Monthly Archives: August 2011
People who work in zoos fall into two categories. First, you find yourself amongst the “Bunny huggers”. These empathetic individuals spend their time worrying (maybe a bit too much) over the well-being of their animals and are more likely to anthropomorphize their animals, feeling a strong connection or bond between themselves and their charges. Many people also call these people part of the “bleeding hearts club” – those who want to alleviate pain for every animal, no matter how small or insignificant, and save them no matter the chances of survival.
The second type you might find yourself surrounded by are the “Non-bunny huggers” or those I like to call “Herp” people. Herp is short for herpetologist, meaning those individuals who are more interested in cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians than in cuddly mammals. Now, don’t get me wrong. Herp peeps love their animals as much as bunny-huggers. They just show their love in a different way.
While bunny huggers spend their time fawning over their animals and trying to decide what new toy their animals would prefer, non-bunny huggers take a more hands-off approach. And there is really a very good reason for the difference in thinking between keepers. Bunny huggers spend a lot of time showing affection to their animals – showering them with praise and food and enrichment – which is then rewarded with the animal (most likely) showing their affection back. Herp people don’t keep such a relationship with their animals. Reptiles and amphibians couldn’t care less about their keeper and that’s just the way herp people like it.
Reptiles have a one track mind… and no, that is definitely not a euphemism for being sex obsessed. All the reptiles I have had the opportunity to work with have been pretty much obsessed with eating and, well, eating. They eat their food and then just sit there for hours. Sit. For. HOURS.
So reptiles are: lazy – maybe, immobile or stagnant – sure, but boring – not at all!
Reptiles may slither, move erratically, and only function to function (basically perform the simple tasks to survive like breathe or move). However, even reptiles have distinct personalities.
We have three Colorado River toads, or Sonoran Desert toads (Bufo alvarius). These bulbous amphibians look exactly like the toad you would expect should turn into a handsome prince. They are big, fat, and pretty gross looking. But I dare you, give them a kiss!
Actually, don’t. They have a white mucous toxin that is excreted around their neck that once ingested can be lethal. It pretty much ruins the romantic futures that little girls have about meeting their prince charming in toad form by killing them. With hallucinogenic dreams… in little girls… (actually, hallucinogenic + young girl + happily ever after = OMG! The Frog Prince is the true story of a dead girl!)
Our three, though, are unique even in their scariness/weirdness. They like to bang against the door to their exhibit all the time. Why? Because the door sometimes pops open. When this happens, two of our toads like to escape into our reptile house but these are not your average toads.
They are below average.
Way below average.
Like, deep, deep down a dark hole, buried 20 feet underground, underneath an Acme product anvil average.One of the two escapees likes to sit staring at the fall. He jumps out of his enclosure, two feet to the ground, hops three more feet to the wall and just stares at it. And luckily, that’s always where we find him the next day.
Our other escape artist likes to hop into our dustbin. I’d say he is a bit more intelligent than the other just because he hides. Some of our newer keepers never think to look in the dustbin since it’s so obvious. But maybe that is the genius of the situation!
The third one is just not talked about since he never can get out of their enclosure. I’d call him the dumbest, but you never know with reptiles.
Feeding times are also incredibly fun with these three. We feed crickets to these guys because as toads they LOVE to catch bugs! One of our river toads sees that the door is opened to his enclosure and will hop over so that we can hand feed him crickets. It’s one of the weirdest, craziest, most unique/indescribable things because he’s a reptile! You don’t expect reptiles to be so personable!
But then again, these guys are not really individuals to our herp people. They are looked at as reptiles/amphibians who don’t really care about anything and that’s how they (animals and people) like it. Too bad for herp people, bunny huggers get involved with their animals also.
Bunny huggers like to give everything names or call animals by their house names. For example, I’m a crazy bunny hugger. I’ve named most of our reptiles just because it makes it easier for me to remember how many of each species we have (the Colorado River toads are Larry, Curly, and Moe). Non-bunny huggers follow ascension numbers and are scary good at remembering scientific names for each species. Bunny huggers – not so much. They’re lucky to remember the common name for most animals.
It doesn’t really matter, though, how we recognize/differentiate between animals. Because all keepers are the same. When every one of us goes home at night after spending hours daily toiling and laboring over animals, we all end up doing the same thing. We just end up taking care of the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, and birds that are waiting for us. We’re obsessed, what more can I say?!
I don’t know how many of you are into movies, but the title to this blog is actually taken from a recent Jennifer Aniston movie. Within the first few minutes of the movie, The Switch, we meet Jason Bateman who is given the nickname “beady-eyed little man boy” by a sociopathic man who most likely also has OCD. That’s pretty much all I can really tell you about the movie because I saw this part, laughed hysterically for a few minutes, got bored, then turned the movie off. Also, I don’t write movie reviews. Frankly, I don’t care enough to and I expect that you all do not really care either.
The “beady-eyed little man boys” in my life are really not that little. Actually, they’re the opposite of little. They are 1500 lb pachyderms that spend their lives acting like overgrown children with ego problems. Meet our South Central black rhinos (Diceros bicornis minor).
Black rhinos in general are smaller than their white rhino counterparts. However, they are known to be more solitary than white rhinos and more aggressive towards each other. We have two males who are never allowed in the same exhibit together because if they are, we expect them to fight till the death. Because they are pachyderms, rhinos have large, heavy bodies with very rough, thick skin. They lumber when they walk around and, because of the density of their bodies, they can’t swim. Yet, rhinos can move pretty quickly and are extremely agile with their large forms. These guys are also more primitive than elephants because they just don’t have the intelligence that elephants have. Thus, this makes rhinos not only more dangerous and unpredictable but also whinier and frat-boyish. Add that to the fact that the eye sight of these gigantic mammals is pretty horrible (hence, the “beady-eyed” part) and you get a blind killer with massive horns that can beat the shit out of you all combined into an animal that is scared of everything.
The boys, though, are pretty easy to tell apart. Our slightly larger one is the whiner. When walking into the rhino barn in the morning to feed them, our big boy starts making a high-pitched “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH” sound to let us know that he’s hungry and demands food… NOW, dammit!
I once decided that I was going to disinfect their barn and, since only one animal is allowed on exhibit at a time, this rhino ended up being kept in their back of house area. I closed him out of the barn and proceeded to bleach both their stalls. Within 10 minutes I began hearing the most pitiful sounding whine ever. It reminded me of a spoiled five-year-old boy being forced to do a horribly sucky task which he does while crying the WHOLE. DAMN. TIME.
It basically sounded like, “I’m hot! It’s too warm outside. I wanna go inside. I don’t like being out here. I want water! Why is the door closed? DO I HAAAAVE TO???”
Even more annoying is when the rhinos stop acting like little boys and decide to be MEN. The worst is when we bring the two rhinos into their barn to spend the night in adjacent enclosures. Of course, they come in every day and have to do their daily testosterone driven challenges that are the same as human pissing contests. Literally. The rhinos will kick at the ground then pee all over the damn place. It’s exactly what would happen if the social norms for humans allowed men to actually pull out their dicks every time they had an argument to measure both their penis length and the trajectory of their spray. As a female, I do what any self-respecting woman does when forced to recognize these ridiculous displays: I roll my eyes.
Luckily, all women have the ability to thwart the stupidity of males of any species. I can give you an idea how it works because I’ve had to try it. On these two rhinos, nonetheless.
I had to feed the boys one morning and, when I got there, they were both hungry and agitated because I was late (a whole 10 minutes late) to feed them. I put down their food and left to my morning activities of cleaning their poop and exhibit. I got out to my golf cart and I heard snorts and banging as the boys decided that they’d rather charge each other through their cement pillar blockades than eat their breakfast.
I turned back around and swung open the door to their barn. Standing to the full height of my 5’4” frame with my hands on my hips and shoulders squared, I called out formidably, “Boys, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I instantly got two wide-eyed gazes with perked ears as the rhinos realized they’d been caught. They then quickly went back to eating their breakfast. It was reminiscent to me of two little boys who were caught by mom goofing off during breakfast.
Yet again, all I could do was roll my eyes and shake my head.
But I did learn one especially important thing from this experience: It doesn’t matter if the male in question is an egotistical human or a whiny rhino, he’ll still have to bow to the power of an angry woman.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from working at a zoo, it’s that not all animals are going to like you. Most of them can be bought by numerous treats, rub-downs, and positive interactions. However, there are the few that hate you no matter what you do… and you can’t help but hate them too!
The ostriches just happen to be my arch-nemeses. Struthio camelus, or the common ostriches, are large, dumb birds whose eyes are literally larger than their pea-sized brains (exaggeration, not necessarily a true fact… but you get my drift). These birds can grow to be 8 feet tall and are ferocious. I never thought that I could seriously be afraid of a bird and, although I’ve gone up against golden eagles and turkey vultures, nothing puts the fear of God in me like the sight of an eight foot bird running full force in my direction with wings and beak open wide. Frankly, it’s enough to shit my pants.
The problem with birds is that the larger they are, the dumber they become. For example, African greys are one of the smartest species of parrots to exist. However, they’re about 10 inches tall. Alex, a well-known grey, was taught over 150 words and phrases in his thirty years which allowed him to not only communicate to people in English but also create his own sentences. HIS OWN SENTENCES. Most of us may not think too greatly of such a feat but just think if you could speak to your dog in her language and both you and she knew exactly what you’re saying!
Ostrich, on the other hand, are the largest birds in the world. They can weigh up to 280 pounds and run 30 miles per hour. And they are the some of the dumbest animals. Period. There’s a reason ostrich are said to hide their heads in the sand because they’re so dumb. If you ever cover an ostrich’s eyes, they will stand completely still because they have no idea what’s going on.
Even better is if you just stand completely still. I once had to try and shift our male ostrich alone and to get him to leave me alone, I stood perfectly still. Not moving, just breathing and blinking. The ostrich got confused after, say, two minutes and walked away because his brain told him, “No move. No thing. Huh?”
I may have been standing perfectly still but let me tell you, my heart was beating a mile a minute. It’s terrifying when all that separates you from a gigantic beast like that is a flimsy wire fence that will not protect you from the vicious kick of the ostrich. This is another animal, like the red kangaroo, that has a kick that will kill you. One hit from the ostrich leg will disembowel you and straight up destroy all your innards. I mean, have you seen their legs???
The main problem with our ostrich is that he is an asshole. I tried once to enter into his enclosure without shifting him to feed… and I will never do it again. Ever. Scariest moment of my life. I did not enter alone; rather, I called another keeper to come with me. I took a metal rake into the enclosure and the other keeper drove the golf cart with their food in. This ostrich saw me and made a beeline straight for me. He was unafraid of my “weapon” and advanced to the point where I was told to get behind the cart. Thinking that the cart would force him to submit, we moved the cart between me and him. Too bad that did nothing to help the situation. Instead, the ostrich kicked the daylights out of the cart. It was literally shaking from how hard he was kicking it. We chucked the food down and tried to get the hell out of dodge. Unfortunately for us, the cart we have is so old and horrible that it stalls every time you change from forward to reverse. Those maybe two minutes were the most terrifying of my life.
The ostrich also fucking hates me. I don’t know why he has such an anger towards me (it may be because I say a lot of shit to him and have to steal his girl’s eggs) but whenever I go anywhere near him, he tries to kick me through the damn fence. That’s okay though, because I fucking hate him too. So, when I have to work with him, I just keep telling him, “I’m gonna kill you.” I know it’s not the most PC thing to be saying but when you have to deal with an animal like that… a quick death is the nicest option!
My favorite thing to tell him is: “You are going to make a delicious ostrich burger once I kill you. Not because you’re tasty looking (cuz damn, he’s the fugliest thing in the world) but because I know the burger is YOU! FUCKER!”… so the “fucker” part might be left out, but you get the drift.
Anyways, ostrich are horrible douche bags and to top it off, they are the nastiest creatures in the world. There’s really only one reason why:
Have you ever seen an ostrich poop?
I still gag when I think about it… but truly it’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. It’s worse than the rotted alligator skeleton with maggots and flies and the most horrific stench that I had to help pull from our gator pond. It’s worse than the week old armadillo corpse that I had to pick out of our red wolf dog-house which was still warm and could be smelt across the park. The ostrich is still the worst.
Ostrich males have a large, pink, foot-long tube that extends out from their body. My friend, another keeper, described it as a “really big pink slide… that’s not fun.” She was drunk… yeah.
It’s pretty much a penis but they use the same thing for everything. So this tube comes out and curves (in the case of our guy, he’s a lefty) and as it poops, the ostrich lets out this wet and diarrhea-like substance that just plops out of his body. While he’s doing this, he makes a sound that’s a cross between a vuvuzuela and the wettest fart that you’ve ever heard. Once the ostrich is done releasing all his excrement, this pink tube is pulled back into his body like a slithering noodle. UGH. You don’t understand unless you’ve seen it and once you have, it feels as if that is the moment when you’ve lost all the ability to laugh. Or live.
So, to sum it up, ostriches are nasty, horrible assholes and that’s why I hate them!
I was driving home today, staring at the sky ahead of me. It was the quintessential blue sky – a few white, puffy clouds scattered across a vibrant light blue as far as the eye could see. A smirk spread across my face and I relaxed into the comfort created by the sky itself. Then I looked in my rearview mirror and was torn from my happy place by the dark, tumultuous clouds rolling into view. It was pretty much an epiphany. The world was telling me that where you’re going (home) is much more comfortable than the turmoil that exists where you’re coming from (work). Oh, how right it is!
It’s kind of yet not actually surprising when you realize how often animals fall sick in zoos. On one hand, all the animals you see on exhibit when you get there seem to be in great health and (should) look healthy and happy. What I figured out, only after working/interning in animal care, was that animals that are not doing so well are hardly ever on exhibit and only those involved at the zoo know about them. Even then, the expectation is still high that the animals in zoos are well taken care of and given the best medical attention. I believe that that expectation is still very reasonable. Zoos have either onsite veterinarians to check on the health of the animals or have an agreement with a local veterinarian specialized in exotic animal care whose name is always on speed dial. Thus, animals should have the best quality of life.
However, it is not surprising that animals fall sick often because there is always the fact that zoos keep a lot of animals. Especially in smaller zoos, keeping the zoo open depends on making a profit, and the only way to keep a zoo profitable is to have a wide variety of animals, especially cute, cuddly mammals. In cases such as these, the larger populations cause more individuals to be sickly.
The worst thing, though, is that when you work at a small establishment, it’s harder to have the best quality care for animals.
We have a smaller sized zoo and we have a vet on call but unlike other places, our vets seem to always be on vacation. Huh.
Anyways, we recently had an issue with a two-year-old bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci). He came to us already pretty beaten up. He is missing his bottom lip due to (we found out later) multiple lacerations that occurred from him running into fencing and tearing his lip. Last week, he was found in the late afternoon with his lip bleeding. He hadn’t been looking well for a few days, so the following day the vet was called.
I am the relief keeper for the bongo, meaning that on the days that the primary keeper has off I take care of the animals on his run. On the particular day on which the vet came to visit the bongo, we were both called in to a meeting to discuss what the options were and why the vet would be coming in.
Once the vet had seen the bongo, he came back and had some pretty grim options. He did not think that the bongo could survive or that he would be able to eat. On top of that, he said that there was a large lump forming on the front of the bongo’s injured lip that could be cancerous. At this point, I could see that he was trying to hint at euthanasia.
I was pretty shocked. I had not seen the bongo for a week but I could not believe that he was that bad along. So, I was given permission from my boss to go out and see if the bongo could still eat. The bongo, though bleeding and looking weaker, was still incredibly alert and begged for food.
Now, I’m no vet. I haven’t been to school for that. I haven’t learned about a lot of animals and diseases and I sure as hell haven’t had as much experience as the vets working with exotic animals. I do believe, however, that when it comes to this specific animal I and the primary keeper have the most experience. We know how he acts on a daily basis and whether he seems stronger or weaker than he was before. It was just very difficult for me to understand why the vet could so easily give up on an animal when everything pointed towards him still fighting to live. It seemed as if the “easy” solution to put the animal out of its misery was the better option than putting time, energy, and money into saving its life.
Some people would not agree that one should spend money to save animals. Many animals are put down every day because they have an injury that their owners just don’t want to pay for. Some dogs or cats that break a leg and could easily be saved with surgery are put down because their owners won’t pay for the procedure. I don’t agree with this but it’s not my decision. However, zoo animals are much more expensive than pets. These animals are purchased to create income for the zoo and we get paid to make sure that the investment survives. The zoo curator and director sometimes act as if the animals are expendable and we should be more concerned with money. Those of us who work with these expendable investments feel otherwise. Every animal has the right to live when the circumstances could be in their favor and they have a will to live. Just like our bongo.
I think the problem with the bongo made me promise myself that if an animal wants to live and is willing to fight for its life, then I will do everything in my power to make sure it gets the best possible advantages.
Too bad that means that I sometimes have to go against my bosses.
With the bongo, all the keepers pushed to have him moved from the open holding in which he is being kept to a more secluded shady area. Bongos in the wild live in covered forests with tall trees and cooler temperatures. Our bongos are being kept in a holding cell with sand and only two or three tall trees. In other words, they are in Egypt. It’s depressing, insufferably hot, and painful to spend even ten minutes out there.
The vet and our boss both agreed that the bongo is so weak that trying to move him would overstress him and kill him. So, being that these people know more than us, we keepers agreed to leave him as he is as long as we could give him more shade.
For the last few days, we’ve been hand feeding him medicine as well as his diet. He’s been so warm that many times he has no appetite to eat but keeps drinking. We tried again two days ago to have him moved to the shaded area and yet again we were told that trying to move him would kill him.
All I could think about this solution is that if we leave him where he is, he is only going to get worse which will kill him, just more slowly. Although the risk of death in the move is much higher than leaving him as he is, the benefits of the new area would exceed the benefits of the area he is in now. It’s just too bad that the only time when my boss, the Assistant Zoo Curator, agrees with his boss, the Zoo Director, is a decision that is not favorable to everyone else.
If in a few weeks you come to my blog and find me trying to find a new job, it will be because my crusade for the bongo has me opposing my bosses. Luckily for me, most of the keepers agree with me and hopefully that’ll get through the heads of my bosses.
That would be the turmoil in my zoo world. Frankly, at least I can come home to my comfortable apartment with my cat and my guinea pigs. The day that the sky is dark and tumultuous as I look straight ahead on my drive with the perfect sky in my rearview mirror is the day I dread.
Hopefully, it will be blue skies for all soon enough.