Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gingrich's Other Calling


Gerald Ford often said that his ambition was always to be Speaker of the House, not President.

Now, it turns out that Newt Gingrich, who obtained the post that eluded Ford, also aspired to something else.

In his introduction to America’s Best Zoos: A Travel Guide for Fans and Families, released last month by Intrepid Traveler publishing company, the former House Speaker reveals his unrequited dream. “Long before I aspired to enter the field of politics, I wanted to be a zookeeper.

“As I was growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, my relatives would take me to the big zoos in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC,” Gingrich recalls. “They would also take me a few miles away to a small zoo in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I fell in love with seeing animals in all their glory and diversity. I found animals fascinating.

“When I was ten, I went to an afternoon matinee of two animal films. When I came out of the movie, I saw a sign for City Hall. I promptly walked over and asked how Harrisburg could get a zoo. The kind, older park official . . . took the time to show me the records for the Harrisburg Zoo in the 1930s. He told me they had closed the zoo during World War II because of rationing and that my job was to come to the next city council and explain why Harrisburg needed a zoo.

“The next Tuesday, I was right there. The following day, the Harrisburg Patriot-News published a nice article about a young boy calling for a zoo. I was hooked on animals, zoos and citizenship from that point on.”

Gingrich’s fascination with zoos carried into his political career. As a Georgia congressman, Gingrich helped the Zoo Atlanta (yes that’s its name) in his district acquire Pandas and other animals, including Boma, a black rhino from Czechoslovakia. He also helped them with fundraising.

On official and unofficial business around the country and the world Gingrich often visited local zoos.

Allen Nyhuis, co-author of the guidebook with Jon Wassner, says that Gingrich just last year visited the famous Berlin Zoo Polar Bear, named appropriately enough, “Knut.” (Pictured above.)

And this February, during his VIP tour of the Zoo Boise in Idaho, Gingrich lovingly rubbed the neck of an elderly tortoise, firing off questions to the zookeeper to determine if the creature was being properly treated.

And what are the similarities between Zookeeper and Speaker?

Well, both try to keep order over unruly creatures. Not always successfully.

Gingrich recalls a rambunctious scene in 1995 when Jack “Jungle Jack” Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, brought a bunch of creatures, including a monkey, baby cougar and cockroaches to his Capitol office. The monkey climbed on his head. As Gingrich held the baby cougar it nibbled on his chin. "If only my political opponents at the time had been so gentle!"

The combative Speaker likened the cockroaches which crawled all over him to Democrats, the Milwaukee Journal reported.

The book evaluates 97 zoos nationwide. The Bronx Zoo fares quite well. An adjunct professor of statistics at Indiana University, co-author Nyhuis tells this writer that "on our 'Top Ten' lists, the Bronx Zoo did better than any other zoo in the book, except for San Diego. We ranked the Bronx as the #1 zoo in the nation for displaying Asian animals, primarily because of its highly-acclaimed JungleWorld rain forest building, its monorail tour of Wild Asia, and its nearly-as-good Tiger Mountain and Himalayan Highlands (snow leopards and red pandas) exhibits. In addition to Asian animals, we also put the Bronx Zoo on the Top Ten lists for the following: Birds; Small Mammals (#2); Cats; Hoofed Animals; Indoor Tropical Rain Forest (#2); Children's Zoo; and Rides."

When planning his guidebook, Nyhuis, who knew about Gingrich’s keen interest in zoos, wrote the former Speaker in March 2007 to ask that he pen an introduction. Gingrich quickly agreed and delivered his introductory essay to Nyhuis just days before a draft of the book was due with his publisher on October 1, 2007.

Nyhuis said Gingrich’s introduction made the book a tough sell. “My publisher was skeptical because of the image that conservatives don’t like the environment.”

But the publisher relented when Nyhuis told him about Gingrich’s longtime affinity for zoos and his pro-environmental record.

In a telephone interview Nyhuis worried that what he calls the “liberal media” might ignore the book because of the introduction. But he is hopeful that the conservative media outlets will take note.

If so, the book could be hailed as the most important synthesis of conservatism and the animal kingdom since "Bedtime for Bonzo."

--EVAN GAHR has written for most every conservative publication. His recent scoops have been picked up by Lloyd Grove, Drudge, the Washington Times, the Forward, Gawker and the Huffington Post.