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Zoo story: Imperfect love

A king at dusk. A weakness for blonds. Tofu for tigers. Disappearing queen. Dragons in the sun. Sold for $25. Pregnant males. Desire. His mother's fate. It's all happening at the zoo.

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007


CHAPTER 3

The queen of the zoo enters from the back, through a hidden corridor that leads to the waiting eyes of her public.

Enshalla has been lounging in her private quarters, where she passes her nights and the idle hours of her mornings preening and flying into rages at her minders, where she toys with any males misguided enough to believe they can possess her, chuffing at them and then dismissing them with a snarl.

Now she is ready for a walk.

A door slides open and she appears, cloaked in a calm both beautiful and terrifying. She moves through dappled shadows and into the sun, every step a promise, every breath a warning. She pads across ground littered with bones and stained with blood, past the large picture window where admirers stand with mouths agape, so close they can see the emerald of her eyes and watch the shoulder muscles shift beneath her stripes.

"Here kitty-kitty-kitty!" one calls out.

Enshalla does not acknowledge the comment. Instead she raises her great head and sniffs, testing the air to see if her attendants have left her a token of their devotion. They love to please her. Knowing that tigers revel in different scents, they venture into the exhibit in the early morning, when Enshalla is still locked away in her den, and spray the area with dashes of cinnamon, peppermint, even perfume. Her favorite is Obsession.

Above her, on the boardwalk that overlooks the exhibit, more people are staring. Once, a man asked one of the keepers why they insisted on serving meat to the tigers. Wouldn't a vegetarian diet be better? The keeper explained that tigers are carnivores with deeply bred instincts for hunting prey. The man was not satisfied.

"Couldn't you give them tofu shaped to look like their prey?"

Enshalla remains hostile to Eric, the latest Sumatran male the zoo wants to pair with her. The staff has not yet dared put them together. They rotate the two tigers into the exhibit at different times; in the night house, they keep them in separate dens.

The keepers hope Enshalla will soften toward Eric and allow him near when she cycles into estrus. But the risk is great. Tigers tend to be solitary animals, defensive of their territory; both in the wild and in zoos, their encounters sometimes end in death. In 1994, when Enshalla was 3, her father killed her mother in this same exhibit, crushing her windpipe in an attack that caught the keepers off-guard.

In August 2003, just after the Swazi elephants arrived, Enshalla celebrated her 12th birthday - fairly old for a tiger. If she's going to have a litter, it has to be soon.

Her keepers understand the necessity of adding to the world's dwindling supply of Sumatran tigers. Still, they can't help admiring her invincibility. One keeper, a modern woman with modern ideas, takes great satisfaction in Enshalla's refusal to automatically concede to the male imperative. It makes this keeper happy that many of the female animals she works with are dominant.

"All our girls are like that here," she says, smiling proudly.

As pleasing as Enshalla's independence may be, it poses another threat to her future. Feminism is a human invention, just like morality and ethics and the vegan principles espoused by the man who wanted to feed the tigers tofu. Nature is indifferent to all of the hopes embedded in these ideas. It unfolds outside our notions of progress, justice, right and wrong.

The queen glides along the edge of the small pond at the front of her exhibit. In the water, her reflection moves with her.

A shimmer of orange and black, disappearing.

- - - 

Not far away, the king crouches on his throne. Every morning, he claims this spot on a shelf of rocks beside the waterfall and surveys his domain. The rocks are replicas, made to look like a weathered canyon wall. The waterfall is an illusion, too, a stream pouring from a PVC pipe. But the king is real.

His chin hairs have gone gray. He gets winded more easily than he used to. Still, he seems to miss nothing. If one of his subjects is lonely, he offers comfort. If there is a dispute, he is usually ready to step in. Often, he keeps to himself. He lies down on the rock shelf, studies his fingers, stares into space. He did not ask for these responsibilities. This existence was thrust upon him long ago.

Several lifetimes ago, to be precise. On another continent, in another century.

"See the big monkey?" a mother says to her child.

At the sound of her voice and the sight of her blond hair, Herman quickly stands. Suddenly he is alert and energized. He blows kisses at the woman. He rocks and sways, puffs up his chest, bristles the thick black hair on his shoulders and back, all to make himself look strong and powerful.

The mom laughs. Clearly the big monkey likes her.

"Isn't he funny?" she says, and her child nods.

They're so trusting, the moms with their golden hair and their tank tops and their tanned shoulders, shining in the sun. They almost never catch on to what's really happening. It's probably for the best. No one goes to the zoo expecting to be propositioned by a chimp. But sometimes, if the moms stand there long enough, watching Herman strut, a hint of recognition plays across their faces. Possibly they have known other males who have acted this way. In a bar, maybe, or in the last hazy hours of a party.

Herman's mixed-up libido is not his fault. It's just something that got turned around inside him a long time ago. Also, for the record, he is not a monkey. Chimpanzees are apes.

Watching Herman at his perch, it's tempting to wonder how much of the past he carries inside him. He probably does not recall his first life, in the wild. He was only an infant when a hunter in the West African bush took him from his mother in 1966, killing her for meat.

Ed Schultz, an American working in Liberia at the time, found the baby chimp on sale inside an orange crate and bought him for $25. Ed named the chimp Herman and took him home to his wife Elizabeth and their kids Roger and Sandy. They gave Herman milk from a bottle - actually, the bottle Sandy used when she was pretending to feed her doll - and taught him to wear a diaper and to eat his fruit at the dinner table. The family adored and pampered him, not having any idea all the ways their love would change him.

Soon they returned to the United States, first to Ohio, taking Herman with them. One winter day, they dressed him in a knitted cap and booties and carried him outside to see the snow, drifting across their lawn. Is that moment still imprinted inside him? Does he still feel the cold?

By 1971, the Schultzes had moved to Tampa. Realizing that Herman was growing too big and potentially dangerous, they donated him to Lowry Park. Herman might recall the day the family escorted him to his new home. On the way in, he scaled a light pole. After a childhood in the trees, it was the last time he would have a chance to climb anything that tall.

Maybe other moments from that day come back to Herman. The family, climbing into his cage with him to say goodbye. The children crying. The parents heartbroken. Herman, no doubt more confused than ever as the cage door was locked shut and he began his third life.

He stayed in the old zoo for the next 16 years. It was awful. Tens of thousands of people filed past, often too close for the animals' safety. News clips from over the decades tell a harrowing story: Razor blades tossed into dilapidated cages, arrows shot into the compounds. The place was deadly. Sea lions collapsed from copper poisoning after eating pennies that had been tossed into their tank. A tiger died after someone gave it amphetamines and barbiturates.

Inside his cage, Herman learned to perform, to clap and blow kisses and smoke cigarettes. Whatever it took to win over the strangers who came to see him. Somehow, he survived long enough to see the old Lowry Park torn down. His home inside the new zoo - the exhibit with the artificial rocks and waterfall - was hardly a substitute for the life he might have led in Africa. But it was a considerable improvement over the cage, allowing enough room not just for Herman but for a small group of other chimps.

Waves of primate keepers have worked with Herman since the new zoo opened in 1988, and as they have all come and gone, the king has stayed. Many of the keepers with him now weren't born when he arrived at Lowry Park.

Herman, they will tell you, leads a pretty good life these days, enjoying the privileges of his position, napping in the sun, charming pretty women. During the day he plays chase with the keepers, tearing after them along the back fence as they run along on the other side. In the evenings, he sticks his long black leathery feet through the mesh in his night house so his keepers can treat him to another pedicure.

Still, the staff wonders how much longer he can hold on. How many more years before his heart gives out, or another male topples him from his throne?

There are only two other males in the group. One is even older than Herman and is so low in position that the females bully him. The other is an adolescent male named Alex who worships Herman so much that he imitates him, puffing himself up and rocking back and forth and acting like he is the alpha.

But inside any chimp group, even a small and stable one like Herman's, power is always fluid. Alliances shift. Secret deals are made. A new male could be transferred into the group; Alex, growing fast, might look at Herman one day and decide it's time for a change.

It's hard to imagine what Herman would do then. If he were no longer the king, who would he be?

After 32 years in this place, he has become a gray eminence. An old man at dusk, hanging on.

- - - 

The calendar says summer has ended. Officially it is the fall of 2003. And yet by noon, Lowry Park feels like a kiln.

The Komodo dragons aren't complaining. They bask in the sun, motionless except for the flickering of their tongues. In a shallow and shaded pool, the stingrays fly through the water in slow-motion circles.

Hours pass when nothing seems to happen, when it seems like every species must be dozing. Then everything happens at once. The animals are licking newborn babies clean, battling for power, courting another sexual conquest, plotting a rival's downfall - giving themselves over to desire, greed, rage, ambition, even something that could be called love. Suddenly the world opens, offering a glimpse into its logic and design, its random joys and casual cruelties.

That October, Virginia Edmonds and the other manatee keepers are still working around the clock to save Loo, the abandoned calf found in the Caloosahatchee River. He's been having trouble adjusting to the formula.

One Friday evening, Virginia is feeding Loo with the bottle when the manatee calf begins to shake. He seems to be seizing.

David Murphy, the zoo's vet, is called. A small oxygen mask is placed on Loo's face. It's no good. A few minutes later, Loo dies in Virginia's arms.

The moment is painful. But after 11 years at Lowry Park, Virginia has learned to accept that some animals will die, no matter how much care their keepers give them.

"The manatees, some of them just don't make it. We have a lot of death, no matter what we do."

- - - 

The keepers in the herps and aquatics department are smiling. One of their male sea horses just gave birth to a new brood.

A male, yes. The way it works with sea horses, the female deposits the eggs into a pouch on the male's stomach. He fertilizes the eggs, then holds them in the pouch for two weeks. "Pregnant males," they're called. When the babies are big enough, the male pushes them into the water.

"They're good at birthing," says one of the herps keepers.

Now, as the babies swim near their parents, they look like specks. There are more than 100 of them in this brood, not unusual for sea horses. Soon most are likely to be dead. Sea horse babies have high mortality rates, sometimes 90 percent or more.

The deaths do not weigh heavily on the herps staff. They accept that this is the way of things. And they know that soon enough a pregnant male will be hatching another huge brood.

Biologists break it down into two categories of species. Some, known as K-selected species - usually mammals, like tigers, chimps, humans - produce only one or a few offspring and then concentrate on rearing and protecting that handful of their young. If one of the babies dies, the loss goes deep.

In herps, the calculus of life and death is figured differently. Most of the time, the staff works with what are called r-selected species - fish, turtles, frogs, spiders and other species that reproduce in greater number, with a much higher mortality rate and the parents devoting virtually no energy to the rearing of those young.

Emotion is largely removed from the equation. Unfairness abounds, at least by human standards. Some species of frogs, the herps keepers say, will lay a clutch of eggs, wait for the clutch to hatch, then lay infertile eggs for the tadpoles to eat for their meals.

Mention to the keepers how wrong that seems, how grossly unfair, and they try not to laugh at your naivete.

- - - 

In the herps department, where the animals are cold-blooded and the keepers like them that way, sentimentality dies quickly. In other sections of Lowry Park, the keepers - like the species they work with - tend to be more warm and fuzzy. They talk to their animals, praise them, indulge them. They establish a relationship.

This is particularly true in the elephant building. Two months after the night delivery of the four juveniles from Swaziland, Brian French is learning to read the new arrivals.

Matjeka, the older of the two wild females, is having trouble fitting in with the other three.

"She's a little bit of an outcast," says Brian. "She's buddied up with Ellie now."

Ellie is the fifth member of the new herd - the older female that Lowry Park brought in to teach the four younger elephants how to adjust to zoo life. As it turns out, the new arrivals might be able to teach a few things to Ellie.

For years she lived at a smaller zoo in Gulf Breeze, in the Panhandle, but as the only elephant there, she never learned the social skills required to find her way within a herd. Eventually she joined another group of elephants at the Knoxville Zoo. But she was so awkward socially, other elephants harassed her, which presumably left her even more confused about the ways of her species.

Brian and the other keepers hope that Ellie will overcome her awkwardness to lead Lowry Park's fledgling herd. These first weeks, he says, have gone well. The four newcomers are eating out of the keepers' hands. They seem comfortable with their stalls and are sleeping at night.

Ellie is guiding the four juveniles through the basics of zoo life, showing them how to stay calm when the humans touch their trunks or exfoliate their skin with brushes.

One of the most crucial things she is teaching the others is how to relax inside the ominously named Elephant Restraint Device, better known as an ERD. Located in the elephant building, the ERD is a giant metal box with bars and moveable walls. It looks a little like a big cage, but nobody at the zoo utters that word out loud. Too controversial. Too old school. The zoo prefers to call it the Hugger.

The way it works: An elephant is led inside the metal box, and then a keeper pushes a lighted green button, and the side walls - made of thick metal bars - close in enough so that the elephant can't make any big movements. Keeping the animal relatively still is essential if the staff is to safely work up close, reaching through openings in the bars to draw blood and urine and perform other procedures.

In a few months the zoo hopes to use the ERD to help artificially inseminate Ellie. Msholo and Sdudla are too young and therefore too short to mount her; they'll grow soon enough, but the zoo staff isn't waiting. Lowry Park is arranging for two specialists to fly in from Germany. They have names and distinguished reputations, these two vets. But at zoos around the world, they are known as "the Berlin boys."

It might seem odd, going to such lengths to make another elephant calf in the United States when southern Africa is overflowing with elephants. But Lowry Park's recent experience, importing the four juveniles from Swaziland, shows just how much more complicated and controversial - not to mention expensive - that process can be.

The German vets will come to Tampa early next year to perform the artificial insemination. In the meantime, Ellie's keepers can see her confidence growing, especially in the bond she has established with Matjeka. Every day the two females walk together in the yards. At night, the keepers place them in adjoining stalls and allow them to sleep side by side.

Is it so surprising the two females have been drawn together? One has been an exile most of her life. The other arrived here as an outsider, even to the elephants who flew inon the same plane.

Maybe Ellie and Matjeka recognize something in each other. A sense of not belonging, perhaps.

Lifelong bonds have been built on less.

- - - 

Blink, and suddenly it is winter.

In the Asia department, the tiger keepers are noticing a change in Enshalla. From her den, she still growls at Eric. But on some mornings, she seems smitten and rubs against the mesh between them.

Time to put the two of them together. Maybe they'll figure it out. Maybe one will kill the other.

Love is never easy.

- - - 

About the series

Over the past four years, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Thomas French and staff photographer Stefanie Boyar chronicled life inside Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. With the zoo's permission, they followed the keepers and the animals, interviewing everyone from the volunteers to the zoo's CEO.

French and Boyar witnessed most of the events described in this series, including today's scenes among the tigers and the chimps. The sections describing the elephants' progress are based on interviews with Brian French, Steve Lefave and Lee Ann Rottman and on extensive reporting at the zoo, following the elephants and their keepers. Brian French is not related to Thomas French, the Times reporter.

The account of the staff's efforts to save the baby manatee is based on interviews with Virginia Edmonds and on firsthand reporting afterward as the keepers worked with other manatees.

Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.



Coming friday

On a rain-drenched river, experts pursue one of Lowry Park's most beloved manatees as he swims toward freedom. At the zoo, in an elaborate display of technology, specialists from Berlin attempt to impregnate a female elephant.