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Spotlight: Behind the scenes: Zoos and Museums

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Christina Stock Photo There are many "animals" lurking around the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, from hippopotamus diving up out of stone, to sharks, birds and snakes. Ray Pawley's talk, "Behind the Scenes: A Zoo Man's Stories," will fit right in.

a preview for Ray Pawley’s talk at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art

By Ray Pawley

Special to the Daily Record

Museum and zoo operations are among the most transparent of our favorite cultural facilities since its exhibits are fully accessible to all, including the gift shops. But is that the end of the story? Not quite.

There are unexpected incidents that sometimes happen “behind the scenes” during the daily operations of these institutions. Some events are funny, some are sad, while others may contribute to epiphanies for improvements in the field. However, they all contribute to each zoo’s and museum’s unique history, sometimes taking on the status of legend.

Most, if not all unexpected events — positive or negative — can be traced to human error. The following example actually happened.

A group of gorillas was enjoying life in a newly constructed, state-of-the-art outdoor enclosure during a warm sunny day when visitors unexpectedly saw a gorilla stroll across a sidewalk. Immediately, a distress call was sent to all zoo staff and surrounding community security departments. Steps were promptly taken that would see her safely returned to the Gorilla enclosure.

Thanks to a keen-eyed veterinarian with a tranquilizer gun, the problem was resolved in less than two hours. The real work then began. How did this Gorilla escape? Even before the animal was returned to its enclosure, an internal inquiry was being launched to determine how the gorilla had climbed over the wall. As expected, no clues were immediately obvious, leaving a very serious question unanswered. Will the animal try this again? Very likely.

The next step was to allow the gorillas back into the yard — particularly the escapee — but this time a staff member had to maintain a close watch on the animals for the duration of their yard time. After several days of observation, one of the smarter young adult gorillas was seen persuading her sibling to stand in a corner of the yard. She then climbed quickly onto her partner’s shoulders enabling her to reach the wall-top where she could climb out. Aha — the secret was out.

The keeper yelled and the offending animal, fortunately, aborted her mission. Hastily, the gorillas were all coaxed out of the yard and into their indoor quarters. The wall was promptly heightened to eliminate the route of escape. The fault? Human error. Because this example of animal behavior had never been experienced in any other zoo, architects had no way of knowing that such an escape possibility could exist. Ingenuity, whether taking place with a gorilla or any other animal, must never be underestimated. That said, paranoia then set in and the zoo staff would forever be reminding themselves that another escape, unlike anything a human could imagine, could take place, planned and executed by another clever gorilla.

Other kinds of unexpected events, even those that are entirely benign, can interfere with animal management tasks. For example, oceanariums are equipped with windows that enable visitors to see dolphins as they glide effortlessly through the water. However, to keep the glass clean, keepers equipped with scuba gear must dive several feet below the surface to clean algae off of the windows, a never-ending task. Dolphins, for their part, regard any newcomer to the window-cleaning crew as a drowning victim and will attempt to “save” his or her life by thrusting their snout under the diver and shove them to the surface. This interruption will be repeated several times until the dolphins are satisfied that the person is not in danger of drowning, although it is a nuisance that must be co-operated with until the dolphin-inspired life-saving drills cease.

On yet another level, friends of mine at the Rare Species Breeding Farm of the Moscovsky Zoopark in Moscow, Soviet Union (today Russia), recounted a rather sobering escape of an Amur — sometimes called Siberian — tiger. The Breeding Farm is located in a wooded rural area 35 miles outside of Moscow where endangered species can be bred beyond the noise and hectic life of the city.

During a routine cleaning of enclosures, a telephone rang from a nearby office, which the servicing keeper ran to answer. A few minutes later, returning to his task, he shifted the young 300-pound Amur tiger back to its recently cleaned quarters. Moving on to the next enclosure, the keeper then glanced back only to see that the enclosure door was partly open. The tiger was gone. Obviously, due to the interruption by the phone, the keeper had forgotten to secure the door’s padlocks. Since the breeding farm was in a forested area, a large tiger could quickly vanish and, in fact, pose a threat to anyone in the area. Fortunately, this was a hand-reared tiger that was not yet an adult, which offered the slim hope that the tiger might not consider humans prey to be hunted or feared.

Additionally, the keepers were well aware that some years before, the surrounding communities had loudly protested plans to construct a breeding farm in their locality, fearful that some dangerous animal might escape. It was only with the most stringent of assurances and lengthy negotiations that the residents of the region gave grudging approval for the construction of the breeding farm. If the tiger was seen in the area, vociferous objections by the community could close down the entire operation.

A frantic search by 30 desperate staffers immediately ensued. No one was sure of what direction the tiger had taken. The search was conducted surreptitiously by the staffers staying within the margins of the forest so as to not be seen by any local residents. Hours went by — the summer days are long since their location is as far north as the Alaskan panhandle. The good news: At dusk, a keeper spotted the tiger just inside the forest edge and word was whispered to the others by handheld radio.

The veterinarian appeared with his tranquilizer gun as the rest of the staffers gathered. Giddy with delight, they stayed concealed in the woods as they planned their next move. The bad news: Darkness was closing in and no flashlights could be used since the townspeople would become curious and investigate. More bad news followed: The tiger was in a crouch with its gaze intently fixed on a tethered dog in someone’s back yard that was noisily barking in the direction of the tiger. Fortunately, none of the residents were paying any attention to the dog. Then the tiger’s tail began to twitch — a sign that the cat was apt to pounce into the open, seize the dog and whisk it back into the woods for a meal.

Time was critical and everyone knew it. The veterinarian crept within a few yards of the cat and loaded the tranquilizer dart. Although the light was almost gone, he was a particularly good marksman. The dart hit the rump of the tiger who jerked, but then resumed concentrating on the dog. Everyone held their breath knowing — more bad news — that they had to wait at least five to eight long minutes until the drug would render the cat unconscious. Once anesthetized, several staffers would grab the huge cat, then half drag, half carry the animal — feeling their way through the darkness — to a service road where an idling truck and a shift cage was waiting.

With breaths held as one, the anxious keepers stared, watching the big cat. Thankfully, before initiating an attack on the dog, the tiger slowly slumped down onto its belly, still watching its prey. Although not completely “out,” the staffers had to act — and act now. Instantly and without regard for life or limb, they dashed forward, keeping low in the dim darkness. Everyone grabbed hold of a handful of thick fur of the huge cat, anywhere grip could be found, knowing full well the risk they were taking. They desperately hoped that the semi-conscious tiger might not realize it was being cat-napped.

As the big animal was being hauled through the brush, an ominous rumbling began, deep within the tiger which speeded their progress. Who knew if or when the groggy animal might flail in an uncoordinated attack? Many minutes later and with a great sense of relief, the exhausted group reached the truck. They immediately stuffed the huge cat, still rumbling, into its shift cage where it promptly fell into a deep slumber. As the truck sped back to the breeding farm, everyone sank down, amazed that they had narrowly escaped serious injury or worse. Someone breathlessly murmured: “I thought we would die.”

It was then that the man who had been carrying the head of the tiger informed everyone that the deep rumbling sounds they had heard emanating from the big cat were not growls or snarls, but 120 kilos (264.5 pounds) of tiger chuff-purring. Because he had been the principal person in the animal’s life when it was a youngster, he explained that the nearly adult tiger may have been dreaming of those days when, as a cub, he was once again being carried about by his keepers. In any case, the huge cat was enjoying the predicament immensely, which would account for the chuff-purring. When the message sank in, the group broke into hysterical laughter, many with tears of relief in their eyes.

From that day on, ringers on all telephones at the Moscovsky Zoopark Breeding Farm were disconnected. There would be no more interruptions by a ringing telephone.

To summarize, the tiger was now back in its familiar home. The existence of the breeding farm was no longer at risk. Dogs in the surrounding area were once again safe. The staff and administration were enormously relieved and the area residents had no idea what had taken place. Above all, the secret would remain a secret.

So what behind-the-scenes zoo and museum stories are still out there? Will we ever know them all?

Ray Pawley will be giving a talk on this topic at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, 409 E. College Blvd., Feb. 29, at 5 p.m. The event will include animal-themed refreshments, a display about the carousel at Spring River Zoo, and include information on live snakes, as well. For more information about the event, visit rair.org or call 575-623-5600. According to Pawley, the lecture at AMoCa will not duplicate any of the information provided in this column.