I crossed an item off my bucket list last week: Eat with monkeys. No wisecracks, thank you.
I'd gone to the Toledo Zoo to say farewell to its executive director, Anne Baker, who is retiring this month. She suggested we have lunch on the terrace of the African Lodge, which affords a splendid view of the primate forest.
The antics of the gamboling gibbons were hard to ignore. But what Ms. Baker had to say about her six-year tenure at the zoo, and about the zoo's international reputation and its contributions to the economic, educational, and cultural life of this region, demanded greater attention.
"I've been overwhelmed by how many people I don't know have said, 'Thank you for what you've done,'" Ms. Baker told me. "Of course it's all our employees, not just me."
On this day, despite the sweltering heat, the zoo was crammed with families. Ms. Baker guided me along Tembo Trail, the spacious new exhibit of the zoo's four African elephants. Kids oohed and squealed at the close-up sight of Lucas, the baby (now 13-month-old) elephant.
Under Ms. Baker's leadership, the zoo created other major exhibits, including Amazing Amphibians and the award-winning Nature's Neighborhood children's zoo. She laid the groundwork for a renovation of the zoo's aquarium, scheduled for completion in 2015.
During her tenure, Ms. Baker made conservation a major theme of zoo activities. She developed the mission statement: "Inspiring others to join us in caring for animals and conserving the natural world." The zoo added a wind turbine, geothermal wells to heat and cool the aquarium, more than 1,400 solar panels, and a butterfly conservation center.
Ms. Baker's denser critics ridiculed these green initiatives. The zoo's job is to show us animals, they brayed, not to lecture us about global warming.
"They're still living in the middle of the last century," she said. "We've moved on -- we're in the present and the future."
She argued passionately that caring for and protecting animals must include preserving their natural environment. The zoo's amphibian exhibit features more than 20 species. But Ms. Baker noted that among amphibians alone, some 170 species are extinct and hundreds more endangered species could join them in the next few decades.
"If animals can't live in the Earth's ecosystems, we can't either," she said. "It's all connected. If the zoo can connect kids to nature at an emotional level, when they mature they'll be more inclined to look at the scientific underpinnings of what they're feeling."
Other highlights of Ms. Baker's time at the zoo include the births of a tiger, a polar bear, a cheetah, a giraffe, and a number of primates. The zoo hatched a kori bustard -- a bird that no other American zoo this far north has bred. The zoo now has more than 8,500 animals of more than 750 species.
The low point of Ms. Baker's directorship occurred in July, 2010, when an elephant severely injured a trainer in its stall. Animal rights groups accused the zoo of mistreating its animals. The cause of the attack remains a mystery, but the incident led the zoo to change the way keepers have contact with elephants.
"That was a rough time," she said. "It was hard on the entire staff. We have never abused animals -- it's not in our repertoire. We learned from this and went forward."
Ms. Baker came to Toledo in April, 2006 from the zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., where she also was executive director. She immediately had to address public and employee discontent that had festered during her predecessor's tenure.
"The community was angry at the zoo," she said. "This beloved institution was perceived as behaving badly. We had to work really hard to establish consistency, accountability, and responsibility."
In spite of the patchy local economy, the zoo is on track to attract 900,000 visitors this year, up from 860,000 in 2011. The zoo's Lights Before Christmas promotion brought out 175,000 people last holiday season.
Still, keeping the zoo on a stable financial footing remains a challenge. As local school districts have cut their budgets, schools' visits to the zoo have decreased while their demands on the zoo's outreach services have grown, Ms. Baker said.
The tens of millions of dollars of annual economic activity and the hundreds of jobs the zoo generates benefit the entire region. But all parts of northwest Ohio don't support the zoo equally.
Lucas County voters approved three tax proposals during Ms. Baker's tenure, most recently last November. That's a solid acknowledgment of the zoo's value to county residents.
In contrast, Wood County's commissioners refused last year even to place a zoo tax question on the ballot for voters' consideration, despite Ms. Baker's persistent lobbying. That act of political myopia continues to rankle.
The zoo named its baby elephant Lucas, partly in appreciation of the county's residents. I asked Ms. Baker whether it might want to name the next baby animal Wood, in a bid for similar support.
"They have to vote for us first," she said.
Ms. Baker is moving to Maine with her husband, Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist and population geneticist. First on her to-do list: "Sleep for two weeks." After that, she looks forward to sea kayaking, birding, hiking, and sailing.
She said she plans to remain active in conservation work, and to lend zoos her expertise in conflict resolution and strategic planning. She promised to return to Toledo for the reopening of the zoo's aquarium.
"Leaving here is bittersweet," she said. "I will miss the zoo staff tremendously. I've really felt welcomed, appreciated, and recognized by this community."
Then she had to leave. A going-away party had started 15 minutes ago.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org