Who better to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the House That Doc Built than the guy they call Doc?
Dr. Lee Simmons, now the head of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, arrived as assistant zoo director (under Warren Thomas) in 1966 and became director in 1970.
“When I started, we had 10 employees,” Doc said. “Now it's 285.”
Starting out as little more than a menagerie in the former Riverview Park in the hills above the Missouri River, what became the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium today ranks No. 1 on some best-zoo lists. Last year set its attendance record of 1.7 million.
Simmons kept coming up with ideas, and wealthy donors kept coming up with the money.
As a result, Omaha is home to such exhibits as North America's largest cat complex, the world's largest glazed geodesic dome and indoor desert, the world's largest nocturnal exhibit and one of the world's largest indoor rainforests.
Dennis Pate, who succeeded Simmons as zoo director in 2009, recently told me: “Doc built something special here.”
As special as the many exhibits are that visitors see, what distinguishes the Omaha zoo is what most people don't see.
Doc is proud of the many zoo scientists and others who not only travel the world but also welcome graduate students and professionals from other countries.
“We bring people here from other continents,” Simmons said. “Russia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia. You can give them very intense training here, but also do work — because of the equipment and resources here — that you can't necessarily do in other countries.”
And so we step inside CCR, the Center for Conservation and Research.
Dr. Ed Louis, the zoo's director of conservation genetics, is a world expert on endangered lemurs and has traveled to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar so many times, he has lost count.
Said Simmons: “Ed probably has put more effort into lemurs and preventing extinction than other scientists anywhere in North America or Europe.”
Though many of the 22 million people in Madagascar live in poverty, Louis said the beautiful country off the southeastern coast of Africa is “one of the richest not just in biodiversity but also in minerals.”
The zoo opened its Expedition Madagascar to the public in 2010.
If most of us don't spend large portions of our time worrying about conservation and extinction, Louis and colleagues do. It's no mere academic exercise.
“On the plant level,” Louis said, “periwinkle is important in treating childhood leukemia. A sponge has been found that's being used for ovarian cancer.”
He is working with the Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska in a reforestation project to plant trees in Madagascar.
“I have a passion for conservation,” Louis said. “We're just a small cog in this big space — it's an amazing zoo, with Doc's vision. There are not many zoos with genetics departments.”
Around the corner from Ed's lab is the domain of Marge From, the zoo's orchid expert. She recently received a three-year grant to work on endangered plants with the country of South Africa.
“Come on in,” Doc says, “and I'll show you her collection.”
In petri dishes and larger containers are hundreds of thousands of orchid seeds, ultimately to be reintroduced into the wild.
“We don't do cloning,” Simmons said. “The idea here is the same as with animals: preserve genetic diversity.”
It's not just the staff that makes Doc proud. Passing another room, he points out “probably the most potent computer in any zoo in North America.”
At the Scott Aquarium, we meet Mitch Carl, the zoo's curator of aquatics.
“Right now,” Doc says, “Mitch is breeding more coral than any aquarium or any other place in the U.S. or Europe. And we're about as far from the ocean as you can get.”
Each August or September, Carl and others travel to the Caribbean, scooping up millions of specimens when vast reefs of coral release their sperm and eggs en masse — three nights after a full moon.
A graduate of Omaha's Burke High and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, with a degree in biology, Mitch kept fish tanks as a kid.
“I didn't know this was a job,” he said. “I never really thought about it as a career until I worked at a pet store here in town.”
Other researchers at the zoo hope to reverse the declining populations of frogs and other amphibians, caused by a fungus. The work occurs in a long hallway that was intended to take crowds to see pandas.
Oh, yes. Pandas.
Doc recalled the frustration of being “in the hunt for pandas” from China for several years before finally giving up on the idea about three years ago. Though they would have been a great attraction, the loan fee was $1 million a year.
“The pandas,” Simmons said, “were going to be big, fuzzy, black-and-white bears that slept most of the time.”
We went backstage at Hubbard Gorilla Valley, where gorillas hang out when not on display outside. Signs warn that each staffer involved in the transfer of the animals must check every lock twice — no exceptions.
“Everyone's safety,” they say, “depends on your performance.”
Doc boasted of another distinction: “We have the largest gorilla sperm bank in the world.”
Missing from the zoo for the past couple of years are elephants. An old one died and another was loaned to the Cleveland zoo.
The “rough cost estimate” for a new elephant building and an endowment is $40 million, and Simmons is looking for donors. So the return of pachyderms is a few years off.
The master plan that Pate announced two years ago called for an overall total of $174 million in improvements over 10 to 15 years.
Building on what it calls “blockbuster” exhibits of “iconic status” over the past two decades, the plan envisions securing donations for a zoo makeover that will include areas called African Grasslands, Asian Highlands, Andean Foothills, Coastal Shores, Equatorial Africa and Adventure Education.
Besides membership fees, much of the zoo's revenue comes from what Pate has called “a generous donor community” nurtured by Simmons.
The City of Omaha provides some keno gambling revenue to the zoo, but no direct taxes.
By contrast, Kansas City, Mo., voters in 2011 approved $14 million a year in sales tax for the zoo there, and the St. Louis Zoo is supported in part by a city and county property tax.
There is much to see at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, whether on foot or from above on the Skyfari.
Much of what makes it a great zoo is easy to see. But other parts — the research, scientific investigation and teaching — are mostly behind the scenes.