Zoo story: The human exhibit

A mayor gone wild. Beautiful artifice. Warthog freedom. 10-million & counting. A gathering of alphas. Hidden currents. Orangutan artillery. Oozing & slithering. A quiet passing. It's all happening at the zoo.

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 10, 2007


A cool Saturday evening. A big fat moon lights the sky. Diamonds sparkle inside augmented cleavage.

All of Lowry Park Zoo is closed and dark, except for the front pavilion and fountain, which are strung with paper lanterns and overflowing with champagne and cocktails and $250 dinners of filet mignon and sea bass.

Tonight - April 3, 2004 - the zoo hosts its 16th annual Karamu black-tie gala. This year's theme is Komodo & Kimonos, which explains, sort of, the lanterns, the troupe of performers undulating inside the giant yellow dragon, and the snapdragons and the orchids waiting at every table, along with fortune cookies containing a breathless message from a certain corporate sponsor: Good fortune smiles on AmSouth customers!

Munch on the cookie. Toss the fortune. Gaze into the sea of the wealthy and connected and surgically enhanced, the women looking ravishing in their party dresses, the men resplendent in their tuxes.

At the zoo, our attention is almost always directed toward the behavior of other animals. But on this one evening, for just a few hours, the spotlight turns to the species that rules all the others.

Karamu is the zoo's greatest gathering of alphas. They come to see and be seen, to assert their place in the hierarchy, to show off their jewelry and their curves. Sex, money and power intersect in a glittering tableau. The hidden currents, churning beneath the civilized veneer, slip into view.

The human exhibit, in full display.

- - - 

Behold. On the far side of the pavilion, Lex Salisbury, Lowry Park's director, is shaking hands and accepting congratulatory hugs as he introduces everyone to his new wife, Elena Sheppa. The news of their wedding passes through the crowd like flames in a parched forest. Other women appraise the bride, who shimmers in pearls and a pink dress and the aura of newlywed bliss. Someone explains that she is an artist, a sculptor who works with glass. The consensus is that she is lovely.

Unlike so many other men here tonight, Lex looks at ease in his tux, hugging Elena close as he smiles and makes eye contact with the titans who have come to supply the zoo with cash. An array of CEOs is on hand, along with assorted tycoons, bank execs, law partners, plus a man in a black-on-black tux who is described, again and again, as the orthodontist to all of South Tampa.

A droning buzz rises from the tables. The guests are laughing and gossiping and telling jokes and sharing stories. They are talking so much, at such volume, it's hard to make out what any of them are saying.

Doesn't matter. Better to ignore the chatter and simply watch the people and see what can be learned from what they do instead of what they say. These are primates, after all. Respectable men and women, yes. The highest echelons of Tampa society. But still primates.

What would a field anthropologist, studying this elite sampling of the species, observe tonight?

First, note the way the males puff out their chests and swagger as they approach another alpha. The gleam in their eye as they test one another with death-grip handshakes, waiting to see who'll flinch. Some skip the handshake combat and move directly to mock wrestling, wrapping their arms around one another's shoulders, squeezing and smothering their potential rivals until they surrender. Once these contests are completed, some of the alphas stand together and survey the crowd.

"I'm hungry now," says one.

The behavior of the women is equally primal. Many have dedicated countless hours and great expense to ensuring that every eye turns their way. Since they are at a zoo, the females have borrowed from nature's design choices, showcasing themselves with feathers and leopard prints and fur-lined collars. Even Pam Iorio has gone wild. The Tampa mayor, known for her monochromatic wardrobe, has appeared in a zebra-print jacket.

"Good to see you again," she says to one well-wisher after the other, smiling her official smile. "Good to see you again."

A few of the women - not the mayor - test the boundaries of how much flesh can be shown without inviting the censure of other females in the tribe. One woman wears a shiny black gown, the front of which plunges to just above her navel, revealing her perfectly tanned torso and one hemisphere of each perfectly round breast. Keeping the other hemispheres under wraps is a minor feat of engineering. Double-sided tape, perhaps.

The night is all about display. Many of the females are wearing towering high heels. For anyone who has witnessed Enshalla the tiger presenting to Eric during their mating dance, the effect of the heels is obvious.

One of the men whose wives is among the most provocatively dressed stands guard at her side, watching the other males staring at her. For most of the night, the man keeps one hand attached to his wife's body. First her arm, then the small of her back. Then, in front of everyone, he slips his fingers down her spine and cups his palm around the top of her backside.

His message is clear.

She's mine.

- - - 

Up front, the auctioneer is accepting bids for one of the zoo's elephants.

"Ten thousand dollars right here," he says. "Come on, we need eleven!"

The evening is a smash. One couple bids $11,000 to adopt an elephant for a year, calling the pledge a wedding present to Lex and his new wife. Another couple bids $30,000 to adopt three elephants. By the time the proceeds are counted, Lowry Park will have raised more than $195,000.

Near the end, when the band picks up the tempo and a conga line loops through the tables, Lex approaches a dozen or so guests.

"Come with me," he says.

He leads them away from the lights and music. The women walk unsteadily in their gowns and heels. They don't care. Lex has promised a sneak preview of the elephants.

Through the darkened zoo they go, past the free-flight aviary and the petting zoo empty now of children and goats, past the warthogs and the giraffes and the zebras who have only recently arrived at the zoo in time for the opening of Safari Africa.

Outside the elephant building, Lex bewitches the group with the narrative of the hulking creatures waiting inside. He tells how they lost their families as calves and how the zoo rescued them from another death sentence in Swaziland and how they were flown across the Atlantic in defiance of PETA.

"Did you say the animal rights groups wanted them shot?" someone asks.

"Yes," says Lex. "Because they feel they're better off dead than in a zoo."

He unlocks the front door and escorts them into the Africa department's office, where he pauses again. The man has a talent for ratcheting expectations. He tells the group about Ellie and how her whole family group was shot in Namibia and how she was brought to the United States as a tiny orphaned calf.

"That's incredible!" a voice calls out.

The group is too big to squeeze inside the available space, so Lex splits them in two, reminding everyone to stay behind the yellow line that extends several feet away from the stalls.

As the guests step inside, their mouths open in astonishment. The elephants are lined before them, pressed against the bars, trunks waving in the air. Up close, they seem much bigger. More real. More vivid.

Lex introduces Mbali. He tells them her name means flower.

"Does she want human contact?" someone asks as Mbali reaches with her trunk almost to Lex's face.

"No," says Lex, staying clear. "She's just smelling me."

"This is Ellie," he says, walking to the front of another stall. "Do you see how much bigger she is than the other elephants?"

Ellie, too, reaches toward him.

"That's okay, sweetie pie."

The visitors stand transfixed at the yellow line, captivated as they stare up into the elephants' faces and sense the intelligence and curiosity swirling inside.

When Lex turns off the light to leave, the elephants' trunks are still in the air, beckoning.

- - -

Sunlight. Bulldozers chugging and beeping, construction workers scurrying. Plumes of dust rising about the 51/2 acres that will soon be known as Safari Africa.

A few weeks before the May 28 opening, Brian Morrow, Lowry Park's design guru, stands in the middle of all the commotion, surveying his creation. He talks about the landscape features he has assembled. About how he worked from actual photos of actual African boulders to make sure the zoo's boulders will be just right.

Brian's title at Lowry Park is director of capital construction. As a boy, he designed a model theme park in his family's basement, with a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel. Now he builds new exhibits at the zoo, studying eroded river banks and weathered stones - all so he can heighten the public's sense that they have set foot in Africa.

"Replicating nature," he calls it.

Brian loves the scale of what they're attempting. The immensity of it.

"Africa is big. The exhibits are big. The animals are big."

One of Lowry Park's goals, he explains, is to put visitors as close to the animals as possible, without endangering anyone on either side of the fence. That's why the zoo has built a platform where guests can stand at eye level with giraffes and feed them by hand, and a viewing area where they can watch from above as the elephants swim in their new 250,000-gallon pool.

"It's all about the idea of the juxtaposition of humans and nature," Brian says. "Proximity equals excitement, and excitement will turn into a connection and love for animals."

From another person's mouth, these sentiments might sound Orwellian. Bubbling out of Brian, with all his boundless enthusiasm, they make you want to hug a warthog.

Even Brian, however, would acknowledge the limits of such beautiful artifice. No matter how much ingenuity and delight he and others have poured into this project, Safari Africa can never come close to matching the real thing.

The four elephants from Swaziland must recognize this better than anyone. They appear to have adjusted to their new routines and their new lives. But the 5 acres of their exhibit are a long way from the savannah they once roamed. It's true, the elephants were systematically tearing down the trees inside the Swazi parks. Still, what remained was glorious.

Deep thickets where the red leopard grass grows past the ears of a baby rhino. The watering holes, crowded with wildebeest and impala, drinking deeply as they watch for crocodiles approaching from below.

Some things cannot be replicated.

- - - 

That spring, the sense of momentum can be felt in every corner of Lowry Park.

In the aviary department, the staff is thrilled. They're awaiting the arrival of an argus pheasant chick, the zoo's first. The female pheasant has laid eggs before, but none has hatched. The keepers can tell this time will be different, because they've been candling the brown egg, placing it under a bright light that allows them to see within. The shell becomes translucent and the embryo appears as a deep crimson form, veins spidering through the yolk. This one is definitely alive.

One of the keepers points to a pip, a tiny dent in the shell that means the embryo is already pushing with its beak. "This is the pip right here. We found it this morning."

The aviary staff is keeping the egg inside an incubator, getting ready for the new chick. Soon it will make its entrance, chipping its way into the world.

In the Asia department, the keepers are still putting the two Sumatran tigers together. Enshalla shows no sign of pregnancy, but she and Eric are mating frequently. One day, they climb on top of the tiger platform. Enshalla is so contented, she luxuriates at Eric's feet.

- - - 

The argus pheasant chick hurries toward his debut. Shortly after the first pip appears in the egg, the staff can see the tip of a beak, poking more holes from inside. When they come from lunch, the chick is out, standing in the incubator, wet and sticky.

"When he made his mind up," says one keeper, "he was ready."

They try not to touch him too much. They don't want him imprinting on them, mistaking one of them for his mother.

Aviary keepers have a reputation for being quiet and reserved. But the successful hatching of the argus chick has made them almost dizzy. Beaming, they lead visitors back to the incubator to show off their new arrival.

The chick, tiny and brown and fuzzy, stands in the light, softly peeping.

- - -

Lowry Park is on a streak unlike any it has ever known.

Safari Africa is going to be a monster hit. The management can already feel it. And they are ecstatic because the latest issue of Child magazine declares Lowry Park the best zoo for kids in the United States.

After months of studying more than 150 accredited zoos, Child has rated Lowry Park above the biggest institutions in the country, with the San Diego Zoo getting the No. 2 slot. In its article, the magazine salutes Lowry Park for its hands-on exhibits, its array of children's educational programs, its years of rehabilitating manatees and its commitment to safety. The judges are impressed with the zoo's preparations for the possibility of an escaped animal, which the zoo calls a code one. Lowry Park, they note, schedules these drills twice a month.

"The most of our survey," the magazine says.

More good news follows. Attendance hits a historic benchmark as the zoo welcomes the 10-millionth visitor to walk through the gates since the new Lowry Park opened in 1988.

"Congratulations!" someone tells the lucky man. A banner is unfurled. A TV crew hovers.

- - -

One more piece of news. No banners for this one.

The argus pheasant chick is gone. Only a few days old, he died from an infection. The aviary keepers are devastated. To have the chick snatched away, just when they were getting their hopes up, is too hard.

The loss, unknown to the world outside the zoo, is another turn of nature's wheel. A quiet reminder that no matter how hard the keepers work to keep the animals safe, there are always complications that can't be foreseen, outcomes that can't be forestalled.

- - - 

Dustin Smith - head of the herps department, scourge of all bunnyhuggers - is headed toward the Komodo building. The female dragon laid a clutch of eggs last week. They weren't fertilized, so she ate them.

"The males," says Dustin, "will eat fertilized eggs."

Savage. But so be it.

Dustin's path to the Komodos takes him directly past the orangutan exhibit, where one of the female orangs, Dee Dee, lies in wait. She doesn't like men in general; she hates Dustin in particular, for reasons he can't fathom. Whenever he walks by, Dee Dee hurls her droppings. She has a good arm. Even when Dustin is zipping by in a golf cart, she calculates the velocity and movement and leads her throw just enough for the bull's-eye.

"Women," says Dustin, shaking his head.

To be fair, the man invites abuse. All day long, he messes with the other keepers. His standard greeting is to flash an L sign.

"Loser," he says, grinning.

"Dustin . . ."

"Whatever," he says, cutting them off.

Dustin's 25, but it's easy to see the scruffy boy he once was, the waif whose mother let him bring home countless orphaned creatures, as long as they didn't devour the family cat. The explorer who wandered the fields for hours, peering under every piece of rotted wood to see if he could catch another snake. The women at the zoo empathize with his wife; they assume she is heroic in her patience.

Word is, she's pregnant with their first child. The idea makes even his friends shudder.

Dustin is spawning. Dear God.

Somehow, in spite of himself, he is beloved. It helps that he is brilliant and knows more about reptiles than seems humanly possible. Also that he is possessed with a strangely winning passion for animals that almost nobody else cares about.

Dustin is the defender of downtrodden amphibians, maligned arachnids, anything that oozes or slithers. Spend an hour with him, and you will hear a running discourse on the discrimination that plagues cold-blooded creatures.

"I don't know why we call them cold-blooded anyway. Most of the time, their blood is about 88 degrees. Do you think that's cold?"

This is an approximate rendering of what he says. He talks fast and walks faster, making it impossible to catch every word. Wait. He's still going.

"I think we should call them ectotherms."

He explains that it means any animal whose body temperature matches the temperature of its surroundings.

This is Dustin's crusade. He wants the warm-blooded world to embrace ectotherms.

He knows it won't be easy. He and his staff are biding their time, working under the radar. Feeding bunnies to the pythons, urging the frogs and spiders to increase their numbers, slipping another turtle into public view.

- - - 

The last days before Safari Africa opens are somehow both chaotic and exhilarating - Brian Morrow giving instructions nonstop on both his walkie-talkie and his cell phone, the keepers pushing through a stream of last-minute tasks, sweat dripping down their faces.

One of the warthogs escapes, briefly. The giraffes balk at leaving their barn. A bongo antelope proves so skittish, the staff calms him with a small dose of a sedative.

Then everything falls into place. At the unveiling ceremony, Lex Salisbury stands with Pam Iorio and other dignitaries, preparing to cut the ribbon with giant scissors. Mayor Iorio has left the zebra-print jacket at home, but has donned a safari hat for the occasion.

"I think we should celebrate these elephants," she says, turning to Lex. "Where are they? Are they back there?"

Lex grins. "Yeah."

"Are they happy?"

A bigger grin. "Yeah."

Someone counts to three, and the ribbon falls, and the crowd waiting behind the dignitaries spills forward, and a little girl sees the warthogs and yells "Pumbaa!" and then the crowd moves on to the giraffes and the zebras and then, finally, to the overlook above the elephant yards, where Ellie and Matjeka walk together, ears flapping, tails swishing, every giant step and every curlicue of their trunks registering on the faces of all the humans gasping with delight.

Lex stands back and studies the reactions and never stops smiling.

- - - 

In the rush of that morning, a rumor spreads among the crowd. A rumor that turns out to be true.

Ellie is pregnant.

- - - 

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, including today's scenes describing Karamu and the opening of Safari Africa. French and Boyar attended the fund-raiser, and French joined Lex Salisbury and his guests for the late-night visit to the elephants.

The description of the game parks where the four elephants once lived is based on French's reporting in Swaziland. The scenes with the argus pheasant chick are based on firsthand reporting and interviews with the aviary staff. The section on Dustin Smith is based on lengthy reporting with Smith and on interviews with him and others from Lowry Park's staff.

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