Zoo story: The city & the forest

The pregnant virgin. Vanishing species. Playing God. Lethal fungus. A giant pig in Rockefeller Center.  Leaf-cutter ants. Stardom. Surprise at dawn. Elephant Lamaze. It's all happening at the zoo

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007


Now come days of jubilation, months of fiscal glory. A summer of splendor at the ticket windows, of overflowing revenue streams and vaulting growth projections - all fueled by the legions of tots, sun-scorched but happy as they wave at their new best friends, Mr. Warthog and Mr. Giraffe.

With the blockbuster opening of Safari Africa, 2004 reigns as the most luminous year in Lowry Park's history. The news of Ellie's pregnancy only adds to future expectations. The 19-year-old elephant isn't due until late 2005. But if she successfully delivers, her baby will draw even more visitors and will confirm that Lowry Park can breed its fledgling herd.

Brian French and Ellie's other keepers are increasing her vitamins and exercising her in the yards and in the pool. They're also brainstorming ways to avert catastrophe during the birth. Calves born in captivity are sometimes stillborn or die within the first 24 hours. The mother elephant can get confused and attack the newborn.

Isolated from her species for most of her life, Ellie's inexperience is profound. She has never given birth, never witnessed another female elephant delivering. She has never seen a calf.

Somehow, the humans will have to coach her. They must prepare Ellie for when the contractions travel through her and then a strange, squirming creature drops from her womb.

As if to confirm Lowry Park's new prominence, the zoo is invited that December to show off its animals on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Jeff Ewelt and Melinda Mendolusky, who lead daily animal shows at the zoo, are the obvious choices to ferry a sampling of creatures to New York.

They leave a couple of days before the show, Jeff and Melinda and their spouses in a van and a truck hooked to a trailer. Since they don't know which animals Conan will pick, they bring a bounty: a black-headed python, a chinchilla, a black vulture, two New Guinea singing dogs, cave-dwelling spiders from Tanzania and a Eurasian eagle owl named Ivan. Finally, there's Jeff and Melinda's new favorite, Arnold the show-stealing pig.

- - - 

If a pig can be a mutt, Arnold qualifies. He's a mixed breed, only 3 years old, 600 pounds and counting. He was someone's pet, but then he grew so massive his owner donated him to the zoo. Jeff and Melinda have made him the grand finale of their birds of prey show. The audience cheers when he lumbers into view.

Now he dozes in the back of the trailer, ensconced in hay, bound for stardom. The zoo has even brought him a little blanket to wear across his back while on the air. One side is emblazoned with Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa Bay. The other says I (heart) NY.

The night before the show, they check into a Best Western in Hackensack, N.J., and sneak the menagerie into their rooms, so they won't be left out in the cold. The singing dogs, who are nocturnal, romp through the night in Jeff's room; Ivan the eagle owl perches at the foot of Melinda's bed. Arnold is too big to bring inside so they pile more hay around him and wrap him in a comforter.

The next morning, Dec. 28, they venture into the jungle of Manhattan, now shrouded in blackened icicles and toxic slush and a bone-deep chill. Unbeknownst to the animals, they are headed into one of the cradles of modern civilization, a towering stone temple dedicated to human ambition and pride and the sacrament of the profit motive.

Rockefeller Center.

In the basement, they run into a giant obstacle. To reach the show's sixth-floor studio, Arnold has to ride the elevator. To get to the elevator, he has to scale a ramp and then walk down a long concrete corridor.

"You ready to walk, Arnold?" says Melinda. "This way, Arnie!"

They push him up the ramp. They lay a long stretch of rubber mat so he won't slip, urging him on with a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of marshmallows and powdered doughnuts.

Arnold hesitates, squeals, tries to turn around. The quest to reach the elevator exhausts him.

A crowd gathers in time to see him vacate his bowels.

"He does what he wants, huh?" says a bystander, backing away from the smell.

A quick cleanup, then Arnold resumes his slow march, walking in tiny steps like a woman in a tight skirt.

Onto the elevator and up to the sixth floor they ride, finally establishing a base camp on the linoleum floor of the studio's hallway. Extras and crew members hurry back and forth. Almost all stop at the sight of Arnold, stretched out in more hay.


"He's like Jabba the Hutt!"

Nearly everyone is sucked into Arnold's mighty gravitational field. A pneumatic blond, wearing jeans so tight they must be inducing gangrene, wants to flirt with him. Max Weinberg, who knows a star when he sees one, stops to give the pig his regards.

The only person who does not betray the slightest reaction to Arnold's presence is the show's famous host. Conan passes several times, a thin and almost spectral figure. Not once does he glance at the pig. Is the network icon lost inside some preshow fugue state?

No. Conan stops to chat up the blond.

The prerogative of the alpha, flaunted once again.

The rest of the day zips by. At rehearsal, the animals are brought onto the set for Conan to consider. The singing dogs and the vulture are out. Arnold and the rest are in, time permitting.

At showtime, Conan makes his entrance amid a joyful chorus of hoots and hollers. Suddenly, the gaunt shadow is gone, replaced by a man so electric, he seems to light the room on his own.

When Jeff and Melinda bring out Lowry Park's animals, Conan knows what to do. He drapes the python around his neck. He lets the cave-dwelling spiders crawl on his chest and onto his wrist.

"It's taking my pulse."

Through a fortuitous accident, Ivan the eagle owl wins the night. He's supposed to fly from Jeff's wife to Conan - they practiced it that afternoon - but instead Ivan spreads his great wings and circles back over the heads of the audience to rapturous applause.

Through it all, Arnold is positioned behind the curtains, waiting to deliver the segment's big finale. Then time runs out.

"Poor Arnold," says someone.

With Melinda and Jeff leading him on a leash, he slowly makes his way back to the elevator. By now he's restless and cranky.

Back in the studio, someone prevails upon Conan to give Arnold another chance. A remote camera crew catches up with him in the basement, deep into his plodding retreat.

This is it. The chance the pig and his handlers have labored toward for so long. At last, Arnold's wet and whiskered snout is on national TV.

Another triumph for the zoo. When the show airs after midnight, 2.4-million Americans will watch Conan's antics with the owl and the chinchilla and the spiders. For many in that vast audience, it will be the first time they have ever heard of Lowry Park.

As the remote crew zooms in, Arnold keeps walking in those same short, halting steps away from the camera and the lights, toward the refuge of the trailer.

He doesn't care about the Nielsens. He'd like another doughnut.

- - - 

Another jungle, 2,000 miles to the south. Marmosets chirping in the trees, as though they were birds. Leaf-cutter ants marching in a column that winds through the underbrush.

Dustin Smith, the head of Lowry Park's herps department, is hiking through a tropical forest in central Panama. Dustin has joined a team of researchers, made up of biologists and other herps keepers from other American zoos. They have come to the forest in search of a vanishing species, the Panamanian golden frog.

On this cool Tuesday morning in January 2005, Dustin and the others walk in single file, keeping an eye out for boa constrictors. The other day, in another part of the forest, they found a fer-de-lance, a deadly viper.

They climb a hill scarred with lava flow from an old volcanic eruption, then negotiate their way down the other side, toward a gorge with a rushing stream - one of the last breeding grounds of the golden frog. Of all the amphibians plunging toward extinction, the golden frog is among the most beautiful. With its bright yellow skin, dotted with deep black chevrons, it has long been Panama's national symbol. Believed to bring good luck, images of the frog hang on walls in restaurants. In gift shops, the shelves are crowded with tiny golden replicas.

The souvenirs far outnumber the real thing. As the Panamanian countryside has been paved over by developers, a lethal fungus known as chytrid has spread through the streams and rivers. The golden frog population has been nearly wiped out. Less than 2,000 remain in the wild.

"They'll be extinct probably in five years," says Kevin Zippel, the biologist who heads this project. "I don't think there's anything anybody can do to stop that."

In recent years, Kevin and other researchers have gathered small numbers of golden frogs and sent them to zoos and aquariums around the United States. Some will soon be arriving at Lowry Park. Eventually, if a defense against the fungus can be found, biologists hope to reintroduce golden frogs back into the forest - provided there is any forest left.

The odds are not good. Once these last holdouts in Panama die off, the species is almost certainly fated to live out its time on Earth inside tiny rooms at zoos.

"Is that right?" Kevin says. "I don't know."

So many amphibian species are headed toward extinction that there's no way to preserve a genetic sampling of them all through captivity. Researchers can't get to them in the wild quickly enough. Even if they could, zoos don't have room for all the species.

Which means, Kevin explains, that he and others are forced to play God. Somehow, they have to decide which amphibian species will be saved and which will be allowed to slip into oblivion.

"Is that right?" Kevin says again. "I don't know."

The golden frog has been selected for survival in captivity. Now, Kevin and Dustin and the rest of this team have come to Panama to chronicle the frogs' last stand in the wild. They want to see how many are still hanging on. If they find any, they will take skin swabs to determine if they're infected with chytrid.

The stream waiting at the bottom of the gorge has historically been one of the best places to find golden frogs. The team calls it the Thousand-Frog Stream, because in previous years, when the goldens were breeding, the banks were so thick with them that it was hard to step anywhere without risking an awful squish.

This morning as the researchers arrive again, there is no carpet of gold. Searching under leaves and in the crevices of the stones, they find only a handful of frogs.

Dustin spies one on the side of a mossy rock, then grabs it.

"This is definitely a female," he says, pointing to the frog's feet. She doesn't have any pads on the sides of her thumbs. "Nuptial pads," they're called, and only the males have them. They're used to grip the female during breeding. Sometimes the male hangs on for weeks or even longer, waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can be the one to fertilize them.

Cupped in Dustin's hands, the female appears tiny. Someone brings Q-tips to swab her. The samples are secured inside a tiny bottle, and then Dustin lets the female go.

This site, with the stream rushing over the rocks along the high walls of the gorge, seems so idyllic, so complete in its hushed perfection, that it feels like an ecstatic vision. Shafts of sunshine, piercing through the canopy, fall on the water like light through the stained glass windows of a cathedral. Vines hang everywhere, bursting with purple orchids. Spider webs glisten. A morpho butterfly flits over the water, its wings flashing a metallic, iridescent blue.

And yet, for all the beauty of this place, the researchers are struck by how empty it seems. Dustin, normally joking and talking nonstop, stands at the edge of the stream, wrapped in solitude.

Almost all of the frogs are gone. Erased, seemingly overnight.

Nothing will bring them back.

- - -

A moment of silence, then an observation.

It was only a couple of weeks ago when Lowry Park sent Jeff and Melinda to Manhattan with Arnold and the other animals. Now the same institution has helped send Dustin to the wilds of Central America on behalf of a critically endangered species.

In the arc between these two trips, Lowry Park reveals the spectrum of its ambitions - and the difficulty of knowing exactly what to make of those ambitions.

At first glance, the appearance on the Conan O'Brien show might seem nothing more than a bid for publicity. But ask Jeff and Melinda, and they will make an impassioned argument that it was an unprecedented opportunity for Lowry Park to help millions of Americans connect with wildlife.

Jeff points to the moment when Ivan the eagle owl took off and spread his wings in front of the camera. Ivan's impromptu flight was probably the first time many watching at home had ever seen an eagle owl flying or even heard of such a bird.

"To see an owl fly around like an owl should fly - that's huge," says Jeff. "There is entertainment value there. There has to be."

The Panama trip is not so easily judged, either. What appears to have been an altruistic act by the zoo is not quite that simple. Lowry Park did support the trip, but not nearly as much as it might have. Dustin says the zoo's conservation fund donated about $750 - enough to cover his plane ticket and other expenses. But his request to use work days was denied by top management. Dustin had to devote almost three weeks of his vacation time, nearly his entire allotment for the year, to join the research team in Panama. In the end, it was Dustin's dedication to the golden frogs, not the zoo's, that made his trip possible.

Does that mean Lowry Park doesn't care? Hardly. Dustin himself acknowledges the zoo's ongoing support of endangered amphibians. That's why the herps staff works with the poison dart frogs; it's why they're bringing in some of the golden frogs. In fact, in recent years, Lowry Park's conservation fund has donated more than $3,000 toward efforts to save the golden frogs.

Lex Salisbury, the zoo's CEO, would argue that an appearance on national TV - and any resulting bump in the zoo's profits - are precisely what make it possible for this nonprofit to fight for the survival of the frogs and other endangered species.

The reverse can be argued as well. Critics say such conservation efforts are token gestures, designed to legitimize the larger exploitation that zoos perpetrate every day on countless other species in the name of entertaining the masses.

So. What are the rest of us to think about all this? Considered together, what do the two trips tell us about Lowry Park?

Maybe they remind us, again, of how everything at the zoo can be viewed through different prisms.

At Lowry Park, as at any zoo, the motivation behind every act is open to question. Every decision invites suspicion. Every claim requires inspection.

- - - 

For the zoo, 2005 soars even higher than 2004. Safari Africa is already growing, with new exhibits featuring white rhinos and meerkats. A skyride has been added, offering aerial tours. And the phone lines keep repeating the same mantra:

"Thank you for calling Lowry Park Zoo, voted the No. 1 zoo in America for families."

Behind the scenes, the never-ending drive toward the top is wearing thin among some of the staff. A few keepers still have mixed feelings about Lex Salisbury's decision to bring over the wild elephants. They've seen for themselves that the four Swazi elephants appear to be doing well. And they respect the way that Brian French and his staff have so carefully worked to help the herd adjust to their new lives at the zoo.

Even so, Lex's big push has left some wondering about the zoo's direction. One of those asking questions is Carie Peterson, the keeper in the Asia department who has been working with Enshalla and Eric, the Sumatran tigers. Carie loves the animals - especially Enshalla - and until recently, she has been relatively happy working at Lowry Park, despite the low pay.

Lately, though, things about the zoo trouble her. Lowry Park is a nonprofit, but she feels it's increasingly being run like a business. She worries that the staff is already overworked and asked to do too much with too little.

Carie doesn't understand how Lowry Park can afford the elephants and the other new animals, when as far as she can tell, the budget is already stretched to the limit. If the zoo can find millions of dollars to build a state-of-the-art elephant building, why can't it spare a couple thousand to splash some new paint on the walls or fix the damaged doors in the night houses of her department?

Carie is trying to be patient. She has voiced her concerns. She hopes the problems will be addressed. She can't imagine walking away from the animals, especially Enshalla. She still wants to be there when the tiger gets pregnant and delivers her first litter.

For Enshalla, she will stay a little longer.

- - -   

Months roll by. Brian French and the rest of his staff have begun to prepare Ellie for the birth. In an elephant version of Lamaze classes, they are teaching her to lower her body by spreading her back legs and bracing them, so that when the baby arrives, it will have a somewhat shorter drop to the hard floor. Also, if she stays in the wide stance, there's less chance she'll step on the newborn calf when it emerges.

The keepers hope that Ellie will not reject the calf or be frightened. But they are planning for that possibility, too. Brian has asked that the zoo relax its protected contact protocol and allow him and Steve Lefave, his most experienced assistant, to enter Ellie's stall, so that they can get close and work with her and the calf during the delivery. Ellie is already used to humans moving beside her; for most of her life, she was raised in free contact.

One more thing: Brian wants to take extra care against the possibility that the elephant will panic during the birth and trample her calf. With the permission of his supervisors, he has begun briefly tethering Ellie's legs - sometimes one, sometimes two - with nylon straps tied to the bars of her stall. Brian and Steve tether her before they go into her stall. They want Ellie to grow accustomed to the tethers, so that if necessary the staff can restrict her movement during the delivery, offering some safety to both the calf and the humans who'll be approaching to help.

- - - 

Nine golden frogs, bred at the Baltimore Zoo, arrive at Lowry Park. Dustin Smith and his resident frog expert, Dan Costell, set up terrariums for them in the room where Led Zeppelin always seems to be playing on the radio.

If all goes well, Dustin and Dan will soon have the goldens mating. Eggs will hatch into tadpoles. The tadpoles will morph into froglets.

All to the howls of Whole Lotta Love and Houses of the Holy.

- - - 

That fall, as Ellie's pregnancy enters its final months, Brian French and Steve Lefave work with her every day, practicing the bracing position, teaching her to shift her front legs so the baby can nurse.

Brian has wired the night-vision cameras in the barn so that he and the other keepers can call up the video feeds on their computers at home. As the delivery date draws closer, the staff takes turns checking the feeds to make sure Ellie's fine. If she goes into labor at night, they want to get back to the zoo as soon as possible.

- - - 

Monday, Oct. 17. Through the early hours of that morning, Brian and his staff are clicking onto their home computers, checking on the feeds from the night-vision cameras.

At 3 a.m., Brian signs on, sees that Ellie's doing fine, goes back to sleep. An hour or so later, he gets a call from another keeper who tells him the camera feeds aren't coming up for some reason. Apparently the server has crashed. Brian doesn't worry too much. Ellie's still a month away from her due date. Besides, he and Steve are scheduled to be back at the zoo before dawn.

At 5:45 a.m., when Brian arrives, he hears an unusual sound from inside the elephant building. A bucket being kicked, maybe. Did someone leave it in one of the stalls? He heads inside to check it out, walking into the building and through the kitchen toward the double doors that lead into the darkened barn.

When he pushes open the doors, a newborn calf runs forward, straight into Brian's leg. It's a male, still bloody, weighing maybe 200 pounds.

Brian's brain races to catch up. Ellie is still in the barn. Despite all the staff's planning, she has somehow given birth on her own. It must have happened in the past hour, just after the server went down.

The calf is excited. He wants to move. But Brian wraps his arms around him and holds him steady. The floor of the kitchen is slick; if the calf falls or runs into something, he might hurt himself.

Brian looks him over, makes sure he isn't already injured. He sticks his hand into the calf's mouth to see if his airway's clear. He pulls out some placenta. He would like to go check on Ellie, but has to wait until someone else arrives to watch over the calf.

One of the other keepers - someone who works with the zebras and giraffes - walks in on Brian and the calf, locked in their slippery embrace.

"Oh," Brian remembers the other keeper saying. "An elephant."

"Yeah," says Brian. "C'mere and hold him a minute."

He runs out to his car and gets his cell phone. He calls Steve.

"We have a little bit of a surprise."

- - - 

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 and Boyar went to New York to witness Lowry Park's debut on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and were on the set during that afternoon's rehearsal and the taping of the show. The reporter and photographer also joined Dustin Smith and the research team searching for golden frogs in the forests of Panama.

The sections describing Ellie's pregnancy are based on interviews with Brian French no relation to the reporter, Steve Lefave and Lee Ann Rottman. The sections on Carie Peterson, throughout the series, are based on interviews with Peterson and from firsthand reporting over the years as French and Boyar followed the keeper at the zoo, along with other staff members.

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