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William Conway, Who Reimagined America’s Zoos, Is Dead at 91

William Conway, Who Reimagined America’s Zoos, Is Dead at 91

William G. Conway, an animal conservationist who redefined (but failed to rename) the Bronx Zoo, and who helped recast America’s urban wildlife parks into crowd-pleasing natural habitats designed to generate support for endangered species worldwide, died on Oct. 21 in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 91.

The newspaper announced his death in hospital. Wildlife Conservation SocietyHe spent nearly his entire career in this position. He joined the society as an assistant bird curator in 1956 and retired as president and generaldirector in 1999.

Dr. Conway single-mindedly transformed the society’s signature attraction in the Bronx from a famous but fusty cloister for neurotic caged specimens into a collection of lush natural environments where the animals presumably felt more at home, and where visitors benefited from a more authentic educational experience.

On his watch, the Bronx Zoo opened the Children’s Zoo and exhibits including World of Birds, JungleWorld, the Baboon Reserve and the 6.5-acre Congo Gorilla Forest.

“Today the Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Park contains more examples of progressive zoo exhibit design than any other, almost all of them based on concepts by William Conway,” David Hancocks, an architect and designer of zoos and nature centers, wrote in “A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future” (2002).

Dr. Conway’s tweedy attire, and his use of Britishisms like “cheerio,” suggested that he hailed from the Midlands rather than the Midwest (he was born in St. Louis).

New York officials found that there was a flinty negotiator in that facade in 1980s. The conservation society took over responsibility from the city for managing and renovating the poor municipal zoos in Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Queens, and the New York Aquarium on Coney Island.

After 43 years, Dr. Conway had retired. The society was involved with more than 300 conservation initiatives in 52 countries. In the preceding decade, attendance at the city’s zoos and aquarium had grown to 4.4 million from 3.1 million; the society’s budget had more than doubled, to $78 million; membership had tripled, to nearly 95,000; and private fund-raising had doubled, to $21 million.

Dr. Conway named animals after wealthy benefactors: Astor, the elephant for the society matron Brooke Astor; 11 giraffes to James Walter Carter, a coal mogul. When asked in 1999 if only oligarchs have naming rights, he replied: The New York Times, “I confess there are a pair of gibbons at JungleWorld named for my wife and myself.”

Dr. Conway “redefined what zoos and aquariums should be and how they should operate,” Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo, said in a statement after Dr. Conway’s death, adding that at the society, and as president of the American Zoological Association, Dr. Conway focused on “care, ethics, integrity and conservation,” including swapping animals between zoos to improve the likelihood for breeding and genetic diversity.

One metric that has not increased at New York’s zoos is the number of elephants, now down to two in the Bronx. (When one). gave birth in 1981 to a 180-pound bull calf, Dr. Conway proudly declared, “It’s the first elephant born in the New York area in about 9,500 years, although I guess that was a mammoth.”)

After several elephants had died from disease or injuries at the zoo, Mr. Breheny announced in 2006 that no more would ever be acquired. (Dr. Conway stated that flamingoes, penguins and other exotic animals were his favorites. Instead, the society would dedicate its resources to conserving them wild.

“The justification for removing an animal from the wild for exhibition,” Dr. Conway said in an early report, “must be judged by the value of that exhibition in terms of human education and appreciation, and the suitability and effectiveness of the exhibition in terms of each wild creature’s contentment and continued welfare.”

In recent years, the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal-rights organization, has been pursuing a habeas corpus case to liberate one of the two elephants still in the Bronx, a female named Happy, on the grounds that she isn’t.

Although Dr. Conway was well-respected by his colleagues as a conservationist and a great leader, the public was not impressed when he entered a new field: semantics.

In 1993, he replaced the word “zoo” (too evocative of confusion and disorder, he said) and rebranded the renowned institution in the Bronx as the International Wildlife Conservation Park (it was formally the New York Zoological Park).

Daniel Berger was inspired to write in the wake of the name change. The Baltimore Sun, “Endangered species cry out for preservation, as does the language.” In his On Language column in The New York Times Magazine, William Safire responded more succinctly by delivering a proverbial “Bronx cheer.”

Eventually, demonstrating that language and reasoning distinguish humans from other animals, officials retained the name “Bronx Zoo” atop a smaller sign that read, “Bronx Wildlife Conservation Park.”

“One in 10 voters in the United States lives within 50 miles of this zoo, and most will never see any wildlife but starlings, pigeons, roaches and rats,” Dr. Conway told The Times1972. “We want to convince city people that wildlife is worth preserving.”

While Dr. Conway wasn’t known for his sense of humor and wit, he was not without his moments. In 1968, he wrote a paper titled “How to Exhibit a Bullfrog: A Bed-Time Story for Zoo Men.” He once described architects as the most dangerous animals in captivity.

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In 1962, he gamely appeared on the CBS-TV show “To Tell the Truth,” alongside two impostors also claiming to be the youngest director of any zoo in the United States. The actress and journalist Betty FurnessThe only panelist to guess that William Conway was real was he

He published a book in 1982. plaintive letter, supposedly written by a chimpanzee, that concluded: “I have been made aware of the fact that not all human beings are insensitive to the need to find substitutes for monkeys and apes as experimental animals. A colleague called to my attention a recent address by the dean of a prominent Eastern medical school which states in part, ‘Those who would enter the field of medical science should prepare themselves for self -sacrifice.’”

William Gaylord Conway, born Nov. 20, 1929, was the son of Frederick Gaylord and Alice Gaylord Conway. His father was an art director.

Bill started collecting butterflies at the age of four and began to create his own menagerie. After graduating from elementary school, he presented it to his elementary school. He volunteered at St. Louis Zoo as a teenager.

After receiving a degree from Washington University in St. Louis, he worked as a zoologist and helped to establish the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. He then moved to the Bronx Zoo with Christa Berthoud, a wildlife photographer. They lived there for a time with a parrot named Jimmy, who, Dr. Conway said, possessed “an absolutely marvelous disreputable vocabulary.” They later moved to New Rochelle.

His only survivor is his spouse.

In 1961, at 32 years old, Conway was appointed director of Bronx Zoo. He became the general director of New York Zoological Society five years later. He was appointed the society’s president in 1992.

In 1999, he said he was leaving because he had told the society’s chairman that 70 seemed like a proper retirement age. “I made a terrible mistake,” he told The Times. “I should have said 95.”

Alex TraubContributed reporting


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