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A new leading man

Affable and approachable Mark Wourms, newly arrived from Kansas City and its zoo, hopes to help Los Angeles see its arboretum anew, peacocks and all.

September 30, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

A reputation preceded Mark Wourms when he was named to lead the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden: goose killer. In the summer of 2002, as director of the Kansas City Zoo, he cut short a population explosion of Canada geese by rounding up 300 of them for slaughter at a local poultry plant, then organizing distribution of their plucked and cleaned carcasses to the poor. Now that he's been on the job for eight weeks, Wourms wants to make one thing clear.

"I love the peacocks," says the new chief executive officer of the arboretum.

He refers to the more than 100 peacocks that belong to the arboretum but routinely hop the fence and forage for snails, slugs and grubs in the gardens of neighboring Arcadia.

Even if Wourms weren't keen to quash the peacocks-in-peril jokes, it would be hard to keep them up. Meet the man many hope will restore the arboretum to the glory days of yore, and he's more like the original Mr. Gee Whiz. The Ohio-born ecologist loves not only the peacocks but also the helmeted guinea fowl, the red-eared slider turtles, the sulfur butterflies and even, within limits, the Canada geese.

His brand of Midwestern enthusiasm is so rarely found outside of Jimmy Stewart movies, it doesn't seem quite real. "Hello, ladies!" he calls to a pair of visitors. As we pass a stand of eucalyptuses, then pull up to a grove of bamboos, he says, "To me this just shouts 'arboretum.' This is where 'Tarzan' was shot, and 'Gilligan's Island!' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 07, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Class dates -- In a list of classes at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden that ran last Thursday, the dates for the San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society show were wrong. The show is Saturday and Sunday, not Oct. 16 and 17.

He's not being facetious. He knows that "Tarzan" was set in Africa, but bamboo is from Asia and eucalyptus from Australia. He knows that Gilligan, Ginger and the rest weren't castaways in the Indonesian archipelago. What he means is: Only in Los Angeles could a tree out of "Crocodile Dundee" become background for the king of the jungle.

To Hollywood directors, the plants made a good green backdrop for Johnny Weissmuller. Now Wourms would like us to see them afresh, to understand where they come from and the profound web of relationships that evolved between them, wildlife and humans.

That's the educational part of his job. The financial one will be to do for this garden what he did for the Kansas City Zoo, which was "one of the 10 worst zoos in the country," he says, when he got there in 1992. He looked at its assets (a "quite significant" Asian elephant and a Bornean orangutan) and decided the public simply had no idea what it was missing. After he somehow enticed people back to see those animals through his wondering eyes, he led the zoo as it put together and managed to get passed a bond measure for $50 million worth of upgrades. When he left, $72 million had been put into the place.

When the arboretum hired him, it too was down on its luck. Since the passage of tax-capping Proposition 13 in 1978, it has lost half of its gardening staff and a nationally recognized research center with six full-time scientists. After a 1993 merger with the Department of Parks and Recreation, all but one of the labs were gutted. Earlier this summer the librarian retired, and she has not been replaced.

Its history suggests that reversing the arboretum's fortunes will be more complicated than extracting more money from the county. Physician Samuel Ayres Jr. set up a foundation to create the arboretum in 1948 from the estate of developer Lucky Baldwin; the county took over management of it shortly afterward. In 1998, foundation and county settled on a joint operating agreement.

Wourms' job will be to make that marriage work. If it sounds straightforward, it's salutary to note that the last man who tried barely got out of the starting gate. The previous chief executive, Peter Atkins, will be remembered for overseeing the name change from the Arboretum of Los Angeles County to the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. He lasted 4 1/2 years.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens conducted a formidable capital campaign and broke ground on a massive new conservatory, learning center and children's garden.

Oddly, Wourms doesn't seem jealous. While the Huntington is gloriously formal, the arboretum's signature charm has always been a drowsy, parklike quality. Wourms wants to make sure it remains a place where children can tear around unfettered, adults can spread out a blanket and picnic, and courting couples can sneak in at night to do what couples do.

At the same time, he wants to educate us on the sly. As the word "arboretum" suggests, the place is really a tree museum and teaching-learning center. The idea is: The public goes for a walk in the park but comes out knowing what sort of bush supplies our morning coffee, the wood that becomes an Aboriginal didgeridoo, the herb that makes absinthe or the bamboo wood that keeps Pier 1 in business.

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