forces, Bert and a team from the Phoenix Zoo traveled to Israel to see the nurseries where the eggs are cared for prior to hatching and their enclosure station to observe how these baby vultures, are fed, nurtured, and then softly released back into nature. Griffin vultures only lay one egg a year. And the process of incubation is an arduous one which is often better accomplished in the controlled safety of an incubator.
But, in order to keep the parent vultures engaged and attached to their babies, Ben Yosef confesses that they switch out the real eggs for concrete eggs. The mother sits on the concrete egg and bonds with it until hatching time rolls around and the eggs are again switched out. At the birth, the parents, none the wiser, happily bond with their new babes and all is well.
But the heroic stories of caring for these young vultures go beyond what most of us know as conservation. Ben Yosef shares a tale of a baby vulture whose mother was killed after her 8-foot-wide wingspan caused her to collide into some electrical wires. The father bird alone couldn’t feed the baby enough to strengthen it for survival, so the zoo partnered with the Israeli military to develop a vulture drone that collected and fed the additional food necessary for the bird’s healthy development.
Oren and Bert have formed a remarkable partnership determined to save animals and share the beauty of wildlife and nature with the rest of the world. With 7000 miles between them, the two men have risen above the distance to work in tandem to save the Eurasian griffon vulture.
When asked about the ultimate goal of this partnership. Castro tells me, “As conservationists, I think the end goal is to save the world.” A tall order, he admits. But he continues, “What we are trying to do through these events, through our zoos, is trying to educate people, and inspire people, and motivate them to care for the natural world.”
At the core of the Phoenix Zoo’s mission is the goal of inspiring people by encouraging intimate moments with wildlife. Once people understand what’s really happening in the wild, they can begin to gain a better understanding of the complex conservation issues that are out there.
As for future issues, Castro shares that he has a good relationship with Dr. Walid Hussain, the director of the newly accredited Emirates Park Zoo in the United Arab Emirates. The three men plan to talk when they meet in Phoenix for the October event and focus on what they might work on together. All three directors share concern for the Arabian Oryx.
“I think building those relationships is important and putting other things aside and focusing on conservation can do some really great things out there.” The idea that wildlife conservation can not only help people understand nature, but also help grow acceptance and camaraderie between racially and religiously diverse communities is an exciting step towards the conservationist’s long-term goal of “saving the world.”
The two men invite everyone to come to this event to see the incredible international conservation efforts taking place between the Phoenix Zoo and Safari Ramat Gan. It’s a chance to be educated and inspired, to find a way for you to become involved in the zoo or specifically in their conservation efforts. The event is Sunday, October 15th at 6pm in the Doornbos Wildlife Amphitheater with a presentation followed by a walk to the Safari Gallery to enjoy Kosher food and drink as you take in the collaborative photo exhibit “The Bigger Picture – Focusing our Lenses on what Bonds Us Together Rather than what Sets Us Apart.”
Tickets for the presentation on Sunday, October 15 can be purchased here: https://www.phoenixzoo.org/events/the-bigger-picture-art-exhibit-fundraising-reception/