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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Night Shift at the Zoo

"Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!'
- Bram Stoker, Dracula

"Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of the night!"
- Rocky Horror Picture Show

The world is a different place after dark.  Places that are comfortable and familiar to us during the daytime become strange, forbidding, sometimes even sinister once night settles in and the lights are out.  We are a diurnal species, as most primates are, and a very visual one.  For most of us sight is our dominant sense, and it is only when we are immersed in darkness that we realize how woefully inadequate our other senses – hearing and smell and touch – are at night, as we startle at strange sounds and grope about in the darkness.

I am reminded of that every single time I walk around a zoo after dark.

Okay, so yes, this is a jaguar, not a clouded leopard.  The picture works better for the article, okay?

There have been myriad reasons which have brought me to work at night.  Sometimes it has been because I am, I freely admit, a neurotic mess and feel that I have to come in to double-check a lock or make sure a heat lamp is working, even if it’s midnight.  Other times, it’s a planned occasion – staying late for a special event, or checking up on an animal, or working way too late on a special project that just can’t wait (at one zoo I stayed until midnight four nights in a row rushing to finish an exhibit by its promised opening date).

It’s an eerie feeling, being alone in a zoo after dark.  Even when you can’t see anything, there is the sense of being watched, which is perfectly fair because you are being watched. 

Unlike humans, animals don’t have the luxury of being able to sleep soundly all night.  For prey species, night is when they can move under cover of darkness; unfortunately, most predators see better at night than most prey animals.  For desert dwellers, the cool of the night provides the opportunity to leave the dens and burrows where the days have been spent in hiding from the murderous sun.  Amphibians often prefer the night to the day; their moist, permeable skin dries out too easily when exposed to the sun.  Even among the animals that are active during the day experience night much more differently than we do – their keen noses and sharp ears compensate for their reduced vision.

It’s fascinating to walk around in the dark; you won’t see many animals (well, none at all if you don’t use a flashlight), but what you can see is astonishing.  Nocturnal animals come to life in ways that will never happen during the day.  During my four-night stay at work on the aforementioned rush exhibit project, I got the chance to make friends with one of our zoo’s newest residents, a young female clouded leopard.  For days after we’d released her into her exhibit, we never saw her during the daylight – only through peeks into the door of her den – and guests never saw her.  At night, however, she was extraordinary, a ghost; I’d have my flashlight trained on an empty branch in her enclosure, and she would materialize on it before my eyes.  The first time I went to check on her, she popped up on a limb three feet in front of me without making a sound – one minute there was nothing, the next her eyes were boring directly into mine. 

And it wasn’t just the clouded leopard that I gained a new perspective on.  I’d play my light over the waters of the alligator pool, catching the glow of their eyes shining back at me.  The hoots of owls rang through the night.

It’s not only the zoo animals that turn themselves on after dark.  An amazing array of native wildlife can show up when the guests are gone.  Opossums, raccoons, foxes, armadillos – depending on where you are in the country, you can see all sorts of nocturnal visitors.  Of course, rats also show up after dark; I highly recommend camping out one night to see what sort of pests show up that you’ll never see during the day, save for the damage they do and the mess they leave.

Small animals that are kept indoors become divorced from the natural rhythm of night and day that the outdoor animals experience.  For these creatures, the keepers control their light cycles by artificially providing day and night controlled by timers.  In the case of some nocturnal animals, the days may be spent in artificial darkness (thereby encouraging the animals to be active while visitors are present), while the lights are turned on at the end of the day to allow the animals to experience day, when they would sleep. 

Not many keepers regularly experiences nights at the zoo (though some zoos employ special night keepers who stay throughout the night, monitoring the zoo and feeding and shifting animals as needed).  Even fewer visitors are given the chance, though this is changing.  Many zoos are starting to showcase nocturnal animals through reversed-lighting.  More and more zoos are offering night tours and sleepovers, complete with nocturnal animal activities (and usually smores).   There is at least one zoo out there (albeit in Singapore) which is open exclusively at night, allowing visitors to explore the nocturnal world.  Remembering my encounter with the clouded leopard, I would love to see more chances for small groups of visitors to explore the zoo after dark, getting to see some of our animal at their best.  Imagine watching a pride of lions stalk across their exhibit in the moonlight, or seeing a wolf howling, silhouetted against the moon…

In some ways, darkness is an equalizer of sorts.  It robs us of our sense of superiority and puts us back in our place in the natural world, back when we were nothing more than nervous primates, huddled in the dark and terrified of leopards.  Being in a zoo at night time can be a chilling, exhilarating experience that drives home the magic and power of animals. 

There’s a clouded leopard for each and every one of us out there, just waiting to enthrall us…

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