Zoological Society Unveils Research Center at San Diego Wild Animal Park

A new research center at the San Diego Wild Animal Park is giving animal conservation researchers a chance to spread their wings -- or at least their elbows and imaginations.

ESCONDIDO, Calif. − A new research center at the San Diego Wild Animal Park is giving animal conservation researchers a chance to spread their wings -- or at least their elbows and imaginations.

The Zoological Society of San Diego showed off the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research during an open house Monday.

Set at the front of the San Diego Wild Animal Park along Highway 78, the $22 million, 50,000-square-foot research center took 17 months to build. It replaces a San Diego Zoo research facility that is about one-fifth the size of the new center.

Zoological Society officials said the new research center is the largest of its kind in the world.

About 120 scientists, researchers and technicians involved in eight different areas of animal research are in the process of moving into the new facility.

Many were on hand Monday as several dozen guests -- including researchers from other states and countries -- attended two lectures by conservation experts. Tours of the facility and a series of demonstrations in its laboratories followed.

As they toured the two-story facility, the scientists marveled over the spaciousness and airiness of multiple lab and office wings, a research library and other features they said will inspire them to new research heights.

"The whole (old) building was about the size of this wing," said Fred Bercovitch, head of the center's behavioral biology department, standing in his new research area. "You'd step on other people's toes and bump into a lot of people, and we were split up all over."

The size of the new facility and the fact that it has room for multiple pieces of the same equipment means researchers who now "take a number" to use specific instruments can increase the number of tests and studies they perform, he said.

"We're limited in what we can do (in the old facility)," Bercovitch said. "This will enable to us to expand our research efforts."

The center is also expected to boost the Zoological Society's reputation in animal conservation circles, thereby helping it attract more top scientists and setting the stage for more collaborations with animal conservation organizations.

That in turn will only benefit endangered animals, Bercovitch and others said.

The nonprofit Zoological Society operates the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park in Escondido. By establishing the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the zoo 27 years ago, the organization became a leader in the field of animal conservation.

Center employees study animal ecology, evolution, behavioral biology and habitat conservation. Endangered species' reproductive physiology, genetics and diversity patterns are other focal points at the center.

The work is carried out all over the globe, with many researchers traveling to remote parts of Africa, rain forests in Australia and other places in the course of their work. A rotating mix of college interns, graduate students, post-doctorate fellows and visiting researchers also use the facility, bringing its total occupancy at any given time to around 200 people.

Over the years, the ever-growing number of staff members and projects at the center led to cramped working conditions. Some of the facility's scientists and researchers ended up housed in closets, portable trailers and other odd spaces that had been converted into offices or labs.

The center's molecular diagnostic department, for instance, has been housed for years in the type of metal storage container commonly loaded onto ships and trains.

The 300 square feet of work space it offered meant the department -- which strives to identify animal diseases just as the Centers for Disease Control does for humans -- could never expand beyond three employees or process all of its test samples, said Mark Schrenzel, who heads up the department's lab.

"We had to meet every morning to figure out who was going to be in there," he said, referring to the narrow metal quarters. "And there was no room for more equipment, let alone more people."

The new facility offers 1,500 square feet of generic lab space, 1,500 square feet of specialized lab space and a row of one-person offices for each of the center's departments. The labs are equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

Plans call for moving a frozen zoo that contains thousands of samples of animal species from the San Diego Zoo to the new facility.

The entire building is filled with large windows that look out onto a courtyard at the center of the building, the animal park, or the vast San Pasqual Valley.

Tim Jessop is a post-doctorate fellow who has spent the past couple years working on a research project involving the Komodo dragon. The new research facility is "amazing" compared to others he has worked at, Jessop said.

"It's just really well set up and aesthetically, it's a very nice-looking working environment," he said. "It gives us lots of space, and it's just beautiful to work in."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News