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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Where the Magic Happens

It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where the dangers are many, the pleasures are few..."

~ Merle Travis, "Dark as a Dungeon"

When I started off working in zoos, the most amazing part of the job was the proximity of animals.  It seemed that every time that I turned my head, there was another one right behind me, each more incredible than the one before.  These close-up encounters often took place in the keeper buildings, or night houses, where animals went when not on exhibit. 
These buildings are where many of my most treasured early memories of zoo animals took place – smelling the fish on a polar bear’s breath, feeling an okapi’s tongue wrap around my hand, or looking directly into the eyes of a lion from six inches away.  These are the places where animals are often fed, where medical procedures take place, and where training is conducted.  In a sense, this is where the magic happens.
Which, in a sense, is also kind of a shame – the holding buildings tend to be pretty boring, once you get past the initial shock of seeing the animal.  They aren’t natural, nor are they aesthetically pleasing – they aren’t meant to be.  They are meant to be easily cleaned and they are meant to be secure – this is where you want your animals when a storm is raging outside or when snow is piling up.  You’ll find some creature comforts in them, to be sure – perches for monkeys and birds, pools for tapirs and hippos, hide boxes for small mammals – but it’s all very functional.  The perches will be simple cut branches or boards, the pools won’t be fed by cascading waterfalls.  If you ever want to know what zoo exhibits themselves looked like fifty years ago, just go back into the holding areas.  It's for this reason that many zoos tend to ban photography of their holding areas, they just aren't that impressive (it is with that consideration in mind that I am only showing pictures of public behind-the-scenes areas on this post).

Animals spend varying amounts of time in these buildings.  Some may be locked in only for the ten minutes it takes each day for the keeper to go outside, clean up the exhibit, and scatter some food.  Others may be brought inside at night, or for months at a time during inclement weather.  Some may be back their almost permanently, whether for breeding purposes, medical purposes, or just because no one knows where else to put them at that moment.
The keeper areas are “our” place as well as the animals’ place, and we make them our own.  Notes on the white board, irreverent cartoons and drawings, little “souvenirs” from the animals (i.e., a thoroughly demolished enrichment item) adorn the walls and shelves.  It’s where keepers tend to congregate to chat, sharing gossip about animals and coworkers alike.  Here, far from the madding crowd, our biggest concerns are whether the floors are draining (why is the drain never in the lowest point?) or whether the hoses are coiled properly.  It’s our territory.  But does it have to be that exclusively?

Behind-the-Scenes view of the elephant and giraffe holding areas at the Virginia Zoo

Many zoos offer behind-the-scenes tours of at least some of their exhibits, either as a special package or as part of a zoo camp or other educational program.  Bearing this in mind, doesn’t it make sense that we start designing our off-exhibit areas with a mind towards being, well… exhibits?  We probably don’t want endless lines parading through our dens and barns, but it would be neat to be able to bring special guests back behind-the-scenes to meet the animals up close and learn how the keepers do their job, maybe watch a training demo or see some enrichment, or get the inside look at an important breeding program.  This could also be practiced in other traditionally non-public areas of the zoo, from the commissary to the hospital to the horticulture greenhouse.  Even if there are no animals in the commissary, visitors would be fascinated to see the amounts and varieties of food our animals consume.  Even if there are no patients in the hospital, it’s still cool to see all of the equipment and gadgetry.
Of course, making this work requires keeping the keeper areas presentable… tools put away, sections tidied, NOT leaving those little fruit stickers all over the walls and furniture.  It also means rethinking how we design our behind-the-scenes areas.  If we wouldn’t feel comfortable having at least some visitors see it, maybe it’s not ideal.  Too many of the older exhibits that I’ve worked in have keeper areas that are dank, depressing, and – in many causes- uncomfortable and borderline unsafe to work in.  Having the public eye fixed on our workspaces might help us keep them on par with the exhibits that they support.
Obviously we will always need some private areas in the zoo for a variety of reasons (quarantine, very sensitive animals, etc).   Tours or viewing windows into keeper areas would not be appropriate for all exhibits, but each zoo or aquarium has, I’m sure, at least one where it might prove very effective.  Some zoo directors will bemoan the lack of naturalism, the thwarting and undermining of their naturalistic immersion exhibits with peeks into the bunker-like keeper areas.  A lot of keepers, I suspect, would resent the intrusion of guests into their work spaces, even if only the occasional tour, or peeking through a window.  Still, I feel that offering guests a glimpse of behind-the-scenes can give them a better understanding of who we are and what we do.

Window in the diet prep room at the National Aviary, allowing visitors to watch keepers at work

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