Gingrich, it seems, is crazy for zoos.
Earlier this year, Gingrich took to Twitter to express his sadness at the untimely death of Knut, a polar bear with an eerily familiar name he had visited at the Berlin Zoo. On the campaign trail, he has occasionally relaxed by stealing away to a reptile house or giraffe enclosure to commune with wildlife.
Gingrich’s first act of civic engagement was at age 11, when he lobbied officials in Harrisburg, Pa., to open a zoo. “Young Newton Gingrich told Mayor Claude Robins and four city councilmen that he and a number of youthful buddies could round up enough animals to get the project started,” the Associated Press reported in 1954.
Gingrich’s passion for this childlike hobby is not just a quirk. Fascinated with nature and wildlife since he was a boy, Gingrich speaks often of his deep appreciation for the natural world and the importance of protecting the environment for future generations. In Congress, he backed the Endangered Species Act against the wishes of many in his party, and he has spoken out in favor of measures meant to curb global warming.
He has softened his stance on climate change lately, saying there are merits on both sides of the debate. Still, he acknowledges that he is an environmentalist, albeit from a free-market perspective.
In a 2007 book he co-wrote, “A Contract with the Earth,”
he argues that humans have a God-
given responsibility to be stewards of the environment and that the private sector can help the country become the world’s leader in environmental policy.
His interest in zoos goes beyond policy; it is a relic of his childhood and an escape from the demands of his daily life.
“I just like to go and unwind, and see how the local zoo does things, the kind of animals they have,” he said in a recent video on YouTube.
As a congressman in the 1980s, Gingrich approached Zoo Atlanta for a backstage tour. Zoo Director Terry L. Maple escorted him from exhibit to exhibit, fielding questions for about an hour before having to excuse himself, leaving Gingrich to spend two or three more hours lobbing queries to the curators.
“I have never taken anybody, a VIP, through a zoo who wanted more than a brief tour and a photo op,” recalled Maple, Gingrich’s co-author on the environmental book. “You knew it was something kind of different for him, something special.”
Gingrich, who wrote the foreword to the guidebook “America’s Best Zoos,” says he has been to nearly 100 zoos in the United States. He visited at least three while on the campaign trail this year and hosted a campaign fundraiser in September at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. For the time being, the cold weather and a demanding campaign schedule have forced the candidate to curtail his zoo visits, a Gingrich spokesman said.