Friday, May 18, 2018

On the Road Again, Chapter 4

Former Baltimore Zoo director Brian A. Rutledge leads his two-year-old filly for a training session on the ranch he and his wife Kathleen own in northeastern Colorado.(Photo (c) Bonnie J. Schupp)

Learning about ranch life,

and a threatened bird,

from a friend in Colorado

Former zoo director focuses  on conservation

By mid-afternoon on Saturday, we have crossed the border on I-80 through southeastern Wyoming and headed south on Interstate 25 into Colorado for a visit with an old friend, again a result of Facebook.

The friend is Brian A. Rutledge, who for most of the 1980s into the early 1990s was director of the Baltimore Zoo. I grew up about two miles from Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, home to the second-oldest public zoo in the nation, and occasionally rode my bike there. Admission during my childhood was free, and countless families have snapshots of their kids sitting on its iron lion statues or feeding bunnies in the cages that dominated the exhibits back in the 1950s. 

As a reporter for The Sun, I staked out an informal beat, usually on my own time, covering the zoo, including the stewardship of director Steve Graham, who made headlines and unpopularity by suggesting the euthanization of unneeded Kodiak bear cubs and feeding them to the big cats.

But Graham's more-lasting accomplishing was to hire Brian, who soon became his successor and embarked on a mission of modernizing the zoo. He sped up the development of naturalistic animal environments to replace the old steel-bar cages, and opened a spacious elephant area and a  children’s zoo section focusing on Maryland habitat and species – both still among the most popular exhibits.

In Baltimore, he also made news as the victim of a rare crime – horse theft. His pastime was a sport known as cattle cutting, in which horse and rider maneuver to direct the actions of a cow in an arena. And someone stole a horse from his city-owned home on the edge of Druid Hill Park. He and police tracked down and recovered the horse, and Brian moved his family and animals to the rural community of Woodbine miles from the city.

Some months ago, I noticed his posting of a comment on a Facebook post that included a wonder about whether I was still around. My response was to send a friend request, and our friendship was reborn online. After leaving Baltimore, Brian’s gigs included running the Stoneham and Franklin Park zoos in Boston for a few years, then heading west with his wife Kathleen,  to Colorado. (They'd met at a horse show.)

They live on a 160-acre horse ranch in the high desert, low mountain landscape of Livermore – close enough to our westward route for a weekend visit.

He has a dozen horses here, and four dogs, and raises cattle. It’s a very western way of life, near the end of a drive along a sparsely populated 12-mile stretch of dirt and washboard-rutted road.

He also found a job more in keeping with his life’s passion – conservation. He’s a vice president of the Audubon Society, in charge of sagebrush programs in 13 states, including 11 of them focused on the sage grouse (aka, prairie chicken).

Instead of dealing with boards of directors and bureaucracy to run zoos, he’s working with state and federal officials to preserve sagebrush environments critical to survival of a bird species that once numbered around 20 million, and now estimated at  less than 500,000.

So we received a lesson on the sage grouse, and its critical – but to many, unappreciated – role in a fragile ecosystem. An Audubon magazine cover posted on a stairway wall focuses on the issue, headlined “How the Sage Grouse Can Save the West.” And it is the subject of a TED talk he presented a few years ago in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Historically, the sage grouse fed native tribes in harsh times and settlers migrating westward in the 19th century. It’s deemed a stupid bird, one that a 9-year-old could walk up to and whack with stick to help feed the family. But in breeding season, it nests in sagebrush, concealed by its coloration from predators. In the western states’ food chain, its existence supports the wildlife that tourists travel to see.

 Brian’s task has been making allies in the states, including their governors, to protect millions of acres of sagebrush lands – much but not all owned by the federal government at a time when the current administration in Washington is shrinking national parks or allowing the plunder of public lands for oil and gas drilling and other commercial uses.

Kathleen, a stunning brunette who does not appear close to her age of 60, works days a week, handling the recordkeeping chores for a financial adviser in Fort Collins – but with Brian shares the many chores of ranch life tending the animals. And she has a fantastic collection of Western-style boots.

Beyond talking about environmental and conservation issues, and a little of our agreed-on politics, we enjoyed their company Saturday evening and Sunday. Bonnie photographed them working their horses, and teaching a two-year-old filly the directions and moves necessary for cattle cutting. Brian even managed for only the second time to get her saddled and briefly mount up in the ranch training ring.

We treated for dinner Sunday in an old cafe back down the 12 miles of dirt and rutted roads.
Bonnie and I, sandwiched at dinner by Kathleen and Brian Rutledge.
Brian drove us all in his Toyota 4-Runner, which handled the bumps a lot better than our Camry. It has about 100,000 miles on its odometer -- and he has another one with 300,000 miles, along with the inevitable pickup truck and the trailer needed for hauling horses and livestock. (Soon after we left Monday morning, they headed off on a three-hour drive to Wyoming to sell a horse and pick up eight heifers.)

Brian’s got a tidy gray beard, and a sparse head thatch covered by a stylish cowboy hat. In the saddle, he could pass for a western movie star. He’s pushing through his late 60s, but you’d hardly know it. He’s home on the range, and living his dreams. 

Next chapter: Rodeo photographers’ round-up

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