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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Kingdom of Obscurities

Norrington: No additional shot nor powder, a compass that doesn't point north, [looks at Jack's sword] and I half expected it to be made of wood. You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of.
Jack Sparrow: But you have heard of me.

- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Spotted hyenas may be one of my favorite animals of all time.  A big part of their appeal, I suppose, is that most people really don't like them, while I get to appreciate all of their awesome secrets (secrets you could only obtain by, say, reading a Wikipedia article about them).  In this, hyenas differ from most of the animals that make up my "favorites" list.  Hyenas may be unpopular, but most people have heard of them.

If zookeepers have a soft spot for underdogs, they're absolute mush for the obscurities, the animals no one else has ever heard of.  It becomes most obvious when we're visiting other zoos; when I went to the San Diego Zoo most recently, I had a checklist of "must sees", and the pandas and koalas weren't on it.  Instead, I was after the ratel (honey badger), Tasmanian devil, and superb bird of paradise, among others.  Having checked them out, I then waited for a half-hour in the Children's Zoo for the daily chance to glimpse (the recently deceased) Baba, the only publically-displayed pangolin in the United States.  It was awesome.


But it's not just the species I've never seen before.  Even animals that are relatively common at other zoos, but not well known to the public, fascinate me.  I love tapirs, bongos, and Przewalski's horses.  The giraffes and zebras?  They're nice enough (well, in the case of zebras, not "nice"), but don't excite me to the degree an okapi does.  I'd rather watch Andean bears or sloth bears over pandas and polars any day, and even the smell of a maned wolf or a binturong makes me happy.  If a zoo has a reptile house, bird house, or small mammal house, you can bet I'll be making a trip, happily spending as much time as it takes at each display to find the occupant.

It's not just me.  I've taken to calling these animals "zookeeper animals", a term coined by a supervisor of mine at a private zoo to describe animals that zookeepers love and the public ignores.  Having previously worked at Potawatomi Zoo, she'd fallen in love with takin, and was desperate to add them to our collection.  It was a tough sell, and one she was destined to lose.  The owner of the zoo refused to invest in an obscure species of Central Asian hoofstock that, in his opinion, most visitors would mistake for a bloated, deformed goat.  He's right about that - a perpetual source of irritation for keepers is listening to visitors constantly call their favorite animals something completely wrong.  Hearing the capybara called "beaver dogs"... sigh.

Why do we love obscure animals so much?  Part of it might be that we see them in a light than most visitors don't.  When I worked with clouded leopards, most guests just saw a blotchy, olive-green bundle of fur in a nest box... if that.  Working with them after hours on a one-on-one basis, I knew them as playful, engaging, agile, and scary-stealthy beauties.  Part of it is just knowing more about the animal than other people do.  By parrot-standards, thick-billed parrots aren't that spectacular looking.  By knowing something about them - that they are the last living parrot species native to the United States, for example - they instantly become more fascinating as you try to imagine a future where a flock of them flits through the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.  An appreciation of how dangerous a cassowary can be really makes you view it in a different light.  And, unfortunately, an understanding of rarity contributes to our perceptions.  It's impossible for me to look at a Kihansi spray toad and not be overwhelmed by its status as so-critically endangered.

One of my favorite parts of the blog is writing the Species Fact Profiles.  Part of it is that it's easy (and, unlike the Zoo and Aquarium Reviews, I'm not always scrambling and worrying about where I'll go next so I don't run out of material).  Mostly, it's that I enjoy devoting a little time and a little space to sharing some really neat, often-overlooked animals. 

When I look at the list of animals featured, it occurs to me that, in my imagination, I'm stocking my own zoo - a zoo filled with the animals that I've enjoyed the most over the years.  It's not a zoo that many people would enjoy too much, perhaps - missing too many of the most popular animals - but that's okay.  I'm imagining it for me.

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