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Home’s Art Reflects Woman’s Love of Vanishing Cultures

July 27, 2008

By Tim Feran, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 27–Once a month, Home & Garden visits a central Ohioan’s home to peek at the room most readily associated with his or her line of work or play.

Jack Hanna calls Rebecca Rose “Miss Rain Forest,” partly because of her love of the jungles of the world and partly because of her lush and dense backyard, which just so happens to be located on a street appropriately named Amazon.

Rose, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s field conservation manager, takes the teasing in stride. She’s far too busy managing the zoo’s worldwide conservation efforts and traveling to far-flung places to worry about a little good-natured ribbing.

Rose, who has been with the zoo for about two decades, spent a dozen years in the education department before shifting her focus to conservation almost nine years ago.

She recently took a break from her schedule to talk about the arts and crafts she has collected in the dozens of countries she has visited. The collection reflects Rose’s interest in preserving not only the wildlife but also the cultures of the people in those lands.

“In many cases, we’re losing indigenous cultures faster than some wildlife species,” Rose said, “and I love things made by indigenous artists, particularly women. They’re not just unique, but they’re a means to benefit the artists, to send their kids to school and support them.”

The collection of colorful pieces seems to occupy every corner of her cozy Columbus home. The pieces were obtained one at a time, most often stuffed into Rose’s backpack as she checked in on research and conservation programs around the world.

The zoo aims to make a direct impact on wildlife conservation by awarding grants to such programs, which foster grass-roots conservation on behalf of Africa’s endangered bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas, West Indian manatees, Siberian tigers and polar bears.

Q: When did your interest in the tropics and animals begin?

A: I think I’ve always been attracted to things that have an international flair.

My mom had a subscription to National Geographic when I was growing up, and for many years I’ve been interested in indigenous cultures.

Q: You recently returned from one of your trips, didn’t you?

A: I was just in Sierra Leone for a conference. I met a guy there who was a survivor of the civil war, and he carves chimpanzee masks. But he only has one arm.

He gave me one of the masks when I was at the chimpanzee sanctuary there. This mask is so special because of the circumstances: the horrible civil war that he survived, his carving of it with only one arm, how he’s helping his family by doing it.

He has a little stick attached to the stump of one arm. He’s overcome tragedy and makes money to support his family and the chimp sanctuary.

Most of the things I bring back are not high-end items. It’s the stories behind them that are most special to me.

Q: So you don’t seek out these pieces — they seek out you?

A: When I’m visiting a project, I typically don’t go shopping for stuff. I don’t have the capability to bring back a lot in my backpack. I just bring back things with real meaning — or buy something anytime a little kid approaches. I’m a sucker for that.

That carved jaguar . . . on the mantel? I bought that from a little kid selling them on a street corner. It wasn’t expensive, but it has a lot of meaning to me.

Q: The line drawings on the wall of your living room have a story, too, don’t they?

A: The artist did those using Bic pens.

They’re bonobos, and they’re intermingled with fertility symbols from various indigenous groups in the Congo. I met (the artist) and talked to him and bought a couple of his drawings. Yeah, they’re amazing.

He was a starving artist, and now the war’s over. He recently had a show of his works in Paris — he’s becoming quite well-known.

Q: How appropriate — bonobos and fertility symbols. Bonobos are supposed to be the lovers of the primate world, aren’t they?

A: They are, yeah. They’re very special animals.

There’s been a little bit of discussion about whether bonobos are female-dominated, but the woman who runs the sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo doesn’t think bonobos are female-dominant — she thinks the males and females have equal status. But that does make them different from chimps, which are male-dominated.

And those pieces are images of the actual animals that they’ve cared for in the sanctuary. I had another one, and we auctioned it at the zoo. Someone who knows a lot about art paid $1,800 for it, and we were able to donate the money to the bonobo sanctuary.

Q: Your collection extends into the dining room, doesn’t it?

A: All those turtles on the trunk under the window are from different countries.

And those little bikes on the windowsill are from Uganda. That’s what the streets of Uganda are like, people carrying things around on their bicycles.

The chimp mask on the wall is from the Congo.

Q: Wow, I’ve never seen a chimp face represented in quite that way. It’s very unusual.

A: It’s really old, too. It was given to me by the woman who runs the bonobo sanctuary.

It was made by a group . . . in the Congo that thinks bonobos are people trying to hide from the rest of us. It’s a really funny legend.

Q: How many places do you visit for this job? The number of turtles you have there, all from different countries, is pretty eye-popping.

A: The zoo awards about 70 grants in about 30 countries every year. I visit two or three projects a year. I really love it.

It’s incredibly depressing and inspirational at the same time. Everyone knows what’s happening to wild habitats. But the people I meet — they’re just amazing. They don’t have anything. It’s seems counterintuitive that they would care about wildlife, but they do. It’s very humbling and inspirational — and they often do it at risk to their own lives.

tferan@dispatch.com

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