Life at the Zoo

Life at the Zoo: Behind the Scenes with the Animal Doctors

Phillip T. Robinson
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/robi13248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Life at the Zoo
    Book Description:

    Please Do Not Annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, persecute, irk, bullyrag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize or ruffle the Animals. -- sign at zoo

    Since the early days of traveling menageries and staged attractions that included animal acts, balloon ascents, and pyrotechnic displays, zoos have come a long way. The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, founded in 1793, didn't offer its great apes lessons in parenting or perform dental surgery on leopards. Certainly the introduction of veterinary care in the nineteenth century -- and its gradual integration into the twentieth -- has had much to do with this. Today, we expect more of zoos as animal welfare concerns have escalated along with steady advances in science, medicine, and technology. Life at the Zoo is an eminent zoo veterinarian's personal account of the challenges presented by the evolution of zoos and the expectations of their visitors. Based on fifteen years of work at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, this charming book reveals the hazards and rewards of running a modern zoo.

    Zoos exist outside of the "natural" order in which the worlds of humans and myriad exotic animals would rarely, if ever, collide. But this unlikely encounter is precisely why today's zoos remain the sites of much humor, confusion, and, occasionally, danger. This book abounds with insights on wildlife (foulmouthed parrots, gum-chewing chimps, stinky flamingoes), human behavior (the fierce competition for zookeeper jobs, the well-worn shtick of tour guides), and the casualties -- both animal and human -- of ignorance and carelessness. Phillip Robinson shows how animal exhibits are developed and how illnesses are detected and describes the perils of working around dangerous creatures. From escaping the affections of a leopard that thought he was a lap cat to training a gorilla to hold her newborn baby gently (instead of scrubbing the floor with it) and from operating on an anesthetized elephant ("I had the insecure sensation of working under a large dump truck with a wobbly support jack") to figuring out why a zoo's polar bears were turning green in color, Life at the Zoo tells irresistible stories about zoo animals and zoo people.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50719-6
    Subjects: Zoology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-xi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-7)

    I opened up a cardboard box that had been taped shut and tucked away in a storage closet. When you move on to a new position, it is easier to set up housekeeping in your next office from scratch than to salvage aging supplies from your old desk. After a while, most of the objects in a desk become so invisible to the consciousness that one unthinkingly pushes familiar things aside while hunting through drawers to find an item that you know is in there somewhere. I fumbled past a stack of old business cards, a little metric ruler, a...

  5. 1. INTERN AT THE ZOO: An Eclectic Orientation
    (pp. 9-17)

    The San Diego Zoo originated as a commonplace menagerie—a by-product of a small, temporary animal display that had been assembled for the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition in the city’s spacious Balboa Park. The exposition commemorated the impending prospects for international commerce brought about by the newly completed Panama Canal. Its inaugural event was a grand midnight concert attended by fifty thousand people on New Year’s Eve in 1915, and its centerpiece attraction was the world’s largest musical instrument, a massive pipe organ, which had been installed in the new outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Newly caged but zooless animals listened...

  6. 2. TOO EARLY FOR THE AUTOPSY: Fitting in at the Zoo
    (pp. 19-33)

    Zoo veterinarians have undergone a vigorous evolution in the past century through the process of successive approximation. More simply put, they have become more competent by learning from their mistakes. Initially, they brought relatively little to the table clinically because of the lack of a knowledge base on diseases, animal husbandry, and restraint techniques for exotic animals. Though woefully unarmed with useful sedatives, medications, vaccines, antibiotics, equipment, and facilities, they steadily improved their clinical capabilities over time. To begin with, veterinarians acquired a lot more experiences than understanding. Like the stepsisters’ struggles to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper, the early...

  7. 3. GROWING PAINS: Educating the Menagerie Makers
    (pp. 35-41)

    When they began to arrive on the scene, veterinarians often blended into zoos as readily as oil mixes with water. It was the natural order of things that veterinarians were predestined to impinge upon well-established territories. Veterinarians were needed, revered, and occasionally feared, but seldom were they unconditionally embraced by all of their new employers and coworkers. Some gave up in frustration when it became clear to them that zoo management’s receptivity to new ideas and personalities was limited.

    Feelings about veterinarians in zoos have ranged from “vexation to veneration.” In fact, that was the precise title of a testy...

  8. 4. THE KEEPERS: Nurturing the Health of Animals
    (pp. 43-57)

    The eyes and ears most closely tuned to the animals in the zoo are those of the keepers, for it is they who have the most intimate knowledge of the animals’ daily feeding, toilet, social, and sexual habits. The generation of keepers that I first met at the San Diego Zoo was a lively mixture of transformed ranch hands, circus veterans, retired military personnel, short order cooks, janitors, and former zoo tour guides. Occasionally a keeper from another zoo would break into the system, but San Diego had a clear preference for molding new keepers out of raw, local clay....

  9. 5. ZOO BABIES: Promoting Motherhood
    (pp. 59-67)

    The keepers are the core of the zoo’s conscience, and animals must rely on them to be physically and mentally healthy. In addition to ministering to animals’ essential needs and idiosyncrasies, keepers are also the ombudsmen and advocates of their daily existences from cradle to grave. This nurturing process may begin in some cases with baby animals that may be born to animal couples with poor parenting skills (such as starving, beating, eating, ignoring, or mopping the floor with their offspring). In addition to monitoring animals for maternal neglect, the most common problems for zoo babies, which can be mitigated...

  10. 6. EXHIBIT MAKING: Creating Zoo Ecosystems
    (pp. 69-108)

    On a gray, overcast morning I stood by the out-of-the-way exhibit at the appointed time. A notice posted on the entry marquee announced the schedule for the world’s shortest animal exhibition, and I was sure not to be late. It was a fairly simple-looking affair as exhibits go in Australian fauna parks—a gravel-bottomed glass aquarium measuring, perhaps, five feet wide, fifteen feet long, and six feet high, sitting under a shady wood canopy. If you were to spend the entire day watching for the grand entrance of the platypus you would be lucky to have it in view for...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. 7. CREATURE COMFORT: The Power of Microenvironments
    (pp. 111-119)

    One of the most remarkable lessons about keeping animals in captivity is the enormous difference that tiny embellishments in living accommodations can make in their ability to thrive. Just as there was probably a statistically greater survival rate for prehistoric humans whose cave dwellings were oriented to the warming rays of the morning sun, so do seemingly minor improvements provide significant benefits for the comfort and prosperity of zoo animals.

    In my home state of Michigan, we had some little tricks to getting a car started in subzero weather. One of the simplest ones was simply to place a hundred-watt...

  13. 8. WHAT’S THIS THING? Searching for the Normal
    (pp. 121-129)

    Only thirty years ago, there were no textbooks, no classes, and few training programs in zoo animal medicine. Every practitioner had to start from scratch to learn what was even normal. At one time or another in their career, each zoo veterinarian has probed, prodded, biopsied, or at least puzzled over structures that turned out to be normal for that species. For example, the first time that you observe spider monkeys climbing around in a tree you can’t help but assume that the ones with the little dangling appendage on their rear ends (the size of a finger) are the...

  14. 9. HOLDING THE TIGER: Zoos Say Yes to Drugs
    (pp. 131-151)

    The air was heavy with musky scent as we dragged the tiger through the steel-barred door and into the unlit animal bedroom behind the big cat grotto. Several keepers pressed closer to look when the tiger suddenly reared his head in a wild-eyed stupor. Dr. Sedgwick admonished the keepers blocking the entrance: “Just remember folks, if he tries to get on his feet, I won’t be the last one out the door!” Everyone stumbled backward, ducking their heads in a hasty retreat through the narrow opening and into the sunlight. Two locks were snapped in place on the metal door...

  15. 10. FINDING THE SICK IN THE ZOO: Seeking Out Disease and Discomfort
    (pp. 153-169)

    Wild animals experience a full range of risks from disease and injury, although there is a lingering notion that they are excused from most health problems because of their natural lifestyles. In fact, the seriously ill drop rapidly into nature’s recycle bin and are seldom observed by humans. Early medical practitioners of all schools had to master the powers of observation to determine the causes of illness. Lacking today’s diagnostic equipment and laboratory resources, observation was the most powerful tool they had, and its importance is still vastly underestimated in all aspects of clinical practice. Other senses were also used—...

  16. 11. FEEDING THE ARK: The Nutritional Wisdom of Animals
    (pp. 171-185)

    The cells of a Komodo dragon, elephant, and hummingbird require essentially the same nutrients for metabolic chemical reactions necessary for growth and maintenance. It is the myriad ways by which nutrients make their way into those body cells that provide many of the challenges and much of the fascination of comparative nutrition. What is food for one animal may be as nutritionally inert as a rock for another. At one extreme, termites eat and digest woody plant materials, whereas most creatures only build their homes and nests with such materials. The ways in which living creatures obtain, mechanically alter, digest,...

  17. 12. GETTING CLOSER TO ANIMALS: Judas Goats and Alpaca Coats
    (pp. 187-195)

    Leave it to veterinarians to try to help animals only to have their good deeds backfire. Our single alpaca in the zoo had accumulated an enormous thick hair coat. These South American hoofed relatives of the llama are adapted to cold climates in the Andes Mountains at altitudes of fifteen thousand feet, where they have been domesticated for hundreds of years for fiber and food. When summer came, I started worrying about our heavily frocked alpaca, who I was sure would suffer under the hot San Diego sun. Alpaca wool, which is as soft as mohair, is often called the...

  18. 13. SO, YOU WORK AT THE ZOO? Employees, Visitors, and Fence Jumpers
    (pp. 197-203)

    Zoo tour bus driver/guides have a special place in the experiences of visitors, and their services offer a convenient alternative to hours of walking up-and-down hills in the San Diego Zoo. Drivers are expected to develop their own narrative routines, within the limits of fixed routes, stops, and good taste. Each tour begins with, “Welcome to the World-Famous San Diego Zoo,” and continues with the formal admonition, “Please remain seated and enjoy your tour and keep your hands, arms, legs and small children inside the bus at all times.” After that, the drivers and the passengers are on their own....

  19. 14. ANIMAL CASES AND CHASES: And Some Things Better Kept to Myself
    (pp. 205-223)

    When one is doctoring a large collection of wild animals, every day brings new problems and twists. After fifteen years at the San Diego Zoo, I often wonder what it would be like to regularly tend to animals in a smaller zoo where less changes from day to day. When I have visited smaller zoological gardens over the years, I have found a certain serenity in being in someone else’s zoo for a change. Many of these smaller zoos actually have some open, grassy glades and quiet shaded benches to rest on while leisurely observing the animals. There is no...

  20. 15. ZOO REGULARS: Coworkers Without Titles
    (pp. 225-231)

    She arrived at the gate just before it opened each day, as precise as an atomic clock. She was a bona fide “Zoo Regular.” The San Diego Zoo is open every day of the year without fail. I am not sure that anyone alive remembers a single day when the shades on the ticket booths did not roll up to meet a brand new queue of visitors. The San Diego Zoo is so widely known that if it closed its doors for good there would still be people who didn’t get the word and would show up twenty years later...

  21. 16. ETHICAL CAPTIVITY: Animal Well-Being in Zoos
    (pp. 233-267)

    Is it humane to keep animals in captivity in zoos? We could ask similar questions about keeping dogs, cats, and horses as pets; some animal rights organizations do, but not mainstream ones. Zoos themselves are sometimes ambivalent about the term “zoo,” and now often designate themselves as wild animal parks, wildlife conservation parks, and wildlife conservation centers. The former New York Zoological Society is now called The Wildlife Conservation Society. These and similar efforts are intended to cut away from the past and its lingering images of zoological confinement. Indeed, public attitudes about the confinement of wildlife in captivity have...

  22. 17. WHAT A ZOO SHOULD BE, And Ought Not Be
    (pp. 269-278)

    What should the mission of zoos be, and how can these priorities integrate and reconcile themselves with issues of conservation, education, entertainment, and ethics? Don’t expect universal agreement—consensus involving the highly emotion-laden realm of animals is unlikely and unrealistic. Every zoo must decide on the scope and character of its own mission, based on the inclinations and commitment of their managing boards and available resources.

    One thing that is very clear, however, is that today’s visitors expect more of zoos‘ animal care and exhibit efforts both in front and behind the scenes. The types of exhibits shown in the...

  23. ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SELECTED WORKS ON ZOOS
    (pp. 279-284)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 285-292)
  25. PHOTOGRAPHIC CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS
    (pp. 293-294)