Newt Gingrich is surging in polls ahead of the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, making the former House speaker a household name again after years on the sidelines. And as he returns to the limelight, many are quickly rediscovering his independent streak.

In the past week, for example, Gingrich has made national news thanks to two very distinct passions: visiting zoos and thwarting nuclear attacks in outer space.

Those issues may seem unrelated, but each highlights an aspect of Gingrich's famously idiosyncratic political style. He's a foreign-policy hard-liner who pitches doomsday scenarios and pre-emptive strikes, yet he also has a soft spot for polar bears and red-tailed hawks.

The Washington Post reported Friday that Gingrich is "wild about zoos," suggesting his boyhood quest to start a zoo in Harrisburg, Pa., first sparked his interest in politics. And on Monday, the New York Times featured a front-page story about his "doomsday vision" of a nuclear explosion high above North America — a threat that Gingrich says should be "terrifying for all of us."

Newt at the zoo

Zoos have been a lifelong passion for Gingrich, ever since he tried to open one in Harrisburg at age 11. As the Associated Press reported in 1954, "Young Newton Gingrich told Mayor Claude Robins and four city Councilmen that he and a number of youthful buddies could round up enough animals to get the project started." As a kid, Gingrich wanted to be "either a zoo director or a vertebrate paleontologist."

Gingrich still makes a habit of visiting zoos whenever he can, and says he's visited nearly 100 in the U.S. In a YouTube video posted earlier this year, he explains that "I just like to go and unwind, and see how the local zoo does things, the kind of animals they have." He wrote the foreword to the 2008 guidebook "America's Best Zoos," and in a recent interview, he told CNN's Piers Morgan that "when you say to me about really great moments of happiness, it is hanging out at zoos."

In fact, despite Gingrich's strident right-wing persona, he's always had an affinity not just for zoo animals, but for nature in general. In a 1995 interview with Vanity Fair, he described himself as a "lonely" child who collected lizards and hunted for fossils. He later founded an environmental studies program at West Georgia College, and in Congress he defied fellow Republicans to defend the Endangered Species Act. He has also supported some efforts to fight global warming, and his 2007 book, "A Contract with the Earth," argues that humans are morally bound to protect the environment.

But Gingrich's quirkiness cuts both ways, as seen in his recent ambiguity on climate change and his push to axe the EPA. He says he's a free-market environmentalist, and advocates replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with the "Environmental Solutions Agency," although he's vague on what that means. An April blog post on Team Gingrich explains simply that the ESA "would work cooperatively with local government and industry to achieve better environmental outcomes while considering the impact of federal environmental policies on job creation and the cost of energy."

Still, zoos are so embedded in Gingrich's psyche that he even uses them as political metaphors. In a recent interview with the Jewish Channel, Gingrich offered this analysis of the Obama administration: "It would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion is a bunny rabbit, and [it] was really OK to get in the cage and play with the bunny rabbit, and then you were shocked that the lion ate the ... your ... I mean, that's how far out of touch with reality the Obama administration is."

While Gingrich enjoys a lead in the polls, however, a campaign spokesman tells the Post that his busy schedule has forced him to cut back on zoo visits for now.

Newt in space

When he's not at the zoo, Gingrich often turns his attention skyward — a tendency that Mitt Romney mocked during a debate last weekend. When asked to point out how he differs from Gingrich, Romney said "We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon." Gingrich has also famously proposed replacing street lights with space mirrors, using lasers to shoot down missiles from space, and various forms of "geoengineering" to soften the blow of climate change.

But perhaps Gingrich's most persistent cosmic fixation is the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a nuclear blast in space. He has outlined this threat at length over the years, from minor speeches and TV debates to the foreword he wrote for "One Second After," a sci-fi book about the fallout from an EMP attack on the U.S.

As the Times reports, EMPs are real — but many experts doubt they pose the dire threat Gingrich predicts. The concept is that, if a nuclear bomb was detonated high above the U.S., it would release a huge wave of electricity that could burn up electrical circuits across the country. This would incapacitate everything from cellphones and cars to computers and refrigerators, plunging the U.S. into darkness. "Millions would die in the first week alone," Gingrich wrote in "One Second After."

EMPs have happened before, most famously in the 1962 "Starfish Prime" test, when the U.S. detonated a 1.4-megaton hydrogen bomb 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean. The EMP knocked out streetlights and phone systems 900 miles away in Hawaii, and damaged some orbiting satellites. It also spurred picturesque auroras in the sky, earning it the nickname "rainbow bomb." The Soviet Union followed with a similar test later that year, although it used a smaller bomb over a populated area of Kazakhstan. That EMP caused a nearby power station to catch fire.

EMPs are a bit like geomagnetic storms, in which solar flares crash into Earth's magnetosphere, and few deny the possibility of widespread chaos. But according to the Times, many scientists consider an EMP attack to be "yesteryear's concern." A nuclear warhead would need to be launched dozens of miles above the U.S. to create an EMP, and a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency tells the Times that U.S. interceptor missiles would intervene first. "It doesn't matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska. For the interceptor, it's the same thing," says the MDA's Richard Lehner, who calls such a scenario "pretty theoretical."

Others doubt nuclear-armed terrorists or rogue states would bother with an EMP. "If terrorists want to do something serious, they'll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption," the Federation of American Scientists' Yousaf Butt wrote in Space Review last year. "They don't want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear." (A rebuttal later appeared in Space Review, however, contesting Butt's dismissiveness.) As the Times adds, both Iran and North Korea have long struggled with the reliability of their long-range rockets, and may prefer a simpler path than sending a nuke to outer space.

Still, Gingrich is not comforted, arguing that the danger of EMPs is so great it may warrant pre-emptive strikes. "We are on the verge of catastrophic problems. We have zero national strategy to respond to it today," Gingrich said of EMPs during a 2009 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For that reason, he added, "I favor taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites."

Who knows what he'll do if he ever finds out about the subpar conditions at North Korea's Pyongyang Central Zoo.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Gingrich loves zoos, fears space nukes
As the former House speaker returns to national fame, two of his quirkier passions have followed him into the spotlight: space nukes and zoo animals.