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On the Hot Run

Art Maraldi works with the Lincoln park Zoo's poisonous snakes. Very carefully

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Art Maraldi likes to talk:

"Yeah, we've had people attack animals. We had some Galapagos tortoises in a big, fenced-in area. People would climb the fence at night, probably kids with pipes and bricks. They'd smash the shells . . .

"I remember a woman who was working here as a temporary years ago. There was a small baboon and she'd carry it on her shoulder. It was kind of tame. Well, the baboon was a male and he'd have an erection and he'd stick his erection in her ear. When the director saw it one day, he screamed, 'Get that animal out of here' . . .

"A few months ago, this guy gained entry into the dairy barn, but the police responded to the silent alarm and they caught the guy. He had stacked up bales of hay and was in the process of screwing this cow. He was upset because the cow had defecated on him . . .

"Gorillas are majestic. It's an aura. There's something about them. In the wild, they don't kill animals, they don't eat meat. Whereas chimps are much like humans; they'll kill a monkey and have a party eating it . . .

"Elephants are intelligent. Any animal that can live in excess of 50 years has a lot going for it . . .

"A human you've known for 15 years, you can't predict what he'll do. How can you predict what a wild animal will do? ...

"Some palsied kids with helmets on, in wheelchairs, came to the zoo and their doctor asked if we had any animals the kids could touch. I took Henry, a chimp. We went to one of the kids, who was all excited. Henry went to the kid, hugged the kid, and kissed him on the side of his face. Then he went to the next kid. I cried. He went to every kid and hugged them and kissed them. I still have tears in my eyes when I think about it . . ."

Art Maraldi is one of the amiable eccentrics of the Lincoln Park Zoo. He collects zoo lore, firsthand and secondhand, and polishes it and passes it on. He can be bluntly realistic, then digress into matters of cosmic destiny, flights of mysticism, considerations of auras and such. Animal behavior always commands his attention, followed closely by the employment histories and sexual inclinations of zoo staff.

He began his career at the zoo in 1972, when he was 36. He had tried other jobs, various administrative drills and exercises in paper shuffling that he couldn't tolerate. He had a bachelor's degree in biology from Northeastern Illinois University and decided to put it--and his curiosity about animals--to work at the zoo.

He is a short 140-pound packet of energy. He keeps busy. At home, where he lives with his wife, a public-school administrator, and his teenage daughter, he collects hobbies: mounting butterflies and moths, building framed insect environments, listening to music (from the Carpenters to Bach), gourmet cooking, and working with Indian beads. At the zoo, he spent ten years doubling as a docent; while working full-time as a keeper, he volunteered his free time to teach visitors about the animals.

Unlike some keepers, he believes he has an obligation to learn. He reads books and journals on zoology and animal behavior. Sometimes he'll proudly match his knowledge with that of a curator. But he has come to grips with the role of keeper, its rewards and its frustrations. He's never thought of changing jobs. In his 16 years at the zoo, he's worked in nearly every section. Now his domain is the old, decaying reptile house.

One day I joined him on the "hot run," an area behind the main-floor exhibits where the poisonous snakes are housed. As he unlocked the gate leading to the hot run, he noticed something.

"Someone left-handed locked the padlock," he mused. It turned out not to be significant, but you never know. On hot-run duty, one has to pay close attention.

After checking the run, walking slowly from cage to cage, looking for anything that might seem suspicious, Maraldi walked down to the basement of the reptile house to change into his keeper's uniform. There he greeted Caryn, another keeper, who was busy feeding a batch of doomed chicks; they would become meals for the reptiles.

Caryn told him that Joel Pond, the lab technician at the zoo hospital, wanted a stool sample from a snake that had recently been donated to the zoo. Maraldi phoned him.

"Another stool sample on that snake? The eastern indigo? You've had two already. Well, he just defecated in his water bowl. You want that stool sample? Yes. OK."

"He's looking for parasites," Maraldi explained.

He walked up the stairs to the main hall, where visitors would gather later in the day. He blocked the view of the Gila monster cage with a large wooden board; he would be feeding the Gilas later and he didn't want the visitors to see it.

He stopped to peer at the African rock python.

"He doesn't like rats or chickens," Maraldi said. "I better find him a rabbit." Other snakes will eat minnows, mice, even dead snakes; a king cobra will eat any kind of snake. The python preferred rabbits.

Maraldi went downstairs again and found a frozen rabbit in a food locker. He brought it up to the hot run, where it would defrost by the end of the day.

His first order of business was to clean the abode of a puff adder, a potentially dangerous snake whose cage was marked HOT in red letters. The adder had defecated; the newspaper that lined its heavy fiberglass case was dirty and had to be replaced. Maraldi unlocked the two padlocks that held a clear acrylic panel on the front of the case, and then carefully slid the panel open, exposing the snake to the outside world.

The adder's tongue flicked out rapidly, but it did not resist. The keeper used a long pole with a metal hook on the end to lift the adder out of its case and into a larger metal container. The adder hissed. It was three feet long, in shades of gray with a flat head, expressionless.

"He's upset. He's very upset," Maraldi said. "He doesn't like being moved. I wouldn't either, if someone came in and moved me out of my house."

He put on a pair of rubber gloves and cleaned the adder's case.

"They don't shit often," he explained. "Once every few months. They process a lot; they make maximum use of everything they eat. Eat a little and get the most out of it."

He put the case on the floor and hosed it, then wiped it with an antiseptic.

"The big snakes can come off the hook. Using it on some of them is asking for trouble," he said. "But if I use the tongs instead, I have to grab them around the neck and I could strangle them. No thanks. With the big snakes, you need two people at least, because you never know what the son of a bitch is going to do."

He put clean newspaper on the floor of the adder's case, slid the acrylic panel into its slot, and moved it across, leaving a small opening. He hooked the adder in its metal container and lifted it cautiously into its clean case.

"He doesn't want to be out here. Now he's in his home. Some snakes are curious when you move them and they want to get out. When they do, they're actually frightened by me. That's why they may strike out. Snakes will bite the hand that feeds them.

"In general, however, the animal just wants to take things easy, that's all. And I'm the one who has to disturb it. Which means I've got to be up, constantly aware. By the end of the day, I'm the one who's pooped."

The Asiatic cobra, a sleek and lethargic snake, was next on Maraldi's list. There were several of them in a cage that he had to clean.

"They're slow compared to rattlers," he said. "But they strike all the time. They fling themselves at you. They'll come up high and sway and get you with a face shot. Snakes don't have to be coiled before they strike. That's bullshit."

The cobras, when they became aware of the keeper's invasion, began to hiss and make a growling sound. Maraldi disregarded their objections and hosed the cage, being careful not to intimidate them with the stream of water.

"They see me as a threat. But they're not sophisticated. Not like a gorilla, which recognizes the keeper. These snakes don't know who I am."

Next he had to clean an old concrete tank with a hinged wire-mesh top. Inside it, three western diamondback rattlesnakes were resting. When he opened the top of the tank, we heard a chorus of rattles.

Maraldi chanted to himself: "Be careful, always. Expect the unexpected."

He hosed the tank with the snakes in it, watching them all the while. But a drain in the tank seemed to be clogged. He attacked it with a plunger, continuing to keep one eye on the snakes. They rattled loudly. He told them to shut up. They didn't. In order to work on that drain, he concluded, he had to remove the snakes from the tank. Deftly, he lifted the snakes one at a time with the long hooked pole, moving them to a large wheeled plastic container. When he had the last one in the container, he closed its lid and put a cinder block on top of it.

"I have no time to fuck around with you guys," he said.

"You know, sometimes I wish I had an easy day. It never happens with reptiles. Something always comes up."

He spoke to the drain: "Come on, you son of a bitch, flush out. It's these minor jobs that take forever. Just a normal day on the hot run. What did you do at the zoo today, Daddy?"

The drain still wasn't working. Maraldi had to trace the line through adjoining tanks; these were devoid of snakes, but they did hold odds and ends that other keepers had stored in them. Maraldi tossed that stuff on the floor and went to work again with his plunger.

In time, he found the point at which the drain system was clogged and cleared it.

"Well, at least the rattlers hadn't eaten. If I used a hook then, they'd puke. So would I, if somebody picked me up with a hook after I ate."

He was ready to put the rattlers back into their tank.

"Here we go, kids. It's Uncle Artie. OK, boys, who wants to be first?"

He hooked one snake and it slithered off the hook, back into the plastic bucket.

"Better than if it fell on the floor," he said to himself.

"Now you're going to be really pissed," he said to the snake, after he had hooked it. "Who's next?"

He hooked a second snake. The third one began to crawl out of the container.

"Don't act stupid," Maraldi shouted at the snake. He hooked it, and soon all three were back where they'd begun the morning.

The keeper was sweating.

"There's a certain tension in moving a snake you know can kill you," he said. "There is that tension all the time around here. But you can't panic. A rattler on a hook can strike, so you can't let it get out of control. I'm sweating. You sweat when you handle the hot stuff. One thing for sure, it's not like working with a bunch of pissy birds. When I get a little weary, I go out for a walk, a little break. You don't want to get tired and get careless."

He walked over to the case holding the newly acquired eastern indigo snake. It was lively, wriggling swiftly around its case, its head poking against the mesh on the top. The eastern indigo is not a poisonous snake; Maraldi, relaxing a bit, slid open the acrylic panel and reached in. He held the snake by its neck while he removed its water bowl, with the feces in it.

"A nice snake," he said. "That's why they're endangered."

He put the feces in a lab-specimen container and gave the snake a bowl of fresh water.

"You never quite get used to it all," he said. "You can't, because when you think you know what can happen, something you didn't expect happens. You can watch a gorilla's eyes and know what it's going to do. Or make a good guess. A snake won't tell you anything with its eyes. There is no real warning with them. So you try to think of what might happen. Think the worst and be up for it, all the time."

His nerves were a bit frayed, despite his familiarity with the work he had done. It was time for a break.

He had a couple of packages he wanted to deliver. He had made a mock military medal for one of the secretaries in the main zoo office (sewing is another of his hobbies). He had bought a baby gift for a park food vendor, a new father and an old friend. He strolled outdoors, through the coils of visitors clogging the zoo, to deliver the presents. He stopped at the zoo library to collect some science magazines for his daughter's class at school. He dropped off the stool sample at the hospital lab. He scrounged a few grapes at the commissary. And he exchanged flirtatious banter with an attractive docent.

Then it was back to the reptile house--time to feed the Gila monsters.

Gila monsters eat mice. Maraldi tracked down several large, flat cartons marked LIVE ANIMALS FOR RESEARCH. The cartons contained live white mice; other cartons contained rats. All were alive with the sounds of scratching.

The keeper opened a carton and methodically plucked out mice one at a time, using metal tongs. Removing a mouse from the carton, he held it at shoulder height, then threw it to the floor. Those that did not die instantly died within seconds. When he had enough mice for eight Gila monsters, he bagged them and headed for the rear of the Gilas' cage.

He opened the cage and jumped in. It was hot in there; an overhead sunlamp warmed the sand and the cactus in the cage. The Gila monsters--pink-and-black or yellow-and-black poisonous lizards--did not move to greet the keeper or to escape from him.

He had to feed them by hand; he reached into his bag with the tongs, extracted a mouse, and tried to force it into a Gila monster's mouth. Several of the Gilas were not eager to eat; Maraldi held them at the neck with one hand and pushed mice into them with the tongs he held in the other.

He wanted them to eat on their own, but he had to be sure that each Gila had its fill--two or three mice apiece--and he couldn't be sure of that if he simply tossed the dead mice into the cage. So he proceeded from lizard to lizard, pushing mice into their mouths. Several of them, creeping through the sand, had long tails protruding from their mouths.

"You've got to wait until the tail goes down before you offer another mouse," he said. "They're not too bright."

Time passed, and Maraldi began to sweat profusely; his glasses were slipping down his nose and he had to push them back up repeatedly.

"At least they won't come after me," he said. "I'm too big."

The Gilas moved sluggishly at best. Eventually Maraldi concluded that they had eaten what they wanted to eat; further prodding would be futile. All of the Gilas seemed sleepy. "At night, they move like greased lightning, believe it or not. They're nocturnal."

Later, he told me, he would feed rats to some snakes.

"You don't feed a snake the way you feed a Gila," he said. "Shit, it'll kill you. I just throw the rats to the snakes. Rats, mice, birds, lizards--snakes will eat any of them. We feed them chicks because chicks can't fly. We used to feed them sparrows, but they did fly and it got out of hand."

Maraldi was sweating and tired, and his day was barely half over. It was time for lunch. He likes to cook, and occasionally he brings food he has cooked at home to be heated in the convection oven he keeps in the hot run. On this day, however, he was too exhausted for that. He left the reptile house, walked over to one of the vending stands, and bought a package of M&Ms. He sat on one of the benches in front of the reptile house and ate the M&Ms slowly, one at a time.

Recognizing his uniform, visitors approached the bench with questions. Maraldi answered them with courtesy and kindness. He was particularly attentive to small children.

He watched several of them race in front of the reptile house and smiled.

"Zoos are for children," he said. "If you don't love kids, you shouldn't work in the zoo."

Finishing his lunch, he got up and went off to feed the rats to the snakes.

From Zoo by Don Gold. Copyright 1988 by Don Gold. Reprinted by permission of Contemporary Books.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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