Is the orangutan grumpy in the morning?
A New York zookeeper tells all about his life with animals
Some careers are launched in the most unlikely ways. Take the case of Peter Brazaitis: A working-class kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s, young Peter was a hostile, rebellious student with a bleak future but a love for animals, "particularly if it had scales and everyone else was afraid of it." He was 18 years old when his stepmother, at the end of her tether, declared: "You are an animal, and you should be in a zoo."
Taking her words literally, as teenagers are wont to do, Brazaitis applied for a job at the Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo. Although he had read numerous books on the subject, he had no real experience caring for reptiles, other than those he had kept as pets. But to the surprise of both himself and his stepmother, Brazaitis got the job. "I would begin working life at the very bottom of a profession that few people can even imagine," he writes in "You Belong in a Zoo!" "as a broom-pushing, turtle-feeding, glass- cleaning, often terrified reptile keeper at one of the most prestigious zoos in the world."
Brazaitis stayed at the Bronx Zoo for over 30 years, rising to the position of superintendent of reptiles. In 1988 he moved to the newly renovated Central Park Zoo. He retired 10 years later as curator of animals.
In spite of his impressive achievements, many of them attained without the benefit of a college degree, Brazaitis does not dwell extensively on his career or his steady climb from the bottom of his profession to the top. Nor is this an introspective, soul-searching memoir. In a refreshingly unadorned style, with endearing amateurish touches around the edges, Brazaitis offers the reader page after page of alternately fascinating, amusing, hair-raising, and weird stories about animals, both in captivity and in the wild. Some of the most bizarre stories center on animals of the human variety.
Reptiles, snakes especially, are peerless escape artists, and the book contains an unnerving number of stories of zoo animals on the loose. The most notable of these is a detailed account of the three-day search for a 12-foot-long king cobra, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world.
His other animalian adventures include an expedition to the West African country of Cameroon to hunt giant Goliath Frogs, a vacation with his wife in Venezuela to see Orinoco and American crocodiles, and a New Year's Eve excursion to a Bronx apartment full of spiders and snakes and two dead humans.
Brazaitis's professional interests led him to become involved in what was then the new field of wildlife forensic sciences, assisting law enforcement by helping to prosecute smugglers of protected animals. Members of the reptile-leather trade dubbed him "the bald-headed snake keeper in the Bronx" in recognition of his contribution to stifling their trafficking in contraband animals and hides.
The book is a jungle of fascinating facts about animals. In one chapter, Brazaitis delves into the surprising similarities between crocodilians and birds, which share the same ancestry from the late Triassic period, nearly 225 million years ago.
"You Belong in a Zoo!" also offers a look at how zoos operate, with many behind-the-scenes glimpses into everything from acquiring, transporting, and handling dangerous animals to the care and feeding of zoo patrons, trustees, and the general public.
Among the valuable pieces of information the author imparts is one that debunks the most enduring of urban myths: According to the author, it is impossible for there to be adult alligators living in the sewers of New York City because they cannot survive the cold winters.
• David Conrads is a freelance writer in Shawnee Mission, Kan.