Animal House

I’m not gonna lie to you guys….

I have the best internship ever.

Sure, Boston traffic often turns the otherwise 30-minute commute into an hour and ten minute trek. And yes, the internship’s unpaid and yes, I work a kind of weird schedule that includes all-day Saturdays.

But guys. I work at the zoo.

So I’m officially on my third week as an education program intern at the Franklin Park Zoo of Zoo New England, commuting three days a week from Medford, Mass. I can now tell you a male lion sleeps up to 20 hours a day, giraffes are born already standing 6 feet, female ostriches guard the nest by day and male ostriches by night, and tree kangaroos are the cutest animals to ever exist.

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Meet Snickers. I’m still not entirely convinced he’s not actually a stuffed animal.

My work includes accompanying behind-the-scenes tours, running programs with kids on various topics (habitats, adaptations, etc) and animal encounters (nothing too exotic – ferrets, cockroaches, ball pythons, rosy boas, box turtles, skunks, skinks, geckos – but still tons of fun!), and walking around the zoo ‘interpreting’, which is our word for dispensing our knowledge regarding the animals and trying to get guests more involved.

My favorite exhibit happens to be Tiger, where we have two Siberian/Bengal tiger mixes named Luther and Anala.

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 Anala and Luther are some pretty cool cats (haha, see what I did there?!). First off, Anala’s the one of the left; the orange tiger. For whatever reason most guests tend to be convinced the white tiger must be female, which must bruise poor Luther’s manly ego, but our white tiger is in fact a male. Secondly, most guests are surprised when I tell them Luther and Anala are believed to be brother and sister. Most people are under the impression that the ‘white tiger’ is its own subspecies, while in fact the white coat is simply caused by a recessive gene that blocks the orange coloring.

I’ll throw out some other fun Anala/Luther/Tiger facts for ya: The two of them are both eight years old; tigers generally live to around twenty in captivity. A common misconception is that tigers live on the savannah and share their space with lions, but they actually hale from a wide variety of tropical forests. Also unlike lions, tigers are generally solitary animals (but since both Anala and Luther are not in competition for resources and have been raised together since birth, they get along just fine). A fun fact is that males in the wild keep a very specific territory, often encompassing the territory of a few females, and a new tiger can only move in once the old one has died and a vacancy opens up, kind of like our own housing system (except, you know, death isn’t usually a requirement).

Luther and Anala were rescued by the zoo after a man was caught trying to illegally sell them as pets. Which brings me to another point; debunking the bad rap zoos seem to get in this day and age. Sure, in the past I think zoos often served as more of a circus-like establishment, capturing wild and exotic creatures to show off to a curious public. But as time has passed they have become less about showing off rare creatures and more centered on trying to garner appreciation, interest and hopefully aid from the public regarding the various wildlife that shares our planet. In my brief time working behind the scenes I’ve been blown away by the amount the zoo, which has very little funding to begin with, attempts to educate visitors and raise awareness regarding environmental issues, as well as their various and determined conservation efforts.

I’d like to make one thing clear; few if any of the animals residing in the park have been removed from the wild. They were nearly all born in captivity, many within Franklin Park itself, and couldn’t survive if released into the wild if you tried.

Naive visitors who know very little about the workings of the zoo like to get up on their high horses and berate me, telling me the animals must be sick (no, he’s just a lion, lions sleep a lot…), that they must be bored (well actually the pygmy hippos are nocturnal, so you won’t see her moving much unless you’re here in the morning), that we should be ashamed of the horrible care we give our animals (sorry, he’s actually just naturally shedding, Bactrian camels do that) and so on and so forth.

I’m constantly being asked if the animals miss the wild or if they’re happy. To which I have to respond, “Um, of course they’re happy.” In their natural environments animals are engaged in a constant struggle for survival, a struggle that more often than not ends violently and unhappily. They must combat hunger, severe weather, predators, lack of prey, diminishing habitats, various illness, and countless other obstacles they simply don’t have to worry about in a zoo exhibit. I completely understand the appeal of the image of a wild and ferocious leopard stalking his prey in the wild, but people generally overlook scenarios such as leopard cubs being ripped to pieces by Nile crocodiles, his kills being stolen by lions or hyenas (as often happens) and leaving him hungry, or the leopard itself taking out young gorillas, chimps, zebras, chitals and muntjacs. I get that visualizing the grand predator in his natural habitat is engaging, given we as humans put great stock in personal freedom and choice. But do I actually think the animal is happier fighting to survive versus living in relative comfort and safety in a well-designed zoo habitat? Not really.

I’ve always thought this passage from Life of Pi puts it best (it’s a little lengthy, so bear with me):

 ‘Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free.” These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape. Being denied its “freedom” for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. … An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard—significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more “freedom,” involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose.

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, “Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!”—do you think they would shout and dance for joy? They wouldn’t. Birds are not free. The people you’ve just evicted would sputter, “With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years. We’re calling the police, you scoundrel.”

Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home?” That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure—whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium—is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. Whereas before for us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else—all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches and poison ivy—now the river flows through taps at hand’s reach and we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a protective wall and keep it clean and warm. A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal’s needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you? But animals are incapable of such discernment. Within the limits of their nature, they make do with what they have.

So yes, I fully support zoos in terms of what they do to protect animals, educate about the environment, and give the public a chance to see first-hand what zoos fight to protect and why they should be fighting, too.

And on that note, here are a few crappy photos I took with my camera-phone over the past week. Enjoy! 🙂

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Here we’ve got baby Nemo, five months old, a Grant’s (commonly referred to as a plains) zebra born at Franklin Park in February.

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An exemplary specimen of animal photography, this here is Yang, our male red panda, snoozin’ in the AM. Our regular female Stella Luna is visiting Sequoia Park Zoo in California for a breeding program, and in the meantime has been replaced by another female named Carys.

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Another terrible photo but this guy, a twelve-year-old endangered Amur leopard named Ussiri, is one of my favorite zoo residents. He can leap 20 feet horizontally, 10 feet into the air, can reach up to 37 mph and can most frequently be found pacing and lounging near the front of his exhibit, making fearless eye contact with visitors. I like to think we have a connection but it’s more likely he just wants to eat me.

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Here’s our happy giraffe family; mother Jana, father Beau, and eight-month old, ten-foot-tall Henrietta. Beau is commonly referred to as a ‘miracle giraffe’, the only known living giraffe to survive giraffe wasting sickness, which is essentially the giraffe form of celiac disease. No one has been able to explain his continued health, but we’re not complaining.

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Cleo, our 600-lbish pygmy hippo. This is the only time I’ve ever seen her stand; it was the most exciting thing that happened to me all day.

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Sam, a Griffon’s Vulture, who shares Cleo’s exhibit, being a creeper. About once a year he makes a daring exhibit escape but never decides to try and get further than the railing.

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Our baby Kambiri, two and a half, snuggling with her older sister Kimani, eight years old. The two are constantly cuddling, playing or fighting, and I’ll tell you right now she might be cute but Kambiri can be a bit of a punk. Although there was that one time I watched Kimani drop Kambiri down the cliffside… #sisterlylove

Kitombe, or Kit for short, twenty-six years old, our dominant silverback and father of Kambiri and Kimani. Gaze upon him and all his majestic glory. Quite possibly my favorite of our three male gorillas. :)

Kitombe, or Kit for short, twenty-six years old, our dominant silverback and father of Kambiri and Kimani. Gaze upon him and all his majestic glory. Quite possibly my favorite of our three male gorillas. 🙂

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Kambiri straight chillin’.

I’d like to get back with a few more species-specific exposés, but till then, have a lovely week and, if you’re a resident of the US, a splendid 4th of July! 🙂

– Amy