A jaguar at the Dallas World Aquarium, a mecca for worldwide zoo enthusiasts.

Nine thousand years ago, as the giant sloths of North and South America went extinct, rising sea levels isolated a sand-rimmed sprout of jungle off the coast of Panama—a change that would create, over the millennia, the smallest living sloths of all. Evolution worked quickly on the Isla Escudo de Veraguas. When biologists from the United States examined the island in the 1980s, they discovered tree sloths nearly half the size of their mainland relatives. In 2001, they declared these sloths a new species: Bradypus pygmaeus, or pygmy three-toed sloths.

Daryl Richardson, the owner of the Dallas World Aquarium, learned about pygmy sloths soon there-after, and he was determined to add them to his zoo in Texas. Their appeal is obvious. Ordinary three-toed sloths, which look like the love children of a raccoon and E. T., are some of the cutest animals on the planet. Pygmy sloths, with their teddy-bear proportions, are even cuter. Their eyes blink slowly behind dark masks of fur; their short black snouts recede, ever so slightly, into what appears to be a smile.

Richardson, however, was after more than just another adorable attraction. Surveys had found fewer than 100 pygmy sloths on Escudo, and the population was dwindling as fishermen from nearby tourist towns built outposts on the island. And so Richardson decided he was going to rescue the pygmy sloth from extinction. Although zoos rarely extract endangered species from the wild anymore, Richardson was confident that he could foster the world’s first captive population of pygmy sloths. He had built the only American zoo, after all, to exhibit brown-throated sloths, a common species closely related to the pygmy sloth. For Richardson, the brown-throated sloths were a point of pride. So were the other animals that his zoo—and only his zoo—had kept in its care: water opossums, red howler monkeys, ariel toucans, and dozens more.

In September 2013, Richardson dispatched a small team, including the Dallas World Aquarium’s conservation biologist, to Escudo de Veraguas. The island’s interior is an impenetrable tangle teeming with deadly snakes, but the pygmy sloths had mostly been observed in coastal mangrove swamps, a niche that no other sloth species was known to occupy. Richardson’s posse motored in and out of the turquoise shallows, scanning the canopy. The sloths were easy to catch once spotted: One of the hunters would simply climb the trees and pluck the helpless creature from the branches. On September 6, they packed eight sloths into crates and ferried their catch to Bocas del Toro, a ramshackle party town on a nearby island. They transferred the sloths to a net enclosure outside their hotel, where they could be monitored. Finally, a few days later, a Learjet carrying Richardson touched down at the dusty Bocas del Toro airport, causing something of a stir: The locals were more used to prop planes bearing thirsty tourists from Panama City.

Normally, Richardson waited for his new arrivals back in Dallas. True, he used to swim through coral reefs and trek into the Andes to stock his exhibits, but he rarely made such trips anymore: It made him anxious to leave his animals behind. With the pygmy sloths, however, he wasn’t taking any chances. He walked off his jet and into the heat, which clotted on the runway. He did not expect to be in Panama for long. Soon his pygmy sloths would depart for Texas, to take their place alongside the wondrous birds and beasts that he had assiduously acquired over 20 years.

The Dallas World Aquarium is just a short walk from Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated. Colorful banners advertise its animals on local lampposts, but unlike most zoos, its attractions are not contained within a sprawling park. The Dallas World Aquarium consists of a few brick buildings occupying a single city acre.

The main exhibit is built around an open central island, like a Jumanji Guggenheim. I first visited last February, paying the $20.95 admission and entering a rainforest “canopy” where birds fly freely and monkeys groom each other in the fronds. I followed a path downward into the “understory,” alongside a black-lit cave of short-tailed bats and a pair of giant river otters, before arriving at an enormous tank in the “aquatic” level. A manatee loafed on an underwater ledge, rising every few minutes for a breath of air.

The zoo kept on going: past tropical fish tanks, through an aquatic tunnel where sharks sailed cloudlike overhead, and into a second large jungle exhibit populated by jaguars and flamingos. Richardson had packed every inch with animals, especially exotic birds: purple-breasted cotingas, red-crowned woodpeckers, and green mangos; lance-tailed manakins and long-tailed sylphs; crested eagles and wattled guans. The Dallas World Aquarium’s avian collection is the third largest in the country, according to Richardson, behind only the much larger zoos in San Diego and San Antonio. It includes more birds from the toucan family than all other U.S. zoos combined and, as of 2011, more than 60 bird species that no other American zoo kept at all.

The array of animals has made the Dallas World Aquarium a magnet for another strange fauna: hardcore zoo enthusiasts, who gather on forums like ZooChat.com to trade exhaustive reviews of the zoos in cities like Columbus, Wichita, and Jacksonville. “What’s fantastic about the Dallas World Aquarium is there is still a place that’s got an owner who’ll say, ‘Well we’ll go and get this, we’ll go and get that, we’ll go and get the other,’” said Tim Brown, the chairman of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, who has visited 700 zoos worldwide. For people like Brown, a trip to the Dallas World Aquarium is a kind of pilgrimage. “I know of many overseas zoo nerds who travel vast distances to visit the facility,” one ZooChat member wrote.

When I returned to the Dallas World Aquarium in August, Richardson greeted me with a firm handshake. “There he is!” he practically shouted. He was a short and energetic 52-year-old man in a purple gingham shirt and khakis. Richardson led me through the zoo’s public sections, picking up stray feathers and slapping employees’ shoulders, and up to the roof. There, away from the shoals of screaming children, he quietly conducts the breeding that is his proudest work. He pointed to a cock-of-the-rock, a South American bird whose males flaunt a pompadour of orange feathers to grab the females’ attention. “That’s her nest,” Richardson said. “This is the first-ever captive breeding of this species in the world right here. She mated on the door handle, so then I got rid of the door.”

As we continued down the row of cages, Richardson did some preening of his own. “Here’s pudús,” he said, gesturing toward a deer a celebrity could fit in her handbag. “They’re the smallest deer in South America. No one was doing good with them, so I brought them in and I’ve had two babies.”

“These are lettered aracaris. No one ever bred them before. ... Pygmy marmosets. Nobody has any but us. ... That’s the first-ever breeding of that species—it’s called a wood quail. They’re just psychotic birds.”

As a child growing up in Willis, Texas, Richardson never visited a zoo he liked. The animals bored him in their barren cages. He wasn’t the type of kid to dig up earthworms or beg for family pets, either. He worked hard to please his parents. His father was in the lumber business, his mother in special education. “She worked with special kids all day long,” Richardson said, “so I think we were expected to have a level of normalcy.”

Richardson’s adult life started normally enough. He moved to Dallas in 1983 with a degree in advertising from the University of Texas. He found work as a waiter, saved his money, and opened a restaurant, Daryl’s by Design, on his twenty-fifth birthday. That same year, he catered a David Hockney opening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which many of Dallas’s wealthiest residents attended. He hired as servers the best-looking men from a modeling agency and focused obsessively on the party’s details, down to the length and cleanliness of his waiters’ fingernails.

Before long Richardson had established himself as a go-to caterer for Dallas’s upper crust, throwing lavish events for Kraft Foods and Neiman Marcus and celebrities like Elton John. The Dallas Cowboys hired him to cater their 1995 Super Bowl ring presentation; Troy Aikman later had him cook Thanksgiving dinner. For Cessna, Richardson made over airport tarmacs with full-sized palm groves and troupes of Vegas showgirls. “It does Daryl an injustice to call him a caterer and nothing more,” a Cessna rep told The Dallas Morning News. “The man creates a world that you get to inhabit for only a few hours but remember forever.”

Richardson was ambitious, though, and a caterer, no matter how successful, always serves his clients, whose lives he may never be truly welcomed into. “I knew at a young age—or once I started doing a lot of corporate catering for some really high rollers—it was not anything I wanted to do long term,” Richardson said. Art collection might have seemed a natural pursuit, but then he went scuba diving on a vacation. “It was incredible to go and see pristine oceans and fish and to be submersed in it,” he said. “It was very calming.” He put a fish tank in his restaurant, and diners loved it. Soon a single tank was not enough.

Richardson began reading about fish, teaching himself three new species every day. On his thirtieth birthday he bought an abandoned warehouse in Dallas’s West End for $500,000; it was exactly five years after he opened his restaurant. (“I’m pretty structured with goals,” Richardson said.) He installed eleven tanks, a walk-in aquarium tunnel, and a penguin exhibit. The attraction also included his second restaurant, a gift shop, and space for private events. “I’m clearly out for the profit,” he told the Morning News when the Dallas World Aquarium opened in 1992.

But if his only goal had been healthy attendance, he would have stocked his tanks with a few popular and charismatic species and left it at that. Instead, he began spending great sums on animals only connoisseurs would appreciate. He bought at least seven species of euphonia, a type of tropical finch, ignored by other zoos. He mixed in horned guans, one of the most isolated birds on earth. He purchased resplendent quetzals—he calls them the rarest birds in his collection—and arranged their long emerald tail feathers in a vase on his desk.

“He approaches it like a collector, like a 12-year-old,” said a former employee of the Dallas World Aquarium. “When he starts collecting something, he’s going to complete it.”

American flamingos are among the largest birds in the Mundo Maya open aviary.

Wealthy men have collected exotic animals since ancient times, but zoos are the product of revolution. In 1792, a mob stormed Versailles, seized some of the exotic animals that Louis XVI kept in the royal menagerie, and relocated them to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris for the proletariat to enjoy. A few decades later, the London Zoological Society opened a garden of animals that the middle class could visit, like a library or museum. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cities across Europe and the United States opened zoos, filling their exhibits with whatever animals they could find. Whole collections were assembled by individual zoo directors who circled the globe handpicking their favorite species.

Only in the last 50 years have zoos’ curatorial philosophies evolved. “Most zoos were created as educational and cultural institutions for their local communities and were meant to help convey the gifts of biological literacy and enjoyable recreation,” William Conway, the former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a speech. “Saving wildlife was not much in the minds of their founders.” By the 1970s, however, governments began to restrict the international trade of wild animals, and animal-rights activists charged that zoos, by removing animals from nature, were partly to blame for extinctions.

Following the example of the Bronx Zoo, which Conway led from 1966 to 1999, zoos began to recast themselves as “conservation centers.” The industry’s trade group, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), paved the way. In the ’70s, it developed accreditation standards to divorce its members from filthy roadside tourist traps and fought off government oversight, arguing that self-policing would be more effective. To this day, no central authority regulates American zoos.

In the early 1980s, the AZA embarked on Species Survival Programs, or SSPs. Member zoos were directed to take animals from nature as infrequently as possible. Instead, the zoos would collectively manage and breed captive animals, both to stock their own exhibits and to create “contingency populations” should the animals’ wild counterparts disappear. Since the first SSPs were established, the number of such initiatives has grown to cover 590 species. In a few cases, zoos have reintroduced SSP-bred animals, like the California condor, to the wild to help stave off extinction.

“The whole idea was to get away from individual zoos having unique collections,” said Michael Hutchins, a former AZA official. “The only way to do that is to work together and not go grabbing everything that becomes available.”

The downside of collective management, where zoo enthusiasts were concerned, was that it made animal collections more predictable. “For me, who goes around to zoos—looking at them, examining them, providing a critique, comparing them—it’s obvious that all zoos are ending up with the same things,” said Brown.

Richardson didn’t want to keep the same animals as other zoos, and he set up the Dallas World Aquarium so he wouldn’t have to. “Daryl is a rebel,” said Juan Cornejo, a former scientific adviser. Richardson never answered to a board of directors. He rejected nonprofit status, freeing himself from depending on wealthy donors. He writes the Dallas World Aquarium budget himself, and he funds it with his own money.

“The Dallas World Aquarium flies in the face of perceived zoo convention these days,” Brown said. Between 2006 and 2011, Richardson imported more than 1,500 birds from all over the Americas, representing at least 120 different species. During that same period, the San Diego and Bronx Zoos, the two most famous zoos in the country, each imported fewer than 70 birds. The San Antonio Zoo, with the country’s second-largest bird collection, imported no birds at all. On a single day in 2006, Richardson imported 250.

“Other zoo directors are so different than me,” Richardson said. “They go on these trips with their wives and the safaris and they milk the system and they go golfing and they go to dinners and they drink and then they come late to the meetings. And that’s bullshit. I don’t need any handouts, I don’t need sponsors. All these other directors are figuring out ways to get money out of rich people and I just don’t agree with it.”

If it were possible, Richardson would just do every job himself. “I’m the curator, the director, the janitor,” he said. But the Dallas World Aquarium needed other people, and not everyone who worked there was comfortable with Richardson’s way of doing business. “If every zoo ran like his does,” a former employee told me, “there would be no animals left on the planet. It would be sucked dry.”

In 1994, Lee Simmons, then the director of the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, traveled to the Dallas Zoo for a conference. During some downtime, a colleague suggested a side trip. “We had heard that some private guy had some really neat aquariums and unique stuff like leafy sea dragons, which none of us had seen,” Simmons remembered. Richardson told his special guests that he had captured many of the fish with his own hands while diving in Australia. “I think we probably looked at Daryl as a very talented hobbyist,” Simmons said.

“Other zoo directors didn’t take me seriously at first,” Richardson said. He was determined to change that. At first, he imagined a small jungle exhibit with a piranha tank. But then he traveled to the Central and South American rainforests. He was mesmerized. Back in the U.S., he visited Simmons at Henry Doorly, which at the time had the world’s largest indoor rainforest exhibit. Richardson didn’t just want to see the animals: He wanted to peek at the life-support systems that maintained the rainforest illusion. “The zoo world is kind of like a disease,” Simmons said. “I think Daryl just got infected with the virus.”

In 1996, Richardson bought a warehouse next door to the Dallas World Aquarium. As he designed his new exhibit, he slept on a Murphy bed in his office and filled his library with important works of ornithology, like Robert Ridgely and Guy Tudor’s The Birds of South America and Josep del Hoyo’s 17-volume Handbook of Birds of the World. “I’ve never seen anyone go from knowing nothing about an animal to knowing more about it than anyone else,” said Josef Lindholm, who helped Richardson plan the exhibit and later worked as the Dallas World Aquarium’s senior aviculturist. Realizing that plenty of U.S. zoos already had Amazon rainforest exhibits, Richardson chose the Orinoco river basin of Venezuela and Colombia. And rather than rely on other U.S. zoos and domestic animal dealers to fill his exhibits, he flew to Venezuela to see what animals he could buy directly. Richardson sketched exhibits down to the placement of individual plants. “He would say to me, ‘There’s going to be this triple palm here,’” said Paula Powell, who has worked at the Dallas World Aquarium for nearly 20 years. “And when it came in, it looked exactly like that.” When cranes lowered delicate trees into the central atrium, Richardson sometimes sat in the branches to make sure they weren’t damaged.

The “Orinoco: Secrets of the River” exhibit opened in 1997. The details Richardson had obsessed over dazzled visitors. “You go in there and you feel like you’re in the rainforest,” said a former employee. It helped that several of the Dallas World Aquarium’s new animals were found few places outside their native jungle, including the critically endangered Orinoco crocodile, the largest predator in South America.

A year later, Richardson added brown-throated three-toed sloths from Venezuela. “I’ve always thought they were—not the cheap man’s panda, but you’ve got these certain anthropomorphic animals that just really grab the guest,” he said. Unlike two-toed sloths, which are common in captivity, the three-toed variety had fared poorly and been dropped by American zoos in the 1960s. “That’s the number one reason Daryl would want it: because no one else had it,” said Jan Raines, who spent seven years as the Dallas World Aquarium’s veterinarian.

With the catering business doing well, cost was never an issue. Lindholm remembered once, when an expensive shipment of tropical fish and corals arrived, Richardson leaned over to him and said, “Forty-thousand dollars. That’s one party.” Richardson’s acquisitiveness, however, could unsettle a zoo world looking to outgrow its rapacious reputation. He built as the centerpiece of his rainforest exhibit a 200,000-gallon tank that he hoped would be home to four Amazon River dolphins captured from the wild. When marine scientists and animal-rights activists caught wind of Richardson’s designs, they rallied to stop him. A group of protesters picketed his zoo, chanting, “Hey, Richardson, you are callous, dolphins don’t belong in Dallas.” Richardson reluctantly withdrew the plan. “Had the San Diego Zoo imported the river dolphins, they’d be on exhibit right now,” he griped to the Morning News.

The fiasco left Richardson with an empty tank in the heart of his aquarium. He was more careful with his next move. Instead of river dolphins, he would import another endangered marine mammal: the Antillean manatee. And rather than capturing the animals from the wild, he would adopt a pair of orphaned juveniles which had already been rescued in Venezuela. Richardson’s staff told the press he would keep the manatees in Dallas only until a better home could be built for them in Venezuela, which he would help fund with his own money. The scientific and animal-rights communities still opposed him, but this time Richardson got the government’s permission in 1999. The manatees came to Dallas and never left.

Richardson’s confidence was growing. He started a biotech side business called Panacea Quantum Leap Technology, whose website claimed, until recently, that he had a biology degree that the University of Texas says he never earned. At the Dallas World Aquarium, he seemed to take special satisfaction in succeeding where other zoos had given up. Over the decades, American zoos had periodically kept cocks-of-the-rock without much breeding success, which made the birds a bad fit for the new collective breeding protocols. Richardson needed to have them, however, after he came across the bright orange males in Venezuela in 1996. “How can a bird that color survive in the wild?” he wondered, and he journeyed deep into their native mountain habitat to find out. 

In 2004, Richardson received permission from the Peruvian government to export Andean cocks-of-the-rock. But he also needed a permit from the U.S. government. “The Fish and Wildlife Service would call other zoos and they’d be like, ‘Those birds all die,’” Richardson said. He persisted and got the green light. He fed his flock live lizards and cultivated a special lichen for their nests. The Dallas World Aquarium went on to hatch more than 120 cocks-of-the-rock. Richardson likes to point out that the Bronx Zoo, which he says opposed his original application, comes to him for the offspring of his cocks-of-the-rock. “That particular zoo now has borrowed seven of my birds,” he told me.

Richardson was ruffling feathers, but he was also winning fans. The Dallas World Aquarium quickly reached the AZA’s goal for member zoos to invest 3 percent of their operating budgets in conservation programs. Richardson funded manatee rescue in Peru, jaguar tracking in Brazil, and cloud-forest preservation in Mexico, among other projects. In Panama, he planned to pay the salaries of rangers on Escudo to protect the pygmy sloths. “We have to be able to not glorify people like me,” Richardson said in a video for the manatee project. “I just want to do well for the animals.”

Now when Richardson decides to bring in a rare species, he can often count on elite zoos to endorse his plans. “Clearly, Dallas World Aquarium staff are serious aviculturists and good stewards of their zoological populations,” Martin Vince, the curator of birds at the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden in South Carolina, wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service in support of a Dallas World Aquarium permit application. The San Diego Zoo has also penned endorsements for the Dallas World Aquarium.

Whereas Richardson once visited far-flung zoos for inspiration, now they come to him. “They’ve built three identical facilities to mine in South Korea,” he said. In 2000, he bought a parking lot adjacent to the Dallas World Aquarium and built a second rainforest called Mundo Maya. The following year, he bought a warehouse across the street and converted it into offices, breeding facilities, and a nursery. For a while he planned to build himself a residence within the Dallas World Aquarium, which he called “Casa Grande.” He eventually changed his mind, and instead turned the space into a two-story office featuring several aviaries, a cylindrical aquarium, and a spiral staircase ascending to a panoramic view of downtown Dallas. On his fiftieth birthday, Richardson, who is unmarried, built himself a modern home in the Oak Cliff district of Dallas. The property includes aviaries for his favorite birds, like the quetzals. Richardson is able to keep watch on the Dallas World Aquarium’s animals from home via a video monitor.
More and more, Richardson’s lifestyle resembled those of his catering clients. He bought Andy Warhol prints and a Tesla electric car. He started making several trips a year to the private Bahamian island of his friend, the magician David Copperfield. It’s the rare place, Richardson said, where he feels comfortable away from Dallas. The two men met when Copperfield was in the market for toco toucans; Richardson helped him buy the birds, then personally taught Copperfield’s staff how to raise them. “He’s on the phone literally every two hours with my staff,” Copperfield told me. “I’m the guy where people go, ‘How’d you do it, David?’ And I look at him and say ‘How’d you do it?’”

The aquarium tunnel includes brown sharks and critically endangered sawfish.

One way Richardson does it is by exerting control. Richardson likes to say his employees are like family, and in some cases this is literally true: He has employed his parents and his sister. And he has often helped employees find housing, settle credit card debt, and take care of home repairs. “He really took care of us,” said Jay Abbott, a former Dallas World Aquarium keeper. But such largesse can come with expectations.

Former Dallas World Aquarium employees say Richardson would wake them up with questions in the middle of the night. He would know details of correspondences he had not been privy to. One ex-employee said Richardson ran “his own little version of the NSA.” Richardson denied snooping on his employees, but added: “Every email that comes through this facility is proprietary and I can read it.”

Richardson would constantly change his mind, then lash out at employees who second-guessed him. “He would threaten and stuff: ‘You need to watch what you’re doing because I control everything,’” remembered a former keeper. Sometimes it seemed like Richardson rotated exhibits or changed animals’ diets for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate that he called the shots. “They’re my animals,” he once snapped at another keeper who questioned his decision to shuffle some animals around.

“I’m the one who brought them in, I’m the one who figured out how to breed them,” Richardson said. “I’m pretty close to knowing them the best.” He clashed not just with his zookeepers, but also his veterinarians. In the past decade, the Dallas World Aquarium has employed at least four different vets, the most recent of whom left last fall after just a few months on the job. In 2013, a government inspector cited the Dallas World Aquarium for having no full-time vet or plan of veterinary care. “For all practical purposes, it’s a private menagerie,” said Raines, who left as the Dallas World Aquarium’s veterinarian in 2005.

In 2003, Richardson bought a group of little blue penguins from Marineland in Florida and hired their keeper. Her responsibilities at the Dallas World Aquarium grew quickly. She dove with the manatees, announced the flamingo shows, and helped train the giant otters. “It was my life,” she would say later, and Richardson seemed to appreciate her hard work. He promoted her to lead mammal keeper and his mother kept a photo of her with Richardson’s dog, Mia, by her desk. It was a remarkable welcome from a man whose generosity never quite translated to warmth. “Daryl is one of the most charming people you’ll ever want to meet,” said a former employee. “But deep down inside, he’s actually a very shy man.”

The penguin keeper’s work was brutally interrupted on a February evening in 2005. According to a lawsuit she filed later in Dallas District Court, she was raped when checking birds on the Dallas World Aquarium’s loading docks. She did not report the attack to the police, and the assailant, who she believed had snuck onto the premises, was never identified. She told Richardson about the attack, before taking a leave of absence on the advice of her doctor.

The penguin keeper returned to a workplace she said was so hostile that she eventually sued Richardson on several counts, including the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Her lawsuit alleged that Richardson had “instructed various Aquarium employees that Plaintiff was not raped, that Plaintiff was a ‘bad person’ and to treat Plaintiff as poorly as possible upon her return so Plaintiff would quit.” The penguin keeper also claimed that Richardson demoted her from leading animal shows to swabbing the penguin pool. Richardson, her lawyers said, “even went so far as to make her swim with sharks—the one task at the aquarium about which Richardson knew [she] was petrified.”

Richardson’s lawyers argued that the penguin keeper had invented the charges and that she had signed an agreement upon her exit from the Dallas World Aquarium releasing Richardson from any liability. On January 15, 2008, the case was settled, according to court records. Richardson insists he made no financial payment. He declined to comment further on the lawsuit, as did the penguin keeper.

During a deposition, the penguin keeper made reference to what she saw as an unusual number of animal deaths at the Dallas World Aquarium. At one point, she blurted out, “All of these animals that died, it’s sickening.” At another, she read aloud a string of allegations:

  • Three fairy penguins died at the Dallas World Aquarium. 
  • Six jabiru storks died at the Dallas World Aquarium.
  • One Ridley sea turtle died at the Dallas World Aquarium. 
  • Ten Mexican parrotlets died at the Dallas World Aquarium. 

Her lawyer asked what the list showed. “The fact that the Aquarium wasn’t paying attention,” she said.

As she prepared to leave the Dallas World Aquarium for good, the penguin keeper sent Richardson an e-mail. “It feels like part of me is dying,” she wrote. “I watched the African penguins at the very end of the day yesterday and thought, I will never see Rufus again. Pepper was the first chick I ever hatched. ... I am so afraid to leave my babies here.”

Zoo animals often live longer in captivity than they would in the wild. Take away predators, add round-the-clock veterinary care, and it’s easy to understand why. But preventable deaths still happen. Last November, an electric door at the San Francisco Zoo crushed a baby gorilla as she darted underneath it. A year earlier, the director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. blamed budget cuts for a spate of animal deaths, including a gazelle that broke its neck by running into a wall.

The Dallas World Aquarium has suffered such accidents, as well. When one of Richardson’s first jaguars grew fatally ill, he returned it to its owner in California, who says he discovered blocking its intestine the enormous bill of a toucan the cat had apparently devoured. Richardson told me he always believed the cat had died of an infection. A few years later, a second jaguar died under anesthesia; some employees attributed the cat’s weak heart to the stressful conditions of her small and grassless exhibit. Richardson said his veterinarian chose to sedate the cat: “That was her decision.” In 2011, yet another jaguar mauled an ocelot, costing the smaller cat his leg. “Keepers will make errors,” Richardson said.

Additionally, some former Dallas World Aquarium employees were distressed by Richardson’s fondness for large animal shipments. “Daryl would import massive amounts of birds and set them loose in the open aviaries,” said a former employee. “They would slowly disappear, and then he’d get them all again.” Since 2001, for instance, the Dallas World Aquarium has imported at least 175 euphonias, but it currently lists only 60 of the birds in the main database zoos use to track their animals. The same goes for tanagers, a family of small, fluorescent birds: Richardson has brought in more than 430 since 2001, but the database lists fewer than a third that many. These birds were small and inexpensive, but such gaps exist with larger and pricier birds, as well. Richardson imported eight shoebill storks from Tanzania since 2007 at a total cost of $90,000. Only two are listed there today.

Richardson said three storks died in government quarantine, before they ever arrived at the Dallas World Aquarium; another two, he admits, died from infection in Dallas after a water pump failed in their enclosure. “Our [remaining] pair is here and doing well,” he said. And Richardson said he needed so many small birds to create an immersive experience in his open aviaries. “If we brought in 1,000 tanagers, you would probably only see 50 or 60 at a given time,” he explained. “You cannot go to another facility in the United States and see an aviary with as many tanagers as I have.”

At times, Richardson’s attitude was callous, say former Dallas World Aquarium employees (most of whom requested anonymity out of fear of harming their professional futures). “Everything is replaceable,” is how one former zookeeper summarized Richardson’s collecting ethos. Another former employee was harsher: “Everything Daryl has learned he’s taught himself, but at the expense of the dead animals that haunt that place.”

Because Richardson prized species not kept in other zoos, he would sometimes bring in animals whose husbandry had not been studied. When he first imported three-toed sloths in 1998, he and his staff had almost no idea how to care for them. “The only information we knew was from old textbooks and some observations in the wild,” Raines said. “We were just making it up as we went along.” By the end of 2003, Richardson had attempted to incorporate at least twelve three-toed sloths into his collection, and eleven had died. In the wild these animals can live up to 40 years.

Richardson, never one to give up easily, did not acquire any new sloths until 2005, when he met Judy Arroyo, the founder of the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, where Animal Planet filmed the series “Meet the Sloths.” Richardson agreed to help fund the Sloth Sanctuary’s operations—“Anything that I need, anything that the Sanctuary needs for the sloths, Daryl is right there,” Arroyo told me—and in return received a trio of brown-throated sloths. At the same time, he found a domestic source of cecropia leaves, the sloths’ favorite food, at a nursery in Hawaii, and ordered twice-weekly shipments. These sloths have fared better, relatively speaking: Richardson has brought in six, and three continue to live at his zoo today. (He declined to comment on the status of the other three.)

In 2009, the AZA advised its members to “phase out” three-toed sloths, like the brown-throated sloth, from their collections—a recommendation that would have only applied to the Dallas World Aquarium, since it was the only zoo to keep them. But Richardson was already thinking about his next marquee acquisition—the rarest three-toed sloths of all. “From the day I started work there, he talked about pygmy sloths,” said a former Dallas World Aquarium insider. “He was always going to get pygmy sloths.”

Two-toed sloths, pictured here, are more common in captivity than three-toed sloths. The Dallas World Aquarium features both.

Richardson first discussed a captive population of pygmy sloths with the Panamanian government as early as 2007. On September 9, 2013, he watched his team arrive at the Bocas del Toro airport with his new sloths in crates. But as they were preparing to load the animals onto the jet, his years of preparation hit a snag: The strange cargo caught the eye of a local policeman. The officer alerted his supervisor, who, in turn, called Bocas del Toro’s mayor and several other authorities. A local conservationist named Angel Gonzalez was among the first people on the scene. He confronted Richardson and his team.

Richardson had planned for hiccups. He dug out a sheaf of paper: six permits for the export of pygmy sloths from Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM), Panama’s main environmental agency. Richardson’s partners told Gonzalez that they intended to save the pygmy sloth from extinction by establishing a contingency population at his zoo in Dallas. Richardson was already funding pygmy-sloth conservation by supporting the local projects of Julia and Jason Heckathorn, American missionaries who had also written a children’s book about Escudo’s animals.

Concentrated captive breeding has rescued a few endangered species, but there are protocols to follow. Zoo professionals recommend that such programs begin before a wild population falls below 1,000 animals, and that zoos capture at least 25 animals to maximize the captive gene pool. These rules can be bent in extreme circumstances; the crucial imperative is to loop in the rest of the conservation community so that all expertise and resources are marshalled for the rescue mission.

Apparently no one in Bocas had heard anything about the Dallas World Aquarium’s plan. Nor was Gonzalez impressed by the export documents: Many Panamanian conservationists distrust ANAM, suspecting it of corruption. The longer they argued, the more nervous Richardson grew. A crowd was gathering outside the airport fence.

While mob action had created the first zoo in Paris during the French Revolution, the group in Bocas, two centuries later, saw zoos as symbols not of enfranchisement, but exploitation. “The capturing of the animals,” wrote the art critic John Berger, “was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands.” When the industry began to refashion itself in the ’70s, it was responding not just to environmental pressure, but political pressure too, as empires vanished and former colonies demanded control over their natural resources.

Gonzalez and the residents of Bocas del Toro saw a group of foreigners—clearly wealthy, based on their charter jet—drop into Panama and attempt to extract one of the region’s most unique animals. The crowd overran the airport fence and stormed the runway, blocking Richardson’s workers from loading the sloths onto the jet.

He and his team piled into a van and sped toward their hotel, hoping to wait out the uproar before trying to take off again. The crowd gave chase, chanting in Spanish about rich gringos. Protesters threw rocks, swung chains, and tried to flip the van. Throughout the riot, Richardson was on his phone, trying to come up with a solution. He never found one. A local conservation group volunteered to return the animals to Escudo, and Richardson reluctantly agreed. He flew home on an empty plane.

On September 20, 2013 Mongabay, an environmental news site, published an article about the Bocas confrontation. None of the zoos or conservation groups active in the area believed a contingency population was appropriate. The Dallas World Aquarium claimed to have circulated a pygmy-sloth rescue plan, but only the Zoological Society of London recalled receiving a copy. It had replied promptly, according to Mongabay: “The current draft raises a number of questions and concerns.”

The Dallas World Aquarium’s import permit listed the pygmy sloths for “educational display.” But Richardson told me he never intended to exhibit the animals. “I wasn’t planning on the pygmy sloth driving my gate. I don’t need more people through,” he said. Richardson originally told the Morning News that his primary intention was to study the animals’ reproductive and dietary habits. In our conversation, he stressed a different motivation. He said he had wanted to carry out DNA tests to help the Pana-manian government figure out whether the pygmy sloths might just be slightly smaller brown-throated sloths, rather than a unique species. But such tests require only hair or saliva samples, which can be taken in the wild. At the University of Porto in Portugal, Nadia de Moraes-Barros has been analyzing the DNA of 20 or so pygmy sloths, none of which was ever removed from Escudo. “There is no need to keep the animals in captivity,” she said.

In stressing his scientific intentions, Richardson was appealing to another common belief about “good” zoos—that they add to the body of scientific knowledge. The AZA’s accreditation guidelines hold that member zoos “should maximize the generation of scientific knowledge gained from the animals.” Not only did science underpin zoos’ collective breeding, but many zoo-goers would be more comfortable knowing that captive animals were more than just spectacles, that they served a higher scientific purpose.

Zoo biology is built on recordkeeping. “Without keeping records you really don’t learn anything about the animals you’re taking care of,” Judith Block, the first registrar at the National Zoo, told Irus Braverman in Zooland: The Institution of Captivity. Block called the registrar, who maintains a zoo’s records, “the conscience of the zoo,” and the Dallas World Aquarium did not hire one until 2012. That person left the job within a year. (The former registrar declined to comment; Richardson said he could not comment due to a non-disparagement agreement.)

Richardson required his keepers to submit daily reports recording their activities, but former employees say they didn’t serve any clear scientific purpose. “It felt like it was more about justifying your time,” said a former keeper. Lacking good records, the Dallas World Aquarium turned out little significant research. “My title was scientific adviser,” said Juan Cornejo, who worked at the Dallas World Aquarium as he finished his Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology at the University of Texas. “And that is the thing: There was not much science involved in what they were doing.”

After the Panama fiasco, environmentalists successfully petitioned the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, the main treaty regulating the world wildlife trade, to belatedly add the pygmy sloth to its list. The newly protected population is smaller than it might have been. Conservationists around Escudo say two of the pygmy sloths removed by the Dallas World Aquarium died shortly after their release.

One of the 650,000 people who visit Richardson’s animal kingdom each year

In 1998, the Morning News asked Richardson to pick one thing he’d like to change about himself. His answer was, “to be able to enjoy relaxing.” When we met at his zoo in August, he sounded ready to give it a try. He said he is looking forward to spending more time on David Copperfield’s island. He said the Panamanian government had asked him to come back for more pygmy sloths, but the species would need to find a new savior: He had already torn down the special space where he had been cultivating red mangroves for the animals. He suggested it was no great loss. Pygmy sloths, he said, “are bigger than my sloths! So this ‘pygmy,’ pygmasius, is all a misnomer. My animals are as cute or cuter than the ones there. Actually, they’re probably cuter as far as the public is concerned.”

Some zoo officials I spoke with were embarrassed by Richardson’s misadventure, but it does not seem to have caused much damage to his professional standing. In an image-sensitive industry, a rogue who collects and breeds exotic species—animals that can then be traded with more cautious zoos, at scant risk to their own budgets and reputations—plays a useful role. Last year, the AZA said it was looking into the pygmy-sloth controversy, but it never released any findings. It also renewed the Dallas World Aquarium’s accreditation last March, finding that Richardson’s zoo upheld the “practices and philosophies that are commonly accepted as the norm by the profession.”

“My story is really not that different than any other zoos that have their failures and their successes,” Richardson told me. “It’s just I happen to be the independent owner of this facility and I’ve been here for the duration, from day one to day now.”

As Richardson walked me out of the Dallas World Aquarium, he indicated the adjacent site where a new museum of South Asian art will soon crop up. A few blocks away stands the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which Richardson can see from his office. “When I was going to live here, there was nothing downtown,” he said. It would have been just him and his animals. He doesn’t get to spend as much time alone with them as he used to, but the occasion does arise. “I was up here last night at 11 o’clock because I was worried about an animal,” he said. “You wake back up, and you drive to work.”

A few months ago, Richardson bought a nightclub next door to the Dallas World Aquarium. He told me he’s going to turn the space into a parking lot; his zoo, his masterpiece, is basically complete. Others, though, have heard that Richardson is already planning the next expansion. “New Guinea is what he plans to do,” a former employee said. “He’s already got some birds of paradise.”