Zoo story: Wild

Toxic blossoms. Satellite tracking. Anakin Skywalker. Bunnyhuggers. Love sparring. Unlikely friends. Venomous snake room. It’s all happening at the zoo

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007


In the darkness beyond the edge of the sky, the satellite listens for manatee No. 9.

Five hundred miles above the planet's surface, the satellite is halfway through another orbit. From this vantage point, the Earth almost overwhelms the field of vision. A curving expanse of blue and green and brown, it appears vast enough for an endless multitude of life. And yet it's easy to make out the devastation pushing so many species toward extinction.

The melting of the polar ice caps. The fires consuming the Amazon rainforest. The toxic blossom of another Red Tide outbreak spreading off the west coast of Florida.

Year after year, a network of satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records the evidence of these and other catastrophes. The network gathers data on dozens of other missions for other researchers - taking infrared images of global cloud patterns, following the formation of thunderstorms and the path of hurricanes.

And tracking manatees.

On March 16, 2004, as it heads northward over the Caribbean toward the middle of the United States, one of those NOAA satellites - known simply as M - is among several receiving signals sent by transmitters fastened to the tails of dozens of manatees in the waters around Florida.

At 9:58 a.m., one of those signals reaches M from the St. Johns River, from the transmitter attached to manatee No. 9.

Better known, to hundreds of thousands of Floridians who grew up watching him, as Stormy.

Born and raised in captivity.

Recently released into the wild.

Now trying, on this rain-soaked Tuesday morning, to elude the net of some humans who are attempting to capture him one last time.

"Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . ."

On the tracking boat, they hear the signal first, growing louder as the transmitter rises toward the surface. Then they see the transmitter, bobbing. Then, finally, Stormy himself appears.

"Over there! Three o'clock!"

The transmitter - the team calls it a tag - is on a short tether attached to a belt around the base of Stormy's tail. Monica Ross, a biologist who has spent most of her life researching manatees, fastened the tag and belt on Stormy so they could track him by satellite and boat.

Now Monica stands at the wheel of the tracking boat, her right hand steering, her left holding the antenna that picks up Stormy's signal."Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . "

He's surfacing again.

"Tag up!" someone shouts. "He's there!"

Three boats are on the river this morning, all filled with manatee researchers and with staff from SeaWorld and Lowry Park. Virginia Edmonds, the zoo's assistant curator who works with manatees, is here. So is David Murphy, Lowry Park's vet. Both are pleased to see Stormy thriving. The manatee is navigating the river so well, he's thwarting the team's efforts to catch him in their net.

"Our little Stormy isn't stupid," says one researcher. "Oh no."

Few would have believed this day would ever come. Stormy was born at the Miami Seaquarium in 1985 and was moved a year later to Nature World, a park at Homosassa Springs. In 1990 he was sent to Lowry Park, where he became the first manatee to live at the zoo. He stayed there for the next 12 years until the team decided to give him a chance in the wild and released him in the relatively warm waters of Blue Spring State Park, on the St. Johns River.

His first time out, in early 2002, Stormy struggled. He lost weight and seemed reluctant to venture away from the spring. So the team recaptured him and brought him back to Lowry Park. Once he recovered, the manatee was released again into the same area, with the transmitter attached to his tail.

A year later, Stormy has made the most of this second chance. He's holding his weight, has learned how to migrate to and from the spring, and has been seen socializing with other manatees. That's why the team is trying to capture him this morning. They want to assess Stormy one more time. If he looks healthy, they'll remove the belt and transmitter for good.

It's like a scene from Born Free, except it's set on a Florida river and Stormy was not, in fact, born free.

"Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . "

On the boats, more joyous yelping.

"Tag up!"

"There he is!"

"See the bubbles?"

Stormy disappears again. The researchers wipe the rain from their faces and smile.

"Are we having fun yet?"

"We're having a lot of fun."

A speedboat roars by, rushing through a part of the river where people are supposed to slow down. Monica watches it pass and hisses.

Finally the research team gets the net around Stormy and takes him toward the shallows, where they wrap him in a sling and carry him onto the banks.

"Let's see if this old boy will hold still," says the vet.

Murphy - nobody calls him by his first name - makes sure the team collects samples of Stormy's blood and urine and skin and also new measurements of his length and girth and weight. He's up to 1,090 pounds.

Amid all the prodding, Stormy starts to flex and roll.

"Get out of the way!" says Murphy. He turns to Virginia Edmonds. "Virginia, talk to him."

"Come on, Storm," she says, leaning in. "Easy, Storm. Come on."

Soon the manatee calms down. They remove the tag and lift him in the sling again, then carry him back into the river.

No more satellites listening from above. No more boats pursuing him with nets. As he swims away, Stormy's on his own.

Applause from the team. A few tight faces, fighting back tears. They're sad because they won't be a part of Stormy's life anymore. And happy because they know they shouldn't be.

Virginia lets out a big sigh.

"Oh, boy," she says. "Yeah."

- - - 

Days rushing toward night. Weeks disappearing.

Back at the zoo, in one of the primate department's night houses, a cluster of howler monkeys - eager to be let out into their exhibit - whoops in rhythmic, escalating waves that echo off the cement block walls.

A few feet away, in their enclosure, the colobus monkeys are quiet, unable to compete with the howlers' volume. But the alpha male, Grimaldi, declares his presence with an emphatic stream from his bladder.

"Lovely, Grim," says Kevin McKay, laughing as he mixes mashed bananas and ground-up vitamins. Breakfast.

In the section of the zoo reserved for Asian species, one of the Indian rhinos whimpers like a puppy, pressing against a gate as he begs for a snack.

"Hi, Naboo," says Carie Peterson, scratching his snout through the bars.

The rhino's official name, the name shared with the public, is Arjun. But the staff calls him Naboo, after a planet in Star Wars. One of the young howler monkeys has been christened Anakin, as in Anakin Skywalker, which was Darth Vader's name before he grew up and went to the dark side. It's an inside joke. A keeper thing.

A pair of bar-headed geese - their names are Ken and Barbie - are honking and complaining as usual. In the wild, their species soars above Mount Everest. At Lowry Park, where their wings are pinioned, they can only nip at their keepers' ankles.

"Stop it," Carie is saying to them now, gently nudging them away with a rake as she cleans their exhibit. "You're brats."

Carie and the other keepers in the Asia department are ready to put Enshalla and Eric together in their exhibit. The staff knows they have to keep a close eye on the two Sumatran tigers, in case they grow violent. That's why the keepers will have fire hoses at their side when the tigers are paired.

"Hey Enshalla," Carie calls out. "Hey baby girl."

The female tiger is Carie's favorite. She thinks of Enshalla as hers.

When the tigers are put together, Enshalla appears friendly at first. But soon she is stalking Eric as though he were her prey. Finally she jumps onto his back, snarling. The keepers spray their hoses nearby, prompting the tigers to separate before Eric decides to fight back. In all-out combat, there is no question who would prevail.

Eric retreats and licks his paw. Enshalla sprays her scent, then climbs to the top of the tiger platform and declares her supremacy.

Still the queen.

- - - 

In the elephant building, another mating ritual has begun. The two specialists from Berlin are trying to impregnate Ellie.

She is standing inside the Elephant Restraint Device, feeding from a stack of hay. After 18 years inside zoos, she is accustomed to humans sticking her with needles and probing her feet for cracks. She's a little nervous. But Brian French and Steve Lefave - the keepers she knows best - are standing close, reassuring her.

"Steady," they tell her. "It's all right."

Brian and Steve are up front, positioned near Ellie's trunk. The two specialists - Drs. Thomas Hildebrandt and Frank Gritz - are behind the female elephant. They are wearing helmets and plastic protective gear that covers their entire bodies. They look like astronauts, embarking on a perilous journey.

Which is about right.

They have already inserted a catheter equipped with a light and a miniature video camera deep within Ellie's 10-foot-long reproductive tract, including the section known as the vestibule. They have also inserted an ultrasound probe inside Ellie's rectum.

Early this morning, semen was collected from a bull elephant at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Suffice it to say that the procedure involved rectal stimulation and a pouch resembling a giant condom.

That was the easy part.

Delivering the semen to its destination inside Ellie is much more tricky. The opening to an elephant's vagina is smaller than a dime - the mechanics of elephant reproduction do not require vaginal penetration by the male - and that opening is flanked by two false holes. "Blind pouches," Dr. Hildebrandt calls them. The opening to Ellie's bladder is also nearby. If the catheter doesn't reach the right hole, neither will the semen.

Sometimes the procedure requires hours. But Ellie is fairly calm. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Brian and Steve acclimated her to what she'd be experiencing, rehearsing the procedure with her in the ERD so that she would not be surprised. Now that the moment has arrived, Ellie does fine. The two vets from Berlin are able to work quickly, adjusting their instruments, reaching deep inside Ellie to accomplish what no bull has ever attempted.

The lights in the elephant barn are turned low to make it easier for the team to study the ultrasound and video feeds on nearby computer monitors. Everyone gathered around Ellie works quietly so as not to startle the patient. If Ellie were to suddenly shift or take a wrong step, the humans behind and underneath her could easily be injured.

As the vets maneuver with their probes, they speak softly to each other in German. When they need help in positioning their patient, they speak in English to Steve, who repeats the request to Brian, who is standing directly in front of Ellie, with one hand on her chest.

"I need her to back up a little," says one of the vets, and then Steve tells Brian, and then Brian tells Ellie, and Ellie does it.

"Good girl," says Brian.

To the zoo, the procedure is a triumph. Ellie does not appear to have been traumatized. The vets have lived up to their reputation for scientific prowess.

Outside Lowry Park, the achievement might be described in different terms. Here is Ellie, an African-born elephant so accustomed to captivity that when she arrived at Lowry Park she had forgotten much of how to be an elephant. Here are the specialists, inserting an array of machines, working to spark a new life.

What are the implications of this enterprise? Just because we have the mastery to accomplish such a feat, does that it make it right, or even advisable?

If Ellie becomes pregnant, any calf she bears will grow up either at Lowry Park or inside another carefully controlled environment. If that calf has offspring of its own, those descendants are likely to live in captivity as well. And then their descendants, and theirs, on and on.

The same future awaits Enshalla and Eric, and the bar-headed geese, and other captive species at Lowry Park and other zoos. The argument that many of these species are endangered and that therefore some members must be saved inside this refuge makes sense. Even so, you don't have to be a critic of zoos to wonder what will become of these animals if they are permanently removed from their natural habitat.

Dr. Hildebrandt, asked about these issues later in a phone interview, says the key is the level of care provided to the animals and the quality of their habitat. Is the elephant kept alone, or allowed to form relationships with other elephants, as they do in the wild? Are they kept in cramped quarters, or do they have room to move during the day?

"We should try to make the life of an elephant as optimal as possible," says Hildebrandt.

Lowry Park, he says, has done an excellent job providing for its herd. He's impressed with the size of the yards and the expertise of the staff. In his opinion, Ellie and the others appear to be doing well. He also points out that the artificial insemination was not performed simply in hopes of producing a calf. The procedure, he says, was crucial for Ellie's own health. If female elephants don't reproduce, they develop uterine cysts and tumors that can lead to cancer.

"It's for the best for Ellie," says Hildebrandt.

Even so, the question remains of what captivity means in the long term for all the species at Lowry Park. If a bird can't fly, is it still a bird? If a tiger can't hunt, does it slowly evolve into something more tame? As new generations of elephant calves are born at the zoo, will the herd gradually change in ways that can't be foreseen? Detached from the wild forever, will they cease to be elephants?

- - - 

Inside the venomous snake room, Led Zeppelin wails. Led Zeppelin always seems to be blaring from the radio on the shelf, above the tarantulas in their terrariums and the tub of young crocodiles.

True to its name, the room contains several venomous snakes - a copperhead, a water moccasin, several species of rattlesnakes. Other creatures live here, too. Like the goliath bird-eating spider. With legs that can span a dinner plate, it's the biggest spider in the world. It's waiting for a breakfast of crickets.

"They won't eat their prey," explains Dan Costell, "unless it's alive."

Dan likes the giant spiders well enough. But his favorites are the poison dart frogs. He keeps several species in a small room off this one where he encourages them to breed. He puts two males in a tank with one female, so that the males will feel competitive and wrestle.

"They've got to do a little sparring to be in the mood," he says.

Dan's an imposing guy, with a flat-top mohawk and bulging muscles and a Harley parked outside. A few years ago, he fought in one of those Tough Man contests. In his hands, the frogs look extra tiny.

When the females lay their eggs and the males fertilize them, he carefully gathers each clutch and tends to it inside a deli cup from Publix. He dreads going on vacation because he worries some tadpoles will die while he's away.

And yet, ask him what his favorite frogs are named - their secret nicknames - and Dan will laugh.

At Lowry Park, many of the keepers divide themselves into two groups: the bunnyhuggers and the non-bunnyhuggers. Bunnyhuggers speak in baby talk to the animals, remember their birthdays and bake them cakes, give them wrapped presents at Christmas. More than anything else, perhaps, bunnyhuggers revel in thinking up names. They name the animals after candy bars, characters on Seinfeld and Will & Grace, even one another.

Naboo the rhino? Anakin the howler monkey? Bunnyhugger names, given in tribute to a much-admired veteran keeper who worships all things Star Wars.

Sometimes bunnyhuggers grow giddy with naming. In the Asia department, Carie Peterson christens every creature that wanders into view. She has even become attached to an anole - one of those little brown lizards found on any Florida sidewalk, puffing out their dewlaps - who recently staked a claim to a log inside the tiger dens. Carie has named him Timmy.

"Everybody's named," she says. "Every single plant. Every emu."

Such behavior makes Dan and other non-bunnyhuggers roll their eyes. In the herps department, almost everyone is a certified non-bunnyhugger. They scoff at the idea of naming frogs or snakes.

"I just can't see a reason," Dan says.

Beneath the surface of this divide, a crucial question simmers. Namely, how should we relate to nature?

The bunnyhuggers are drawn to whatever aspects of their animals remind them of something in themselves. They see Enshalla dominating male tigers, and they identify with her. They see the siamangs bonding for life, and it reassures them that enduring love is possible.

The non-bunnyhuggers revel in the otherness of their creatures. The animals that terrify and disgust other people, the non-bunnyhuggers love. They marvel at the brutal efficiency of male tarantulas, who will often kill each other on sight, just to eliminate any potential rival. They are inspired by the ability of a snake to slither its way forward, without the aid of limbs.

The bunnyhuggers and the non-bunnyhuggers don't sit around the break room and preside over philosophical discussions on Man and Nature. Instead they wage guerrilla warfare.

The herps keepers resort to shock and awe. They drop spiders on unsuspecting shoulders. They slip the molt of an emperor scorpion inside a bunnyhugger's work boot. The bunnyhuggers retaliate by sneaking into the herps office and plastering their lockers with flower power signs and Barbie stickers. They coddle the feeder mice that the herps keepers save for the snakes, brightening the bare tanks of the doomed rodents with wheels and tunnels and little mouse houses, anything to make their short lives more interesting.

Back and forth the battle goes. One day, Dan abducts Carie's lizard, Timmy.

"I grabbed that anole," he says afterward. "She cried so much that we gave it back."

Carie denies she cried. She also denies yelping when she found one of the emperor scorpion molts in her boot.

Seeking revenge, Carie tells anyone who will listen that Dan is a closet bunnyhugger. Her evidence? The tenderness he bestows on his poison dart frogs.

"He makes houses for them out of coconuts. He talks about them like they're his little kids."

- - - 

Dan acknowledges that he is not immune to the charms of warm-blooded creatures with names and personalities.

He is fond of one of the zoo's chimps - the oldest member of the group, a male named Bamboo. The group's alpha, Herman, is kind to him, but Bamboo remains the lowest-ranking adult. Sometimes the three females - two of whom happen to be his daughters - pick on him, chasing him and venting their frustrations at him.

Dan likes to stop behind the chimp exhibit and visit with Bamboo. When Bamboo sees him, the chimp runs up to the fence, head bobbing in excitement. Dan knows that Bamboo needs a friend. He tells him to hang in there.

"You'll be all right," says Dan. "Don't let the girls push you around."

- - - 

The tiger keepers are not defeated. Eric's and Enshalla's first attempts at mating may not have gone perfectly. But they also did not end in disaster.

The keepers have separated Eric and Enshalla with the fire hoses a couple of times. But the next time they pair the tigers, they will be less quick with the hoses. Better, they have decided, to step back and let the tigers work things out for themselves.

Risky, yes. But worth trying.

- - - 


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.

Most of the events described in the series are based on firsthand reporting. French accompanied Monica Ross, Virginia Edmonds, David Murphy and other manatee researchers as they searched for Stormy on the St. Johns River.

The opening section describing the satellite tracking the manatee is based on interviews with Monica Ross and on information from NOAA and from CLS America, the company that tracks the manatees using NOAA's satellites.

Neither the reporter nor photographer witnessed the artificial insemination of Ellie the elephant. The scene is based on interviews with Brian French, with Steve Lefave and others at Lowry Park, and with Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, one of the German vets who performed the procedure. The reporter also relied on research papers written by Hildebrandt and his colleagues, describing their work with elephant reproduction.

The account of the low-grade guerrilla warfare between the bunnyhuggers and the non-bunnyhuggers is based on firsthand reporting and on interviews with Carie Peterson and with Dan Costell and other keepers at Lowry Park.

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