By Ron Cook
~Celebrating the Les Whitt Conservation Dream~
October 11, 2018 will be the tenth anniversary of the first Les Fest celebration. “We celebrate the life and legacy of Les and his dedication to conservation causes,” replied Lee Ann Whitt in her Zoo Director’s office. The first Les Fest took place one month after his passing in September of 2008, but years later has evolved into a fundraising event that includes music, local restaurants and caterers, and a small yet unique silent auction including: a behind-the-scenes zoo encounter experience, Christopher’s Fish House fish fry at the zoo for forty people, a Bentley/Diamond Grill Package, two tickets to the Krewe of Orpheus Mardi Gras Ball in New Orleans, a 2 day wildlife photography trip to Boggy Lake Lodge, and a unique painting by local artist Margie Tate
Leslie “Les” Whitt was the director of the Alexandria Zoo from 1974- 2008. Working with wildlife was a passion that grew stronger over his thirty-four years at the zoo. In 1988 Les was a founding member of ZCOG (Zoo Conservation Outreach Group). ZCOG helps support field conservation partnerships in Latin America. There have been two ZCOG Conservation Scholarships in Les’ name in the past ten years funded by FOTAZ (Friends of the Alexandria Zoo) and the San Antonio Zoo. The purpose of the scholarships is to contribute to the professional development and capacity-building efforts in Latin America’s zoos and aquariums.
Through events like Les Fest and FOTAZ Memberships, Friends of the Alexandria Zoo is able to make contributions that affect wildlife worldwide. The current ZCOG project involves an effort to preserve the Giant Anteaters of South America. These unique anteaters are diminishing rapidly, getting hit by cars while crossing roads. The current project includes placing radio collars on the anteaters to take a census of their numbers as well as an attempt to see what their migratory, as well as movement patterns, might be. Other animals around the world that are in the FOTAZ and ZCOG radar include: the Andean Bear, the Andean Condor, Chilean Flamingo, Giant Armadillo, Jaguar, and BrazilianTapir. Check the ZCOG website for more details on these animals and other activities (www.zcog.org).
When developing the Alexandria Zoo’s animal collection plan very early in his zoo career, Les’ philosophy was to choose the rarest animals that received the least recognition in other zoos.That is why Alexandria Zoo has many rare and unusual species such as the Tayra, the White-tailed Sea Eagle, and Chinese Alligators. It was just as important to Les that we recognize our boundaries, allowing smaller species more space in our small urban footprint. Although Les never committed to housing elephants or rhinos, he did include giraffes and zebras, along with other charismatic African species in his original African plan.
Les wanted community involvement and always took extra time to explain his philosophies or dreams for the Alexandria Zoo, as well as his concerns for the future of wildlife. Les passed away with projects still on the drawing board. He had projects planned, “…down the line…for years to come”.
Celebrate, enjoy, and support our Alexandria Zoo at Les Fest. Please join us for an evening of live entertainment, silent auction, food, cash bar, and a photographer for plenty of selfies!Tickets or reserved tables may be purchased at the Zoo office (3016 Masonic Drive). As Simon and Garfunkel said, “It’s all happening at the Zoo!”