The oldest building at the Fort Worth Zoo is a plain cinder-block box with a leaky roof, shaky plumbing and paper-thin walls that make the place deafening at times. Yet the herpetarium -- more often called the snake house -- is also one of the most popular exhibits at the park, at least with one noticeable group. "Young boys," said Michael Fouraker, the zoo's director of five years.
Snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles from around the world have emerged over the years as one of the park's signature collections and form the heart of an ambitious, behind-the-scenes conservation program that hopes to save species from extinction. After five years of talking about the need and receiving a get-busy warning from its accreditation agency, the zoo is raising money and drawing up plans for a more than $15 million herpetarium that will rival any other exhibit.
"We're going to try to take it out of the old-style, jewel-box, aquarium-in-the-wall herpetarium," Fouraker said. "We have searched the world trying to find an example to model. It looks like we're going to have to build an example. We really want to set the bar high and make a real mark with this." Zoo officials, led by Fort Worth Zoological Association heavyweights Ramona Bass and Ardon Moore, have half of the money in pledges and expect to break ground on the new building by summer. The public contribution will be $1 million in unused bond money that was designated for repairs at the city-owned zoo. The rest will be private donations.
The new building will go up on the site of the aquarium that was demolished in 2002. The herpetarium is the last major exhibit that has not been completely overhauled since 1991, when the zoological association took over zoo operations. Plans will include a more natural environment for the animals and more room for the keepers backstage. But the design will also contain rooms dedicated to saving entire species of frogs and lizards.
Many, if not most, species of reptiles and amphibians are under assault worldwide, and some are disappearing every year because of habitat loss, climate change and disease organisms. A third of all frog and toad species in the world are threatened with extinction, a scale unimaginable in mammals, birds or other animal classes.
"You know the Fort Worth Zoo not to be alarmists," Fouraker said. "This is really serious. They're equating the demise of amphibians with the extinction of the dinosaurs. It's happening that rapidly, and it's that serious." Experts suspect that a particularly lethal fungal disease that has been linked to changes in the climate is decimating frog populations, even in protected areas. And by geologic standards, the decline has occurred in the blink of an eye -- the last 30 years. "Amphibians have been around 100 million years, virtually unchanged," said Robin Moore, amphibian conservation officer with Conservation International in Washington, D.C. "They are survivors. That's why their sudden decline is very alarming. Something has changed. They are sensitive indicators of environmental change."
Increasingly, conservation groups are talking of removing endangered species from the wild so they can be preserved until more is understood about what is happening to them. Fouraker said the Fort Worth Zoo plans to add room in its herpetarium to quarantine and breed some species to make sure they don't become extinct. Zoos in Houston and Atlanta have been active in the same field. "Zoos are definitely rising to the challenge and starting to acknowledge the severity of the situation and wanting to do something to help," Moore said.
The zoo is already basking in the glow of a number of breeding successes involving extremely rare animals -- blue poison dart frogs, Puerto Rican crested toads, and Pan's box turtles and coral cat snakes. "This zoo has had four decades of success in breeding reptiles, but amphibians have been lacking until" recently, said Matt Vaughan, the lead herpetology keeper. "With the amphibian crisis, we'll be on the forefront of conservation with them." Yet that work is being done in a building that is showing its age, and not very well.
The herpetarium -- 9,000 square feet with 120 exhibit spaces -- is a tangle of electrical wires, with heaters behind the exhibits for the animals and air-conditioning streaming in for the visitors. The building has no insulation, collapsed plumbing and insufficient quarantine rooms. It also has a multitude of cracks, holes and other spots where escaped animals can hide.
Fouraker and Vaughan recently took a donor through the building. They stopped at the African dwarf crocodile exhibit, where the donor remarked that the rain falling gave the exhibit a very natural feel. "That's the roof leaking," Vaughan said.
Rarely do the needs of a zoo intersect so neatly with the needs of animals in the wild, and that has Fouraker and others at the zoo energized about their mission. "We have led the way on turtle survival, and we have a tremendous lizard collection," Fouraker said. "But we hope to bring more emphasis to amphibians in the new building."
The Fort Worth Zoo has more than 700 snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles in its herpetology collection. The zoo is one of the most active and successful in the nation at breeding reptiles and amphibians, including some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world.
Puerto Rican crested toad
Only toad native to Puerto Rico
Listed as critically endangered
Tadpoles bred in Fort Worth are being reintroduced in the wild
Pan's box turtle
Found only in two Chinese provinces
Discovered in 1984
Critically endangered by poaching and loss of habitat
Coral cat snake
Lives in trees in Central America
Has the same tricolor pattern as the venomous coral snake
Believed to have been bred in captivity for the first time