"I sensed that M. was devilishly pleased my now subdued demeanour and I hastened to point out that, after all, he had started the discussion by demanding a proper exhibit for bullfrogs - but that this display offered a great deal more than bullfrogs. 'That', he rejoined, 'is what makes it a proper exhibit of bullfrogs."
Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom (the Bronx Zoo), ruled by a wise old king (William Conway)... The kingdom was a mostly happy one, but the old king felt that there must be some way to make it even happier for his subjects. Then one night, he had a dream.
Okay, that's not quite how it goes.
When I first got to the age where the thought of entering the zoo field began to pass from a daydream to an actual possibility, I had one major thought in my head. I was going to build exhibits. And not just any exhibits - the best exhibits that there were, the ones that would delight the animals, marvel the visitors, and set the bar for the next one-hundred years. Even though I'd never been there, I knew on some level that the exhibits I wanted to emulate the most were at the Bronx Zoo.
Perhaps even more so because I had never been there at the time, the Bronx took on an exaggerated importance to me, and its director at the time, William Conway, was some sort of philosopher king. I read pretty much every article by him that I could find. There was one, however, which made an enormous impact on me. It was called, simply, "How to exhibit a bullfrog: a bed-time story for zoo men" (we'll excuse Conway on that last point - this was in the 1970's, and women had just begun their eventual conquest of the zookeeping profession).
Conway's article is presented as a dream, in which he is confronted by a charismatic, devil-like character who takes him to task for his sins. His sins, in this case, are mediocre zoo exhibits - rare and exotic animals in bland, otherwise empty enclosures, with a label stuck on front. This, back in the 1970's, was called "Conservation" and "Education." "You don't gave a proper exhibit of bullfrogs!" the devil fumes, to which Conway essentially replies, "Who cares about a damned bullfrog?" It turns out, no one really does... yet.
Conway's devilish companion then proceeds to take him for a dream-tour of "The World of Bullfrogs", a sprawling building that shows the visitor every aspect of the bullfrog. Sure, the simple, 20-gallon tank is replaced by a massive pond habitat with underwater viewing... but there is so much more to it. There are displays of bullfrogs in different stages of their life-cycle. Close amphibian relatives of the bullfrog are display here, as are the bullfrog's predators and prey. Graphics detail the evolutionary history of the bullfrog, its annual cycle through the seasons, and its role in history, culture, and literature, as well as its conservation status. Visitors can learn about bullfrogs through movie clips, audio recordings, and interactive games. Then, exhausted by all of their learning, they can sit for a themed snack on a porch overlooking yet more bullfrogs.
By the end of their tour (which doesn't even cover the whole building), a now-shamefaced Conway is made to realize that a zoo doesn't need to have 50,000 species on display - it just needs to have better exhibits of the species that it does display. In an old-style zoo exhibit, visitors would see a bullfrog. In this dream-display, they would not only fully experience one, they would understand one.
In this closing, Conway quips, "By now, some of you may suspect that I am pulling your leg; that I really haven't had such a dream about the exhibition of bullfrogs; but if you think that, you would be wrong. To develop such an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo is one of our fondest dreams."
Since reading this article back in the pre-Internet days, (when I nervously wrote to Conway himself and received a copy in the mail), it's been one of mine, too. One day, I hope to build one.