Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Wilma-Lou Teal has something like a complex personality. She is difficult to please and she is not shy about letting you know it. She expects things to be completed promptly to her specifications, and if they are not, she will complain loud and long until things suit her. She goes her own way, even if it differs from the norm. She is a believer in diversification, and the need to accept cross-cultural relationships. She is also a fierce protector of her spouse. All of this is not uncommon for a woman of today, but might come as a surprise from a duck. Wilma is a Chestnut Teal, who lives at the RJ Reynold’s Forest Aviary of the North Carolina Zoo. You may consider it anthropomorphic for me to assign these human characteristics to her. I respond by saying that I’m fairly sure you have not met Wilma-Lou Teal or you might find yourself unable to resist doing the same. Let me introduce you.

Wilma is a small brown bird, about half the size of a Mallard, and she expects her food to be delivered on time. She will not be satisfied with the average dry duck feed. She expects greens and live bugs at every meal. If any of these things are not served on the dot of nine in the morning, Wilma will have something to say about it. She will come out of the water to follow her keepers around the exhibit stretching her head forward and retracting it in a repeating motion while emitting sharp, raspy quacks, like the duck on those famous commercials. At first, I thought it was the staff’s uniform colors that tipped her off on where to direct her complaints, yet visiting staff in the same uniforms are not harassed, nor are any visitors wearing similar navy polo shirts and khaki pants. Only those who work the exhibit daily are singled out, sometimes while visiting in their street clothes.

Although there was a Chestnut Teal male in the exhibit, one with a beautiful iridescent plumage and a green head, Wilma chose as her mate the exhibit’s Rosybill Pochard, known affectionately as Rosy by the staff. Rosy is a dark, black and gray bird with a large rosy colored bill. This unlikely couple has become one of the most strongly bonded pair of ducks I’ve ever worked with, despite the fact that each looks very different from the opposite sex of their own species. Neither of them, according to their natural histories, are monogamous birds, yet neither has shown interest in breeding with any of the other birds in the exhibit.

One morning when I stepped into the aviary, Wilma was standing by the exit door making a long cry that sounded like an infant crying for its mother, a long "waaaaaaa" that she repeated over and over. It did not take long to realize that Rosy was missing, and the staff began to search for him. Since Wilma was so focused on the exit doors, we soon asked the other keepers around the zoo to help us search outside in case he had managed to escape. We also used flashlights to look into the huge tunnels of the air handling system running beneath the aviary to cool and moisten the air. We found no sign of Rosy anywhere. Wilma spent several days in the area of the exit door crying until we had to post guards to make sure she didn’t get stepped on.

We began to think we might only find Rosy's body. However, the exhibit houses over four thousand plants, and although it was unusual for a carcass the size of his to disappear, it had happened before when a sick bird crawled up inside a hollow plant. Some birds had vanished entirely, not surprising since the exhibit was always crawling with ants and other flesh eating insects that came in through the soil floors. We began to feel sure Rosy had passed away and Wilma was grieving, but after several days by the exit door, Wilma moved to another vent area closer to the central pool where she wailed for a few more days until finally, at the end of a long week of guarding her from the visitors, she returned to the pool. We began to get complaints from those visitors who thought we must be doing something terrible to that poor bird to make her wail so. Over and over, we explained that she was mourning the loss of her mate.

We could not have been more wrong. As it turns out, Rosy had fallen through a sink hole in the exhibit, a hole which filled back in with soil each day when staff watered the plants and was not found until after Rosy's disappearance. He was buried in the soil near the exit door for an unknown period of time until he was able to make his way to the area directly below where Wilma had been standing to wail for the first two days. He was able to locate a pocket in the fiberglass seam of a large tunnel in the air handling system where he squeezed through and landed on the floor below. The large tunnel was not accessible to the staff without climbing gear and ropes. He had fallen three stories down from the seam and he was pinioned, made flightless by his previous institution.

Next, Rosy had to run between the blades of a jet engine fan into another adjoining tunnel, which was closer to the pool. He must have made it through the fan on speed and sheer luck. The evidence found showed that he had spent several days in the second tunnel. He then followed Wilma's calls to a wall where he found the air filters, and he managed to dislodge a filter and climb through to a third tunnel, which ran underneath the central pool. Fortunately, the third tunnel was accessed by the staff every other day in order to backwash the pool filter system.

After a little over a week, Rosy was found standing by the pool filter waiting to be rescued. His only injuries were a couple of chopped looking tail feathers and a mild limp. Suddenly, Wilma's strange vigil from the exit to the pool made perfect sense. Upon Rosy’s return, Wilma spent days helping him preen his feathers and they often slept close enough to touch sides. She has never been heard making the baby wailing sound again, not even when Rosy has been separated from her for medical procedures or health checks.

Wilma and Rosy have changed the way I think about animals. I find it amazing that even a duck could be capable of such things. We are so often taught that animals are not like us, that they should be treated differently. We believe they need humans to care for them, to watch over them and keep them, to be stewards for them. Some even take this notion a step farther and believe animals are here to be used by us. Certainly, they cannot think and feel like humans. Wilma and Rosy taught me that animals of all kinds, even ducks, are more like us then I ever imagined. They can and do accomplish amazing things. They can understand more then I gave them credit for, and they each have a unique individuality similar to the personality of a human. Maybe it’s time to find a word for this phenomenon in the English language. I propose animality.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jenny Elephant Deserves Better

Several days ago, I received a shock that felt almost like a kick to the stomach. My first zoo, the place where I learned all the joys and sorrows of being a zookeeper, is letting me down in a gigantic way. Perhaps the romantic in me wanted to see the Dallas Zoo as a better place, even though they share the same big business mentality of most zoos, often sacrificing the animals well being to the promise of the almighty dollar. Still, it was my learning ground, the place where I first sank my teeth into the zoo keeping industry. In fact, many of the people I admire most still work there. My blinders remained firmly in place until I got a phone call from a friend to say the zoo had decided to send Jenny elephant to Mexico.

Jenny has lived at the Dallas Zoo for many years in an exhibit much too small and not at all suited to the largest land mammal. Her exhibit was at least updated since I worked there in the early nineties in an effort to meet the AZA's (American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) pitiful standards for this species. Their so-called standards still rate well below what the species needs for a healthy and long life. Most captive elephants die well before they reach the lifespan of their wild counterparts, and when you take into consideration that wild elephants face poachers, human encroachment, and predation to their young, a shorter life expectancy is pitiful indeed. However, only a very few forward thinking zoos have admitted what the industry has known for years. Elephants should not be kept in zoos. Perhaps the new sanctuaries cropping up around the country will provide what these animals need. It's too soon to tell for sure, but at least they offer something different, something new that comes much closer to giving these massive animals a chance for a longer, healthier captive life. What does all of this have to do with Jenny? Stick with me, I'm getting there, but first I have to give you some background.

Jenny, like many of her zoo counterparts, was taken from the wilds of Africa and brought to the Dallas Zoo through an animal broker. This does not mean that the Dallas Zoo necessarily sent someone out to hunt her down, wrangle her up, and load her into a truck. (There I go defending them again.) The truth is more likely something like this; Dallas put an add out via the AZA bulletin saying they were interested in acquiring an elephant, and the animal brokers contacted them listing what animals they had available. Jenny was one of two elephants the Dallas Zoo chose from the list. The other animal's name was Moja. I was told they were sisters by one of their keepers, but I have never verified this, and it could just be a romantic story passed down over the years. Regardless, I have often imagined Jenny and Moja huddled together in the back of some truck jarring their way out of the bush after having watched their mother die attempting to defend them. If this isn't truth, it's certainly plausible. I remember the two of them together, tightly bonded and affectionate. I have a photo of them on exhibit leaning side to side while they ate their hay. The day I took the photo, I watched them rub their trunks together and rumble, seeming more contented than I ever expected while standing in their tiny concrete world.

One morning I arrived at the zoo parking lot to hear a screaming sound rolling down the hill from the large mammal barn. It was followed by clashing and banging. I remember dropping my bag and running up the hill to find out what was happening. Although I was not an elephant keeper, I was close friends with the Animal Care Manager of the Large Mammal Barn, and I often accompanied him to feed Jenny and Moja treats and show my affection to them. Jenny liked to sniff my pockets and my shoes with her trunk and she often leaned against me and rumbled, a greeting elephants use among family members in the wild. Let's just say I'd grown very attached to her. I still have nightmares about the day I first heard Jenny's screams.

When I made it to the top of the hill, I realized Moja was lying dead in her stall. We later found out her heart had stopped due to a fast-acting disease that causes swelling and fluid in the linings around the organ. As was common practice in those days, Jenny was chained in the stall next to Moja unable to touch her friend. She would reach her trunk out, coming just shy of touching Moja, straining against her chains. Then, she would beat her head against the wall, scream, kick, and thrash around. A trail of wet was running down her face below both eyes. The keepers tried to calm her, but they couldn't. Eventually, the zoo administrators ordered Moja hooked up to a crane, and they dragged her out of the building and off exhibit where she wouldn't be seen by the public when they arrived. The whole time, Jenny beat her head, yelling and thrashing until the walls rattled.

Jenny became volatile after that day, prone to uncontrollable rages, lashing out at her keepers. For safety, the zoo was forced to change their management style with elephants in order to keep all physical contact between Jenny and her keepers to a minimum. Jenny lost the touch of her companion and the touch of her keepers virtually on the same day. She has yet to fully recover. Over the years, the zoo has given her anti-depressants, even tranquilizers, to calm her. They have also tried several other companion elephants, but Jenny refused most of them. Sometimes, loud noises would set her off, things like music during special events, loud machinery, strange vehicles, or equipment being used in the area. She has broken the cables in her exhibit with her head more than once during her rages. Eventually, after tireless effort from her keepers, Jenny was introduced to and had finally accepted another African elephant companion.

The keepers feel Jenny has been making progress, and I believe them. No one works harder and cares more for the animal than the underpaid and undervalued zookeepers. For the last few years, Jenny seemed a bit more content with her new elephant friend. Unfortunately, that animal recently died. I cannot imagine what this latest loss has done to Jenny. To make a sad story worse, the zoo administrators have made a horrifying choice for her. A choice I doubt her keepers can advocate, although I'm betting they would never say so publicly if they value their jobs. Jenny is being sent to Africam in Mexico, a drive-thru safari park. This new zoo has no African Elephants and their staff has only experienced working with Asians, which by nature are much more docile. Even the most seasoned veteran keepers are risking life and limb every time they come in contact with Jenny in a rage. Why would anyone send her off to a place with no experience caring for animals of her nature?

If that's not enough to convince you, remember that Jenny has often gone into rages when loud noises are in the vicinity, and she has broken through steel cables with her head. Yet, the Dallas Zoo is sending her to a drive-thru park where she will be exposed daily to cars. I understand there will be nothing holding her back from the unsuspecting visitors but a mote and some hot wire. I have witnessed elephants who learned to ground hot wire against their tusks in order to keep from being shocked so they could reach a branch of browse on the other side. Hot wire will not stop Jenny in a rage. Yet the Dallas Zoo refuses to even consider sending Jenny to The Elephant Sanctuary right here in Tennessee. She could live in a place where she will be off exhibit on hundreds of acres with a quiet, calm environment and numerous other African elephants. At the very least, the Dallas Zoo could keep Jenny and find her another companion animal. Apparently, they would rather send her to another country without even the benefit of animal rights laws to protect her. Jenny deserves better, and the Dallas Zoo should be ashamed!