Seneca Park Zoo director Lawrence Sorel spent this week putting the final touches on preparations for the arrival of brother and sister snow leopards from the Los Angeles Zoo.
The snow leopards, scheduled to be introduced to the public this weekend, are the first for the Rochester facility since 2003 and are related to a former resident. Jeramiah, the great-great-granduncle of the new pair, and partner Jennifer were the most prolific pair of snow leopards ever to live at the zoo, Sorel says.
"It’s a tremendous part of the collection to come back," he says.
The arrival of the snow leopards here is coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Zoo officials hope one of them eventually will mate and reproduce in Rochester.
"It’s managed by a collection of zoo professionals who look at genetics," the Irondequoit resident says. "It’s sort of like a dating service. They’re recommended to come there, and we’ll hold them for a year or two until they become sexually mature. Then one or the other will go away, and we’ll get the appropriate other sex and start reproduction."
Sorel, 56, oversees a 15-acre facility with a budget of more than $5 million. The Massachusetts native has been the zoo’s director since July 1997.
"It’s like running a city," he says. "You have utility and infrastructure stuff. You’ve got shopping. You’ve got food. You’ve got recreational activities. You’ve got veterinary care. You can go through a whole number of different things.
"One of the things I enjoy about my position in a small to medium-size zoo is I am involved in a huge diversity of different and interesting activities."
The zoo employs 54 people, including 34 full-time county workers. It was established in 1894 in the lower portion of Seneca Park before being moved up to its current location in 1930.
"I’ve always wanted to work in a zoo," Sorel says. "I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I could not imagine myself not being involved in that, unless I was a field researcher or something like that."
Snow leopards and many other species worldwide are threatened by the invasion of people, including farmers and hunters, into their natural habitats, Sorel says.
"We’re trying to preserve genetic integrity over the next 100 years, just in case there’s ever a way and a need to introduce them into the wild," he says.
Of more than 2,500 licensed animal exhibitors in the United States, the Seneca Park Zoo is one of 213 with AZA accreditation, Sorel says.
"They look at everything from cleanliness of bathrooms to quality of food service to, obviously, quality of animal care, veterinary education programs and financial stability," Sorel says.
Without that accreditation, the zoo would not be eligible for the AZA’s Special Survival Plan, a program designed to protect endangered wildlife, says Lawrence Staub Jr., director of the Monroe County Department of Parks. "The special survival programs, and the ability to transfer animals and keep iconic animals such as elephants and tigers and polar bears, that all goes away," he says.
"That’s the difference between being a real zoo and a roadside attraction. By being accredited, we are at the same level as the Bronx Zoo, the San Diego Zoo or any other accredited institution."
Seneca Park Zoo has been a national leader in reproduction efforts, Sorel says.
A male polar bear arrived in February from the Milwaukee County Zoo to join Seneca Park’s female polar bear, with a long-term goal of producing cubs. And Rochester’s zoo is among the top three in the country in reproducing African penguins.
The zoo is run jointly by the county and the Seneca Park Zoo Society, a non-profit organization that manages the gift shop and other concessions and handles marketing and fundraising.
"Right now they’re involved in raising money to bring lions back to the zoo and open a new lion exhibit," Staub says.
Seneca Park Zoo has not had lions since 1986.
"No tax dollars will have to be spent in establishing that new exhibit," Staub says. "We’ll have to run it once it’s built, but the cost of that exhibit will be entirely through private funds that have been raised or through other grants."
Seneca Park, including its zoo, is among 21 parks overseen by the county Parks Department. Its budget is $12 million.
"The zoo is a wonderful community institution and attraction," Staub says. "It’s extremely popular with the residents of this community and the entire region. We think it’s a wonderful asset that the Parks Department is responsible for, and we’re very lucky to have a professional of Larry Sorel’s caliber managing that institution for us."
Monroe County spends $2.5 million annually to operate the zoo, including $1 million from admission fees. An additional $1 million to $1.5 million is provided each year for debt service. The zoo society contributes $2.5 million annually.
The Seneca Park Zoo is one of no more than 10 nationally whose operations are shared by a government and non-profit, Staub says. Most zoos are run primarily by one or the other.
"It’s not uncommon to have a government-run organization and then a support organization that’s focused on fundraising, membership and maybe one other function," Sorel adds. "Other distribution of responsibilities is fairly unique."
Attendance has grown steadily over the years, though its peak season was in 1997 when 500,000 people came because of the opening of the $8 million Rocky Coast building, which offers views of the polar bears and sea lions.
"It was a major investment, and that (spike in attendance) is typical when you open up a major exhibit with an iconic species like polar bears," Sorel says.
"Also, at that time there was one day a week that was free, and there was a very significant investment in marketing and advertising. The whole profile was different. It dropped off the next few years, which, again, is typical when you open up a major exhibit."
Some 365,000 people visited in 2009. Most come from the Rochester area, Sorel says, and some from Buffalo, Syracuse and the Southern Tier.
"This year, if the weather holds and nothing bad happens, we should be approaching 380,000 people," Sorel says.
The zoo has been transformed in a variety of ways in recent years, Sorel says.
The Animal Health and Education Complex, paid for with private donations, was completed in 2004. It includes a conference center, two classrooms, an animal hospital and an interactive Zoologists of Tomorrow Zone.
A cougar exhibit was added in 2005. The county issued bonds to finance a $4.4 million, 23,000-square-foot elephant exhibit that opened in 2006. An elephant splash pool and a $2.7 million baboon exhibit were added in 2008, and the lion exhibit is planned for that area.
This year, $1.2 million is being spent to fix a leak in the zoo’s 15,000-gallon penguin pool, which will be upgraded during the process.
"We’re leveraging the money we’re spending to dig that exhibit up and makethe repairs into making improvements that we’ve always wanted to do," Staub says. "As a result, we’re going to have an exhibit that’s 100 times better."
The improvements are part of an ongoing modernization process, Sorel says.
"The zoo is, in some ways, transitioning from 1950s and 1960s style, and even before that," he says. "The first thing you see when you walk in the zoo is a 1930s building. We’re doing everything we can to improve the looks of it, without getting crazy in investing money.
"It’s all part of taking the zoo from an older model to a modern zoological approach. We’ve still got a long way to go, in my mind, to make the changes that we physically need."
Finding money for upgrades is a constant challenge, Sorel says.
"It’s tough, with the economy the way it is. Nothing we do is inexpensive. Everything is custom-built, and we build it to last for 20 to 50 years. Everything has to be built to standards of proper animal care and visitors being able to see it in a proper setting."
When visitors come to zoos these days, Staub says, they want to see animals in natural surroundings, not in cages.
"They don’t want to see an animal exhibited in an old way, in a prison-type environment," he says. "That’s what we’re trying to get away from. Every improvement, every expansion we do at the zoo is from old zoo to new zoo where we’ll eventually be all new. That’s our goal."
Sorel was born in Springfield, Mass., and raised in the Berkshires in the western part of the state. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1975 with a degree in biology.
"I wanted to be a veterinarian," he says. "As it turned out, I’m just as glad I didn’t.
"I had way too much fun in college, and you had to have a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and be active in all kinds of other things. I always wanted to be a zoo vet anyway, not just a dog and cat, or whatever.
"The track I took was much more rewarding. I’ve been more broadly exposed to the things I’m interested in. It would’ve been nice in some ways not to move around quite so much, but overall I would say there are few things I would change."
Sorel started his professional career as a zookeeper and assistant curator at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1977. He moved to Peoria, Ill., in 1982 to be general curator at the zoo there, became assistant director of the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Ind., in 1987 and became manager of the Chehaw Wild Animal Park in Albany, Ga., in 1989.
He left Georgia in 1994 and spent three years in sales positions before coming to Rochester.
"I started out in Los Angeles, and that’s a big zoo, but the field as a whole doesn’t see a huge amount of turnover in any position," Sorel says. "The higher you go, the fewer positions in any given zoo there are. In order to advance, in general, you move."
One aspect that has changed over the last 30 years is the number of female keepers, Sorel says.
"When I started in Los Angeles, there were approximately 100 keepers. One was female. Now almost every place is 60 percent or better female keepers. The work environment is different now, and work practice is different.
"It used to be very physical, and you’d take pride in being able to stack 50-pound bales of hay all day. Now it’s about doing it more efficiently. You use mechanical means. You train animals to move from place to place. You don’t physically go in and grab and move things."
The pay scale for keepers also has changed.
"What used to be a fairly decent paying job has, in a relative sense, not kept up with the advances in salary," Sorel says. "More and more, it’s becoming the second income and not the primary income."
Zookeepers are directly responsible for the care of the animals, Sorel says.
Seneca Park Zoo has 16 keepers and is trying to make the position more attractive, Staub says.
"When I came to the department (in 2006), the zookeeper position-which is the entry-level position at the zoo-was a labor class where all you needed was a driver’s license to qualify and the ability to lift 50 pounds," Staub says. "Now we’ve enhanced that to have more of an educational background, to have more of a career ladder within the zoo. We wanted to make it more of a profession than a job."
A high school diploma now is required to be a zookeeper, and a background in animal care is preferred, Staub says.
"Before, you were either a zookeeper or the assistant zoo director or the zoo director," Staub says. "There’s not much in between. Now we have zoologists, where you need higher education.
"A great deal of our zookeepers did have a higher education, but we lost really good people because there was nothing to advance to. If you wanted to move up, you had to move out. We want to be able to create that ladder where someone who started out at the zoo right out of college can advance along."
Working at a zoo is rewarding, Sorel says, and challenging. It also can be pain-fully emotional-never more so for Sorel than when the calf of elephant Genny C died during delivery in 2006.
"They’re living things, and they can die at a moment’s notice, and eventually everything does die, so you try not to get too attached," Sorel says. "But you do. People are in this field because they care.
"As I moved further up and therefore further away from direct contact with animals, it has become easier to create that detachment. Where it didn’t happen was with the elephant baby. Everybody was so invested in that that it was very traumatic for everybody to go through. That was hard, and still is hard, to put behind me."
Sorel’s job these days involves giving zoo employees the tools, resources and empowerment to do their job well, he says. Every once in a while, however, he will find himself hosing and cleaning a cage when several keepers call in sick.
"We have a very good staff that knows what it’s doing. There’s training involved, but it’s a stable staff. We’re getting an infusion of younger people. My job is to make sure they know what they’re supposed to do and have the support and resources," he says.
Sorel has been in Rochester longer than in any other place. He does not envision leaving for another job.
"There are times when you think there’s an opportunity somewhere," he says. "Anyone that has a career doesn’t close any door. For me, I’ve reached the point where it would have to be a great situation.
"It’s not the money. It’s not dissatisfaction here. But is there a dream job out there? I don’t see one. I think I’m pretty much in it. But I would not not listen to someone in a few select places if they wanted to talk."
Staub says he jokes with Sorel about him departing if, say, the San Diego Zoo calls someday.
"President (Theodore) Roosevelt said you never really know a man until you’ve gone camping with him," Staub says. "I’ve gone to several Association of Zoo and Aquarium national conferences with Larry, and it was an eye-opening experience.
"I know Larry as the guy who manages our zoo very effectively. But it was great to see how respected he was among his peers and by that national organization. It made me feel very proud to have someone like Larry on our staff."
The Seneca Park Zoo has established a national reputation because of its staff and programs, Sorel says. Several employees are involved in the Species Survival Plan.
"Our veterinary and conservation programs are tremendous," Sorel says. "We have the most investment in conservation programs in New York State outside the New York City zoos, and we have a reputation for achievement that extends across the country."
The Rochester zoo’s Amur leopard that died recently was the third-oldest in the country. Its male otter is the fourth-oldest. It also has king vultures more than 40 years old.
"We’ve invested in quality care," Sorel says. "It comes back to bite us sometimes in that we’re dealing with geriatric animals. Sometimes they die in bunches, all of old age. But we have a moral and ethical obligation to care for them into their geriatric years. You don’t just say we’re done with you and throw them away."
Away from the zoo, Sorel tries to play as much golf as he can. He also likes to spend time with his wife, Darlene, his daughters Heidi and Emily, and his four grandchildren.
The family owns 30 acres of land with a cabin and trailer near Prattsburg, Steuben County, where he often goes to relax.
"There’s no cell service down there, so you can’t reach me," he says. "Right now we’re looking at keeping it fairly rustic until I retire. Then we’ll decide whether or not that’s a getaway."