Animals Have Feelings: The Ft. Worth Zoo

0076-WK2000koalaThe ride to Ft. Worth was beautiful—six hours. So many people told me that it would be boring – that Texas is so big and there is nothing to see- that the flat lands go on and on. Perhaps because I am an artist, that was not what I experienced. I have never seen more beautiful skies in my life. The clouds were full- voluminous , the sky so blue, the grass so green. We saw many beautiful farms with cows grazing – much flat land with clumps of trees and an occasional single tree. It was all so restful and so vast. I could look for miles. I love the expanse. I felt so close to nature.

We arrived in Ft. Worth at 7:30 PM. We had no reservations and could not make any because we never knew just where we would be at what time- that was the whole point of the trip. My life in Los Angeles was so scheduled because of the work that I did . Before we left I had checked with the auto club, knew what motels were available and figured we would just take our chances with proper accommodations. The important thing to both of us was that we be near the zoo and that transportation was available.

We found a nice place and the next morning we were at the zoo. It was a Sunday and for a zoo, perhaps their busiest day. I knew we would be able to find someone in authority that we could talk to. We met Kenneth Seleske- assistant supervisor of education. What a delightful and charming man. What thrilled me was that the people we were meeting were really letting their hair down with us. We spent many hours with him.

The situation in Ft. Worth was similar to Los Angeles in that they also had a zoo association, similar to GLAZA-the group that ran the LA zoo. The difference was that this association really helped all the people in the city – rich or poor. GLAZA, as I found out from personal experience was an organization that the rich people felt was their personal playground. They helped somewhat but it was limited.

He was most anxious to talk about their education department. He told us that each weekend they put on a fantastic audio visual production for the public on the “Reason for Zoos.” They used 16 slide projectors, a movie camera and a computer operating all at the same time – also with excellent sound. One of their leading radio announcers gave his time free so that the production would be top quality. It was a stunning performance and would keep anyone’s attention. I asked Ken who taught him how to operate this most complicated equipment and he said “no one taught us. We had to get a manual and figure it out for ourselves!” I think they’ll end up being electrical engineers besides being zoo people. He also told us that the equipment that they were using cost $1,000 a minute and that a production of this type costs $16,000 and that does not include the equipment – just the tapes and the slides and movie!! The equipment was donated by Jimmie Stewart, the famous actor who liked to ride cowboy in Texas.

Ken himself is a biologist plus has a degree in psychology . When he described his feelings about primate behavior, I began to think I was hearing myself talk. He said about the primates “We don’t know why they do what they do, but their behavior sure looks human to me.” What a pleasure to meet a zoo person who doesn’t think you are mad for as they call it “anthropomorphizing the animals” (for those who don’t know the term – it means giving animals “human feelings.”)

As with all the zoos we visited there were many different species exhibited for the public to enjoy, but in each case we found that they had a specialty that they were known for. This, I found out, was because where the zoo was located there would be certain species of wildlife that lived in that part of the world. In this case reptiles were their specialty. Had I not had the experience in Los Angeles of working directly with Harvey Fischer, curator of the reptiles because of the paintings I did for the zoo, I probably would never have developed an interest in them. Some people I know love snakes or other amphibians. I was not one of them. Harvey was so enthusiastic about the reptiles that he really made me interested . It was through Harvey that I had the wonderful experience of the 400 pound Galapagos Tortoise follow me around like a puppy dog when I was sketching him preparatory to the painting I created for the zoo.

Ken introduced us to Bern Tryon assistant supervisor of reptiles. Bern was as enthusiastic about his charges as was Harvey Fischer. It did not take long before I too became enthusiastic. The zoo has 270 species of reptiles. They specialize in breeding them. He said for many years the breeding program was quite hit and miss. Now, it is scientific. In 1974 they bred 24 reptiles. They had 117 crocodilian eggs from three species. The species can take 85-105 days for laying. However, the average is 94-95 days. All crocodilian females show great maternal behavior. The male does not help. He just watches and does not hurt the young.

Yacare Caiman is one type of reptile that they raise. They are a type of crocodile. They are four-to six feet long as adults. They can breed at four-six years. These large forms of crocodilians are about eight to fifteen years when they breed or when they reach maturity. He added that a crocodile can live for 48 years. The dwarf can live about 42 years. They are fed animal protein – pre-killed mice, rats, and young chickens. The young eat crickets – also rats they get from universities which were used for experimentation. I told him I had heard that reptiles would only eat live mice or rats. He said that is not so. Most reptiles will immediately take a dead mouse.

The lizards are fed two or three times a week – big snakes once a week or every second week. If they are overfed they will die from being overweight. He said the average snake two – three feet long will eat one mouse a week and a large sixteen foot python will eat ten rats every two weeks. He told us that although the boas or pythons are not venomous, they can give a nasty bite – that it can break your bone or rip the skin right to the bone. Their mouths are powerful.

The baby snake will eat a lot which is OK. However, after a year the intake must be controlled or it will get overweight. He said that snakes will gorge themselves and the keepers have to control their feeding. I told him that I had heard that a large python can eat a whole deer and then not eat for a whole year. I asked if that was true and he said “yes”. I asked how he can tell if a snake is underweight. “You can see a sunken area or skin folds, “ he added. I learned that snakes brought in from the outdoors often have trouble in accepting their first meal. After that they are all right.

He took us to see the tortoises. They had one almost the size of the Galapagos tortoise I had painted for the Los Angeles zoo. He told me that they are fed twice a week. Mating these particular species is very important to the zoos who have them, but as of now they have not been successful in the breeding program. As he said “we keep hoping. “ I learned something I had never heard before, even from Harvey Fischer of the LA Zoo – not all reptiles need the same temperature to survive. He said that they are the only zoo in which the reptiles are in different temperature ranges. Some snakes need colder temperatures – not always warm. They have their exhibits separated according to geographical areas of the world.

The cages were immaculate and so was it behind the scenes. He told me how careful they are to keep it all clean. They have a huge exhibit of alligators and once a week the entire exhibit is drained and cleaned out. What a lot of work! I asked him how the alligators act when this happens. He said they just go to the back and wait.

He was anxious for us to see the nesting area of the crocodiles. He opened the door and the female jumped out defiantly! She was protecting her young, he said. In the past many times even though the mother was sitting on the nest, the eggs did not hatch because the temperature was not controlled. Now after she lays the eggs (that can take one to two months) the keepers remove the eggs and incubate them. The mother because the nesting material is still there, thinks that the eggs are still there and will continue to sit. When the eggs have begun to hatch or crack (the little crocodile has a saw like appendage that is called the egg tooth in front which allows it to crack), the eggs are returned to the nest and the mother continues to protect them. He saw one egg that did not crack. The mother picked it up in her mouth and very carefully and gently removed the shell. The baby was dead inside, but not because she was careless – rather it was still born.

All of the cages are decorated by the zoo staff who often go out on hunting expeditions on weekends to find greenery or wood for the cages. They do a spectacular job. He told me that sometimes two males in an exhibit will fight and the sub-dominant one or the intimidated one won’t eat. He must be removed or he will die. He said snakes are at a low level of intelligence and are working only on instinct. They never develop a relationship to their keeper – only associate sounds and smell with the one who feeds them. He added, however, that a tortoise or lizard will sometimes know who feeds them.

The dwarf crocodiles lay about 17 eggs – the alligator – 4 eggs. I asked about the tongue. It is a testing and smelling organ. They cannot hear at all. – only pick up vibrations of sound. Some snakes have pits – like the python which picks up heat of a victim. We were told that toads eat crickets and can eat small mice. Also I knew that snakes shed, but I did not know that they can shed four – five times a year while growing. Snakes continue to grow throughout life and even in maturity can shed three times a year. They think that the shedding is tied in with reproduction. It makes the female receptive to the male.

I could not believe how much time Bern gave to us. We met him at 9:45 AM. We left him at 5:PM!

The zoo was still open so we were able to see some of the other exhibits. They have a fine exhibit of zebras and hoof stock, some excellent small primates including golden marmosets, colobus and spider monkeys. They also had an amazing aquarium. It was highly imaginative with among other things a large pool from which we could view the fish swimming from above and then moving to another area we could see them from below.

Throughout the zoo there was lush foliage which made it so inviting. It is a wonderful zoo – beautiful and a credit to all of those who participate in it – many volunteers, both young and old as we were told and a staff that was dedicated and a credit to the zoo world. It was such a superb experience for us, and I would have loved to stay longer, but we had to move on. Our next stop was to Dallas.