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Fall 2003

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Centennial spotlight

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Just beyond the congested streets of Boston—but still within earshot of an occasional siren and planes flying to and from Logan International Airport—there’s a kingdom of strangers to city life. In all, more than 220 species inhabit the seventy-two-acre Franklin Park Zoo. With its fences and paved paths, and moms and dads with kids in strollers everywhere, it’s not quite the Serengeti. Even so, there’s plenty of wildlife to suit Jonathan Gilmour ’00.
     A full-time zookeeper in the department of hooves and horns, Gilmour looks after giraffes, zebras, antelopes, wildebeests, camels, lions, ostriches, and several kinds of cranes. One recent afternoon, he was making an “introduction”—two female Grevy’s zebras were spending time together in an enclosed area, and Gilmour and his co-workers were chaperoning. Left on their own, the animals had been sparring. The zookeepers stood by with hoses, fire extinguishers, and Mace—in case things got out of hand. (Gilmour was present once when a male lion suddenly attacked a female, and even pepper spray couldn’t stop him from inflicting a lethal wound.) The zebras, thankfully, were amiable enough for their short time together, and Gilmour was free to give a behind-the-scenes tour.
     Obviously at ease in the presence of beady eyes, bristly coats, and snapping jaws, the Skidmore graduate exhibits the aplomb of someone who knows there’s no place else he’d rather be. Besides understanding the animals’ diets, behaviors, and needs, he knows the name of every one (some are simple—Daisy, Benjamin, Storm; others are more complex Swahili names, which the zookeepers sometimes shorten)—and their idiosyncracies.
Matata the hornbill snacks on a rodent.
     “This is Bertha,” he says, looking through a fence at a long-legged, even longer-necked ostrich, who appears to be sleeping standing up. “She’ll just take a five-minute nap, if you don’t talk to her…” Bertha’s eyelids open; she blinks and does a little rubbernecking. Gilmour moves on to a pair of confident-looking Japanese red-crowned cranes. If you get on their side of the fence and they’re hungry, look out, he warns. Sauwaka—who is twenty-seven years old and “a national icon in Japan,” according to Gilmour—and Ussuri are participants in the zoo’s artificial insemination program. These cranes don’t breed readily in captivity, and Gilmour plays a key role by serving as the zoo’s “official crane stroker”—manually stimulating both male and female cranes “to finish the job.” “It’s really tough to get a fertile egg,” he says, but when the zookeepers are successful (it’s happened three times since he arrived at the zoo), the eggs are sent to Siberia, where the birds can be introduced back into the wild.
     “If we don’t use zoos to help preserve species and teach people the importance of preserving natural habitats, the world will become one big parking lot with nothing but human faces,” Gilmour asserts. “I know the animals here have less freedom than their wild counterparts, but they’re content, for the most part.”

At Skidmore Gilmour earned a B.A. in psychology, hoping, he says, “to make millions as a creative advertising genius.” But when the dot-com he was working for “tanked,” he reassessed his career goals and decided he needed to be with animals.
     In Saratoga he had been a volunteer dog-walker for a no-kill shelter and completed a pet-therapy project at the Wesley Health Care Center near Skidmore—giving his résumé its first “scratch marks.” His new career path began with an unpaid internship tending penguins at Boston’s New England Aquarium and working for a veterinarian in Brookline, Mass. He then took a full-time position as a zookeeper at the Southwick Zoo before being recruited to work for Zoo New England, which operates the Franklin Park Zoo.
     Last fall Gilmour earned national recognition when he was crowned “Ultimate Zookeeper” in a competition that garnered $20,000 for animal care at his zoo. The award money came from Microsoft, which designed Zoo Tycoon, a downloadable computer game where participants design, build, and manage their own zoo and practice conserving resources and habitats of animals in the wild. Competitors across the country were nominated by zoo colleagues, herds of animal fans cast their votes on Zoo Tycoon’s Web site, and five finalists—including Gilmour—competed for two days at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas. The contestants gave a short presentation on their approach to animal care and conservation, displayed their knowledge in a “zoo-logic” trivia quiz, built a Zoo Tycoon zoo, and ran an obstacle course that included manure identification. The president and VP of the American Association of Zoo Keepers Inc., along with a Microsoft representative, determined the winner. After the competition, Zoo Tycoon players could download Gilmour’s image as a top-notch zookeeper with enhanced animal-care training and expertise, including the ability to increase animal happiness when he enters an exhibit.

The real-life Gilmour does indeed try to keep his animals happy. One of his favorite vertebrates is a very wound-up bird—a southern ground hornbill named Matata (which means “trouble-maker”). Standing nearly three feet tall, he is so excited to see the zookeeper that he pants like a dog, and with each raspy huff comes a snap of his enormous beak. Unfazed, Gilmour offers a sacrificial hand. After several minutes of mock-tussling, he diverts the bird’s attention to a toy. But moments later, Matata is yanking mercilessly on Gilmour’s shoelaces. Things could be worse: “Sometimes he chases me around,” Gilmour laughs, insisting it’s mostly play.
     On the way to the zoo’s “safari” area, he takes out a pocket knife and slashes off a long, leafy branch of knotweed for Beau, a two-story-high Masai giraffe. He climbs a wooden stairway to a high platform and extends the limb to Beau, who wraps his eighteen-inch tongue around the foliage and chomps appreciatively. A smaller giraffe named Jana observes from a distance. “She’s kind of standoff-ish,” Gilmour says. “But sometimes she’ll come over and eat one leaf.” After a while, Beau goes over and nuzzles her. “He loves her!” Gilmour exclaims. “She’s a little too young to breed yet. But he was so excited when she came in, he almost broke down one of the gates.”
     A jealous male Grevy’s zebra comes by and chases Beau away with a series of horrible shrieking snorts. “You spoil the fun for everyone,” Gilmour calls out, as he descends the steps. Menelik has been separated from the female zebras—because the zoo doesn’t want them to breed—and he’s “affection-starved,” Gilmour says. He stops along the chainlink fence to exchange “words” and some close-up “face time.”

Being a zookeeper, Gilmour concedes, is a barrel of contradictions: “It’s fun yet dangerous, challenging yet tedious. It’s working with beauty while becoming quite messy.”
     Any day has its trials—a new-animal introduction (the zebras, for example); a medical emergency (like the time a bongo tried to pry up a fence and tore off half its horn); an escape (recently a gorilla got loose in the “tropical forest” area)—and more pedestrian moments like shoveling dung and going to staff meetings. Gilmour’s hands and head display scars from the nips and nicks of various creatures. He’s been kicked in the head by a camel (an injury that required eight staples), and another keeper was gored by a high-kicking, sharp-toed ostrich. But the perils don’t come close to canceling out the fun.
     At the entrance of the lions’ holding area, where they sleep at night, Gilmour sanitizes the bottoms of his shoes on a sponge in a dishpan (this slows the spread of parasites, he says). He checks the lions’ food supply—a refrigerator stuffed with bloody packages of ground-up horsemeat (including bones and hair)—and points out some lion-size toys: large plastic barrels and twenty-pound plastic balls—all of which exhibit tooth and claw marks. All the zoo’s animals have enrichments every day, Gilmour explains—a new smell, a food item, a toy—anything to entertain and make the animals think.
     Outside, Chris and Clifford—two four-hundred-pound males with showy manes, legs as thick as tree trunks, and sleek and powerful hindquarters—are lounging in the crisp, late-summer air. Gilmour says he likes their lazy-looking eyes. “Sometimes,” he adds, “I’ll come in in the morning to check on them, and they will have been lying on the ground on their side, and they have ‘bed-head,’ like this,” Gilmour jokes, flattening his palms against the sides of his head.
     He stuffs a bit of food on a stick through the fence. Clifford emits a rattly, percussive throat sound. Then, as if on cue, the lions begin an exchange of chuffing, which soon segues into impressive roaring that sends vibrations through the ground and echoes across the zoo. “Can you feel that in your feet?” Gilmour asks, with a tinge of wonder in his voice.
     Later, when the sun starts to slink down into the horizon, he’ll savor the best part of the day—bringing the animals off their exhibits. He’ll call for them “like a mother might call her kids for dinner” and then lead the animals into the chutes that connect with their holding barns. “I really love when the giraffes nuzzle me before heading in for the night,” he says contentedly. “If I take too long closing the gate behind them, they’ll wait for me, heads cocked in my direction, until I bring them all the way in, as if I was the leader of the herd.”
     Despite a deep affection for his animal pals at Zoo New England, Gilmour is planning a move to Australia (which he dubs “an animal mecca”) to earn a degree in biology or zoology. In three or four years, he hopes, he’ll be back in the U.S., training animals—ideally for the Animal Planet cable-TV channel.

Maryann Teale Snell happily shares a plot of land (but not her gardens) with many wild animals.


© 2003 Skidmore College