The Toronto Zoo is world-renowned. It’s also deeply rooted in Scarborough
|Toronto Star 17 Sep 2019 at 19:49|
One pair of eyes has traced the path of Andrew Lentini’s 33-year career at the Toronto Zoo, from a 22-year-old camp counsellor to senior director of wildlife and science: those of Puppe the Sumatran orangutan.
“I remember sitting in front of her exhibit when I was starting up the zoo camp and getting to work with her. I was with her when she had her kids and raised them.”
Puppe, now 52, gave birth to children around the same time that Lentini, 55, welcomed his own two daughters into the world. The two grew up together as parents.
“I have a long history with her.”
Spanning more than 710 acres in the city’s Rouge Valley, the Toronto Zoo is the largest of its kind in Canada with more than 5,000 animals from more than 450 species. But while it is internationally renowned for its conservation efforts and innovative programming, the zoo is very much rooted in its Scarborough community.
Lentini was the Toronto Zoo’s first-ever camp counsellor, hired in 1986 while still studying biology at the University of Toronto. His then girlfriend heard about the gig on the radio and urged him to apply. He listened.
It was just a summer job at first. But the Toronto Zoo ended up being the only place Lentini would ever work. Over the more than three decades that followed, Lentini remained on staff, even while studying for his PhD in biology at York University that he completed in 2009.
His kids attended the same zoo camp he launched — one of them becoming a camp counsellor in his footsteps — where they also came to know Puppe and her children.
“It was a big part of their childhood,” he says of his now 20-something daughters.
The zoo has programs for kids from “at risk” neighbourhoods that let them experience the zoo and learn about wildlife and conservation.
On a recent day, a dozen Grade 11 students were gathered in a room at the zoo’s administrative offices learning about animal conservation — dubbed Zoo School — for which they will receive a high school biology credit.
Zoo staff also work with students at Centennial College and the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto on research projects. Two graduate students from the UTSC, for example, are currently working on projects at the zoo — one focused on reptiles and amphibians and the other on bats.
“It’s an important part of what we do,” Lentini says.
Zoo staffers such as Lentini have contributed to the community in other ways — including responding to emergencies involving exotic animals.
In November 2017, for example, Lentini got a call from the Ontario Poison Control Centre about a man who was hospitalized after being bitten by a monocled cobra — a snake prohibited in Toronto.
Lentini rushed to the hospital with antivenom from the zoo’s own stock to help treat the man, remaining the night to provide assistance and information. The man recovered.
Then there’s the time a few years back when he and his colleagues pulled a two-metre crocodile out of a Scarborough basement.
“We went in with police and fire department and we removed it from the neighbourhood,” he says. “There’s an illicit market for exotic wildlife and it often causes problems for the community.”
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In all, Lentini and his colleagues have worked with Toronto Police, Toronto Animal Services and Canadian Wildlife Service over the years.
On top of his day job, Lentini serves on the board of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) and chairs its ethics and compliance Committee.
Only about 30 of the more than 150 zoos across Canada have earned the CAZA accreditation, Lentini says.
While accredited zoos such as the Toronto Zoo must meet CAZA requirements around educating the public and meeting safety and animal care standards, accreditation is voluntary. There is no federal oversight of zoos or provincial licensing requirements beyond a business licence.
“If there isn’t a municipal bylaw saying you can’t open a zoo, you can. Anybody can set up a zoo. There are often no regulations for animal welfare, safety standards, none of it.”
Given the reality of animal species decline — Lentini calls it an “extinction crisis” — accredited zoos need to be reframed in the public consciousness as conservation organizations.
“We provide a refuge and options for future restoration. We can hold animals, fix the problem and put them back. Only zoos can do that. We manage the population scientifically so they are fit and stable, not just to support zoos, but in the wild.”
And sometimes, he says, animals are simply better off in zoos than in the wild.
Sumatran orangutans like Puppe, for example, are disappearing at staggering rates as forest clear cutting in Borneo and Sumatra steals their natural habitats to make way for palm oil plantations, mines, roads and estates. The World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (an international authority on species sustainability) classify them as “critically endangered” — a category that sits just one level above extinct. The estimated remaining population of Sumatran orangutans is 13,846.
“Animals are dying every day because of what’s happening the wild. Here, we can protect them.”