Cover Story | Zoo Director Phil , Conservation and Christianity

Conservation and Christianity

For Phil Frost, the two go hand in hand

Phil Frost

Baton Rouge Zoo Director Phil Frost knows where a poison dart frog is hiding. He lifts a tiny rock-shaped tent in his office terrarium, and it hops away. “I often find God in small and simple things,” Frost says. The Central and South American frogs – famous for their striking yellow and black coats – are also deadly. “Seeing my frogs reminds me each day to be careful what choices I make and what paths I take.” They are also a reminder to consider the value of each creature. The toxins secreted from the frogs’ skin, once used on the tips of warriors’ arrows, is now the subject of medical research into its use as a muscle relaxant, heart stimulant and anesthetic.
Frost delights in the creatures he oversees. To him, conservation and Christianity go together. “I think that in my interpretation of Genesis and creation, this was made, and we were supposed to take care of it and take care of each other,” he says. “I truly feel that I was called to do what I’m doing.”

After a difficult, devisive debate over the relocation of the zoo, Frost is wholeheartedly stepping into the next phase: renovation of the zoo at its existing location. He expects responses this month to his call for renovation proposals. The BREC Commission voted against the push to move the zoo to a new location at its March 22 meeting following opposition from residents of the area who cite the historical and economic importance of the current location in north Baton Rouge.

“We’ve got a lot of improvements down the road that we’ll be planning, and that’s all starting now, so it’s exciting,” Frost says. “How can we make this the best it can be, sitting right here in Greenwood Park in north Baton Rouge? That’s our charge.” That process will include efforts to restore accreditation by the prestigious American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, lost this spring due to the aging infrastructure at the 48-year-old zoo.

“To me it’s more than just about a zoo. It’s about people, it’s about education, it’s about teaching people the importance of saving wildlife and wild places,” Frost says. “We wish every kid could go to Africa. We wish every kid could go to South America and see those frogs in the wild. But we know that’s not going to happen.” Seeing animals like the Golden Lion Tamarins – some of the rarest monkeys in the world – helps people realize that animals have problems that humans can help solve.

“All of a sudden, zoos have been able to get involved in conservation efforts around the world. We’re involved in programs that deal with frogs in Panama, elephants in Kenya and tigers in Malaysia and Sumatra,” Frost said. He now serves as chair of Species360, a software company that connects more than 1,100 zoos in 90 different countries to collect and share animal records and genealogy. That allows zoos to look at bloodlines and bring potential mates together to conserve struggling species. “If it had not been for the captive breeding at the New York Bronx Zoo, we would not have bison today, because they had been brought down to such a low number,” Frost says.
The big challenge today is adapting to new knowledge about animal habitats and educating the public about realistic methods of conserving endangered species. Zoos around the world – including the Baton Rouge Zoo – are choosing to house a smaller variety of animals in favor of preserving sparse species. For example, eight different cat species were previously housed at the local zoo in what is now the Realm of the Tiger.
For the same reasons, zoo officials are considering whether to replace the 46-year-old elephant, Judy, who died in 2013, and her companion, Bozie, who was transferred to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Recent studies revealed that elephants are social animals and need to belong to a herd, preferably in the wild where they reproduce best. For rescued elephants, the cost is enormous. While Buckskin Bill raised $6,000 for an elephant exhibit, that amount would not even cover food for a year at today’s costs, and it would take $10-15 million dollars for the exhibit and animals, Frost says. A bird building, at a quarter of the cost, attracts visitors for 25-30 minutes versus a typical five second viewing at an elephant exhibit. “I think that’s what this master planning process is about, bringing the community together and saying what’s really important to them,” Frost says.

Frost sees a zoo as unique gathering place for the community because it appeals to all generations. He wants every child to experience the animals and develop a sense of concern for them, just as he did. His father, a Free Methodist minister, made a point of stopping at the Evansville, Indiana zoo each time they traveled from their home in Illinois to visit grandparents in Kentucky. Frost became fascinated with the tiny prairie dogs but also acquired lessons in responsibility from the time with animals. Missionaries also visited their home and brought information and toy replicas of exotic animals from places like Africa and China. He learned that the best way to solve problems is by equipping the people who live among them.
“And so, in many cases, the conservation programs we’re involved in help fund projects that are already on the ground by the people who live there, who know the culture, who are very well established,” Frost says. “We’re supporting those programs with dollars that people donate to us through our Friends of the Zoo.”
That sense of responsibility also finds its roots in the beliefs of the Free Methodist church, a denomination that split from mainstream Methodists in the mid-1800s over issues including slavery and free seating at church during a time when wealthy families paid for pews near the front of the sanctuary. “All my life I’ve been raised in a family that truly saw the value in all people,” Frost says. The Frosts are now members of First United Methodist Church in downtown Baton Rouge.
His upbringing also informs his understanding of creation and the natural world. “I am a biologist, I am a scientist, but I’m also a Christian. And sometimes those don’t go together,” he says, in reference to the debate over the origin of the universe. “God created it,” he says. “I just believe it, and that’s the way it is. And I’m comfortable with that.” He points to an experience with a minister friend in Tennessee during a tour of the “Rise of Life” exhibit at Grassmere Wildlife Park that Frost helped develop in Nashville.
“The fact that there were Smilodon, or Saber-tooth cats, there 2,000 years ago, the fact that it was under water several million years ago because you can find Mosasaurus skeletons which is a fish, big whale-like fish in all the sand – it was obvious that a lot of things had changed in the last many, many years.” The exhibit referred to the [Big] Bang. “It’s not a fact; it’s a theory,” Frost said. His minister friend remarked, “Yeah, my God could have done it that way.”
“And I thought, we don’t have to sit here and argue that’s not how it is. My God did it. And that’s kind of the simplicity that I’ve had,” Frost said. “The science mentality is we’ve got to prove it. I think that’s where faith comes in. You just can’t prove faith.” One of his favorite scripture verses is, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5, 6).

“We can make a difference in the world. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I think that’s the beauty of what zoos do today,” Frost said. “One of the challenges that zoos have is just being a megaphone, if you will, to people about things that we can do.