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Straight From the Keeper's Mouth

Art Maraldi Tells a Few Zoo Stories

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"I've been at the zoo for 6 years. Crazy things have happened. People are interesting. In the early part of my work at the zoo, we had experiences right outside the gate, and even on the grounds, where people--cultists--would sacrifice goats, roosters, chickens. These are not poor people doing this, because poor people would eat the animal. Then we had two mute swans in the zoo rookery, and they were pinioned, which means they couldn't fly at all. Now the male's very aggressive during breeding season, and a big male swan can break your legs with his wings. They're very dangerous; you have to be very careful. Yet someone climbed the fence, probably at night, and stole both birds. Stole them. Now what I find amazing, what I think is terrible, you have to have a market for something like that. And the only place you have a market is someone with a private lake that can accommodate swans. So we're talking about this individual who had an order for two swans. The guy who bought them is worse than the guy who took them.

"Last year, in September, the wolves already had their winter coats. They were full, but they had very little fur on their legs. That led me to believe that It was going to be a windy, cool kind of winter, very little snow. Because wolves in any storm situation tend to stay outside, they don't like to come into the den area. They will lay down, but in doing so they keep their legs under them. So since they're running animals, if there was going to be a lot of snow they'd have a lot of hair, fur, but they don't want to overheat. So it turned out last winter we had a lot of wind off the northeast, very little snow.

"The snow leopards will tell you how the winter's going to be, One year we got a leopard in from Buffalo, New York, for breeding, and he came into Lincoln Park in October or November. His coat was twice as thick as our snow leopards'. We had a mild winter; they had a hell of a winter in Buffalo that year. So he grew his coat predijucated on the fact that he was going to stay in Buffalo. He had no way of knowing he was going to be transferred. I mean, that poor guy was panting all the time.

"Look at the animals. If you see the squirrels burying peanuts in November, it's going to be a terrible winter. If they eat them, it's going to be mild. So this is how you can tell some of the things about animals, what's going on. You can observe them.

"You cannot always predict why an animal will do something. The record for an animal jumping in the Guinness book of animal records is a tiger jumping 18 feet to pull a man out of a tree. And tigers are notoriously bad jumpers compared to leopards and jaguars. So you don't know why the animal did it. Maybe the animal had a bad day, may be it had a bad toothache or some thing, you just don't know.

They tell you snakes don't by and large swallow their prey headfirst. There were four guys in Sri Lanka, and a thunderstorm ensued, they were out hunting. And they're probably about a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty pounds in weight, short-statured kind of adult men--and one man ran under a clump of trees, the other three ran under a group of bushes. After the storm abated, the three called the fourth, and he didn't answer. They went over to the trees, and they saw a 31-foot reticulated python with a bulge in him. Their friend's hat was there, and his sandals. They kill the snake, they open him up, and their friend had been swallowed feetfirst.

"They say snakes have to be coiled before they strike. That's not true. They can strike many times from any position. I've had cobras throw themselves right off the ground at me. You just can't predict. You don't know what the animal is going to do; that's only in the books. Anything can happen at any time.

"There was another situation which just amazed me. It was kind of sad. A young Doberman got loose. This Doberman came running into the zoo, the people were running after him, trying to capture him. He apparently didn't want to be captured--maybe he was going to be reprimanded, who knows, he's a young kid, you know. He came running in, he came to the wolf compound, the outdoor area. He apparently smelled wolves, and being a young animal, not understanding the ramifications of adulthood, he thought that was a safe area. He jumped in there. Took the wolves less than a minute and a half to dismember and eat the Doberman. So to a wolf, a dog is not the same thing. With any of these predatory animals, you have, to be careful.

"Animals have their idiosyncrasies. You have an animal who's incarcerated, you've got to help him if you can. You don't give him maid service, but on the other hand, you do what you can if you know he is a nice animal. Take the anaconda, Yolanda. You open her door, she could be hungry, but if you spray a hose on her, she'll move away. On the other hand, the reticulated python, you open his door, he may not be hungry, and he will try to grab you if he can. He'll strike at you if he has the opportunity. So he's not a nice animal. Yolanda's a nice animal. Her motives are strictly food, nothing to do with you. If you're doing something foolish--like you get too close--she might just react without knowing. But if you give her an opportunity, she'll know what's going on, she won't try to do anything. That's not to say you're going to go into the cage with her, but on the other hand, the reticulated, you know, from the time you open that door, if he has a chance, he's going to try to grab you. That's what I mean by nice or not nice.

"There was a story about Mike the raven. He would talk all the time. He'd say, 'Whad'ya say, Mike? Whad'ya say, Mike?' One July evening, it had been very hot, and all of a sudden a high-pressure system moved through Chicago; it got very cool, there was actually fog along the lake. And it dropped to the 60s. The zoo cop that had been here was ill, and they sent a policeman named Michael, his first name was Michael, and it was his first time at the zoo. Mike the raven was in a cage down by the old duck yard. We also had some peacocks in that yard, and it was the mating season, so the males would call, and that call in the middle of the night can scare the hell out of anybody. Well, the cop heard that--he was just walking around, he heard that noise, and he thought it was a woman being attacked. So he ran down toward the area of where he was hearing it, and he had his gun out and it was foggy, and meanwhile the cocks had seen him and stopped calling. And as he's walking, he goes past Mike the raven's cage, and Mike is right there, and Mike says to him, 'Whad'ya say, Mike?' And the guy nearly had a heart attack on the spot. Nearly blew away the raven. That actually happened, and it was funny as hell.

"There was a tragic episode with a German shepherd. A keeper on the bear line, outside, looked behind him and saw a shepherd charging him. So he jumped over the railing. When the dog charged him again, he slammed a gate, so the dog was locked between the guard railing and the bars. Mike the polar bear looked like he was asleep, but suddenly he came to the front of the cage and stood up with his paws on the inside of the bars. Now all these animals know to a 32nd of an inch how far they can reach beyond their barriers. I don't care if it's a python, a polar bear, or a tiger. They won't make a move until you're within range. The dog, spying the bear standing up, got real aggressive, growled with his canines bared, and went for the bear. The bear--imagine, you're talking a 1,200-pound bear--can't get much of his paw through there, but with just one deft motion slapped the dog's muzzle, knocked it right off, and it went about eight feet down the line. The dog went down in shock immediately. The bear then pulled the dog through the bars like you pull a fat bag of potato chips through a little slit, all at once, breaking his bones. Then he ate the dog; there wasn't enough left to block a drain. That was early in the morning. Then, at two-thirty I guess he ate a big pile of meat and about 12 big fish. But the tragic thing was this guy came looking for his dog at eight-thirty, nine o'clock. He seemed to get a kick out of his dog out biting the hell out of someone. Well, his dog had never met a polar bear.

"We had another male polar bear, it wasn't as big as Mike, its name was Alfie. Alfie was very adept, and he loved squirrels. People used to throw popcorn and peanuts and crap like that, not realizing polar bears will go after sweet things but really they're basically meat eaters. He would lie down in the middle of the cage with his arms stretched out, and he had his one red eye open. And in the middle of where his paws were stretched around, there'd be peanuts and things. The squirrels would come in, and they'd try to go for the peanuts. As they kept coming closer and closer, each time he'd let them get closer and closer, and then all of a sudden he'd take his paw and go gwiisssh. And then he'd pick up the hairy pancake and eat it. He was really good at it.

"Keo the chimp had some idiosyncrasies, too. One time he caught a pigeon in his cage. He meticulously plucked all the feathers out, then he was running it around like a little windup toy in the cage. While it was alive. He didn't want to kill it. He wanted a little toy.

"A monitor is a carnivorous lizard, the biggest being the Komodo dragon, from the island of Komodo off Sumatra. They can be ten feet long, weigh 300 pounds. They use their tail like a whip; they're very adept at using it, and if you got hit in the face, you'd have a welt for a couple of weeks. They would take the tongs right out of your hand with it. And they also have a dirty bite; that's how Komodo dragons kill their animals. If they bite a deer, grab a deer by the leg at dawn, invariably the deer gets away with lacerations on the leg, but by dusk it dies of blood poisoning. The condition clears up once you get a Komodo dragon in captivity, because he's fed clean meat--they eat a lot of carrion in the wild. I've read in journals that researchers who've studied the Komodos are deathly afraid of being scratched, that's how pathogenic they are.

"At any rate, we had this monitor in the back tank, one of those concrete back tanks, and he would always try to get you--very aggressive animal, very defensive. So one day I'm working the cage, and sure enough, he whipped his tail. And I jumped back, recoiled, but not fast enough, and he knocked my glasses off my face and they fell, bounced off the cage onto the floor and broke. So I sent in an incident report and a request for compensation for frames. And the word came back, the Park District doesn't pay for frames. I said, 'It happened on the job, and it was an animal.' So this guy proceeded to tell me that for a dollar and a half I could get this kind of cord I could put on my glasses that'd keep my glasses from falling off. I said, 'Yeah, but if you're working with an orangutan and he grabs your glasses and they don't come off, he's going to take your head with it.' He said, 'Oh, I didn't think of that.'"

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