When Theodore H. Reed took his degree in veterinary medicine from Kansas State University in 1945, zoos were primarily animal warehouses. The public visited a succession of houses where they could view creatures maintained in caged settings. Sanitation was often poor and education was rarely a priority.
That began to change in the mid-1950s when Reed was appointed veterinarian at the National Zoo in Washington. A year later he was named acting director, and in 1958 he was appointed director.
He remained in that capacity into the mid-1980s, in the process becoming one of the leading advocates for change in the operation of zoos. Warehousing gave way to an emphasis on breeding, improved conditions and more informative, natural displays.
Officials announced that Reed had died Tuesday at a nursing home. He was 90 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Reed’s role at the National Zoo put K-State’s veterinary medicine program on the map in the 1960s and 1970s. He was best known as the man who oversaw the introduction of the giant panda exhibit, a byproduct of a Nixon-era thaw in relations between the United States and China. But Reed also oversaw a large-scale capital renovation of the zoo that made it a national attraction, he developed the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, and he led many advances in exotic animal care and medicine. Reed retired from administration in 1983 and from the zoo in 1984
Reed was a 34-year-old veterinarian in 1956 when he took over the modest-size National Zoo in Washington. At the time, he was among the nation’s youngest directors of an animal park, and during the next 27 years, he vastly broadened its scope and ambition.
Douglas Myers, the president and chief executive of San Diego Zoo Global, credited Reed with bringing science to the business of running the zoo and with helping to promote such concepts as conservation. “He was doing cutting-edge things before any of us ever thought of them,” Myers said.
Reed created the zoo’s Scientific Research Department in the mid-1960s to study animal behavior, reproduction and breeding.
The giant pandas Reed obtained for the National Zoo in 1972 — a male named Hsing-Hsing and a female named Ling-Ling — were reportedly the first in the United States in more than 20 years. Moreover, they had political clout. They were a goodwill gesture from communist China after then-President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit there to renew diplomatic ties. Nixon reportedly selected the National Zoo over at least four other big-city zoos because it was taxpayer funded.
In return for the pandas, Reed agreed to escort two musk oxen to Beijing from the San Francisco Zoo. Reed, whose father was an Army officer, was born July 25, 1922, at the Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington. He grew up all over the world, including the Philippines, but mostly in Norton, Kan.
He said that as a young man, he hoped to follow his father and brother into combat during World War II, but, because of color blindness, he instead was inducted in an Army program for veterinary students while attending Kansas State University. His father and brother were both killed in action, and he recalled he and his mother finding out by telegrams that arrived within three hours of each other.
He received a doctorate from Kansas State’s veterinary school in 1945 and spent much of his early career in Portland, Ore., at a local zoo and racetrack. When he arrived in 1955 at the National Zoo, he was one of three people on the technical staff. The next year, he succeeded director William Mann, who had led the zoological park since 1925.
Reed saw the budget climb to $10 million from $1 million by the time he retired. But more than the financial growth, the former veterinarian spoke piquantly about the animals in his care. He recalled every bite, kick and claw.
A bad chomp by a chimp named Jiggs left him with only partial use of two fingers on his right hand.
“I don’t blame the chimp,” Reed told The Washington Post in 1972. “It was all my fault. You’re supposed to keep an eye on the animal closest to you. But I let my attention wander. I was looking at some other chimp, and Jiggs bit hell out of my hand. As I say, I don’t blame the chimp, but I’ll never forgive him for smacking his lips afterwards.”
Reed’s first wife, Mary Elizabeth Crandall, who helped raise some of the zoo’s animals, including tiger cubs, leopards and bear cubs, died in 1978. As he told The Washington Post, they honeymooned at the Kansas City Zoo. “We had a good time, no matter what she says,” he quipped.