Behind the scenes at the zoo

It's 9:30 a.m. A bald eagle near the entrance gate of the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Mass., gives a soft cry and stretches her wings. The ticket booth is dark, the parking lots empty, the zoo gates locked.

But inside, the zoo staff is busy, getting ready for the zoo's 10 a.m. opening. "Keepers run around like crazy getting everything cleaned up," explains Libby Tucker, manager of on-site programs for Zoo New England, which overseas the Stone Zoo and the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

This morning she helped a keeper drag a huge branch into the eagles' cage to create a ramp down to their watering hole. It's been a hot summer, and the zoo's staff has tried everything they could think of to keep the animals cool. "We freeze their food," Ms. Tucker says. "The porcupine has a fan now. We rigged a sprinkler for the Mongolian yak, and the llamas love getting their legs hosed."

Tucker is responsible for animals that take part in the organization's educational programs. Unlike other animals at the zoo, they are raised to be comfortable around people so they can be displayed outside their cages. Of her snakes, bugs, ferrets, turtles, and birds, it's Chumley, the hyacinth macaw, that takes up most of her time. Thieves poached Chumley's mother and father from the rain forest before they had matured and learned how to parent, so he's been raised by humans.

"I probably spend two to three hours a day with Chumley," Tucker estimates. "He's imprinted on people. He's like a 4-year-old child; he needs and deserves that kind of time and attention."

The idea that animals can have emotional needs, or even names, is relatively new to zoos. "For many years animals were numbered, just specimens," Tucker says. "But I think if we're going to get people to care about animals and their plight, they need that personal connection."

Every morning keepers use the zoo's kitchens to prepare special meals for each animal. "We don't give animals leftover food; we use the same vendors that supply hotels and restaurants," says Tucker. "Would you eat a piece of brown, wilted lettuce?"

After the keepers put out food, and repair and clean each exhibit, they add "enrichment," such as toys, smells, or special activities. These include large balls or boxes for the snow leopards, colorful beach buckets for the Colobus monkeys, and lemon balm for the cougars, which respond to scents.

Once each area is ready, keepers unlock the night dens (where the animals sleep) and open the doors to the exhibit areas, using a heavy-duty pulley system. Zookeepers never go into a den or exhibit with dangerous animals, such as cougars, wolves, and even river otters.

That zoo staff play with the animals is probably the biggest misconception people have about zoos. The second biggest is that zoo animals come from the wild.

"Most animals in zoos are born in other zoos," says Tucker. "It's extremely rare to pull animals from the wild now. There's more focus toward conservation."

The Stone Zoo has eight new Mexican gray wolf pups that are part of a special reintroduction project. The wolves are essentially extinct in the wild, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reintroduced experimental wolf populations into New Mexico and Arizona. Someday, the zoo's pups may run free there.

During the day, zookeepers observe the animals and take careful notes. They clean night dens and stalls and may redo an exhibit's "furniture." (Furniture, at the zoo, is anything in the exhibit, such as perches.)

Come closing time, the keepers must secure all animals for the night. To lure an animal back into its den, keepers put down food, open the door, and lock it after the animal goes in to eat.

The spider monkeys especially like to try to outsmart the keepers at closing time, says Sandy Elliott, Stone Zoo's lead zookeeper. "With two spider monkeys, one will run in and bring food to the other. So we started putting TV (they like cartoons) or wind chimes [in the den], anything that would be new and interesting. The male is territorial, and the female is curious, so they'll seek out something new."

The key to success with animals is observation, says Ms. Elliott, who has 22 years of zoo experience. "You have to watch them, what they're afraid of, where you have successes and where you don't. You have to stay outside yourself and let them teach you."

Animals that make good pets

We asked Libby Tucker of Zoo New England to recommend good pets.

Cats and dogs?

Absolutely. These are domesticated animals, which means they've been bred as pets for thousands of years and are dependent on humans.

Macaws or other large parrots?

No. In the wild, parrots live in large flocks and form strong bonds with one another. They'll need more time and attention than you can probably give them. When they don't get it, they may scream or become destructive or aggressive. Smaller birds, such as parakeets, are fine if you're willing to put in the time caring for them.

Ferrets?

No. Although ferrets are technically domesticated animals (they were used 2,500 years ago in Europe), animal shelters are full of abandoned ferrets. Ferrets need as much attention as dogs do, but people seem to lose their interest in them quickly. Even though their scent glands are removed before they're sold as pets, ferrets are related to skunks and are still very smelly. And they do bite.

Iguanas?

No. It's not true that iguanas grow only to the size of their tank. They grow very large - up to six feet.

Rats?

Sure. You can get domestic rats. They're smart, and they acknowledge you much more than many exotic pets.

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