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.
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.
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.