They Are Wild!

Shauna in His Pool
A keeper at a Florida zoo who was the senior “big cat” keeper and was known as the “cat whisperer” was mauled and killed by her favorite tiger a day or two ago.  This happens way too often.  She was in the friggin’ cage with him.  Wrong!
There are zoos that are “protected contact” and then zoos that are not.  Protected contact means that you only interact with a potentially “killer” animal through some kind of protection.  For example, at the Dallas zoo, the keepers are very intimate with the gorillas and chimps but always through heavy mesh fencing.  Because of that, there is no way the keepers could be harmed by the animals.  The Dallas zoo also adheres to protected contact with lions, tigers, mountain lions, etc.  We are a protected contact zoo.
Gorillas are not “killers,” they are very gentle by nature, but because of their size and strength they could crush a keeper with an affectionate hug.  Chimps on the other hand can be very aggressive and as cute as they can be, especially the babies, they are very dangerous. I am a huge believer in protected contact because our keepers at the Dallas zoo don’t get killed and never have and keepers at non-protected contact zoos have.
I get it.  I know what happens.  Keepers in non-protective become somehow immune to the fact that the animals they love and the animals they believe love them are wild animals.  They begin to believe that their bond with the animals is something very special and different.  They think the animals love them.  And they might be right!  But they are WILD!  They turn on a dime.
I think keepers who love their  animals might lose sight of this.  These animals hear or see something out of the corner of their eye and they attack whatever is in front of them.  I’ve seen chimps do this.  Thats what happened in the recent killing of the keeper.  Everything was fine until she turned her head and the tiger heard or saw something that was upsetting and attacked the first thing she saw, and someone she probably otherwise loved.
All I can say is “Siegfried and Roy.”

Pearls of Wisdom

This is my first post from long ago writings by me.   It made me chuckle when I re-visited these writings from roughly 1983 when I was in my mid 20’s that I had the audacity to call them Pearls of Wisdom.

It was hard for me to record these exactly as they were written 30 some odd years ago, I so wanted to update and edit.  But, for authenticity, I didn’t.  Here, from a 20 something year old are some guidelines for life….

–Being attached to outcomes distorts your perception of what’s happening.  You tend to ignore your intuition or gut feelings because you are absorbed with wishful thinking.  You can have a preference in the outcome but you must be able to clearly see what is happening in the present time to be able to create an action plan to get to where you want to be.

–If you wait to see what is expected of you before you perform, the level of expected performance is set by something or someone outside yourself and vey well may be lower than your own.  If you go for it and don’t put limits on yourself, no one else will either.

–The more you use your brain the better it works and the more creative it becomes,  it is resonating at a higher level and “tunes in” to higher creativity.

–You can’t be happy in a relationship until your happy with yourself.  Two halve’s don’t make a whole; it makes for a fragmented relationship with unrealistic exceptions resulting in resent.  If you are hoping for self confidence as a result of a relationship, your process will be mirrored for you and you will attract into your orbit someone who is hoping to get self confidence from you.  Self confidence is not given and recieved.  It’s way more personal than that.  (Seems a little dramatic now but when I wrote this I capitalized this next part which I will do here in honor of that young girl.)


–I have never seen anything healthy come as a result of an outburst of anger.  It usually only causes pain, fear and confusion.   For the person who is supposedly expressing themselves, it leads to feelings of being out of control and wounded self esteem.

–The older you get, you more you look like who you are.  So people who like themselves have an easier time aging.

–Creativity lies where there are no facades.

–We are not going to enjoy the “more” we get later if we’re not enjoying  what we have now.  Happiness comes from within, not from stuff.

— Work HARD!!







Look at this Polar Bear Sculpture.  It is gigantic and it is completely made out of LEGO’S!!  The entire Lego Animal Sculpture exhibit is coming to the Dallas zoo this month.  So exciting.  If you are in Dallas, check it out.  If not, it is a traveling exhibit so check periodically with your city’s zoo!

Gorillas in the Rain


It was pouring rain and the only people at the zoo were the animals, the animal keepers and one volunteer. Guess which one. I love the zoo in the rain because there are no humans and the gorillas are out in their habitat as long as there is no lightening or heavy wind.

A gorilla’s existence in captivity at a place like the Dallas zoo where they are treated with the immense love and respect they deserve, is relatively simple. They don’t have to worry about predators (in the wild, man is their only one, but he is a formidable one), they don’t have to forage for food or look for water, their habitat doesn’t change much and in inclement (a word I never heard until I moved to Dallas!) weather they go inside their temp controlled bedrooms, so they are always very comfortable.

When something different happens, such as a downpour, it’s very novel to them and they take full advantage. It’s party time!

I was alone in the cave, which is usually bustling with zoo guests, with only three layers of treated glass separating me from the four male gorillas who live together in a bachelor group. I was between one and five feet away from them.

All four of them were bipedal which you will see from time to time with gorillas but because of their huge upper bodies, which are tremendously densely muscular, they are usually knuckle walkers. For those of you who don’t know, bipedal means walking like we do, upright on two back legs. I got the distinct impression that because their feet were so muddy, they didn’t also want muddy knuckles. Later, I checked with a gorilla keeper and confirmed that was exactly right. They didn’t want muddy knuckles! It’s amazing what your intuition can teach you when you observe an animal for hours every week.

In the rain the gorillas were dancing, laughing (yes, gorillas laugh), sliding around in the mud, chasing each other and imitating the rain by banging on their heads with their hands, all in a bipedal position. It was astounding.

I watched the gorillas in awe for three hours frolicking in the rain. I would burst out laughing and in the next second be close to tears. I knew I was seeing something very few people will ever have the honor of seeing in their entire lives.



Zoo Sexuality

“Savuti is coming out of quarantine and will be in his habitat for the first time Wednesday and Thursday,” Tami, a primate keeper said to me. “I need a volunteer observer for Thursday,” she went on, “just to watch and report back what he is doing and if it seems to be going okay, can you do it?”

Many scientists, anthropologists and biologists believe there are 5 great apes; gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. In Texas there are four. Try to guess which one is missing in Texas and why. (Yeah, yeah, I’m messing with Texas.) There are also two lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs. They’re called great apes and lesser apes because the great apes are bigger and much more intelligent than the lesser apes. Still, I wish there was a different name for the lesser apes; like maybe “Smaller Apes” because while they may not be as intelligent as the Greats, they are very intelligent and in my humble opinion, not “less than” apes.

Humans and gorillas share 98.4% exactly the same DNA and with chimpanzees it’s right around 99%. The tiny difference in the apes DNA is significant because gorillas are extremely gentle and not at all aggressive where as chimps can and will be very aggressive; like humans. So we aren’t gorillas or chimpanzees and they aren’t human but we are very closely related.

The word “primate” refers to all monkeys and apes and if you want to know whether you are looking at a monkey or an ape just look to see if the dazzling creature has a tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not. Some monkeys, like mandrills, have very short tails that almost look like a knob instead of a tail and even if you know the tail/no tail thing you could easily mistake a mandrill monkey for an ape because of that.

Mandrills are the planet’s largest monkeys with males weighing up to 70 pounds. People mistake them for baboons and while they are in the same family, they are much more colorful in the face and rump and are not baboons. At the Dallas zoo we have two adult female mandrills and an unbelievably energetic little baby boy named Obi who is so adorable it’s hard to fathom.

Obi with Mom, Saffron

Obi with Mom, Saffron

Obi freaking out Mommy

Obi freaking out Mommy

The only bad part about this charming scene is that Obi’s dad died of cancer about a month after he was born. The primate keepers knew he needed a male role model so he could properly learn to be a male mandrill so they reached out to zoos around the country, which is normal operating procedure for zoos nationally and internationally, to try and find a male to come live with us in Dallas, and they found Savuti.

Savuti is a very old mandrill at 22 years old; their life expectancy is around 25. When we get new animals at the zoo, they have to be quarantined for 30 days for medical testing and to get to know their new keeper/trainers.

“I’d love to observe the Mandrills for you, Tami.” I said, “I’ll be here. Will he be in the habitat with Obi and the females?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “he’s coming out of quarantine on Wednesday morning and we want him to be alone to get to know the habitat for a couple days without the added stress of being introduced to his new family. So Obi and the females will stay inside their bedrooms for a couple days while he adjusts.”

“Makes sense.” I said. “Gosh, Savuti has been inside for 30 days, he’ll probably be ecstatic to be outside.”

“Yes,” Tami said, “I’m sure he will!” She just didn’t know how ecstatic.

I arrived on Thursday morning to see Tami and another keeper in front of the mandrill habitat looking worried. As I approached, Tami called out, “You have any monkey shifting mojo? If so, we need it!”

All the primates have inside bedrooms where they sleep at night to protect them from the elements. Shifting means getting the animals to move from their bedrooms out into their habitat and back into their bedrooms again. The Dallas zoo is a positive reinforcement zoo so if the animals do what the keepers want them to do they are rewarded with treats. If the animals don’t do what the keepers want them to do, nothing happens.

“Whad’ya mean?” I responded.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, “We have tried everything and we cannot get Savuti to leave that rock! We let him out yesterday morning and he went right to that rock and hasn’t budged since. He’s so happy to be outside he hasn’t eaten or moved for 24 hours! He was out all night in the freezing temperatures!!”

Savuti on his Rock at Dusk

Savuti on his Rock at Dusk

Tami has been caring for Savuti for the 30 days he’s been in quarantine and she loves him. I know he loves her, too, because when he heard her voice, he looked up from his rock and made eye contact with her and grimaced which is a mandrill’s way of smiling and showing affection. Then when she walked away, he masturbated. When I later told Tami, she was flattered. Zoo people are passionate about animals and a curious crowd.

Beautiful Savuti

Beautiful Savuti

Grimacing at his Love, Tami

Grimacing at his Love, Tami

Dominant Males

I was staring down at our new silverback gorilla, Subira, who just joined us at the Dallas zoo from a zoo in Canada when a family walked onto the viewing platform. This cute clan consisted of two little girls probably 10 and 8 years old and a boy around 6. They were beautiful kids with shiny blond hair, clear twinkling eyes and mischievous grins. Mom was very pretty and chatty, probably late 30’s and Dad seemed very reserved.

“There are three females and a new silverback in here,” I said. “He’s only been at the Dallas zoo for 3 weeks. We got him from the Toronto zoo. This is called a troop and is how gorillas normally live in the wild with one silverback, several females called a harem, and all of the silverback’s offspring with all the females. We eventually would like to see Subira mate with Megan, our youngest female in here and have a baby!

“That’s awesome!” mom exclaimed. “How are they doing together?”

“Pretty well,” I said. “It took some adjustment since it’s now an entirely new world for all of them. He’s coming on a little stronger than he needs to in establishing his dominance and the girls are pushing back on him more than is normal but the gorilla keepers are optimistic. In the gorilla world, the silverback protects the troop and calls the shots; when to eat, when to nest, when to move on; he’s the boss and females normally go with it, in the wild it’s all they know. But these girls are not in the wild and are still getting used to him since until 3 weeks ago, this was an all girl habitat and Madge was the dominant female.”

“What made Madge the dominant one?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “Madge is the oldest and the biggest and is the mother to Shanta. Megan is relatively new here, joining us about 9 months ago. Madge and Shanta have never really accepted Megan and have treated her poorly and shunned her. It’s been kind-a gut wrenching. However, the minute you put a Silverback in with bickering females the bickering stops immediately. He just won’t allow it.”

“We need a silverback!!” the little boy shouted.


I couldn’t help myself and I burst out laughing while dad’s face flushed.

“Jake!” mom said, “We have a silverback!”

Where!?” Jake asked excitedly.

“Dad!” mom said, “Dad’s our silverback! Dad’s our silverback, Jake!”

Dad then started moving the family on it’s way like a good silverback. Mom looked back at me, rolled her eyes and under her breath said, “From the mouths of babes….”

Labs, Cheetahs and Zoo Safety

Cheetahs can be skittish. Labrador Retrievers are not. Dallas is not the only zoo that has raised them together from kittenhood and puppyhood. The Cheetahs who are raised with dogs are used for educational purposes; going to schools and events to educate people about their plight and what they can do to help in the conservation effort of this gorgeous, endangered animal. An event of this kind might be held at a venue where the Cheetah and dog need to go up a flight of stairs or enter an elevator, for example. Either of those would freak the Cheetah out, but when he sees his dog brother happily comply, he gains the confidence to do it, too.

Windspear and Amani as babies.

Amani and Windspear as babies.

“Cheetahs are shy, so the dog instills confidence in him whenever they go to new places,” zoo official Sean Greene said. “Also, the dog has an outgoing personality and while the cheetah is reserved she likes that attention, so their relationship is very natural.”

Cheetahs can go from zero to 70 miles per hour in 3 seconds. They are the fastest of the land animals. I know that but I’m wondering why they say, “land animals.” Is there a sea creature that goes faster than that? I need to google that. The only thing Cheetahs eat is meat and when they make a kill they eat almost as fast as they run because inevitably a larger cat will smell the kill, run the Cheetah off and finish the meal. So, Cheetahs have to eat as much as they possibly can as quickly as they possibly can.

I’ve noticed that when Windspear and Amani play chase, Amani is by far the fastest dog I’ve ever seen in my life. Being raised with Windspear must have busted through his genetic inclinations and inborn perceived limitations about how fast a Labrador Retriever can run.

        Playing together

Playing together

At 2:30 four days a week, the zoo does a show called “Cheetah Encounter.” It is an opportunity for zoo guests to see how fast Windspear can run and also to see him playing with Amani and interacting with his keepers. I go often to see it. One day I saw a guy wearing a zoo employee uniform, which is only slightly different than the volunteer uniform I wear. Like me, he also wears a nametag, which I didn’t bother to look at because I couldn’t care less who’s who at the zoo. I walked over and introduced myself, he said his name was Kevin and we got talking; or should I say I got talking.

   Lovin' on each other

Lovin’ on each other

“I was surprised when I saw the keepers in with the Cheetah,” I said.

Kevin didn’t say anything.

“I spoke to one keeper and asked her if she felt safe.” I said. “She said she felt completely safe because they’ve raised the Cheetah since it was a tiny kitten. She also said that Cheetah’s do not consider humans prey.”

Kevin was quiet.

“I am not an expert on these things and I’m sure the keeper is and I know this is an accredited zoo and if this were a dangerous situation the Association of Zoos and Aquariums wouldn’t allow it but I don’t think I’d personally feel completely safe. I always think of Siegfried and Roy and that Tiger.”

While I was beginning to suspect Kevin was the strong, silent type, he saw me glance at his nametag. It said. Kevin Thomas, Director of Zoo Safety. We locked eyes and both burst out laughing.