The zoo is a theater, a place of scenes, some seen by few: The almost hedonistic ritual of the elephant bath. The surly moon bear thinking you’re the veterinarian. The eager zebras and the reluctant watusis. The birdlike chirping of river otter pups. And that female gibbon, relentlessly chasing the male.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — “All right, guys, let’s get started,” Tim French calls out to the room.
Thus begins the day for about a dozen keepers at Roger Williams Park Zoo.
It’s about 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning in March, and they have gathered for their morning meeting on the main floor of the Sophie Danforth Administration Building, named for the founder of the Rhode Island Zoological Society.
The meeting is quick and businesslike, as French, deputy director of animal programs, ticks off tasks to be done this day. Line up a keeper for the day’s “keeper talk.” Make sure there’s coverage for the snake building. And announce one of the special highlights of the day: “Otter pups have their first exams and vaccines.”
Then the keepers fan out across the 40-acre zoo to get their animals ready for the day.
Where the sharp things are
Anne Tan, the lead keeper for the North America and Marco Polo exhibits, heads to the zoo’s commissary to collect several buckets of food for her charges before heading off to a wooded corner of the 146-year-old zoo.
She approaches a beige cinder-block building and a metal gate covered with wooden slats next to it. A red padlock wards off any who would ignore the sign warning: “Authorized Personnel Only.”
Inside, she performs one of her first duties of the day.
“Our goal is to get the animals checked in, make sure they’re healthy, make sure everybody’s accounted for,” she explains. At this building, a missing animal would be quite alarming: It hosts the holding area for snow leopards and Asiatic black bears, known to zoo visitors at moon bears.
On this day, Sabu and Maliha, the snow leopards, and George and Gracie, the moon bears, are home.
Tan will be back soon, but first she stops at the zoo’s veterinary hospital to pick up medication for the porcupines to protect them from contracting parasitic worms. The porcupines could contract the worms if wild animals at the zoo, most likely raccoons, climbed on the mesh roof of the porcupine exhibit and left droppings that fell to the ground. So Razor, the male, and Juniper, the female, get preventive medicine once a week.
“It’s kind of difficult to wrestle a porcupine and force medicine down their mouths,” Tan says, “so we’ll just put it on some food.”
She injects a thick yellow cream into pieces of a banana. Razor and Juniper are kept in separate areas of their enclosure — a standard practice at feeding time to make sure neither steals the other’s food — and Tan offers the medicated bananas to them. She will return later to make sure all the medicine was consumed.
Back at the cinderblock building, George, the male bear, starts acting up, bellowing a warning as Tan accompanies a Journal reporter and photographer. She speaks to him in soothing tones and explains to her visitors that, pretty much whenever he sees a stranger, he assumes it’s the veterinarian. “A lot of animals don’t like the vet,” she says.
Tan gives Gracie a thyroid pill hidden in a grape, slipped between the heavy mesh separating the keeper from the bears. Of course, George wants a grape, too, and Tan obliges.
With the leopards and bears securely locked inside, Tan gets ready to venture into their outdoor enclosures. She checks twice to make sure that the animals are where they should be, that the doors are closed and that they are locked.
“The No. 1 cause for an accident or injury is complacency,” Tan says.
The heavy barred door that she passes through to the outdoor part of the enclosure swings open and latches against the building, blocking the passageway that the animals will come through, providing a safety backup.
She checks the bears’ water dish, which is secured in an armored holder to prevent them from playing with the steel bowl. She cleans up any manure from the day before. She tests the chlorine level and pH of the water in the bears’ pool. “We want the chlorine level much lower than you want in a human pool.” Then, just like “human pool” owners, she uses a net to skim leaves from the water.
Tan checks the mesh of the enclosures to make sure it’s secure and uses an electrical meter to test whether the electrical fences are functioning properly.
One of her last morning chores is to scatter food around the bear enclosure so they can hunt and forage throughout the day. The bears get greens and other vegetables, which they eat throughout the day. In the afternoon, after they’re back inside, the leopards will get meat, a product called Feline Diet from zoo supplier Nebraska Brand, which is primarily horse meat.
Tan hides some of the bear food inside a large plastic ball — an “enrichment” toy — to keep them engaged. “They’ll just roll it around until it falls out and they’ll stick their tongues in there and try to lick it out.”
Eating like you - sort of
Much of the food — “diet” to zookeepers — is the same as humans would buy at the grocery, says Tan. “The animals eat very well.”
“George the bear loves kale, Gracie, not so much,” says Rebecca Phillips, a keeper temporarily assigned to work with Rebecca Johnson, lead keeper of the commissary, the food service operation for the animals.
“We do get human-quality food, produce,” says Johnson, adding that it’s shipped in from restaurant supplier Baldor.
Not all of the food on the menu comes from restaurant suppliers. The commissary also stocks crickets and meal worms for the critters with that sort of palate and special meat for the carnivores.
The commissary even has to “feed the food,” supplying Cricket Quencher for the population of adult crickets in the commissary. “They’re not nutritious to the animals if they don’t get fed well,” says Phillips.
Diets prescribed by the veterinarian can vary from day to day and are often quite precise. “The bearded dragon is getting 15 grams of shredded beets,” notes Phillips.
In addition to their regular diet, most animals will get a treat each day, says Johnson.
Take the white-cheeked gibbons, for example.
“They get two veggies and two fruits a day, plus greens,” says Kelly Froio, their keeper. They also get Lab Diet Primate Biscuits, a type of grain cookie.
But for treats, says Johnson, they may get dried pineapple, yogurt or baby food, a favorite.
She’s not coy
Froio has a challenge on her hands.
The zoo had a pair of gibbons that had been together for about four years: an eight-year-old female named Ari and a 15-year-old male named BaHee.
But on Dec. 31, BaHee died.
“They think it was heart-related,” says Froio. That left Ari the only gibbon at the zoo. “She was alone since the first of the year.”
But a couple of months later, that changed with the arrival of Quon, a nine-year-old male.
Now Froio is playing matchmaker.
And it hasn’t been going all that well.
Ari was raised by humans by hand and may not be the best socialized gibbon. Plus, Froio says, “Females are dominant in this species anyway, and she’s especially dominant.”
Ari and Quon were introduced slowly, at first only being able to see each other, separated by barriers in their enclosure.
“After about a week, we decided everything was progressing along very nicely,” Froio says, and the gibbons were allowed to be together without a barrier. “They did really well for the first few hours.”
But that was it. “All of a sudden, it was like a switch flipped, and she decided she was going to chase him incessantly.”
Quon spent several days holed up inside a barrel in his part of the enclosure. “He wouldn’t even come out while she was nearby.”
But one bad date does not doom the courtship, and Froio will try again to introduce them. “All is not lost. There is hope.”
Bold and bashful
At the other end of the zoo, keeper Laura Isaacs tends to the wildebeests, watusis and zebras.
Their home is much like an equine stable. “It’s the same kind of smell, generally: hay, manure,” says Isaacs.
While the animals are in the barn, Isaacs cleans manure from their yard, which is landscaped like African plains. “We’re not allowed to go out with them when they’re on-exhibit.” The animals could get too close for safety.
After cleaning the yard and spreading small bales of hay for them to eat, Isaacs uses a system of pulleys to open the barn to the yard. The zebras trot right outside, but the watusis need coaxing.
“C’mon, Sriracha!” she calls. “C’mon, bud.”
Isaacs named the watusis Sriracha and Wasabi, inspired by another zoo employee who was eager for the animals to arrive last summer. “We had a security guard who asked when the wasabi were coming,” she explains. After naming one Wasabi, after the hot horseradish-like condiment served with sushi, it only seemed natural to name the other Sriracha, after the Thai hot chili pepper sauce.
The middle of the day is a time for chores for zookeepers. As an example, after the watusis, wildebeests and zebras are on exhibit, Isaacs will clean out their stalls. Tan will perform a similar task, cleaning the indoor holding area for the snow leopards and moon bears.
The Big Leagues
For Jennifer Warmbold and Brett Haskins, its not animal quarters they’re scrubbing down, but the animals themselves.
Warmbold and Haskins are elephant keepers, and an elephant bath is a major event, open to the public in the elephant and giraffe pavilion. The elephants will stay in their enclosure, behind a steel-cable fence. The public is behind a railing about 10 feet from the fence. And the keepers are in a “moat” between the two.
The process starts with no elephants in the room until a stout armored steel gate rolls to the side at the back of the enclosure. People whip out their cellphones.
“Oh, wow!” exclaims Alison Range, a tourist from London. “Look at that!”
Alice the elephant ambles into the room, and the crowd gasps at her 8,420-pound size.
Haskins gives Alice a variety of commands, including “turn” and “ear,” which prompts Alice to hold her ear out from her head, making it better for washing. Haskins rinses Alice with a hose and then scrubs her with a brush and Zafari Soap, specially formulated to condition the skin and not hurt the eyes.
“They like the warm water and the scrubbing and the food,” says Warmbold, the lead keeper. A steady supply of treats accompanies the bath, including sweet potato, rice cakes and a grain pellet not unlike a dog biscuit.
“Aww, so cute,” Londoner Range says, as Haskins squirts water from the hose into Alice’s mouth.
Range; her husband, Dan; and their daughter, Amelia, 4, are in Providence for two days as part of a vacation to several parts of the United States.
“We like going to different zoos all around the world,” Range says. “We’re very impressed with this zoo.” Especially by an elephant getting a bath only a few feet away. “We’ve never seen them this close before.”
Freshman swim team
lsewhere in the zoo, in a back room not open to the public, veterinarian Dr. Kim Wojick gets her first official look at the triplet river otters, born about a month ago.
Two of the otters already have names: Clyde Junior, a male, and Dunkin’, a female. A second female doesn’t have a name yet.
“Pretty much just like a first kitten or puppy exam,” Wojick explains the checkup, which includes looking at the otters’ eyes and checking for heart murmurs and cleft palates.
Keepers Lisa Ruggiero and Matt Fugate help with the exam, which also includes setting the tiny otters into plastic bowls to be weighed. They tip the scales between two and three pounds each.
During the exam, at least one of the otters barks in a tiny voice like the chirping of a bird.
The otter exams are not the only thing happening beyond the gaze of the public.
In a nondescript building at the back of the zoo, Lou Perrotti is trying to save a corner of the world — a few New England species whose numbers have dwindled.
He has achieved some measure of fame for his work with timber rattlesnakes and American burying beetles. “We work with a lot of the non-charismatic things that run the ecosystem,” he says.
In this building, only steps from the hustle and bustle of the zoo, Perrotti is focused on New England cottontail rabbits.
Perrotti keeps 18 rabbits, about two-thirds females. Their species is threatened by habitat loss as farm fields are reverting to forest and by Eastern cottontails, a species so similar that only DNA tests can tell them apart. “The Easterns out-compete these guys,” says Perrotti.
DNA, as detected in droppings, is also important in tracking the rabbits after they are released in the wild, Perrotti says. “We have a genetic profile of every rabbit that’s come into or out of our program.”
Another of the unsung heroes at the zoo is Ron Patalano. While he doesn’t directly care for the animals, he and his crew in the operations department do literally everything else.
Patalano’s department, which numbers 26 year-round and nearly 100 seasonally, runs the admission booths at the front gate, and everything with a cash register in the zoo, including gift shops and snack bars.
He heads the security department, which includes up to a dozen guards at the busiest times of the year, plus an extensive camera system. “We’re monitored 24 hours a day.”
That includes: “We’re constantly chasing lost children.”
He also oversees operation of special features in the zoo, such as a train loop and a zip line.
He’s in charge of snow removal, which goes beyond getting the zoo ready for guests after the city clears the streets. “We can close to the public, but animal care needs to get in.”
And Patalano and his team fix things that break.
Lots of things break in a zoo.
“We have to react to whatever happens here,” says Patalano, adding that that often involves elephants. “We swear the elephants have engineering degrees.”
Patalano displays in his office a thick metal hasp used sometimes to secure an elephant to the floor during a bath. This one is broken, twisted open, courtesy of Kate the elephant, who played with it in her enclosure one night.
The possibility of mischief by bored elephants drives the final hours of Brett Haskins’ shift caring for the pachyderms. “They will break things if you don’t give them things to do,” he says.
Haskins spends the second half of the day setting up the elephants’ yard, corral and barn for the overnight.
In the past, zookeeping focused on the eight hours that keepers were working, says Haskins, but that has shifted to include an emphasis on the as much as 16 hours a day when the animals are on their own after keepers leave for the day.
The elephants won’t spend the night locked in the barn. The barn, corral and one-acre yard will be open for them to come and go as they please. And Haskins will hide food and treats — peanut butter and jelly is a favorite — in holes, on poles, and in notches cut in logs throughout the enclosure.
Similarly, Laura Isaacs gets the watusis, wildebeests and zebras — as well as the nearby cheetahs — ready for the night.
First the animals come inside to eat. “Usually the zebras are waiting at the gate to come in,” she says. The wildebeests’ Pavlovian toll emanates from a cow bell. The cheetahs respond to a bicycle bell.
While two of the three hoofed species will spend the night inside their stable, every night one can go outside.
At the zoo’s farmyard exhibit, Lisa Ruggiero divides the three alpacas — Chloe, Maggie, Freia — and the miniature donkey — Willie.
“We have to separate them to feed them,” Ruggiero explains. “They’ll eat each other’s grain, and you want to make sure they get what their allotted food is.”
She dons surgical gloves to place dead mice in the barn owl exhibit. “I can handle anything except dead mice.”
At the Gibbon exhibit, Kelly Froio gets the lovelorn primates ready for another night apart.
“Quon goes out during the day; Ari goes out overnight,” Froio says, adding that Ari can choose to move between the indoor and outdoor portions of the enclosure. “She’s going to sleep inside, most likely. It’s more about her making the choice.”
As the sun dips lower in the afternoon sky, an announcement comes across the zoo’s loudspeakers.
“Good afternoon, zoo visitors. The time is 5 p.m., and Roger Williams Park Zoo is now closed. We ask that all visitors please exit the zoo at this time.... Thank you for visiting and supporting Roger Williams Park Zoo, and have a good evening.”
Thus the zoo goes to bed. Until the next morning, every morning, when at 8 o’clock — regardless of the weather — it all begins again.
This day in the life of Roger Williams Park zoo is a composite of three visits in recent weeks.