"Zoo directors should be computerized. They seem to be confronted with one crazy problem after another all day and all night long."
Among my favorite books are the memoirs of other zookeepers, curators, and directors. Gerald Durrell's A Bevy of Beasts, Peter Brazaitis' You Belong In A Zoo!, Jeffrey Bonner's Sailing with Noah... it's impossible to spend a career working with animals and not accumulate some great stories. One such treasury of stories I discovered - completely unexpected - stuffed on the back shelf of what must be the last used bookstore in my county. That find was Man In A Cage, by Robert Elgin.
Unlike many of the zoo memoirs that I've encountered, Mr. Elgin's takes place at a very small zoo, one which I hadn't heard of - the Des Moines Children's Zoo (I later realized that the reason I'd never heard of it was that it has since changed its name to the Blank Park Zoo. Taking over the tiny zoo, teetering on the edge of success or failure, Robert Elgin had no background in zoo animal care; he was simply willing to do the job. What ensued over the next several years was a series of adventures - some happy, some tragic - that propelled the little zoo forward, featuring a large, colorful cast of animal characters.
Whenever I read the older memoirs from the profession (and, while hardly ancient, Robert Elgin does belong to a past generation of zookeeping), I'm always torn between relief and regret. The relief comes from the fact that our understanding of animal care has grown so much - when I read some of Elgin's stories of animals proving difficult to feed, or dangerous to work around, or suffering from some veterinary issue, I take pleasure in knowing that we've since overcome many of these challenges. The regret mixes in when I read about some of the wild adventures that zookeepers got to have in those days and knowing that at most zoos, those will never happen. I mean, I've never taken a lion for a walk around the zoo after hours, just to discourage intruders, or spoon-fed an ailing jaguar to nurse it back to health.
Other stories are still totally relatable. Monkeys really are pure-evil escape artists who mock any and all efforts by zoo personnel to recapture them. Deer, rabbits, and other sweet, lovable looking animals usually are the nastiest customers in the zoo. Reporters and photographers really are callous, horrible people who will ask you to hold an animal in just such a way for a picture or a story, against your best judgement, and then cheerfully record it when you get bitten. It is nice to see that some things don't change.
Elgin isn't the natural storyteller that Durrell or Bonner are. What he does have is a set of stories that I haven't heard before. Most of the other memoirs I've read are from big, famous zoos, and their stories have been told and retold time and again. It's refreshing to hear about Professor Pedro, the blue-and-gold macaw who was run for President of the United States, or the folly of deciding to start your snake-keeping career with a green mamba instead of, say, a corn snake.
Situations like the later remind you that Robert Elgin was not an animal man when he started his job. Still, like anyone else who enters the world of zoo animals, he falls in love with his new extended family. It's impossible not to. And even if he made perhaps a not-quite-wise, in hindsight, decision from time to time, the love that he had for his zoo and its animals bore fruit. Today, the Des Moines Children's Zoo, under its new name, is well and flourishing as a member of the AZA. It boasts a variety of animals that Elgin likely never dreamed of having - giraffes, snow leopards, sea lions. Robert Elgin would be proud.