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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ghosts of Zoos Past

I hate to admit it, but I don't especially like ghost tours.  It's not that I scare too easily - I mean, the whole point of them is that you go on them wanting something scary... and that's the problem.  I just don't find them scary.  I've been on half a dozen of them, and only one was creepy enough to make me stay up even a little that night. 

The last ghost tour I was on abandoned any attempt to be frightening early on, and instead just went philosophical.  The tour guide (herself an author of books on the paranormal) had us stopped outside a fire station, and was waxing about how, in her experience, every single firehouse in America was haunted to at least some extent.  Partially, she said, it was due to the close personal bonds between those who work there, partially it was due to the life-and-death nature of the work that goes on there.  The same, she said, was also true to hospitals.

Well, I didn't get a single sufficiently scary story on that tour... but I did get an interesting idea.  Wouldn't that also make zoos a likely haunted destination?

I mean, think about it.  Zookeepers and aquarists are very tightly-knit, spending lots of time together and becoming very close.  Plus, zoos and aquariums are filled with life and death, sometimes rather morbidly.  That's not to suggest that every single Egyptian spiny mouse in your zoo's history has a shade that wanders the zoo at night (draped in tiny chains and squeaking "Scrooooge... Scroooooge....", perhaps), but elephants?  Bears?  Great apes?  I'm positive that someone, somewhere, is claiming that the ghost of Harambe is already hovering over Cincinnati.

And that's just the animals.  At least once a year, a keeper is killed in the line of duty, and their deaths tend to be... dramatic.  In even rarer occasions, visitors have been killed, almost always by entering an enclosure where they didn't belong, quite often at night when the zoo is closed.  I can't really imagine any keeper deliberately turning a colleague's tragic death into a scary story... but I can see a keeper, working in an enclosure where a friend met his or her death (possibly with the animal involved still present) could have a hard time not feeling a shiver up their spine.

Recently, I saw a thread on Facebook of zookeepers asked if they'd ever heard of their zoo being haunted.  Some of the responses included:
  • The ghost of a Hawaiian warrior, appearing in photos taken at the Honolulu Zoo
  • Civil war soldiers trooping through the Riverbanks Zoo (itself the site of combat during Sherman's March to the Sea)
  • Houston Zoo is supposedly haunted by the ghost of one of its former keepers
  • The ghost of an antelope seen reclining in its favorite spot in the barn... weeks after it had died
  • The ghost of a leopard, growling in the dark and making sounds as it climbed through its (now empty) enclosure
There's also the usual assortment of "Is-someone-up-there?" creaks and doors closing by themselves and lights winking on or off, or whatever else happen when you're working in old barns and buildings that aren't maintained super-well over the years.  Many zookeepers report eerie feelings in the older areas of their zoo, especially if that part is now no longer used (Maryland Zoo, for instance, has an entire section of the facility - the original zoo, actually - which is now closed and, I can attest, creepy as hell after hours).

Zoo hauntings extend across the globe, as well.  One of the most famous examples is the specter of a bear that has been seen prowling the Tower of London, once home to England's royal menagerie.

I've never encountered anything especially supernatural working at a zoo, but I can easily understand how people could get that feeling, especially when working late into the evening.  Working at a zoo, it's impossible to shake the feeling that something is watching you... because something always is.

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