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."
This means a lot of scrubbing. The penguins' nests are actually dog crates—I have one the same size at home for my beagle. Sasha has left plenty of messes in hers, but hers is amateur compared with the work of penguin pair Malomar and Murphy. Let's just say this couple will never need to sign up for the Activia challenge. There are 16 nest boxes, and the keepers clean one per day. First I had to dump out the nesting material. Then I had to take a paint scraper to the guano stuck to the corners. Finally, I was given a green cleaning pad and a canister of powered bleach and told to rub until every single stain was gone. It's odd I found the bird's nest more foul than the rhino pen. But while there was something heroic about hauling wheelbarrows full of waste, it felt more Cinderella-like to scour each gluey penguin poo.
After 45 minutes , the crate looked sparkling to me, but Wlaz found stains I'd overlooked. I began to wonder if Malomar and Murphy were really that fastidious. Did the keepers not understand it's called a stain because you can't get it out? The words of another frustrated cleaner, Lady Macbeth, echoed: "Out, damned spot! out, I say!"
Wlaz and her fellow keepers finally took pity and released me. Before I left, I was allowed to peek at the members of the penguin colony who were floating in an oversize circa-19th-century tub in the oldest part of the zoo. They bobbed serenely, like a childhood fantasy of bath toys. Zookeepers don't spend the day behind a desk, but in intimate contact with amazing creatures whose lives depend on their care. Gazing at these birds, I had a glimmering of what makes all the scrubbing worthwhile.
Click here to view a slide show on being a zookeeper.