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Monday, March 10, 2014

Zoo History: The Lady and the Cobra

"I hate to say it, and I know some persons who don't like snakes are very nice persons, but Mr. Bean [the zoo director] was frightened, and frightened persons will exaggerate.  I do not not feel I was guilty of carelessness.  I just forgot, simply forgot, to close the door to the cobra's cage after I cleaned it."

- Grace Olive Wiley

Throughout much of history, zookeeping was a man's job.  Sure, women could work in the children's zoo and were deemed especially well-suited to hand-rearing babies, but taking care of big cats, bears, and rhinos was dangerous work that only men were considered for.  Even by the time that I entered the profession that was, by and large, no longer true.  In many zoos the female keepers outnumber the males, and do all of the same work with the same level of expertise.

(Some individual biases and prejudices linger, however - I had one former director who - whenever a camel or eland needed to be wrangled - insisted on pulling me away from my birds instead of using any of the six or seven hoofstock keepers, all of whom were women...)

There have been many female pioneers in the field of zoo animal care.  Like pioneers everywhere, some of their stories have unhappy endings.  Let's consider Grace Olive Wiley...

Originally an entomologist at the University of Kanas, Grace Olive Wiley later fell in love with snakes... especially venomous ones.  She amassed a large personal collection of venomous snakes, including cobras, mambas, and rattlesnakes, which she displayed at her job in the local library in Minneapolis.   A woman in the early 1900s with a large collection of deadly reptiles which she took to work with her would have been unusual enough.  What really makes Wiley a colorful character was how she chose to care for her scaly charges.

Wiley was convinced that snakes - even the most dangerous species - could be tamed like any other animal, and was determined to prove it.  She free-handled (use of bare-heads instead of a hook or tongs) her snakes daily, allowing them to crawl over her as she serviced their enclosures.  It wasn't unusual for her to let them loose on the floor of the building to explore while she worked.  Needless to say, her antics did not endear her to her colleagues in the library, and she was forced to leave.


Luckily for her, at about this time the Brookfield Zoo opened up in the Chicago suburbs.  Brookfield was in the market for a new curator of reptiles.  They took Ms. Wiley... and her collection.

Alas, professional zookeepers were no more fond of cobras roaming at large than were librarians, and Wiley was fired from Brookfield as well, about one year (and nineteen snake escapes) later.  Wiley and her menagerie moved out to California, where she displayed her snakes for the public (allowing kids to try their hand at handling venomous species), rented them out to photographers, and billed herself as a "snake trainer" to movie companies (she assisted with Tarzan and The Jungle Book).

Grace Olive Wiley's luck finally ran out in 1948, when a cobra she was using for a photo shoot bit her.  She did have antivenom, fortunately, but in the ensuing commotion, the vial was broken, and the local hospital did not carry cobra antivenom.  Two hours after her bite, she died.

The zoo and aquarium profession has never had its shortage of eccentrics, and I've met plenty of them.  It's probably for the best, however, that I can say that I never met a Grace Olive Wiley.  These days, with increased legal liability, constant media coverage, and animal rights activists looking for zoos and aquariums to make mistakes, I don't think we could survive someone like her in one of America's biggest zoos.

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