A Day at the Zoo

“The zoo has allowed me to further appreciate how nature and the animal kingdom are inseparable and how removing one from the other is neither sustainable nor ethical.”

Approximately three weeks ago, I began working at the Amaru Zoologico y Bioparque, a local zoo about twenty minutes by bus from my hometown of Azogues. However, twenty minutes by bus is slightly downplaying the total amount of travel it requires… I leave my house at 6:45 am promptly with my father, who drives to his work at an Azoguenian health clinic while dropping me off at the bus station on the route.

There, I take the bus to Cuenca, a large neighboring city where I study Spanish every Wednesday. Accompanied by an episode of “This American Life” on my mp3 player, Ira Glass and I wait in the crowded bus until a looming brick hospital comes into view in the curtained windows. There, I exit the bus and begin what I consider the real trek to the zoo: a thirty minute hike up a steep mountain, upon which the zoo is perched.

On my first day at the zoo, I waited in front of the locked green iron gates, wondering how I should enter and where my coworkers could be found. After several minutes of waiting, a man began to approach from below the mountain. His warm smile announced his expectation of me and he said, “Are you Spencer?”

Edwin casually approached the gate and began to climb it while explaining with his signature friendly nonchalance that none of the zookeepers had keys to the zoo so we must all climb the gate to enter. At twenty years old, Edwin had been working for Amaru for slightly over two years and treated even the most absurd parts of his occupation (like jumping fences in order to enter, eat lunch, and leave at the end of the day) with a deprecating and nearly apologetic humor.

We continued our summit up the mountain, our breath heaving as he bid the animals “Buenos días!” The zoo, while gorgeous and diverse, is admittedly not designed for convenience. The path one must take to the nutrition center is labyrinthine, past the llamas, parrots, ducks, turtles, iguanas, the sole crocodile, the amphibian lab, and the assortment of monkeys in order to reach our work station. Once there, I met the other zookeepers, most in their late twenties, who handed me a sharp knife and instructed me on how to properly prepare papayas, pineapples, and pimientos (among other fruits and vegetables) for the animals.

On a normal work day (which for me are Mondays and Tuesdays) after I prepare an abundant fruit salad, I join a fellow zookeeper with a wheelbarrow stacked with hay and numerous buckets filled with grains, fruits, and meat down the mountain, first to the monkeys. While the monkeys are generally halcyon creatures, the “cappuccino” monkeys are quite territorial and feel challenged when one’s teeth are exposed. Of course, their cuteness is often conducive to smiling, which leads to tantrums. The zookeepers tend to avoid contact with them and openly discuss their distaste for the bitter monkeys named so unfittingly after such a delicious Italian beverage.

Personally, my favorite animals in the zoo are just next door: los charungos. These monkeys are slightly larger and more peaceful than their hectic neighbors. When I first entered their home with a bucket of fruit, they immediately swooped down from above, hanging by their tails, as they pulled the bucket closer to them while snatching small bits of apple greedily. One removed my baseball cap while another attempted to look behind my sunglasses, his little fingers so humanlike.

However, not all of the animals in the zoo are this friendly. Edwin handed me a broom and told me, “We are now going to clean the warthog’s pen. He is very aggressive, so use this broom to keep him away while we clean, okay?”  After feeding animals, which normally lasts until lunchtime, we take a leisurely break. After we eat and rest for about an hour and a half, we begin to clean the animals’ cages until 5 pm, when I descend the mountain.

We jumped in the pen and made our way to the warthog’s tide pool (the zookeepers generally don’t name the animals, so for the sake of the story let’s call him Phil). Now Phil didn’t seem particularly miffed at our presence, so we began to empty the tide pool and disinfect it with chlorine. Edwin asked me to hand him the broom. Standing there, vulnerable without the stick, Phil began to sniff at the ground around my feet as he inched closer to me, just as inquisitive as the charungos yet infinitely less adorable. I spoke quietly, calmly, to Edwin, telling him that the pig was getting too close and I don’t know what to do. Edwin continued to sweep the tide pool.

“Edwin. Um. Can you – uh… Edwin?!?” I said as my murmuring turned into a near shout as the warthog opened his mouth and went in for a hearty bite of my thigh. Just before Phil tasted denim, Edwin bopped him on the head with the broomstick as I jumped to the other side of the pool. Obviously hungry and annoyed, Phil decided to leave us alone and eat his yucca and cabbage in peace, yet I didn’t feel comfortable until I was out of the pen again.

While I have only worked at Amaru for a combined 63 hours, I can safely say that every day is quite different – after our lunch break, that is. I have collected cow bones from the lions’ den, built a thatched roof made of eucalyptus which I fell myself with a machete for the Andean bears, and I’ve directed various visitors to the zoo around the premises. There are not many guests on Mondays and Tuesdays, but still the turnout is varied and international: I have met Germans, Americans, Chinese, and Japanese tourists who climbed the mountain to ogle at the exotic animals we have here at Amaru. To call the organization a zoo is, in fact, a misnomer of sorts as it serves primarily as an animal rescue center for animals that have been kept as pets and therefore are too domesticated to return to the wild. In other cases, animals may come from covert menageries; my second week, Amaru received over thirty animals from an illegal zoo located deep in the Amazon.

Working in this environment has been an eye-opening experience on how our Western society views exotic animals. It is not uncommon to see parakeets, for example, in the homes of many Americans, yet it is an issue that Amaru steadfastly tries to address. Sure, I can understand why someone would want to own an exotic animal – whether it is a baby puma, parrot, or a chimp – however there are ethical implications of caring for such animals, an aspect of domestication that I hadn’t previously considered. Honestly, I (and I am confident that many others) haven’t questioned the practice beyond the ‘a-family-taking-care-of-a-lion-isn’t-that-cute’ phase. The zoo has allowed me to further appreciate how nature and the animal kingdom are inseparable and how removing one from the other is neither sustainable nor ethical. While the work is grueling (and oftentimes very rainy, which goes from adventurous to agitating in less than an hour), zoo keeping is a vocation in which I never expected to gain firsthand experience and for which I am grateful.