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

The crocs' tough hides have so far protected them from injury, or worse. Other zoo animals haven't been so lucky. One year ago, a keeper making his early-morning rounds found a dead dwarf caiman, its head pinned beneath a large rock. A report by the zoo's veterinarian attributed the death to "malicious destruction" A i.e., someone dropped the rock on the caiman's head. No one knows for sure who did it, or why, or precisely when.

There is less doubt over who was responsible for the death four months earlier of a pregnant gemsbok. On Friday, December 18, 1992, the day of the zoo's grand reopening, several large groups of school children rushed through the gates, many of them rowdy and poorly supervised by teachers. One group ran full-speed toward the area where several gemsboks were grazing.

The gemsbok paddock, like others at the zoo, is a kidney-shape patch of ground separated from the visitors' walkway by a twenty-foot-wide moat, a fifteen-foot swath of grass, and a slender hedge backed by a chainlink fence low enough for a rambunctious youngster to step over. On that December morning one of the gemsboks was "spooked by children climbing over hedges and throwing rocks," according to a subsequent necropsy report filed by the zoo's veterinarian, Christine Miller. The panicked animal, two months pregnant, bolted to the back of the paddock toward the protection of its holding pen, ran headlong into the pen's fence, and died within minutes.

Walter Dupree, the keeper in charge of the Africa section, says he was standing nearby when the animal died and maintains that no children threw rocks. "They were just running along the fence and screaming," he remembers. "It was not malicious."

Miller says she can't recall who reported the rock-throwing. "If it was in my report, it probably means that one of the keepers mentioned it," she guesses.

The two docents say the issue of rock-throwing is less important than the fact that the children were not disciplined for harassing an animal to death. "They weren't even kicked out, and the zoo never publicized the incident," says one of the volunteers. Unsupervised children on field trips, she adds, are common, but they are not the only problem. "Just the other day I saw this kid pick up a pebble and throw it at an animal," the woman says. "I approached him and said, 'That wasn't really necessary.' And this very macho male A I guess it was his father A tells me to shut my face. He kept repeating, 'Shut your face.' That's the kind of garbage we have to take."

The moral of the story, she remarks, is that docents need walkie-talkies so they can contact security officers when necessary. Her fellow docent adds that she would like to see more signs explaining to the public why they should not disturb the animals. And most crucial, they both agree, is the need for more volunteers, particularly Spanish-speakers. (Agnes Spurlock says between ten and fifteen of active volunteers speak Spanish.) They agree that many people who throw objects simply don't know any better A what they need more than anything is someone to educate them. In order to qualify as a docent, volunteers must complete a 40-hour course, pass a written and an oral exam, and work at least six hours per month. Docents must buy their own uniforms A khaki shorts and white polo shirts A and pay fifteen dollars per year in dues.

Yokel and Spurlock concede that more docents are needed and they lament the fact that recruitment efforts have been on hold since the hurricane. An employee of the county who earns an annual salary of $83,000, Yokel calls it a question of priorities. He mentions the zoo's high rate of animal survival, about 97 percent. "We're concerned whenever an animal dies, but here animals are not harassed often enough to make it a major problem," he says, pointing out that all zoos face the occasional animal-abuser. His operating budget of $6.8 million, Yokel claims, is too small for any significant part of it to be diverted to stopping such aberrations; it can be better used in ways that benefit animals more in the long run, such as providing better holding pens. The zoo is planning to add more signs, Yokel adds, with part of a grant of $500,000 received from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in late 1992. The study of how best to use the grant money is still not complete, according to the director.

The trend to remove animals from quarters enclosed by bars and glass and place them in more open environments began 25 years ago. Now most of North America's 150 accredited zoos are so-called open concept facilities. But zoo experts say the new access to animals must be combined with a greater commitment to protect them.

"These facilities are much more labor-intensive," asserts Sue Pressman, a Washington-based private zoo consultant. "Before, you had a tiger in a cage. Now you have two or three tigers in an open area and on a particular day they may not be getting along. You've got to know how to handle such problems. And there is a greater burden of educating not only docents and zoo staff, but also the public. It's bad for an animal to be behind glass or bars, but it's much easier for people to abuse them once they're out in the open."

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