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The 20th-Century Ark : At San Diego's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, Scientists Battle the Fall of the Wild

March 30, 1986|JOHN NIELSEN | John Nielsen is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Ilonkah, one of the new cheetahs for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, had injured its paws on the plane flight from South Africa, and now it lay sedated on an operating table in the San Diego Zoo's veterinary hospital.

Its injuries turned out to be slight. But the image seemed to haunt Donald G. Lindburg, a behaviorist with the zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species.

"Imagine how you'd feel if that were the last living cheetah," he said to a visitor. "It would be a nightmare, wouldn't it? Well, at CRES that's what we're trying to avoid."

For the world's threatened species, scientists such as Lindburg and the other staff members at the center may be the last, best hope. Since its creation in 1975 by the Zoological Society of San Diego, this life-science think tank has become a leader in research on the birth and health of exotic and endangered creatures.

Zoological authorities estimate that as many as three-quarters of the world's animal species will vanish in the next 25 years. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, an ecological monitoring organization based in Switzerland, recognizes 1,000 endangered species, which it defines as those within 15 years of extinction.

Unless this trend is reversed, the world could lose animals as familiar as the elephant, or as rare as the Komodo dragon, a giant lizard whose ranks have thinned to about 6,000. As civilization and industrialization expand, with rain forests transformed into farmland and plains into cities, animals are being crowded out of existence. A time may come when most people will never see an animal in the wild, because most animals will exist behind fences.

To prevent such a bleak future, zoos have in recent years strengthened their research wings, and the San Diego facility is widely recognized as the largest and most ambitious of its kind. Only the London Zoo is comparable in both staff size and multidisciplinary approach. CRES research projects have included the creation of a "frozen zoo" stocked with animal cells, the development of an aluminum water bed used to comfort pregnant mammals, and the installation of hormone pumps in animals who fail to breed. At the same time, CRES has produced a torrent of scientific papers, on subjects ranging from iguana hormones to the sexual habits of gorillas.

Most of its research takes place in a two-story Spanish-style building wedged between the zoo grounds and the Old Globe Theater in San Diego's Balboa Park. (The Wild Animal Park, the zoo's rural "sister campus," is in Escondido, 35 miles to the north.) In the '20s, the building served as the zoo hospital, but the veterinary staff abandoned it long ago for state-of-the-art facilities nearby.

The center, meanwhile, has turned the building into an intellectual MASH unit pursuing studies in virology, pathology, genetics, endocrinology and behavioral science. Somehow, the staff of 25 gets its work done in cramped offices built in what used to be hallways and laboratories that once were closets. Studies of animals decorate the walls, including a chart showing the proper way to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a lizard. Arden Bercovitz, an avian reproductive specialist, maintains a laboratory and office in a converted kitchen. Barbara Durrant, a reproductive physiologist, works in what used to be the morgue. Receptionist Sharon Dinwiddie, who sits in front of a sign reading "Warning: Attack Secretary," describes the atmosphere as "permanently intense."

The staff was, for the most part, assembled by Dr. Kurt Benirschke, a pathologist who retired last year after a decade as the zoo's director of research. Benirschke, whose background is in the study of human reproduction, initially built the staff to support the zoo's captive breeding programs. Most of the scientists were lured from research programs at UC San Diego, with others recruited from Harvard, UCLA, UC Davis and North Carolina State.

The center operates on an annual budget of $1 million, with $800,000 coming from the zoo's operating budget and the remainder from donations and fund-raisers. A drive to raise $20 million, started by Benirschke and the zoological society in 1979, continues. Its goal is to endow a series of permanent research chairs for the center and improve its facilities.

Though billions have been spent on animal research in this country, almost all of it has gone toward the study of animals we eat or keep. Almost every study performed at the San Diego center breaks ground in its field, simply because most of the field has yet to be created.

For obvious reasons, this is not a center for surgical experiments or studies on how to fatten livestock. Most of its work is physically valuable to the animal it saves and no one else. An endangered species profits little from experiments that kill it.

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