Terry Maple: A Great Citizen, Conservationist, and Human Being

Terry Maple was a good friend, a deeply committed citizen, a remarkable scientist, an extraordinary zoo director, a stalwart supporter of conservation, and a fun and adventurous person.

by Newt Gingrich

The recent passing of my friend and coauthor Terry Maple came as a great shock.

He was a good friend, a deeply committed citizen, a remarkable scientist, an extraordinary zoo director, a stalwart supporter of conservation, and a fun and adventurous person.

I first got to know Maple when Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young recruited him to save the Atlanta zoo. The city bureaucracy was simply incapable of running the zoo. Parade Magazine had listed it as one of the 10 worst zoos in America. There was a real threat that it was going to lose its accreditation. 

Mayor Young had the wisdom to understand that the zoo had to be outsourced to a friends of the zoo organization. He also realized someone had to be brought in to cut through the bureaucracy and develop an entrepreneurial culture that could lead to a zoo of which Atlantans and Georgians could be proud.

Maple was already a well-known specialist in primate psychology teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology (where he would remain affiliated for the rest of his life). He totally shifted from his traditional academic, classroom career and reshaped the culture of the zoo. He grew a world class staff, raised money, and proved to be a marvelous publicist. Not many people could successfully make such a huge course change. 

In a major breakthrough, Maple convinced the Ford Motor Company, which has a large plant in the Atlanta area, to sponsor the Ford African Rain Forest. Its four major groups of gorillas made it one of the most remarkable centers for studying primate behavior in the world. As an example of his salesmanship and entrepreneurial abilities, Maple turned to the Emory National Primate Research Center and convinced the institution to help manage entire families of gorillas.

Zoo Atlanta (as it came to be known) won six Emmy awards for videos its staff created. Maple led dozens of expeditions to wilderness areas that combined education, fun, and fundraising. I will never forget his story about waking up one morning in South Africa to discover a cobra between his bed and the door to his room. He calmly waited out the extremely venomous snake, and it went away without harming anyone. On another occasion overseas, he happened to find himself in the middle of a local coup d’état. He told me once that he realized the humans were a lot more dangerous than the animals.

Our mutual interest in a fact-based, constructive, and entrepreneurial approach to saving the environment led us to coauthor “A Contract with the Earth” together. It was published by the John’s Hopkins University Press in 2007. Maple and I went around the country arguing for a positive, conservative approach to saving the environment. We were convinced it would be more successful and popular than a negative, regulation-based, unsustainably expensive, left-wing green theology – or an entirely negative conservative rejection of reality.

Maple combined 18 years as the director of Zoo Atlanta with his teaching career and wrote more than a dozen scholarly and popular books. 

Maple loved life and was excited about whatever project in which he was engaged. He focused on getting things done that he enjoyed, so he was constantly happy and energized by the pursuit of positive achievement.

When he left Zoo Atlanta in 2003, it had become one of the best urban research zoos in the world. It was universally recognized in the zoo community as a model of entertaining the public, supporting conservation in the wild, and undertaking groundbreaking science at the zoo itself.

I was privileged during his directorship to have a chance to help the zoo acquire a green tree python and a black rhinoceros from Prague.  The rhino was later joined by a female black rhinoceros from San Francisco. Maple learned that the National Zoo in Washington had a surplus of young Komodo dragons. One of the great thrills of my life was riding from Washington to Atlanta on a UPS plane with an Atlanta zookeeper. We were each carrying a young Komodo dragon in a gym bag. The lizards were dropped into cheesecloth bags, and when it was dark they naturally went to sleep. When we got to Zoo Atlanta, it was amazing how muscular and energetic they were.

In 1993, we held my 50th birthday party (which was a campaign event for all our volunteers) at Zoo Atlanta. We were able to wander the zoo on our own. It was a truly magical evening, and we attended many more parties and celebrations there in the years that followed. My daughter Jackie Cushman and her husband Jimmy Cushman attended this year’s fundraising event and were blown away. 

Perhaps Maple’s crowning achievement at Zoo Atlanta was getting giant pandas from China. I was invited to the grand opening and bought a stuffed panda bear for my then young granddaughter Maggie. The panda was bigger than she was, and she still has it to this day.

As you can tell from this tribute, my memories of Maple are all happy. I visited him once at the Palm Beach Zoo. He was dramatically improving that institution after a few years’ break from his Atlanta experience. His enthusiasm, vision, and drive were once again transformative.

For those of us who had the privilege of knowing Terry Maple, there will always be a warm spot in our hearts for this great leader and lover of wildlife. He will be deeply missed.

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