A Tapir Gallery Interview:
How the Tapir Preservation Fund got started
Reprinted from TPF News, Nos. 2:7, 2:8, and 2:10 (1999).
Secretary interviews PresidentAll tapirs are endangered species.
TPF News, Vol. 2, No. 7 ~ July 1999
One of the questions that we get a lot is, "How did you get into tapirs?" This formal interview, well, sort of formal, with Sheryl Todd, President of TPF, might answer that. Of course, this part of the interview brings up more questions, which we'll get to next month. Kate Wilson, TPF Secretary, conducted the interview:
K: Why tapirs? Why not something more well known, like the goldfinch or the carp?
S: I've never been attracted to things that were well known. In fifth grade I had a remarkable teacher. Her name was Mrs. Elizabeth Riddle, and she was ahead of her time, I think. Two passions that she wove through all of her teachings were conservation and creativity. That's really another story, but one day she passed out pictures of animals to everyone in the class and we had to do a report on whatever animal we got. Mine was the ermine. I was elated because I couldn't find a lot of information. That meant somehow that all the information I did find was extra valuable. There was something very fascinating about discovering an animal that was little known.
I didn't become aware that I knew what a tapir was until Bob Wilson [no relation to Kate Wilson] and I went to see the first release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. After the scene with the tapirs, he turned to me and asked, "What were those?" and I said, "They're tapirs." I knew the answer, but I didn't know why I knew it.
We were both fascinated by this unusual creature. Partly it was the way they looked, and the obscurity. We were living in Claremont (California), which had five or six colleges in one town, including a small zoology library, but the information we found was conflicting and sparse.
K: How did you get the actual tapir?
S: One day Bob came into the house with an Eye magazine - I think that was the name of it. I still have the
page. . . . It was a story called "Beasts by Mail." There was a full page picture of a pygmy hippo. It was more of an ad than a story. The implication was, "We can get you anything." And it gave the name of the animal dealer.
We wrote to him, and he said, basically, "Well, we just happen to have one thirty-pound South American tapir and we're saving it for you if you want it. Three hundred dollars FOB New York. Let me know."
That was a bit more money than we could scrape together, so we contacted all our friends and got loans of five dollars and ten dollars. When the tapir arrived, we called the San Diego Zoo and got a diet that was workable. We were in constant contact with vets. We called a local horse vet and - this is amazing - he'd had experience in vet school with tapirs! He always called Stanley "The South American Horse."
Stanley was named for Stanley Kubrick [director of 2001]. Stanley K. Tapir was his full name.
K: Would you do it over again?
S: Yes and no. I would do it again in a second, but I'd do it differently. Baby tapirs are just so adorable, absolutely incredible. I would love to raise another tapir but I wouldn't try to raise it in the house.
K: Really, in the house?
S: Yeah, we didn't have a yard for Stanley till he was several months old. So he was in the house.
(Next month . . . how TPF began!)
TPF News, Vol. 2, No. 8 ~ August 1999
Last month Sheryl Todd, President of TPF, explained in a semi-formal interview how she got into tapirs at all. This month, she talks about the first tapir organization she started (yes, the current TPF is the second). In  she and her then-husband Bob Wilson had acquired their first tapir, a Brazilian tapir named Stanley, and were raising him in the house . . .
K: When did you start the Tapir Research Institute?
S: After we got Stanley in .
K: Wasn't Stanley enough tapir in your life? Why the TRI?
S: Once we realized we had such a fascinating animal, we did what we could to research it. But we weren't finding enough information in the few books and articles that we could get, so we conducted a survey. We sent questions to a lot of zoos. We got nearly a 60% response, which is pretty unheard of. We even got one from what was then Red China. We put the information together, and lo and behold, people are still using it. Not that the information was that great, but so little had been gathered and printed. Unfortunately, that's still pretty much true.
Our goal was to gather information on tapirs and make it avaiable (a goal that has been reborn in TPF). We found that zoos were hungry for information and it just sort of grew.
One of our high points was when a zoo called and asked how to proceed surgically with one of their tapirs that was dying from rectal prolapse. We weren't vets, but we knew of another zoo that had done successful surgery, so we put them in touch. The two vets talked, and together we all saved the tapir's life.
K: Why did the TRI end?
S: Bob and I were getting a divorce. Also, we had an adult [Stanley the Brazilian tapir] and a five month old [Mona the Baird's tapir] on our hands. We really didn't have the proper facilities. Taking care of a 395 pound banana-loving mini tank at the house had become . . . wearing.
(Next month: fast-forward 20 years, and the TPF is born.)
Interview with TPF President concludes
TPF News, Vol. 2, No. 10 ~ October 1999
One of the questions that we get all the time is, "Why tapirs?" Or, more specifically, "How did you get into tapirs?" Finally, the secretary of the TPF (Kate Wilson) did a formal interview, well, sort of formal, with the president of TPF (Sheryl Todd). This month, the conclusion of our three-part interview (we bumped this installment last month to make room for acknowledgements of some wonderful donations TPF received).
K: What did you do with your tapirs when the Tapir Research Institute ended?
S: Brazilian tapirs, like Stanley, weren't terribly valuable, though we loved him and found him a good home at the Houston Zoo. They really wanted him, and we were glad about that. But we knew that with Mona, the young Baird's tapir, we had a very valuable animal. She belonged in a zoo where she could be part of a breeding group. So we gave her to the San Diego Zoo, which had a non-breeding pair at that time. She seems to have provided an element that unbalanced the status quo, because soon after that the older female became pregnant for the first time. When Mona grew up, she also bred with the zoo's male.
K: How did the Tapir Preservation Fund start?
S: In January of 1996, I got sick and went into the hospital. They thought I had cancer. I actually had lupus. I was out of the hospital toward the end of January. It was one of those turning points when you just start doing something different, and for some reason during my convalescence I wanted to learn HTML. I went on the Internet and started downloading all these pages about how to write HTML. I was actually sitting in doctor's offices with a notebook writing HTML code with a pen.
By March we had bought a domain. It has a ".com" ending because we had a business at that time, but not a nonprofit. Of course, it had to have the word "tapir" in it. I just wanted to put up some of things that interested me. I happened to have some pictures and stories about tapirs that I thought were interesting, and I created the page that people now know as the opening page. That little funky thing where it says "Hello" at the top of the picture? That was the first thing I typed in when I was learning how to do a caption on a picture. Because it was the first thing, and because I kind of liked it, I left it.
The scan of our trademark snouting (actually "flehmening") tapir was my first color scan for the web. It was from a photo I took at the Amsterdam zoo years ago and had cut out with scissors to make a collage. If you look closely at the scan on the web, you can see a little bit of brown glue around the tapir against the white background. Technically, I could get a much better image of it now, but I've left this one because it has historical significance.
I envisioned the tapir area really as a side branch of our main page, like a gallery, like a wing of a museum. I was planinng just to put up the tapir pictures and stories that I had, and the early things we had published from the Tapir Research Institute. Then people started asking me questions.
I realized that tapir conservation was in much worse shape than it had been in thirty years ago. And here were all these people writing me, trying to make contact with tapir conservationsists, asking technical questions about tapirs, wanting to help with conservation. And I realized that, just like back in the days of the Tapir Research Institute, there was still a communications niche that needed to be filled. The TPF (which is now formally nonprofit) is just my response to what I saw as a need. It's still more or less guided by what seems to be needed.
K: Is that how Club Tapir got started?
S: Yeah. It was one of those moments when you're getting ready for bed, turning off the lights, getting ready to zone out for the night. I'm always in contact with people trying to raise funds for projects, and that had been on my mind. It just came to me suddenly. If people don't want to, or can't afford to, give large amounts, maybe a bunch of people would be able to give small amounts. That's how it happened. I couldn't fall asleep. Sometimes I hate getting ideas at night.
[To Kate] I remember back when I was first e-mailing you. Pretty early on, I said I was thinking of getting back into tapirs and I asked what you thought. And you wrote me back and said that we know about Shakespeare because of what he left behind, and what did I want to leave behind? What was it that I should do so that in ten years I would look back and be glad I did it? So I started TPF.
I've gotten a lot of calls from the media. Typically they'll ask "Why are tapirs fascinating? Why are they important?" You can look at all the intellectual reasons -- they're all over the website -- but tapirs are just special to me. I don't know any other way to say it. They are just special animals. Having been close to two of them -- there's nothing that can describe that. And it's really heartwarming to me to see the grassroots support for tapirs. I mean, tapirs are basically an unknown and unloved animal, but to see the few people who do have a passion for these animals coming forward and helping create a groundswell of support -- it has grown since the beginning of the Tapir Gallery website and the Tapir Preservation Fund, and I see it growing every month. And it's very fulfilling to be part of that. I've met a lot of great people. People who have a passion for tapirs are some of the best people on earth.
Saving tapirs helps save the rainforest.
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