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An expectant father waits at Summit's new jaguar display. Photo by Eric Jackson
Summit's next phase
by Eric Jackson
At the October Tuesday Talk Adrian Benedetti told the English-speaking audience assembled at Exedra Books of Summit Municipal Park's history and future.
In 1923, what's now the park Summit was established an experimental plantation at which exotic plants --- particularly but not only trees and shrubs --- from all over the tropical world were tested for their suitability to use in landscaping the Canal Zone. The people who started this project at a place where the Continental Divide cut through the old Canal Zone (hence "Summit") were the same folks who established the biological research station on Barro Colorado Island. The "Canal Zone Plant Introduction Garden," as it was then called, was much larger than the present park and was home to the biggest collection of tropical palm trees of its time.
(Adjacent to Summit Municipal Park is the Soberania National Park. Wander out of the back of the former into the latter and on your jungle walk you may notice trees and shrubs quite alien to Panama. These are survivors of that part of the experimental garden in which the forest was allowed to grow back untended.)
One of the botanists who took part in the gradual transformation of a 250-hectare landscaping experiment into a 57-hectare botanical garden was David Fairchild. In 1938 he took the knowledge he gathered at Summit to Coral Gables, Florida and established the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which came to set the world standard for such gardens.
In 1950 the botanical garden, which by then had become a popular Zonian picnic spot, got a macaw display. That was step one in the establishment of a zoo. The animal collection was (and still in many ways is) old-fashioned, a haphazard assortment of species kept mainly in cages, without much coherent thought about breeding populations or an educational mission.
In 1957 the popularity of picnics and the growth of the zoo led Canal Zone authorities to change the facility's formal designation from "garden" to "park."
In 1979 Summit was one of the first Canal Zone assets transferred to Panama under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. In 1985 General Noriega transferred the park from the national government to Panama City's municipal government.
In each instance Summit was treated as the undesirable hinterland of a political patronage system. After serving out a suspension imposed by the Electoral Tribunal and coming back to the mayor's office annoyed at what her vice mayor had done, Mayín Correa infamously and facetiously announced that she would be assigning her running mate to the Summit, to take care of "Juancho the Alligator" (actually a large crocodile).
Despite the park's neglected stepchild aspect, Mayors Correa and Navarro both recognized Summit's potential and its obsolescence and shortcomings in many aspects. Alliances were formed with various foreign institutions, corporate funding was obtained for certain projects, and new concepts began to evolve.
One of the early successes in this process was the Harpy Eagle exhibit, which was built in collaboration with the Miami Metro Zoo, with funding from SONY and the cooperation of the Peregrine Fund and other organizations. A separate patronato (public interest foundation) was organized for that project.
In 2005, on the advice of a consultant from the Houston Zoo, the city created a patronato for Summit Park as a whole and Adrian Benedetti was appointed as director of the park and head of the patronato. Gears are slowly turning to formally transfer the park's management from the city to the patronato.
On the garden side, Summit has been working to increase its plant diversity and to more systematically label the various trees and other plants in its collection. An important side show to that job, and potentially a significant source of revenue for the park, has been the sale of tropical plants to the general public at Summit's nursery.
The zoo is moving in the direction of the modern zoological park mainstream, adopting species conservation goals, having larger collections of fewer species, moving animals out of cages and into more spacious and closer to natural habitats and swapping or lending animals with other zoos for breeding purposes. The tapir exhibit, for example, is in a three-way exchange with the Houston Zoo and El Valle's El Nispero Zoo (home to Noriega's tapirs) to improve the breeding stock by pairing animals that aren't closely related.
The new jaguar and red deer exhibits are examples of the direction the zoo has taken in recent years. A cooperative effort with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to set up a specially protected amphibian breeding and exhibition facility is another example. In these efforts education plays a key role --- the animal keepers need to know what the species in their charge like to eat, and how to keep habitats free of conditions that will breed diseases among the collection.
As a conservation organization, Summit works with the National Environmental Authority, law enforcement agencies and the general public to rescue animals that have been illegally captured. One recent example was the confiscation of a tapir that someone was trying to sell over the Internet.
The move toward the mainstream has meant closer alliances on an international scale. Summit is now a member of the Latin American Zoological Park and Aquarium Society (ALAPZA), and will host that organization's 2009 congress next May.
Plans are made and money is being raised for a new entrance, and to move the playground, sports and picnicking area to a flatter and more appropriate part of the park. A moated white-faced capuchin monkey island exhibit is in the works. The amphibian exhibit ought to be open in January or February. There will be new concession stands, educational exhibits, indigenous cultural displays, a zoo train, a new veterinary clinic, a reptile house and an orchid pavillion. The park's perimeter will get a new fence.
All of this won't happen overnight, and a lot of money will be required. Which is why, for example, the patronato will be holding the Copa Summit benefit golf tournament at the Summit Golf & Resort on December 19.
There is also a need for volunteers with a wide variety of skills, from architects to zoo guides and many other specialities in between.
If you want to sign your company or yourself up for the golf tournament, or want to volunteer to help out with Summit Park's transformation in your special way, call Adrian Benedetti at 232-4850.
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