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."

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."

Pressman stresses that volunteers are vital to the education process. "I'm really surprised that Metrozoo's docents don't have walkie-talkies," she says. "They need to be in the communications loop." (Agnes Spurlock says she is studying the issue of walkie-talkies but that the cost A more than $1000 per radio A might prove prohibitive. Both the zoo administration and the zoological society would have to approve any new expenditure, the volunteer service director adds.)

As for rock-throwing, Bill Boever, director of zoological operations at the St. Louis Zoo, says his facility has used the most basic method to prevent it: "We just make sure that there are no rocks or pebbles around to throw."

Robert Yokel says workmen are in the process of removing pebbles and other stones from the grounds of Metrozoo, but that the job, like many others, takes time. "You just can't go through the trauma of something like Andrew and expect to recover overnight," explains the director.

The volunteers say they and the animals have waited long enough. "I've had to physically grab someone's arm to keep them from throwing a rock," says one of the women. "It goes on all the time. If it doesn't stop soon, there's bound to be another death or injury. And if I have anything to do with it, it won't be an animal that's injured."

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