TUCSON, Ariz. — The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is recognized nationally and internationally as one of the World's top zoos. But is the Desert Museum really a zoo?
"We of course are a zoo, we're an aquarium, we're a garden," said Craig Ivanyi, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Executive Director. "I don't think there's any one name that encompasses everything that we are."
What they are just has to be experienced.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum covers 98 acres with 242 animal species. The majority of the exhibits, 85 percent, are outdoors.
To better understand the Desert Museum, you have to go back nearly 70 years, to the beginning.
Bill Carr moved to Tucson from New York in the 1940s, and quickly realized there was a lack of knowledge about the desert.
"He was an environmental educator, so he said I need to get people the knowledge they need to really make decisions that are good about this environment," Ivanyi said.
Carr came up with the idea. His friend Arthur Pack was the benefactor.
In 1952, they opened the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Located 12 miles west of Tucson, it opened under a different name.
"It was the Trailside Museum and Zoo," according to Ivanyi.
After Carr faced opposition to a name that conjured up a roadside snake farm, he dropped the 'trailside' and 'zoo' from the name.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was an instant success. Opening day, the crowds came, as cars navigated over gates pass on a dirt road.
Carr and Pack were correct, Tucson wanted to learn more about its desert.
Originally free, by 1953 visitors were charged a 50 cent admission.
The museum's education programs began in the mid-50s with "The Desert Ark."
"There was a gentleman by the name of Hal Gras," said Ivanyi. "He went out and did thousands and thousands of school programs. He had his own television show."
"I really do think that guy is the reason that this place actually found its footing in the community. We had a draw from all around the world, that came because of this Sonoran Desert region. They heard about the museum. But to really get people in this town to say this is special, it's the Desert Ark with all of its classes."
There have been major expansions over the years, as well as new exhibits added. It was all part of the master plan of Bill Carr and Arthur Pack.
"The aquarium, the arts, all those things that came to us much later, are things they had in their original concept," according to Ivanyi. "They just didn't have the technology and the funding to be able to do it, like we can today."
Ivanyi explained the presence of the aquarium, in the desert, with the stingrays:
"It's a regional representation of the Sonoran Desert region," Ivanyi said. "That goes way beyond the desert. In fact, the desert we have here is highly influenced by the climate we're actually pulling out of the Gulf of California."
That Sonoran Desert region includes the aquatic life of the gulf. It also includes the cactus and other flora, only possible because of our monsoon.
"The reason the Sonoran Desert is so incredibly diverse, more so than any other one on the planet, is because of that bi-seasonal rainfall."
Ironically, nearly 70 years later, the Desert Museum is still trying to educate those of us who may take our home for granted.
"I think we take the desert for granted, and I think we take the museum for granted," Ivanyi said.
The perfect reason to take in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for the first time, or the first time in a long time.