Kelly: Henry Doorly Zoo's magic happens backstage -
Published Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:28 am
Behind the scenes
Kelly: Henry Doorly Zoo's magic happens backstage

Who better to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the House That Doc Built than the guy they call Doc?

Dr. Lee Simmons, now the head of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, arrived as assistant zoo director (under Warren Thomas) in 1966 and became director in 1970.

“When I started, we had 10 employees,” Doc said. “Now it's 285.”

Starting out as little more than a menagerie in the former Riverview Park in the hills above the Missouri River, what became the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium today ranks No. 1 on some best-zoo lists. Last year set its attendance record of 1.7 million.

Simmons kept coming up with ideas, and wealthy donors kept coming up with the money.

As a result, Omaha is home to such exhibits as North America's largest cat complex, the world's largest glazed geodesic dome and indoor desert, the world's largest nocturnal exhibit and one of the world's largest indoor rainforests.

Dennis Pate, who succeeded Simmons as zoo director in 2009, recently told me: “Doc built something special here.”

As special as the many exhibits are that visitors see, what distinguishes the Omaha zoo is what most people don't see.

Doc is proud of the many zoo scientists and others who not only travel the world but also welcome graduate students and professionals from other countries.

“We bring people here from other continents,” Simmons said. “Russia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia. You can give them very intense training here, but also do work — because of the equipment and resources here — that you can't necessarily do in other countries.”

And so we step inside CCR, the Center for Conservation and Research.

Dr. Ed Louis, the zoo's director of conservation genetics, is a world expert on endangered lemurs and has traveled to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar so many times, he has lost count.

Said Simmons: “Ed probably has put more effort into lemurs and preventing extinction than other scientists anywhere in North America or Europe.”

Though many of the 22 million people in Madagascar live in poverty, Louis said the beautiful country off the southeastern coast of Africa is “one of the richest not just in biodiversity but also in minerals.”

The zoo opened its Expedition Madagascar to the public in 2010.

If most of us don't spend large portions of our time worrying about conservation and extinction, Louis and colleagues do. It's no mere academic exercise.

“On the plant level,” Louis said, “periwinkle is important in treating childhood leukemia. A sponge has been found that's being used for ovarian cancer.”

He is working with the Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska in a reforestation project to plant trees in Madagascar.

“I have a passion for conservation,” Louis said. “We're just a small cog in this big space — it's an amazing zoo, with Doc's vision. There are not many zoos with genetics departments.”

Around the corner from Ed's lab is the domain of Marge From, the zoo's orchid expert. She recently received a three-year grant to work on endangered plants with the country of South Africa.

“Come on in,” Doc says, “and I'll show you her collection.”

In petri dishes and larger containers are hundreds of thousands of orchid seeds, ultimately to be reintroduced into the wild.

“We don't do cloning,” Simmons said. “The idea here is the same as with animals: preserve genetic diversity.”

It's not just the staff that makes Doc proud. Passing another room, he points out “probably the most potent computer in any zoo in North America.”

At the Scott Aquarium, we meet Mitch Carl, the zoo's curator of aquatics.

“Right now,” Doc says, “Mitch is breeding more coral than any aquarium or any other place in the U.S. or Europe. And we're about as far from the ocean as you can get.”

Each August or September, Carl and others travel to the Caribbean, scooping up millions of specimens when vast reefs of coral release their sperm and eggs en masse — three nights after a full moon.

A graduate of Omaha's Burke High and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, with a degree in biology, Mitch kept fish tanks as a kid.

“I didn't know this was a job,” he said. “I never really thought about it as a career until I worked at a pet store here in town.”

Other researchers at the zoo hope to reverse the declining populations of frogs and other amphibians, caused by a fungus. The work occurs in a long hallway that was intended to take crowds to see pandas.

Oh, yes. Pandas.

Doc recalled the frustration of being “in the hunt for pandas” from China for several years before finally giving up on the idea about three years ago. Though they would have been a great attraction, the loan fee was $1 million a year.

“The pandas,” Simmons said, “were going to be big, fuzzy, black-and-white bears that slept most of the time.”

We went backstage at Hubbard Gorilla Valley, where gorillas hang out when not on display outside. Signs warn that each staffer involved in the transfer of the animals must check every lock twice — no exceptions.

“Everyone's safety,” they say, “depends on your performance.”

Doc boasted of another distinction: “We have the largest gorilla sperm bank in the world.”

Missing from the zoo for the past couple of years are elephants. An old one died and another was loaned to the Cleveland zoo.

The “rough cost estimate” for a new elephant building and an endowment is $40 million, and Simmons is looking for donors. So the return of pachyderms is a few years off.

The master plan that Pate announced two years ago called for an overall total of $174 million in improvements over 10 to 15 years.

Building on what it calls “blockbuster” exhibits of “iconic status” over the past two decades, the plan envisions securing donations for a zoo makeover that will include areas called African Grasslands, Asian Highlands, Andean Foothills, Coastal Shores, Equatorial Africa and Adventure Education.

Besides membership fees, much of the zoo's revenue comes from what Pate has called “a generous donor community” nurtured by Simmons.

The City of Omaha provides some keno gambling revenue to the zoo, but no direct taxes.

By contrast, Kansas City, Mo., voters in 2011 approved $14 million a year in sales tax for the zoo there, and the St. Louis Zoo is supported in part by a city and county property tax.

There is much to see at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, whether on foot or from above on the Skyfari.

Much of what makes it a great zoo is easy to see. But other parts — the research, scientific investigation and teaching — are mostly behind the scenes.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

Omaha police investigate two nonfatal shootings
Easter Sunday temperatures climb into 80s in Omaha area
City Council to vote on adding Bluffs pedestrian safety lights
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Midlands runners ready for Boston Marathon
Families from area shelters treated to meal at Old Chicago
Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
Grace: Pipe organ concert a tribute to couple's enduring love
Omaha-area jails and ERs new front line in battling mental illness
Civil rights hearing to consider voting policies in Midwest
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
< >
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »