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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Rhinos at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014.
Once I got in the zoo environment, I was hooked. 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. —Craig Dinsmore

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 Where possible, barred, concrete cages have been replaced by bigger, more natural habitats, and visitors have been given closer viewing.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.

“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: [email protected]