Friday, June 25, 2010

Zoo days

Those of you who have only known me as an adult may not know of my "previous life". It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me that I was always an animal lover; I started out as the typical horse crazy little girl who also loved dogs, but early on broadened my horizons to encompass the entire animal kingdom. My birthday always meant either a trip to the zoo or to the Kentucky Horse Park. When I was still in grade school I talked my parents into a zoo membership so I could take some of their classes (for those who have not taken advantage of it, the Cincinnati Zoo has a long history of GREAT educational opportunities. The best part is the education is disguised as fun!). Eventually I learned of their Children's Zoo volunteer program. I believe at the time you were supposed be be 15 to volunteer; however somehow, by luck, omission, or a downright lie I got accepted to the volunteer program when I was 12 years old. That was the beginning of half a decade of intensive involvement (dare I say obsession) with the zoo, eventually culminating in getting hired on as an "official" Children's Zoo employee until I had to leave for college. The picture above is with "Zot", a long time CZ resident and a very affable giant anteater. And let's just say from the beginning, NO comments from the peanut gallery about my hairstyle or as always impeccable sense of fashion!

Here's a picture with me and my beloved "DJ", an arctic fox who was a resident of the CZ (children's zoo). DJ definitely had "his" people, but when you were one of his inner circle he would greet you with a big toothy grin, eyes squinted in delight, bushy tail swishing, and an earsplitting yodel of joy. He was such a beautiful boy, one of my favorites to work with for the entire five years I worked at the CZ. Sadly, when they shut down the old CZ to build the new, fancy Children's Zoo he was sent to a zoo in Rochester New York and I lost track of him without getting to say goodbye (lesson learned; don't give your heart to an animal that you do not own).

Initially my responsibilities as a volunteer including staffing both petting pens (walk in with deer, goats, and other barnyard type animals, and sit-down, with small exotics and native wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, guinea pigs, ferrets, etc). In those days where threats of a lawsuit or OSHA were distant unlikelihoods, there were LOTS of hands on opportunities for the general public, and we didn't think much of taking a bunch of teenagers and putting them in charge of a zoo full of wild animals without so much as a signed permission slip. I am SO glad I grew up in that world rather than today, though sometimes I look back and shake my head at some of the risks we took without even blinking an eye. The CZ volunteers provided much of the hands on animal contact and one-on-one interaction with the public. It was a lot of fun, and for someone who was painfully shy it was an excellent experience in teaching me how to talk to strangers.

The luckiest (read, hardest working and most gullible!) of the volunteers were invited to stay on and work weekends over the winter. Winter was great fun, as the number of visitors dropped dramatically and there was much more time for one on one interaction with the animals, and usually opportunity to work with some more interesting and exotic animals than we were allowed to as part of the general volunteer population in the summer.

Eventually I was hired and worked full time during the summers as well as on Saturdays in the winter. Not only were the animals lots of fun, but I also made an interesting and eclectic set of friends. Some of you may recognize the girl may know her now as Dr. Kathy Wright (Huff), our veterinary cardiologist at the CARE center. Kathy and I worked together for a number of years at the zoo, doing lots and lots of wildlife rehab together (her mother was MUCH more lenient than mine when it came to sheer numbers of cages full of wildlife in the backyard) and ultimately she was the one who got me hooked on dog shows. This picture below is of Kathy and one of the grey foxes she raised as part of the Raise and Release program. I believe this one was named Pumpkin and ended up on display in the Woodlands exhibit when the new Children's Zoo opened.

Below is another friend, Rachel Perlstein, and Kubla Kahn, our baby camel that we bottle raised one winter. Rachel also worked in the CZ for several years and was so much fun! I have lost track of her over the years but I'm sure she is doing something interesting and unique! Kahnie grewup to be part of the camel rides at the zoo. He was one of my favorite babies that we raised.

One year the zoo somehow ended up with a surplus of lion cubs and we ended up raising several in the CZ. I believe the two below were called Bo and Solo; how lucky was I to grow up playing with lion cubs, raccoons, and camels? They were SO much fun, though I did have a few bumps, bruises and scars to show!

We also were responsible for the Frisch's Discovery Center, which was a hands on lecture area with its own group of demo animals. At that time, the zoo maintained a tiger cub who was the Bengals mascot ("Benzoo") and attended the games. He lived in the Discovery Center and we were responsible for his care part of the time. The big cats were some of my favorites to work with.

Somewhere during this time frame, I was at the education center one day when a special delivery arrived...a 12 week old cheetah cub from, I believe, the Columbus Zoo, who was to live with Cathryn Hilker and be the first of her demo cats in a new education program. "Angel" started a whole new era at the zoo. I remember this was the first time I saw someone using a clicker to train with and I was very intrigued, but there was not much opportunity for me to get involved at that time.

However, Cathryn was good friends with Kathy Wright and her family and so I was included in an invitation to go out to Cathryn's farm and play with baby Angel. Another experience of a lifetime...I am so lucky to have had pages of my life taken from a Disney nature film!

Below is "Whistles", a Moluccan cockatoo who was another of my "special" babies. Whistles was truly a devious and evil bird; she HATED volunteers and definitely could recognize the signature red shirt. However, she delighted in tricking them into THINKING that she liked them- she would sidle closer and closer, cooing and muttering to them the whole time, and when they finally couldn't resist and reached out to pet her she would nail them with lightning speed. Then she would screech and laugh and dance around with her feathers all standing on end- she thought it was the best game ever! Luckily she loved me and would ride around as I did rounds with my pooper scooper either on my shoulder or on the handle of the dolly I lugged my trash can full of poop around on. Birds can live to be quite old, I suppose it's possible she is still living at the zoo, though I haven't seen her since a few years after I went away to college.

At that time the children's zoo was run by a crew of mostly teenagers in the summer, high school and a few college students who consisted mostly of pretty bright, motivated kids from all walks of life. We had amazingly little supervision at the time- one of our supervisors would typically check in once or twice a day, but otherwise unless there was a problem we handled most everything else on our own. That included care of all of the animals there as well as handling hordes of zoo visitors on a daily basis in the summer. (Working at the zoo gives you a whole new appreciation for the IQ of the animals as compared to the average zoo visitor- the animals come out way ahead!). We had all kinds of animals ranging from typical barnyard animals, to native wildlife, to exotic babies too large for the nursery, and then anything that didn't really fit anywhere else.

Working at the zoo also led me to some other interesting opportunities. I got very involved with wildlife rehab through their old "Raise and Release" program (more on that in a future post). Also, at that time one of the nocturnal house keepers, Paul Strausser, was involved in starting up a Red Wolf Sanctuary on his land in Dillsboro, IN. There was much work to be done and so any and all hands were welcome. In exchange for building fences, digging post holes, feeding birds from their raptor rehab program, and taking care of the feeder rats in the "rat room", we got the opportunity to interact with some of the animals at the wolf sanctuary.

Red wolves were quite endangered and it was going to take quite a bit of work to prove that the sanctuary was an appropriate placement for them, so in the meantime a number of other animals found homes there and served as goodwill ambassadors and fund raising stars. Above I am pictured with one of the grey wolves.

At that time, four grey wolf cubs arrived and there was much work to be done to accomodate them. We helped to build a huge enclosure with 15 foot tall walls. At the time of these pictures I think the wolves were going through a "teenage" stage. There were two males and two females; Bridger, Sierra, Aspen, and the fourth name escapes me...

While not exactly tame, the wolves did enjoy interacting with people though you had to exercise some caution and obey some basic rules. In addition to these babies, there were three red wolf/coyote hybrids, a cougar, and numerous birds of prey.

I have pictures of the other animals and birds but have not scanned them yet; I will save them for another post some day. Our overnight camping trips to the RWS, sleeping out in the woods with just a sleeping bag and listening to the wolves howl, were some of the most fun experiences I had as a teenager. We worked HARD but the trade off was worth it! It was a beautiful place and I was terribly jealous- who WOULDN'T want to live there?

The zoo provided so many of the area's youngsters with a unique opportunity to learn hands on about the world around them. Thanks to the efforts of people like Barry Wakeman (then curator of education), Thane Maynard (now zoo director, then I believe assistant curator of education) and Randi Mohn, who mentored the volunteers and interns, as well as my long suffering boss Frank Hoffman and his "second in command" Carol Schottelkotte who ran the nursery and Children's zoo, a whole generation of kids got to grow up knowing what it sounded like when a cheetah purrs, what it's like to get up every three hours to feed a litter of baby raccoons, and how to handle work responsibilities with your pockets full of baby possums. I might have missed some birthday parties and trips to the mall, but I wouldn't trade my zoo days for ANYTHING!

If any of my old zoo friends, coworkers and volunteers happen to find this post, I would love to hear from you again!


  1. I'm Frank Hoffman's granddaughter, and I found this post looking for information about his time at the zoo. (I was fairly young when he retired, but I still got to have some pretty awesome experiences, thanks to him, including a lion cub visiting my house!) Thank you so much for sharing your stories and photos!

  2. How great to hear from you! Your grandfather was my first boss and it was based on his recommendation that I got hired. So glad he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime!