Lessons from the Zoo, Introduction, Part 1

“What’s your favorite animal?”

That is the second question I get from people who have just asked me what I do for a living. I have been trying to answer it for nearly fifty years—first as a zookeeper, then as a zoo curator, and now as a retired zoo director. I have always answered it in the moment, which means the answer has not always been the same. I have, at times, said the elephant was my favorite animal because of some unique experiences I had with them early in my career. I answered hoofed stock when I remembered the astonishing variety of giraffes, zebras, and their kin that I came to know at Busch Gardens in the 1970s. I also loved the gorillas and polar bears that made an early impression on my career. But, at the end of the day, I’m not sure I have a favorite. It would be like trying to choose a favorite grandchild. I love them all.

I grew up roaming the woods of St. Petersburg, Florida, at a time when the Gulf Coast had wooded areas to roam. My dad worked in construction as a plasterer, so we never had much money. I was the oldest of four boys and served as my dad’s chief laborer. I mixed “mud” when he had a side-job plastering someone’s walls. I carried a five-gallon bucket and swatted mosquitoes alone in the darkness of some Florida bayou when he was out throwing his cast net on nights when the mullet were running. And I handed him tools when he was under the car repairing the brakes or changing the oil.

I can’t think of any defining moments from my childhood that would have predicted the course of my career. We had dogs, and I did love being in the woods—despite the abundance of rattlesnakes. But I was not that child who was always bringing home critters, and we didn’t have a zoo in my community. I did, however, study biology at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Somehow, that’s all it took—that and a chance visit to the zoo in Atlanta in the Spring of 1970.

The trajectory of my career was driven by ambition. I must have had a restless spirit as I moved from job to job, often in spectacular fashion. My first job, for example, came after I gave up the final year of a full-ride college basketball scholarship in Georgia to work as a zookeeper in Tampa. Busch Gardens introduced me to elephants, apes, big cats, and an array of hoofed animals while I pursued my degree in zoology at the University of South Florida.

After two years in Tampa, I landed an exciting position as a senior zookeeper at a new zoo that was being built in Toronto. I arrived in Canada in September 1973—a sunburned Florida cracker ready to face my first Canadian winter without any proper clothing. It was at the Toronto Zoo that I first experienced polar bears and wild-caught baby gorillas. And the Toronto Zoo sent me on the trip of a lifetime to tour the zoos of Europe, followed by a stomach-churning ocean voyage back to Canada.

I was one of a few Americans on a team of zookeepers from Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, and other parts of the world. I doubt there has ever been a more talented, diverse, and eccentric group of zookeepers assembled anywhere on the planet than those who came together to open the Metro Toronto Zoo. We endured primitive working conditions, low pay, harsh winters, and injuries from wild animals. But the results, at least from my vantage point nearly half a century later, were entirely worth it.

Opening an enormous zoo with thousands of animals was a complex undertaking. With animals arriving daily and their permanent homes still under construction, zoo officials rented holding barns all over the region. Conditions were often alarmingly makeshift. We had a few animal holding spaces on the property, but not nearly enough to accommodate the growing collection. So, on most mornings, zookeepers would strike out in trucks, cars, and even tractors, heading for the temporary holding areas that dotted the countryside—places like the Finch barn, the Johnson barn, the Sedgwick barn, and the old pig farm more than twenty kilometers away in Claremont. We dealt with icy, treacherous winter roads; isolated, lonely locations; and challenging animal medical conditions. We were kicked, bitten, and head-butted, and at the end of the day, we gathered at the Glen Eagles Pub to laugh at our tribulations. We labored long hours at the zoo and spent most evenings at the pub or playing broomball on frozen ponds. I had uprooted my wife and sons, moved them fifteen hundred miles to a foreign country, and proceeded to neglect them as I dove into my new job. It was a great time for my career, but not my finest hour as a father and husband. My marriage began to crumble.

Tomorrow: Louisville Zoo, Zoo Tampa, and Toledo

One Comment

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  1. A fascinating introduction to your life.


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