Rick Horton '77 is definitely an animal guy. His qualifications include studying tree snails on Britain's Isle of Jersey, helping establish a wildlife center in his home state of Massachusetts, and working for the reptile gardens in South Dakota. And does he have the scars to prove it? Definitely.
While strolling down a path marked with signs for the sea lions ahead, Horton flipped over his right palm and traced a fissure of scar tissue like a stout lifeline. "This is from a woodchuck that we used for Groundhog Day in Connecticut. Then somewhere around here a big boa implanted his tooth into my skin. I carried that around with me for years until my body finally rejected it, and it popped out," he explained, pinching the web of skin between his thumb and his index finger.
Horton no longer handles animals; instead, he lives vicariously through the staff at Portland's Oregon Zoo. As the grants manager for The Oregon Zoo Foundation, Horton is still actively involved in animal rehabilitation, conservation, and education, but his hands do not get dirty in the process. "Now my job entails a little of everything," he said, standing before a large seawater tank that is home to two eight-foot sea lions. "My job is like a logic puzzle," Horton said. "There are two interested parties, the zoo and the funder, and I need to make sure they intersect."
He primarily deals in private and charitable funds, which do not simply entail raising funds for new exhibits or entertainment venues for the zoo's visitors. Many of the services that Horton and the Oregon Zoo orchestrate occur far from the heavy plated glass or knobby wooden railings. "We work with all sorts of groups. For example, I just focused on a deal with a forest organization about helping us prepare for a potential forest fire," Horton said, gesturing toward the tree-covered hills. "The zoo is surrounded by a park forest, so it's important to take the right precautionary measures to protect the zoo's well-being."
One project focuses on the well being of a remarkable species. The Oregon Zoo is participating in the California Condor Recovery Program, a federally led project aimed at reclassifying the status of the birds from endangered to threatened. The Oregon Zoo Foundation was invited to participate in 2001, and in two years Horton helped raise $2 million to ready for the arrival of condors.
In 2003 the zoo acquired 12 of these enormous and highly endangered birds of prey. Isolated in a center 20 miles east of the zoo, the birds, a rare species of vulture, are cared for with minimal human contact. Working toward a population goal of 150 (two captive and one non-captive population of 150, among other criteria, are required to move from endangered status), the center has hatched nine condor eggs since its creation and released two adults.
Horton explained that the team also teaches the birds basic survival lessons for a modern world. Previously, condors died after landing on power poles in the wild. "We subject them to a mild shock [atop a mock power pole] at the recovery center, and they will never make the same mistake again."
And what is it like to see a condor released into the wild? Horton's eyes glisten. "It's a remarkable sight," he said.
Zoos have an important education and conservation mission—and can serve as a respite from a stressful world. After 9/11, Horton said, admissions at the zoo steadily increased, despite the inverse effect on the economy. "People like to see animals. They are interesting and entertaining, and they make people feel good in a very pure manner."
"Here, people can take a break from the news headlines or the crises at home," he said. "Spending time at the zoo is just refreshing and relaxing."
—Robin Respaut '07