Simmons' Behind-the-scene Look 3/27/13 03/27/13 10:00:19 AM
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Dr. Lee Simmons (left) is welcomed by Omaha Bar Association President Jennifer Petersen and OBA Executive Director Dave Sommers.
By Lorraine Boyd
Simmons’ Behind-the-scenes Look at the Zoo
Reveals 40 Years of Wild (Animal) Adventures
The Daily Record
His 44-year career at the Henry Doorly Zoo gave him the opportunity to travel the globe. But that career gave the zoo so much more.
Dr. Lee Simmons is chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, after 44 years as an employee, and nearly 40 years as the zoo’s director. Last week, at the annual Medical-Legal Dinner sponsored by the Omaha Bar Association and the Metro Omaha Medical Society (MOMA), Simmons shared his view of the zoo – its past, present and future.
He wasted no time acknowledging his audience. “When I was asked to speak to this group, I immediately thought this was what is known in the zoo world as a ‘mixed exhibit.’ Unfortunately, if the animals in a mixed exhibit decided not to get along, somebody would get hurt; it would get bloody.” The crowd roared its approval.
He was off and running.
It is hard to overstate the impact Simmons has had on the zoo, and on the city, as well as the preservation of many animal species.
From a small zoo with a handful of employees and an annual budget of $100,000 it has blossomed into an organization with 250-plus fulltime and 300 part-time employees and a budget of $22 million.
Simmons’ talk to the 150 or so doctors, lawyers and guests was given without notes and with several sidetracks along the way. But no one cared, because one story flowed into the next, each more amusing and/or impressive than the one before.
Simmons told of the times – “now that the statue of limitations is up” – that he and co-conspirators snuck various animals into local hospitals for X-rays and other procedures. In one case, he noted that he had to hire an emergency room head nurse for a time at the zoo … until she got her job back. She had helped keep the hospital administrator locked out while they X-rayed a large, hairy patient.
He globe-trotted in the name of science, once confronted with the task of sedating an enormous elephant so the beast could have a much-needed root canal. To the surprise of all, the canal turned out to be more than 13 inches long and required an improvised pipe to clean it out.
He told of wrapping a baby lion in a pink baby blanket and taking it up the elevator to X-ray in a local hospital. Just as the doors were closing, a woman got on board. She watched impassively as the hidden cat decided it didn’t like the confinement and began struggling mightily to get away. “She never said a word,” Simmons said, “until she got off the elevator. Then she looked him in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t want to know,’ and left.”
Simmons told of escapades in Africa and Russia. There were gorillas and big cats and elephants and more. Language barriers often made things more complicated.
Simmons was not above bribing foreign officials, as was the custom in some countries. And all along the way he was having fun while pioneering in his field.
Various methods of tranquilizers were a big topic throughout Simmons’ remarks. Referred to by their pharmacological names, the doctors in the audience nodded knowingly, while the lawyers by and large just looked lost. Fortunately, Simmons explained them in laymen’s terms. One of the most popular drugs, he pointed out, was known on the street as Angel Dust, “a great drug” that ceased production, for obvious reasons.
He recalled his co-conspirator in a lot of those adventures, a red-haired, red-bearded, fearless friend. He reminisced about the time his friend had to transport an old lion to his final resting place. The lion was given a heavy dose of a tranquilizer, which would eventually stop his breathing. Sine the lion was in a deep sleep from which he would not awaken, his friend put him in the back of his truck, with no need for a crate. But the road was very bumpy, and began acting as a crude sort of CPR. Soon people were waving at him as they drove by, pointing to his truck bed.
He looked in the rear-view mirror to discover a resuscitated lion looking back at him. He stopped the truck, grabbed his rifle and got out. He shot the lion, the bullet going through him, and the truck, coming to rest in the engine.
Explain that one to the tow truck driver.
The trouble with these drugs, Simmons said, is in finding the correct dosage that will have the desired effect for the desired amount of time. It was often trial and error. He recognized there was a need for some baselines to help in treating these zoo animals.
If it weren’t for Simmons, we might not have a huge international database of blood norms for animal species.
He and some other zoo vets realized they had no norms to judge what is normal for animals. A lab technician (the beginning of Simmons’ friendship with the red-haired co-conspirator) said if they got the blood samples, he’d run them for free.
From that humble beginning, over the years a giant, worldwide database was built.
There was some risk involved, because most zoo animals nearly always required sedation to collect the blood sample, at some risk to the donor. That made it harder to convince some zoo officials in other countries to allow them to collect the samples. But they persevered and won them over.
One of Simmons’ most complicated escapades as zoo director was the case of the 18 large pink flamingos. Hardly any zoos had them, but he wanted them and managed to locate some in Florida. There was a lot of paperwork and a complicated travel plan.
They had to fly to Nassau to be quarantined, then to Miami before flying to Omaha. Each huge bird had its own crate with paperwork attached. It was expensive but worth it, Simmons figured.
But something went wrong in Nassau. Paperwork problems. The man he had sent there to accompany the flamingos called insisting that Simmons send money. Now.
“I didn’t know him well, but he was so insistent that I sent him the money.”
What Simmons didn’t know at the time was that the money was for rental of a single-engine airplane, into which the escort crammed the 18 flamingos, minus their cages (there wasn’t room) and paperwork! Without any of the cumbersome paperwork, he flew the birds out of Nassau to Miami, then to Omaha. Highly irregular, but effective in the end.
Simmons painted quite a picture of a mad pilot surround by many large pink birds loose in the plane, making quite a mess. The rental company charged him for a complete cleaning of the plane and threatened to charge him for replacement of seats and carpeting if that was not successful.
Simmons got his birds, but at a price.
As for the zoo’s future, he noted that the demolition of Rosenblatt Stadium – purchased for $12 million dollars – will be competed by June, followed by creation of more parking and a new entrance.
There are many plans for the next several years at Henry Doorly Zoo, including a much larger elephant exhibit.
Simmons noted that zoos had a tough time getting elephants to breed in captivity. Then someone told him that what he needed were young elephants – “teenagers.” As Simmons told the crowd, “teenagers are horny.” He said he plans to bring in about a dozen teenagers.
Under his vision, the zoo has opened many cutting edge, world-class exhibits including the Lied Jungle, Desert Dome, Kingdoms of the Night, Hubbard Gorilla Valley and the Berniece Grewcock Butterfly and Insect Pavilion, to name a few. Under his leadership the zoo has become a leader in conservation, research and preservation of endangered species. Fieldwork in Madagascar by Omaha Zoo staff has led to the discovery of 20 new lemur species.
Simmons told the crowd that the zoo has just been named by Family Fun Magazine as the Number 2 family attraction in the country. The zoo – and Lee Simmons – earns a number 1 rating by Omahans, including its lawyers and physicians.
Simmons said he has been jotting down stories like these as he recalls them. Let’s hope they end up in a book. One thing is for sure – it will be informative and funny. Just like his presentation last week.
Dr. Lee Simmons was presented with an original cartoon penned for him by Omaha World-Herald cartoonist Jeff Koterba by MOMA President Dr. Marvin Bittner.