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Doug Robinson: Dinsmore has made his mark on Hogle Zoo

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 7:32 p.m. MDT

“One of the hallmarks of the (revamped) zoo is larger and better homes for the animals and a better experience for visitors,” says Dinsmore. “My philosophy is: There is no room in the world for a bad zoo. If you can’t give a good life and a good home to animals, you shouldn’t have a zoo. They didn’t choose to be here, so we have an obligation to treat them well.”

That philosophy seems to extend to interactions between animals and caregivers. Animals are rarely forced to do anything. Instead, the zoo relies on voluntary behavior — with a little training. On cue, a gorilla extends an arm through his enclosure so blood samples can be taken. The elephants present an ear or trunk for a blood draw, or a foot for clipping hooves, or steps on a scale to be weighed. Giraffes voluntarily step into a narrow enclosure to allow caregivers to perform health-care duties up close, instead of tranquilizing them.

“If they don’t want to do it, we just come back later,” says Dinsmore.

Dinsmore’s projects also included something for the humans in the zoo — a revamped and longer train that circles the savanna and travels under the noses of the lions; indoor and outdoor dining; and a water park.

“One of the best parts of the job is leaving the office to look at the animals, but also to see how people enjoy it,” he says. “We want to reach people and see families connect without this (he imitates someone using electronic devices). Families actually connect here. They interact.”

Dinsmore, a hiker, nature photographer and world traveler, grew up in Denver with an avid interest in nature and wildlife. President of his high school biology club, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree in zoology and a master’s degree in mammalogy at Colorado State. By then he had determined he would pursue a career with the Forest Service, but, as he notes, “This was the mid-70s — the dawn of the environmental age — and everyone was going to save the planet.”

He was one among hundreds applying for such jobs. While waiting for a Forest Service position to open, he applied for a job with a zoo to hold him over. He was hired as a curator at the Salisbury Zoo in Maryland, charged with overseeing animal care and procuring animals for the zoo.

“Once I got in the zoo environment, I was hooked,” he says. “The tradeoff was the mountains for the city, but I was able to translate my interests and passions with a career. I love to go to work.”

In the coming years, he took similar positions with the Topeka Zoo and the Audubon Zoo (New Orleans) before he was hired as director of the Hogle Zoo, where his duties include raising private donations, lobbying the Legislature, supervising employees, animal issues and budget planning.

Since Dinsmore arrived, zoo attendance has grown from about 750,000 annually to 1 million. Dinsmore believes this gives him an audience for a grander mission than entertainment.

“Our mission statement is ‘Building a better zoo to foster a better world,’ ” he says. “People leave with a better appreciation for wildlife and nature. Zoos don’t save wild animals, people do. They need to make smart decisions. Look at these animals. It’s compelling stuff.”

As for the future, he sees more projects ahead. Next target: The small-animal building. "It's never done," he says. "There's always more to do."

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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