During the last few years, I was honored to have some great conversations with Sophie Danforth about the early days of the Rhode Island Zoological Society. Mrs. Danforth, who died on Nov. 15, was straightforward, modest and painfully honest. As described in her obituary, she was “formidable and politely demanding.” Over nearly 60 years, her vision brought the Roger Williams Park Zoo from a run-down, unfunded bunch of caged small birds and reptiles and a chained elephant named “Alice” to the world-class conservation organization it is today.
Many Rhode Islanders still remember how bad it used to be. The Rhode Island Zoological Society was founded in 1962 by Mrs. Danforth in order to establish a private oversight entity which enabled the zoo to garner support from the community. It is in large part because of her that the Roger Williams Park Zoo is now Rhode Island’s premier tourist destination.
In the late 1950s, Sophie described the zoo as “an appalling hell-hole.” A woman with great vision, she was obviously the right person at the right time to save the Roger Williams Park Zoo.
She oversaw the consolidation of the zoo’s collection to the current 40-acre location, so that animals weren’t spread all over the 1873 park without protection or care. She joined the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA) in 1968, the first zoo in New England to do so, which guided the organization to develop professional standards.
Since then the Zoo has not only been a member in good standing but has also achieved humane certification by the American Humane Association, one of only a handful of zoos around the world to do so.
When the city couldn’t pay to feed the animals, she created an endowment so they would never be hungry again. She personally ran a gift shop and held membership drives in order to raise money, to cover the zoo’s food and veterinary bills.
In 1968, Mrs. Danforth hired the Zoo’s first professional director, Dion Albach. With help from world-renowned conservationists such as Gerald Durrell, founder of Save Animals from Extinction (SAFE), now the Wildlife Conservation Trust International, and William Conway of the Wildlife Conservation Society, she worked to create the international conservation organization we are today.
With director Tony Vecchio, she toured the world’s zoos, recognizing the best and worst they had to offer and bringing those best practices back to Rhode Island. With Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr., she was able to secure federal money to rebuild the zoo, which closed for two years of construction. In 1980, the “new” zoo opened to rave reviews, providing natural habitats for the animals, always with the message of conservation.
In the early 1980s a citywide union strike was planned. In a tough negotiation with Cianci and Joe Virgilio and, against all odds, she was able to exempt the unionized zookeepers from the strike so the animals would be cared for and fed.
At first, she wasn’t taken seriously, yet she soldiered on. The city had no money, yet she soldiered on.
What we have today is the result of her vision, helped by so many great board members, superb zoo staff, and broad community support. Her relentless dedication and unyielding drive continue to inspire the Rhode Island Zoological Society. When asked how she did it, Mrs. Danforth said, “Well, I had common sense and a love of animals.”
We are grateful to the Danforth family for directing contributions in her memory to the zoo in order continue her mission of saving our endangered natural world.
Jeremy Goodman is executive director of the Rhode Island Zoological Society and Roger Williams Park Zoo.