Bat guano, elephant dung, rhino pee, and other substances I encountered in my brief, smelly stint as a zookeeper.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 29 2010 10:09 AM

Poo at the Zoo

Bat guano, elephant dung, rhino pee, and other substances I encountered in my brief, smelly stint as a zookeeper.

See our Magnum Photos gallery "Ode to the Zoo." 

(Continued from Page 1)

There could hardly be a more dramatic change of scale than going from fruit bats to 8,000-pound elephants. The Maryland Zoo has five: three females, one of whom is the mother of a two-year-old male, and a bull elephant. They are attended by a rotating crew of female zookeepers. In recent years the profession, which used to be predominantly male, has become 70 percent female. Elephants are such complicated, intelligent, social creatures that their keepers work with them in a 1-to-1 ratio, like some kind of high-end pachyderm spa, or psychiatric facility.

My elephant day began in what they call "the barn," a vast enclosure divided into pens where the elephants are housed for the night. It looked like the morning-after scene in The Hangover, the rubber floor of each pen strewn with pine chips, hay, straw, and a multitude of impressive elephant droppings. I was given boots, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. In a way the barn is a 12,000-square-foot version of a litter box. Adult elephants in captivity eat 150 to 200 pounds a day of mostly hay, supplemented with grains, produce, and leaves they scrounge from the trees. In a perfect demonstration of the law of conservation of mass, they excrete almost the same weight in dung.

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After shoveling out a pen, the next step is the hose-down. It's a Four Seasons standard of housekeeping: Each enclosure has to be washed so that not even a single piece of hay remains. I drove the debris to the large drains that dotted the corridor. Eventually they became obstructed, like a bathroom sink filled with hair. One of my hardest moments was plunging my hand into the drain to clear the feces-laden hay. Not wanting to appear ridiculously fastidious, I joined the other keepers in doing it barehanded. Then at the end of the day, pine-chip bedding is strewn across the floor, like an elephant turndown service. I helped prepare the elephants' dinner, breaking up bales of hay as if they were oversize shredded-wheat biscuits.

I wish I could show photographs of the pristine pen my hours of labor produced, but Mike McClure, 40, the zoo's general curator, forbade photography. Elephant enclosures are the dream shots of the animal rights movement, he explained. "I stand by our facilities. They are fantastic," he says. But no matter how spacious or clean, in a single image, they look like jails for wild beasts.

At a zoo, it's impossible not to think about the assertions of the activists. Baltimore is the home of The Wire, Johns Hopkins, and people who call you, "Hon." Should elephants, polar bears, and warthogs be forced to live there? McClure says that most zookeepers don't disagree that wild animals should be free. But, zookeepers point out, animals are in captivity—many are born into it. For many species there's barely any wild left. "As long as they are here, we want them to be treated properly. It's not perfect, but they are not suffering from drought, being shot for bush meat, running from fires," McClure says. He says the keepers are constantly devising ways—through stimulating toys and social interaction—to enrich the animals' mental and emotional lives.

Like all the keepers, McClure talks about the moments of connection that make all the mucking in the cold, wet, and heat worthwhile. McClure, who has no children, says the birth two years ago of the baby elephant, Samson, was one of the greatest moments of his life. He also recalls the time he was assigned to the chimpanzees. Everyone was baffled why one young female was persecuted by the rest of the troop. McClure spent months observing her interactions and came to realize there was something wrong with her hearing. A specialist was brought in who confirmed she could only hear a limited range of tones—a condition that's often overlooked in children.

By the time I got to the rhinoceros enclosure, I was becoming a connoisseur of excrement. Robyn Johnson, 26, the manager of the zoo's watering hole, escorted me to the rhino barn; the rhinos themselves were in the exhibit yard. Unlike elephants, rhinos have the decency to eliminate in one spot, making cleanup easier. Johnson's roommate works as an elephant keeper, and I pick up the scent of rivalry between the two women when Johnson tells me that after her roommate has spent the day with the baby elephant, Samson, she smells much worse than Johnson herself does after spending the day with the young, male rhinoceros, Stubby. Johnson says there's an unwritten code among keepers that for the sake of public decency they don't stop for groceries or other errands on the way home. After shoveling and hosing rhino excrement, I have to say the top note of Stubby's urine delivers a knockout punch unlike anything I smelled in the elephant barn.

Johnson says that while rhinos have fierce reputations for goring people in the wild, her charges, Stubby and Daisy, are sweethearts. She explained that because rhinos have poor eyesight, in the veld any human looks threatening. But up close at the zoo rhinos recognize their keepers and long for human companionship, loving to be stroked and brushed. She described how the rhinos close their eyes with joy when she gives them an exfoliating loofah bath. Johnson has me half-convinced that being a rhino keeper is like having a 5,000-pound Great Dane with armorlike skin.

Finally, I ended up at Rock Island, the zoo's penguin rookery. If you are fixed on the image of valiant penguin parents standing on the Antarctic permafrost, buffeted by the gelid winds as they incubate their precious eggs, you're not thinking of African black-footed penguins. This species wisely decided to go the Club Med route, and their home is the southwestern coast of Africa. The zoo's colony is the largest in North America, and the zoo does research on avian malaria to aid the wild population.

Each penguin wears a little wing identification badge, but the keepers can tell them apart by their markings, walk, and personality. This recognition is mutual. If any of their band of all-female keepers changes her hairstyle, the birds object by scattering. Besides hating makeovers, they also dislike hats with brims, puffy winter coats, and men. (It's not that they naturally discriminate against male humans, it's just that they don't know any.) Keeper Bethany Wlaz, 26, explains these flightless birds are so flighty because as prey animals they've evolved to be hypervigilant.

New keepers spend six months cleaning cages and doing other scut work to get the penguins used to their presence (and hairdos) before being allowed to feed them. Not that the keepers are ever liberated from guano. Wlaz says depending on whether she's on a feeding rotation, 70 percent to 90 percent of her day is spent cleaning. Then when she gets off work on Saturday, she cleans herself up—she goes home stinking of herring juice and says since she's worked with penguins she has been unable to eat fish—and goes to her second job as a waitress. I not so delicately ask if her parents feel all this is a good use of her college degree. "My parents are thrilled I'm doing work I love," she says. "I'll do whatever it takes to make sure my animals have the best possible care."

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