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Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator

"Territorial behavior in animals doesn't surprise us, but we rarely speak of it in human terms.  I noticed that the heads of different zoo departments were equally territorial, defending their turf, and that included me as well... It always amused me how observing animals often made me reflect on humans."

When Annette Libeskind Berkovits describes herself as "an accidental" zoo curator, she's not joking.

Throughout the course of a childhood that spanned three continents, there was nothing to suggest that animals would ever play a prominent role in her life.  She had only two pets - a dog, which she was terrified of and almost accidentally killed, and a bullfrog tadpole... which she did accidentally kill.  Seeking to re-enter the workforce, she applied to a somewhat mysterious job advertisement that was a little short of details.

Imagine her surprise when, a few days later, she got a call from the Bronx Zoo.

If Berkovits was a novice to the field of zoo education (as became quickly clear on her awkward, animal-packed first day), then she had the double-handicap of being a novice in a field with no experts.  When she accepted her position at the Bronx Zoo, the field of zoo-based education was still in its infancy.  Essentially, her job consisted of holding an animal ambassador and talking to visitors.  Over the next several years, she worked to re-invent her position, using the zoo as a classroom to convey powerful educational messages about wildlife, coming up with increasingly innovative ways of reaching audiences young and old.  One chapter describes TV appearances (with Captain Kangaroo, no less), while another details the creation of the zoo's first summer camp program - an idea that is now extremely widespread, but was controversial and trailblazing at the time.

Not all of these educational-adventures take place at the Bronx.  WCS conservation programs are active in countries across the world, and it seems that their education programs follow closely behind.  In one chapter, Berkovits describes a visit to Belize to implement a conservation education program, while in another, she ushers a crowd of VIPs (including one trustee from hell) through communist China.  Likewise, there are several wildlife stories that take place within the Berkovits family, reminding us that you aren't just an educator or a conservationist when you are at work - you occupy the job all the time.

Like any zoo memoir, however, it's the animals that take center-stage.  On this blog, I've reviewed a few other books about the Bronx Zoo, and I noticed a few stories from other memoirs that popped up here (notably the king cobra escape detailed in You Belong In A Zoo!) - the same story, but told through fresh eyes and a much different perspective.  Much of the book centers around the animal-shy Annette as she comes to terms with the constant presence of her winged, four-footed, or scaly colleagues.  It's fascinating to watch the transition of a woman who is so terrified of cats that she insists her neighbor lock up her house cat before she'll come over for a visit then finding herself working with a very affectionate, half-grown puma.

It's that trait - an initial separation from animals - which made Annette Berkovits an "accidental" zoo curator.  It's also what makes her such a fascinating, insightful narrator.  So many books that I've read about zoos and aquariums are written by the Gerald Durrells or the Peter Brazaitises - people who have always loved animals and always wanted to work with them.  Those people are great, and I'm glad that they are out there - I consider myself one of them.  But those aren't the people who we really need to be getting into zoos and aquariums - we're already reaching them.

Instead, we need people like Annette Berkovits - someone who may have the passion and drive to do fantastic things for wildlife... but just needs someone to make that sometimes awkward first introduction.

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