On Saturday mornings I try to get it on my schedule to come in and work with the keepers in different areas of the zoo. Of course it’s good for me to get a sense of what’s really going on out in the zoo; it’s fun to hang with the keepers and hear their concerns and aspirations; and the coolest part, naturally, is being with the animals.
The funny part is every week I’m the one who learns things. Such as when I first started doing this back in ’08 I actually thought I’d be of some help. Perhaps like a rookie Peace Corps volunteer, all eager to help. But I soon learned through good spirited joshing, keepers teasing about how much I talk, and the old zoo rumor mill, that I actually slow down the whole routine of morning cleaning and feeding. So much so that the really bold keepers even have to clock in for overtime to get everything done at the end of the day I’m helping!
But hey, I’m getting faster, I swear I am.
So, here’s what it looks like. I show up at 7am, but I never seem to be the first one there. (I suspect it’s because at least one keeper comes in at 6 to get a head start to make up for my distraction, but nobody lets on). I stick with them until noon, when it’s lunch time for everybody, and frankly I’m whipped by then anyway.
One of my big lessons every week, as you might expect, is that animals are messy.
I swear it takes more elbow grease and bleach to clean up after one night in a rhino or bonobo stall than a whole year of our dog & cats at home.
Last Saturday I started my 2011 rounds working in the Africa building of our Jungle Trails exhibit. That meant cleaning and feeding a variety of primates, from Angolan colobus monkeys to bonobos from the Congo. (Note to self for future reference: great apes are way messier than monkeys, in case you have a choice of cages to clean).
I worked most of the morning with Janet Hutson, who has been a keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo for 12 years. She was patient with my cautious slowness, and did a good job of keeping me out of arms reach of quick-grabbing apes. She knows the animals individually, interacting with each, which is remarkable to see. (And she can cut up vegetables 10 times faster than I).
The funniest moment of the morning was when our Mammal Curator, Mike Dulaney, came through on his morning rounds. When I stopped to talk with him I (incorrectly) dropped the hose on the floor, which flipped the nozzle on high, spraying water all over Mike’s legs and everything else in sight like a wild, loose snake. This of course got me the standard lecture about not dropping the hose, mostly because the nozzles cost $15 each and are fragile, and also because everybody gets wet.
I’m pretty sure the animals got a kick out of all the commotion though, so all was not wasted.
And the highlight of the day, for sure, was spending time up close to such amazing animals. How those long-haired monkeys have such beautiful hair with no Pantene I’ve never figured out. But such ‘fitness signals’ as healthy looking hair are essential to attracting a mate, so clearly we have all evolved to put a high priority on looking good.
The bonobos, of course, are our closest relatives, so spending the morning with them is both remarkable and thought provoking. They live in incredibly close knit family groups, and right now we have 3 baby bonobos among our troop of 12 animals, so it makes for a raucous scene once we hide treats like orange slices and sunflower seeds amongst the netting and bedding in their cages.
We shift different animals on and off exhibit this time of year, since it’s too cold for most primates outside right now. So come over to the zoo this winter and visit Jungle Trails. The animals really will be glad to see you. They are very aware of the people and pretty much everything around them.
I think you’d find it fascinating.
I certainly do.
See you at the Zoo,