Who You Callin’ A Rookie?

Everybody knows that the best way to grow out of that ‘new kid on the block’ feeling that all new employees or team members have is for someone even less experienced to come along.

Visiting the Aardvarks in Nocturnal House
Visiting the Aardvarks in Nocturnal House

Such as it was last Saturday when I worked in the Nocturnal House.  I spent the morning working with Amanda Weisel, a new keeper in the facility.  Now, Amanda is not in her rookie season at the Cincinnati Zoo.  For the first few years of our Giraffe Ridge exhibit, she was the one up on the deck helping visitors learn about each of our animals, as well as managing the controlled chaos of having the public feed them.

Now, Amanda has taken on the full-time role of zoo keeper, working with aardvarks, bats, and an hilarious variety of small mammals.

So enter into the works this week the ultimate challenge: an informed enthusiast who also happens to be the boss.  So naturally, the job of keeping me out of harm’s way for 5 hours fell to the newest employee.  And the good news is that Amanda clearly knows the ropes behind the scenes at the Nocturnal House.

On my morning adventure I got to feed the vampire bats, which by the way is ten times easier than years ago.  We feed cow’s blood that we get from a slaughterhouse downtown.  And nowadays it is already thinned of most of its coagulants when we pick it up.  But not that long ago we had to thin the blood ourselves so that it wouldn’t clot up in the bowl and become inedible for the bats.  And believe it or not the keepers thinned it literally by hand!  They stirred a 2 gallon bucket of cow’s blood with their bare hands and arms, which allowed the clotting fibers in the blood to cling to the hairs of their arm, creating what appeared to be a thick red rubber glove.

Vampire Bat
Vampire Bat

And it seems amazing that when I started at the zoo in 1977 we fed the vampire bats human blood.  Back in the old days, once blood was out of date, it was made available to the zoo for feeding.  In the 80s, for a whole bunch of both common sense and regulatory reasons, we switched to cow’s blood.

Now, even though vampire bats are not nearly so dramatic looking to zoo visitors gazing through a window as, say, our giant fruit bats from tropical Asia, or Egyptian fruit bats, they clearly captivate everyone’s mythological sense of danger.  And for good reason.  Vampire bats really are super-specialists – so good at drinking blood in fact, that they don’t even wake up their victims.  Vampire bats have razor-sharp, pointed incisors with which they make a very shallow scrape, peeling back the skin like a sardine can.  With such a shallow incision, the victim barely feels it, at best.  And to keep the blood flowing, the bats have special anti-coagulant saliva.  Then, once the bat is full, the wound scabs over quickly due to its shallow nature.

But on my day at the Nocturnal House, nobody was bitten by bats or anyone else.  Most of the morning involved hot water, bleach and detergent.  Partly because the keepers ‘happened’ to have me come on the day that every exhibit had to be completely stripped.  This means all bedding or mulch had to be raked, swept, or carried out of each exhibit.  And that everything, including nest boxes, logs, walls, floors, and windows, had to be hosed down and scrubbed.

I’m learning though.  Since I got pretty wet last week cleaning the primates, I remembered to wear my rubber boots this week.  And it was a good thing too, since I went straight from helping clean the Nocturnal House, to a huge luncheon at the Cincinnati Women’s Club.

A few of the women might have thought I smelled a bit of aardvark, but it all worked out.