Animal Thwackers

Some Metrozoo volunteers say that visitors are pelting the residents with rocks and other objects -- and that the zoo's administration doesn't seem to care

When Hurricane Andrew battered Metrozoo with some of the highest sustained winds registered in all of South Florida, the devastation was extensive and highly publicized. The storm wrought $15 million in structural damage, including the destruction of the perimeter fencing. Five mammals died, countless birds were lost. For several months after Andrew, zoo animals were left unprotected, open to attacks by stray dogs and other intruders. Several were killed. Today the bulk of structural repairs has been made. Fencing has been replaced, 7000 new trees have been planted, and while workers have not yet finished fixing several of the damaged buildings, the zoo has returned, if not to full health, at least to a semblance of it.

Metrozoo's 926 animals, however, remain vulnerable. After the hurricane, the number of registered volunteers who donate their time to the zoo plummeted from more than 200 to about half that number. Many left because their spare time was consumed repairing damage to their homes. Others moved away after the loss of paying jobs. "Many just couldn't maintain the deep level of commitment both in time and money that it takes," says Agnes Spurlock, who directs the volunteer program for the Zoological Society of South Florida. "Those who remain are very dedicated."

Several of those who remain are also very frustrated. They accuse the zoo's administration of not taking their labor seriously, of not working hard enough to augment their numbers, and of failing to respond to their growing concerns about the safety of the animals they care so much about.

Chief among the irate volunteers' concerns is that there aren't enough of them to properly monitor the interactions between the zoo's visitors and its permanent residents. While the number of volunteers has inched back up to 140 since the summer of 1992, Agnes Spurlock says only about 75 are active in the program. Volunteers themselves say an even smaller number A about 40 A spend a significant amount of time at the zoo. (Working at least six hours per month, the trained volunteers, called "docents," perform different duties, including assisting keepers as they check on animals and clean out cages. Perhaps their most important function is to provide information to visitors and to make sure the rules of the zoo A "do not feed the animals," for instance A are observed.) Although Metrozoo's 2.3 miles of walkways are patrolled by thirteen security officers and the animals are checked at least six times a day by a staff of more than 40 keepers, park employees acknowledge that the docents are vital to keeping watch over the animals. "They are our eyes and ears," says Walter Dupree, the senior keeper of the Africa section. "We really need and value their help."

Volunteers say that recent problems with the public have involved far more than the occasional tidbit tossed to an animal. They say visitors have actually been beaning creatures with coins, twigs, cigarette butts, and even rocks picked up from the landscaping that surrounds the zoo's newly planted trees. According to two volunteers, caimans, crocodiles, chimpanzees, gorillas, and a pygmy hippopotamus have all been hit repeatedly by people attempting to get the unfortunate beasts' attention. Even worse, zoo records confirm that a dwarf caiman (a reptile related to the alligator) and a gemsbok (a type of African antelope) have died since the zoo's posthurricane reopening. Both deaths almost certainly resulted from zoogoers' actions; neither was reported to the media. (In two incidents early last year, both of which went unpublicized, zoo staffers were unable to determine what caused two zebras to bolt into the moat surrounding their paddock. Both zebras died from their injuries; one was pregnant and imminently due to give birth.)

The two docents who spoke at length to New Times did not want to be quoted by name. They explained that openly criticizing the zoo might jeopardize their positions; a handbook supplied to volunteers instructs them to "refrain from giving information regarding zoo animals' births and deaths" to the press.

The docents say their ability to work effectively at the zoo has deteriorated in recent months, as crowds began returning to the zoo at a much faster rate than their volunteer guardians. At present more than 18,000 people visit the zoo each week, a number that zoo director Robert Yokel says is 20 percent above posthurricane projections and very near the zoo's pre-Andrew attendance levels.

"We just can't maintain proper control," says one volunteer. "The animals are at risk. And because of that, everybody's morale is at an all-time low." Although she and others have complained repeatedly to keepers and to Agnes Spurlock, they have received no support, says the volunteer, not even a response. Both Spurlock and Yokel contest that assertion, saying that although their doors are always open to the docents, they have received no formal complaints about the animals' vulnerability.

The evidence of such danger, insist the volunteers, is there for all to see. At a wood fence overlooking a pool, one of the women motions toward two four-foot crocodiles, one floating motionless in the water, the other sitting on the bank. A wooden plaque informs onlookers that these are Siamese crocodiles, extinct in the wild, and proudly proclaims that their first captive hatching in the Western Hemisphere occurred at Metrozoo in 1978. These days, according to the volunteer, the crocodiles are often used for target practice. She points out several pebbles and coins visible at the bottom of the pool. "These animals don't move," she laments. "And here that gets them into trouble. People ask us if they're fake. But they don't take our word for it. They want to see for themselves."

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