Doug Robinson: Dinsmore has made his mark on Hogle Zoo

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 7:30 p.m. MDT

Craig Dinsmore, the director of Hogle Zoo, poses for a portrait at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After 37 years in the zoo business, Craig Dinsmore still likes to stroll the grounds at Hogle Zoo simply to look at wolves and monkeys and otters and whatever catches his eye (he claims not to play favorites).

There is a practical reason for this — as “mayor” of this international village of 800 animals (talk about diversity), he can take the pulse of the community as he strolls the zoo. But sometimes he takes these walks in the morning or evening, when the place is closed to the public, just to see the thing that attracted him to the job in the first place: wildlife.

“Some people leave the office to go shopping,” he says. “I go to see the animals.”

As Dinsmore walks, he can clearly see the mark he has left on the zoo during the 17 years he has been in charge. If you’re wondering what an animal lover would do if he were given $60 million, visit Hogle Zoo.

Dinsmore, a 63-year-old Colorado native with a head of thick salt-and-pepper hair, has completed eight major projects at the zoo — upgrades or additions.

“When I came here the zoo was kind of tired,” he says. “The board knew change was needed. I asked if I would have the freedom to make changes. I had ideas.”

Because urban sprawl has left no room to expand the zoo’s 42 acres, it has grown in other ways. Where possible, barred, concrete cages have been replaced by bigger, more natural habitats, and visitors have been given closer viewing.

Says Dinsmore, “We start with this premise: We are no longer designing exhibits; we are designing homes for animals that people visit.”

The newest animal home, the African Savanna, will open in May after 14 months of construction and will feature giraffes, zebras, ostriches and antelopes roaming freely on 4½ acres of open space, surrounded by a gulch to keep them contained. The gulch and the savanna floor have been made with concrete that looks remarkably like dirt, with rocks and man-made roots and bones protruding from the gulch’s sides. A raised “viewing plaza” juts partway into the savanna and offers a 180-degree view of the animals and puts visitors at the same height as giraffe faces.

Four lions will observe the savanna and its prey from an adjacent pen. “The view should keep them perked up,” says Dinsmore. Since the last of Hogle’s lions died of natural causes, the zoo has gone almost a decade without the popular cat while waiting for a new home to be completed.

The savanna and lion exhibit are the latest in a long line of projects under Dinsmore. In 2005, the Elephant Encounter was completed. It tripled the size of the elephants’ free space and gave them their own river. Hot water pipes under the concrete and overhead heaters mean they no longer have to be kept in the barn for weeks at a time in winter.

In 2006, the zoo debuted Asian Highlands, featuring wild cats of northern Europe and Asia.

In 2012, a new grizzly bear exhibit was completed. It features three siblings whose mother was destroyed after she killed a camper in Yellowstone. They have water and trees, but the latter didn’t last long; The cubs yanked the trees up, roots and all, within two weeks.

That same year, the zoo opened Rocky Shores, a Sea World-like amphitheater with more than 300,000 gallons of filtered, man-made seawater to provide a home for seals, sea lions, otters and polar bears. “This was a game-changer for us,” says Dinsmore. Visitors get an up-close view of the animals underwater through lowered seating and glass walls.

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