- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

Probably not many zoo directors in the world start out as fully qualified bricklayers and end up putting "bio parks" on the map.

But Michael Robinson, the retiring head of the National Zoological Park, is unusual in almost every respect. His Toulouse-Lautrec tie is clue enough to a certain offbeat personality.

"I usually wear [Joan] Miro," he says blithely.

No, he didn't build the "bio park" that is one of his legacies at the National Zoo, but he did serve an apprenticeship in wall building arts in his native Lancashire, England, years before acquiring his credentials as a scientist.

"Bio park" is shorthand for biological park, a new departure in traditional zoo design that represents his belief in the necessity of showing the interconnectedness of plant and animal life.

Mr. Robinson says he does not regard pens and cages as the best way to house inhabitants or entice visitors to appreciate the complex nature of the world around us. His 16 years at the helm of the 163-acre federally supported zoo, an agency of the Smithsonian Institution, have been distinguished by efforts to increase the educational value of one of Washington's most popular attractions.

The zoo's seventh director has been responsible for the new veterinary hospital on the grounds (connected to a department of zoological research) and the installation of such innovative exhibits as Amazonia, Invertebrates, the American Prairie, the Pollinarium and the Think Tank. In each of these areas, animals and marine life are shown in relation to their "natural" environment rather than being viewed simply as examples of their own species. Some 500 different species can be found on the wooded enclave in Northwest Washington.

Mr. Robinson has been exceptionally "creative and enthusiastic" in the director's job, says George Didden, chairman and chief executive officer of National Capital Bank of Capitol Hill and past president of the 30,000-member Friends of the National Zoo. "He understood well before anyone that the future of zoos is more than just exhibiting fauna."

Retirement is something of a misnomer for the plans of the ebullient 71-year-old animal behaviorist whose aptitude for intellectual inquiry seems unlimited. Officially, he is stepping down from his administrative post in late April, but he will continue his scientific work on sabbatical at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where he began his association with the institution on a fellowship 36 years ago. He has another working trip planned to the island of Guam in the Pacific.

Casting his lot about on those far flung beaches is a tempting ideal after wrestling with dozens of packing boxes in his overcrowded office, the activity that has consumed him in recent weeks.

Anything but a return to his birth home, which he teasingly calls "a Third World country," too few species there to interest him.

Mr. Robinson, now an American citizen, likes looking at the larger picture, as any visionary would. He makes a point of saying, too, that he wants time to do more research before his eyes give out.

He has set himself some challenging questions to answer about the behavior of various creatures that intrigue him: the courtship and mating behavior of Panama's orb-weaving spiders and the predatory behavior of reef squid in the Pacific are high on his list.

Another project is the completion of as yet untitled book about his experiences in the biology and zoo trade. He says he is up to Chapter 5 at the moment. His last book was on the courtship and mating behavior of spiders, one of his interests.

The son of a pet-shop manager, Mr. Robinson graduated at age 30 from the University of Wales, Swansea, and studied for his doctorate in zoology at Oxford under the tutelage of Nobel Prize-winning animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen. His career since then has been a serendipitous journey.

One study project began with an encounter between his pet otter and a predatory land crab while in Panama. The otter bit the crab's claw, the crab shed the claw, and the claw kept pinching repeatedly while the crab made its getaway. Voila: a new counterattack method, worthy of another academic report.

He admits somewhat reluctantly that he is a carnivore, not a vegetarian. ("Do you have to quote me?" he asks.) He likes "all kinds of weird food," going on to describe a certain beetle species that is high in protein and delicious when cooked up with some garlic, as long as the beetle's long front pincers are removed before eating.

Sadly, during his tenure, the zoo lost its famous pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, whose remains now rest in the American Museum of Natural History on the Mall, but a committee is at work pondering how to acquire another pair of the fuzzy bamboo-eaters.

On one of last week's springlike days, Mr. Robinson took an hour to tour some of his favorite haunts. He clearly is in his element roaming the territory that is home to myriad species. When he is not traveling elsewhere for conferences or speech making, he says he makes it a habit to walk the grounds either early morning when animals are most active or in the evening hours when visitors have left.

The first stop was a look at an octopus tank, where keepers were entertaining a group of schoolchildren with a feeding session.

Norman the sea lion was all too happy to have the attention of the director stopping by the large pool to offer him some fish ahead of the regular feeding time. Then it was time to admire the otters and some of the sculpture that decorates the grounds, including a huge cement and wire mesh model of a scorpion that Mr. Robinson and a zoo mason had made.

He wasn't too pleased, he said with a laugh, when he received a letter from an appreciative zoo visitor saying how much her child had enjoyed "playing on the back of that lobster."

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