Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Behind the Scenes at the Zoo

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Behind the Scenes at the Zoo

Article excerpt

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. …

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