I Work(ed) in a Zoo


A sun conure like Penny

Today’s daily prompt is zoo.

I worked in a zoo. No, I mean I really worked in a zoo. Some of my workplaces feel like a zoo, but I actually worked in a real, live zoo in Knoxville. I was a birdkeeper, and I actually really liked the job. In many ways dealing with the sh*t in the real zoo was more fun than dealing with it in an office that just feels like a zoo.

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You know the office bully? She’s the one that waits for you to say something that might be a tad controversial or for you to hesitate on offering an opinion. Then she takes you down in a flurry of backhanded jabs or snarling bites. Give her one inch, and you will regret you ever let your guard down. Iggy was our bully at the zoo. The black swan was sequestered in a back section of the back pond because he was so mean. We could not take the chance of a child sticking his hand through the fence. Iggy was ferocious. And swans are big, muscular birds with massive wings. I had to ease up to the fence and grab the food bowl before Iggy ran over and attacked me. We left a large stick right by the opening. As we put the food bowl back in we’d take the stick and hold Iggy back lest we be beat to death by the big black angry winged bully.


And, then, of course, there’s the office talker. He comes over to your desk and talks about politics or his family or his next project ad nauseum. He’s nice enough, but there’s too much of him for too long. Penny was a sun conure that I tried to teach how to talk and do tricks. She was doing pretty good about doing tricks, but she’d just shriek all the time. I never could quite get her to the level where her language was more entertaining than irritating. And intermittently, she reach over and bite the crap out of my hand. Ouch!

And you know that group that is totally anti-social. They hide around corners and talk about everybody else in hushed tones. I want to tell them to come over and chat with the rest of us, but for some reason, they kind of creep me out. The Marabou Storks were in an enclosure off the African plains. I had to enter through a barn that was damp and moist and stunk like hot, sweaty animals. I would throw them meatballs of raw horsemeat across the ravine. There were four of them that would stand in a row. They’d catch each one with their big beaks, throw it to the back of their throats and swallow in one big gulp. They’d tap their beaks on each other and just stare off into the distance until another meatball came their way.


Marabou Stork

Don’t forget the stinky woman with the bad body odor. You try to be respectful but can’t help but hold your breath when you are in close proximity. You wonder if she ever notices that you have labored breathing or that you turn blue when talking to her. The emu enclosure was filled with this liquidy sticky poop that we literally had to shovel up out of the dirt. It was like picking up pudding out of mud. The big stinky birds stood there watching while I tried to clean the enclosure without looking or breathing.

And, of course, there’s the office sweetie who is always being sweet things to the office for everyone to eat. Everybody loves her. She makes you feel like the most interesting person every time you talk to her. The toucans were so beautiful, and they had these lovely long beaks. They’d literally look down their beaks at you as if they were kissing you with their eyes. Feeding them grapes was so much fun. They’d catch them, toss them up in the air and gulp them down. Then they’d look at you like the cat that ate the canary. I loved the toucans. It was a highlight of my day.

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My personal favorite is the smartest guy in the office. He seems to know everything. I could listen to him talk forever just because I learn so much. He seems to lead a charmed life, and everyone looks up to him. The sulfur-crested cockatoo was our star. That bird was so smart I would swear he was trying to talk to me. I’d walk into his enclosure, and he’d strut over, throw his comb up on his head, lift his foot and cock his head at me. Then, he’d turn around and run up one of his ladders and start talking. He was beautiful and magnificently entertaining.


Sarus Cranes

And then there’s the rest of the office color. Each one has its own idiosyncrasies and quirks, and each one has some lovely attributes. To call them background would be a vast understatement. They ARE the show. At the real zoo, I spent my days taking care of each of them with their own unique needs. The ducks would get frozen in the water in the pond, and I’d have to break them out. The Sarus Crane was so dangerous that the women were forbidden to feed him anymore. The Nenes had a million babies, and we had to bring them inside to take care of them all. And the Bald Eagle just demanded your respect as it took your breath away. Every last one of them spent their days eating and pooping. It was called job security for a zookeeper.

Somedays I miss the zoo. Somedays I feel like I’m right back there among my feathered friends. Frequently I wish my responsibilities were as simple as feeding, picking up poop and dodging real bites. Other days I’m glad I don’t have to get my hands that dirty. Then there are the days when I wish I could find that stick to put Iggy back in his place. It always felt a little exhilarating to survive the battle.





The Underdog: Base Layers of Merino Wool


You can’t see it, but I have my Smartwool base layer on!

The Daily Prompt today is underdog. For some weird reason, the only thing I can wrap my mind around is underwear. Is there an underdog of underwear? Honestly, my base layer I wear when I’m running is sort of like the underdog of my wardrobe. It may not get the audience or attention that my outer layer gets, but it is definitely an unsung hero. With out it, I would freeze. (How’d you like that transition?)

When I took a job as a bird keeper at the Knoxville Zoo, I had to learn how to dress for winter. Much of my day would be spent outside raking up bird poop, washing water bowls and checking on the health of our bird collection. My supervisor told me to get lots of long underwear, and I ordered it from Land’s End. I was astounded at how much difference it made to wear a base layer. I was always toasty warm. But the long underwear in those days was thick cotton or silk. While both had advantages, they are not nearly as nice as the base layers we have today.

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I have a hard time convincing my friends in Louisiana that I don’t get really cold up here.  I dress in layers. These days, I almost always have a merino wool layer next to my skin which keeps me toasty even when wearing skirts. Smartwool makes tights that are cute, soft, warm and very durable. I wore one of about 4 pair almost every day last winter. I’d throw them in the washer and dryer, and they still look great even after a year of constant use. I bought three more pair at the end of the season on clearance.

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I bought Smartwool base layers two years ago for backpacking. Our backpacking teacher said they were the best for sleeping and for wicking moisture on hikes. I wear those things on runs and even for sitting around the house. Occasionally I wear them for sleeping. I could easily use another 2 or 3 pair, but they, too, are expensive. And now I’m salivating about some Smartwool running tights. If I could wear that stuff year round from head to toe, I’d be thrilled. I even have a Smartwool balaclava and neck gaiter!

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Yesterday I ran upon a blog claiming that Merino wool is the hot new technical wear for athletes of all kinds.  Those sheep live in very cold climates but have to suffer through pretty warm summers. So, the wool is very warm but is breathable enough that it’s not too hot when temps rise. This stuff is like a miracle. And, another blogger I follow was laughing at himself because he has never been happier since he paid $25 for a pair of Merino wool cycling socks. Who knew wool was the workhorse of the underwear business?

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Tales from the Zoo

A Sun Conure

A Sun Conure

When I was in my late 20s, I was married to a sportswriter in Knoxville TN. I wanted to work a job where I worked on weekends to try to match his schedule. I had begun volunteering at the Knoxville Zoo in my spare time, and I was really enjoying the work and the people. So, when a position came open for a bird keeper, I jumped at the opportunity. I never thought I’d be there forever, but I thought it would be fun for a time.

I had never worked outside before. I always had my butt sitting in a chair in an office. My supervisor sat me down and taught me about dressing for an outside job which included rain, heat, snow, ice and cold. Oh, yeah, and Knoxville is really hilly. The Knoxville zoo stretched about 1 1/2 miles in each direction, so I walked a lot. I walked the zoo probably 4-5 times a day. I got in shape, the best shape of my life. It was the only time I can ever remember eating ANYTHING I wanted and still losing weight. It was just falling off me. And, hills do amazing things for your rear view. It was killer.

The first order of every day was to walk the zoo to make sure all of the birds had survived the night without injury or death. My supervisor and I took turns doing the morning walk. The other person would head over to the kitchen and pick up the daily food rations for the birds. We had an old dilapidated house in the back part of the zoo that we dubbed The Bird House. The kitchen would give us a bucket of rations that included fruit and vegetables for the parrots, ground horse meat for the carnivorous birds and a few other odds and ends. In our freezer, we kept frozen mice for the birds of prey. Whoever picked up the kitchen basket set about the task of dividing up the meat, chopping the fruits and veggies and counting out frozen mice.

The Bird House held the birds that were injured, and we had a few raptors that we rehabilitated. In addition, we had a pair of sun conures. They were sort of our pets. I took a liking to Penny. In my spare time, I worked with Penny to teach her how to talk and do a few tricks. When we would do school visits, I’d take Penny as my personal accessory. I loved that little nasty-tempered bird. She would squawk an ear-splitting squawk and bite me frequently.

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

The zoo’s bird collection included ducks and geese on three different ponds, a pair of toucans, a black swan, sandhill cranes, a sarus crane, Kori Bustards, Marabou Storks, a variety of Australian parrots and emus. We eventually got an ostrich, too. We had names for all of them, and I learned their personalities pretty quickly.

After we checked the collection in the mornings and handled any issues that came up, we’d divide up the zoo and head out with the food and cleaning supplies. Our basic job was to feed and clean up sh*t. That was pretty much it. And, that’s the glamorous part. After we spent most of the morning doing that, we’d have a few special projects like building new enclosures, taking care of sick animals or visiting with other keepers to get the gossip on the staff. People that worked at zoos back then were interesting. It was before degrees were required, and the pay was an abysmal hourly salary. You got people who related to animals better than they did to people. My boss and my supervisor eventually had an affair, and it was the most mishandled ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. I also worked with a serial killer, but he was just a coworker at the time. That’s a blog for another day. Anyway, it was an interesting place to work and even more interesting to talk about.

Sarus Crane

Sarus Crane

Our black swan on the back pond was called Iggy. Black swans are large, and they have very large powerful wings. Iggy did not like people. We had an opening in the chain-link enclosure where we reached through to get Iggy’s food and water bowls. I wish it were that simple. As soon as Iggy would see you coming, he’d started heading over there. He knew the drill, and everyday was an opportunity to play kill the keeper. These wild animals had never heard about not biting the hand that feeds you. Part of the instructions given to me when I initially started were how to avoid getting killed by the nastier birds. It was an unusual orientation to say the least. The first step in feeding Iggy was to pick up this large stick, and we had a particular one to hold Iggy off. Iggy would run at the fence and flap his wings. I’d take the stick and hold Iggy back while I reached in to get the food and water bowls. The entire time, he’s doing his best to get past that stick and make my life miserable. And, a few times he did hurt me. After cleaning out the dishes, I’d have to repeat the scenario to put the bowl back into the enclosure. Generally, a crowd gathered to take photos and ask why that bird was so mean. It was basically a public flogging.

We also had a deadly Sarus Crane that was not on public display. He would have killed somebody. He made Iggy look like a domesticated dog. The crane was almost 6 foot tall. It’s bill was pointed and was about a yard long. It was a huge bird. It tried to attack me when I would feed it, but it would also try to impale it’s rather scary looking beak into my arm. I knew I would die there one day. On days when we were particularly irritated at the stupidity of the visiting public, we’d joke about putting the Sarus Crane in the petting zoo. Finally, I came back to the Bird House one morning, and my supervisor had almost  gotten seriously hurt. So, the girls no longer had to feed the Sarus Crane. It was a man’s job. And, I was seriously glad. My life expectancy went up.

I was telling a friend of mine about my zoo experience last night and realized this was definitely blog fodder. Stay tuned. I’ll introduce you to some more of the characters -animal and human- that I met during my stay at the zoo. When my employers joke around about how hard it is to deal with people in the workplace, I tell them that I’ve been well-trained on working in a zoo. They have no idea how serious I am.