Human Guinea Pig

Poo at the Zoo

Bat guano, elephant dung, rhino pee, and other substances I encountered in my brief, smelly stint as a zookeeper.

See our Magnum Photos gallery “Ode to the Zoo.” 

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In biology class you were taught that the driving force propelling all living things is the desire to reproduce. That’s wrong. After working as a zookeeper, I can assure you that living things have a far more fundamental urge, and that is to propel one’s waste onto the nearest horizontal surface. I thought being a zookeeper would allow me to cuddle koalas or commune with chimpanzees. Instead I accidentally hosed myself with a mixture of bat guano and Dawn detergent, endured the olfactory assault that is rhino dung, shoveled elephant droppings the size of throw pillows, and had my spirit broken by penguin poop—sticky , viscous, fishy—the most malevolent excrement I encountered.

In Human Guinea Pig I try jobs or hobbies people are curious about, but wish someone else would do for them. But working as a zookeeper is such an enduring desire, that zoos can always find volunteers willing to do this dirty work. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, founded in 1876, is the third-oldest zoo in the country, spread over 160 acres. I was allowed to spend two days there alongside some of the zoo’s 58 animal caregivers, discharging the more basic duties, ones that make zookeeping a profession that requires one to take a long, hot shower before joining the family for dinner.

Imagine work that offers the chance to provide nurture and stimulation to needy, even helpless beings, while requiring heavy physical labor, and a high tolerance for the bodily excretions of others. Add little opportunity for advancement and a barely living wage. Given this job description we understand why day care centers and nursing homes have a hard time finding and retaining workers. Yet one of the paradoxes of zookeeping is that if the needy beings are wild animals that can bite, gore, or dismember you, then management has the luxury of dozens, even hundreds of applicants for each spot.

In a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly, “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work,”  business scholars J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson conclude zookeepers are modern Calvinists, viewing their work as both their destiny and duty. The researchers point out while having a sense of calling provides great fulfillment, it can also result in exploitation. It’s helpful for your boss to know, as many of the zookeepers told the researchers, you would do the job for free. Given zookeepers’ pay, you could practically say they do. They are highly educated—more than 80 percent have college degrees—but are among the worst-paid workers in the country, making a national average of about $27,000 a year, just $4,000 more than janitors.

Since I live with two indoor cats, an old beagle that’s never quite grasped the concept of housebreaking, and a puppy that hasn’t either, I viewed the janitorial aspects of zookeeping as a scaled-up version of my daily life. At 9 one morning, supervisor Kevin Barrett, 27, picked me up in a golf cart to take me to my first cleanup of the day: the bat cave. He added that he hoped I was OK with the fact that I would clean while the 200-member colony of Seba’s short-tailed fruit bats were in the cave with me.

Highlights of Human Guinea Pig’s Day as a Zookeeper

Bats are polarizing creatures: Humans either love or loathe them. (Luckily, I’m a bat lover.) Barrett said parents often walk toward the exhibit, then send their kids to the viewing window alone. Barrett fitted me with boots, and I put on my sun hat (“They’re going to poop on you”), then he opened the door to an antechamber protected by a curtain of mesh. There were no errant bats, so I descended into the warm, moist darkness of the surprisingly realistic fiberglass and concrete cave. Barrett warned me to make my movements slow and deliberate. Even so, my arrival caused the bats to scatter. I felt them fly past me in a rush of air, wings, and fur. It was less like an introduction to animal husbandry than an outtake from True Blood.

The bats are mostly frutarians, so the cave had an almost pleasant fermented smell. Barrett threaded a hose through an opening, I grabbed it, and with a scrub brush, I methodically attacked the droppings, flushing them down the drain in the floor of the cave. Of course, I repeatedly sprayed myself, which meant I spent the rest of the day pretending guano and Dawn detergent is fabulous for the skin.

Fruit bats are prolific breeders, so to keep the zoo from being overrun, this colony is all male—a bat monastery! I didn’t mind when occasionally a gentleman’s echolocation failed and he banged into me, each fruit bat weighs only about an ounce. It took me almost 90 minutes to get the place scrubbed; an experienced keeper is out of there in half the time. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the bats seemed comical with their flattened, leaflike noses, hanging upside down by their feet, their dark wings folded around themselves, like tiny Draculas. I began to fantasize about having a bat for a pet—it could sleep during the day on the shower rod, then eat mosquitoes at night.

Once I finished, it was time to prepare the bat food. Their diet is a mixture of bananas, apples, a canned protein product called “ZuPreem Primate Diet” and Lubee fruit bat supplement. The fruit has to be cut just so, small enough that a bat can pick it up from the large pans suspended from the ceiling, but not so small the mixture turns to mush. When I finished I had a chunky, aromatic mixture that resembled nothing so much as bat charoset, perfect for a winged-mammal Seder.

There could hardly be a more dramatic change of scale than going from fruit bats to 8,000-pound elephants. The Maryland Zoo has five: three females, one of whom is the mother of a two-year-old male, and a bull elephant. They are attended by a rotating crew of female zookeepers. In recent years the profession, which used to be predominantly male, has become 70 percent female. Elephants are such complicated, intelligent, social creatures that their keepers work with them in a 1-to-1 ratio, like some kind of high-end pachyderm spa, or psychiatric facility.

My elephant day began in what they call “the barn,” a vast enclosure divided into pens where the elephants are housed for the night. It looked like the morning-after scene in The Hangover, the rubber floor of each pen strewn with pine chips, hay, straw, and a multitude of impressive elephant droppings. I was given boots, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. In a way the barn is a 12,000-square-foot version of a litter box. Adult elephants in captivity eat 150 to 200 pounds a day of mostly hay, supplemented with grains, produce, and leaves they scrounge from the trees. In a perfect demonstration of the law of conservation of mass, they excrete almost the same weight in dung.

After shoveling out a pen, the next step is the hose-down. It’s a Four Seasons standard of housekeeping: Each enclosure has to be washed so that not even a single piece of hay remains. I drove the debris to the large drains that dotted the corridor. Eventually they became obstructed, like a bathroom sink filled with hair. One of my hardest moments was plunging my hand into the drain to clear the feces-laden hay. Not wanting to appear ridiculously fastidious, I joined the other keepers in doing it barehanded. Then at the end of the day, pine-chip bedding is strewn across the floor, like an elephant turndown service. I helped prepare the elephants’ dinner, breaking up bales of hay as if they were oversize shredded-wheat biscuits.

I wish I could show photographs of the pristine pen my hours of labor produced, but Mike McClure, 40, the zoo’s general curator, forbade photography. Elephant enclosures are the dream shots of the animal rights movement, he explained. “I stand by our facilities. They are fantastic,” he says. But no matter how spacious or clean, in a single image, they look like jails for wild beasts.

At a zoo, it’s impossible not to think about the assertions of the activists. Baltimore is the home of The Wire, Johns Hopkins, and people who call you, “Hon.” Should elephants, polar bears, and warthogs be forced to live there? McClure says that most zookeepers don’t disagree that wild animals should be free. But, zookeepers point out, animals are in captivity—many are born into it. For many species there’s barely any wild left. “As long as they are here, we want them to be treated properly. It’s not perfect, but they are not suffering from drought, being shot for bush meat, running from fires,” McClure says. He says the keepers are constantly devising ways—through stimulating toys and social interaction—to enrich the animals’ mental and emotional lives.

Like all the keepers, McClure talks about the moments of connection that make all the mucking in the cold, wet, and heat worthwhile. McClure, who has no children, says the birth two years ago of the baby elephant, Samson, was one of the greatest moments of his life. He also recalls the time he was assigned to the chimpanzees. Everyone was baffled why one young female was persecuted by the rest of the troop. McClure spent months observing her interactions and came to realize there was something wrong with her hearing. A specialist was brought in who confirmed she could only hear a limited range of tones—a condition that’s often overlooked in children.

By the time I got to the rhinoceros enclosure, I was becoming a connoisseur of excrement. Robyn Johnson, 26, the manager of the zoo’s watering hole, escorted me to the rhino barn; the rhinos themselves were in the exhibit yard. Unlike elephants, rhinos have the decency to eliminate in one spot, making cleanup easier. Johnson’s roommate works as an elephant keeper, and I pick up the scent of rivalry between the two women when Johnson tells me that after her roommate has spent the day with the baby elephant, Samson, she smells much worse than Johnson herself does after spending the day with the young, male rhinoceros, Stubby. Johnson says there’s an unwritten code among keepers that for the sake of public decency they don’t stop for groceries or other errands on the way home. After shoveling and hosing rhino excrement, I have to say the top note of Stubby’s urine delivers a knockout punch unlike anything I smelled in the elephant barn.

Johnson says that while rhinos have fierce reputations for goring people in the wild, her charges, Stubby and Daisy, are sweethearts. She explained that because rhinos have poor eyesight, in the veld any human looks threatening. But up close at the zoo rhinos recognize their keepers and long for human companionship, loving to be stroked and brushed. She described how the rhinos close their eyes with joy when she gives them an exfoliating loofah bath. Johnson has me half-convinced that being a rhino keeper is like having a 5,000-pound Great Dane with armorlike skin.

Finally, I ended up at Rock Island, the zoo’s penguin rookery. If you are fixed on the image of valiant penguin parents standing on the Antarctic permafrost, buffeted by the gelid winds as they incubate their precious eggs, you’re not thinking of African black-footed penguins. This species wisely decided to go the Club Med route, and their home is the southwestern coast of Africa. The zoo’s colony is the largest in North America, and the zoo does research on avian malaria to aid the wild population.

Each penguin wears a little wing identification badge, but the keepers can tell them apart by their markings, walk, and personality. This recognition is mutual. If any of their band of all-female keepers changes her hairstyle, the birds object by scattering. Besides hating makeovers, they also dislike hats with brims, puffy winter coats, and men. (It’s not that they naturally discriminate against male humans, it’s just that they don’t know any.) Keeper Bethany Wlaz, 26, explains these flightless birds are so flighty because as prey animals they’ve evolved to be hypervigilant.

New keepers spend six months cleaning cages and doing other scut work to get the penguins used to their presence (and hairdos) before being allowed to feed them. Not that the keepers are ever liberated from guano. Wlaz says depending on whether she’s on a feeding rotation, 70 percent to 90 percent of her day is spent cleaning. Then when she gets off work on Saturday, she cleans herself up—she goes home stinking of herring juice and says since she’s worked with penguins she has been unable to eat fish—and goes to her second job as a waitress. I not so delicately ask if her parents feel all this is a good use of her college degree. “My parents are thrilled I’m doing work I love,” she says. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure my animals have the best possible care.”

This means a lot of scrubbing. The penguins’ nests are actually dog crates—I have one the same size at home for my beagle. Sasha has left plenty of messes in hers, but hers is amateur compared with the work of penguin pair Malomar and Murphy. Let’s just say this couple will never need to sign up for the Activia challenge. There are 16 nest boxes, and the keepers clean one per day. First I had to dump out the nesting material. Then I had to take a paint scraper to the guano stuck to the corners. Finally, I was given a green cleaning pad and a canister of powered bleach and told to rub until every single stain was gone. It’s odd I found the bird’s nest more foul than the rhino pen. But while there was something heroic about hauling wheelbarrows full of waste, it felt more Cinderella-like to scour each gluey penguin poo.

After 45 minutes , the crate looked sparkling to me, but Wlaz found stains I’d overlooked. I began to wonder if Malomar and Murphy were really that fastidious. Did the keepers not understand it’s called a stain because you can’t get it out? The words of another frustrated cleaner, Lady Macbeth, echoed: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

Wlaz and her fellow keepers finally took pity and released me. Before I left, I was allowed to peek at the members of the penguin colony who were floating in an oversize circa-19th-century tub in the oldest part of the zoo. They bobbed serenely, like a childhood fantasy of bath toys. Zookeepers don’t spend the day behind a desk, but in intimate contact with amazing creatures whose lives depend on their care. Gazing at these birds, I had a glimmering of what makes all the scrubbing worthwhile.

Click  here to view a slide show on being a zookeeper.

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