Keepers’ Eyes Around the Clock
Madge Van Buskirk and Arlene Thorwarth
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Volunteer Observers at the Cincinnati Zoo, hereafter referred to as ZVO, are a sort of subspecies of the Zoo’s general volunteer organization. They are presently headquartered at CREW, the Zoo’s Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife, with CREW Director Dr. Terri Roth and Veterinarian Dr. Mark Campbell serving as liaison to zookeepers.
Requirements for becoming a ZVO are simple: you must have been a reliable, active member for at least a year of another zoo group, such as tour guides, learning cart interpreters, CREW, or animal handlers, who all are accustomed to regularly scheduled responsibilities. You must be willing to be scheduled on call for at least once a week, and be totally aware that, wherever and whenever you work, it is essential to follow directions received from the staff.
How did this organization originate? And how has its development mirrored the changing face of the Cincinnati Zoo over the past twenty-six years? Let’s turn our clock back to the days when I first came to the Zoo as a pioneer tour guide. As the children and I were looking and learning together, we saw no Education Building, no Botanical Center, no Jungle Trails or Gorilla World, no Manatee Springs (there was an Aquarium) or World of Insects, no Eagle Aerie or Gift Shops. But there were Tour Guides, and there were ANIMALS!
One of the favorite tour stops was at the old Ape House, now the Zoo Gallery, where two wild-caught pairs of lowland gorilla were exhibited. This is the place where ZVOs began. In the early spring of 1974, Ape House Keeper Cecil Jackson notified the Animal Curator of his need for help in monitoring the pregnancy of 18-year-old Penny, whose preceding pregnancies had left her fearful and unpredictable.
Lacking daily vet visits, shared information from other zoos, or sonograms, volunteers could provide an answer. The Curator consulted the Education Director who appointed a volunteer “Watch” Coordinator from among the Tour Guides (ME!) and together we assembled 105 “Gorilla Watchers” composed of fellow Tour Guides, nurses, professors, and students from local universities, high school science teachers, and other interested friends of the Zoo.
For eight weeks “Gorilla Watchers” eyes focused on Penny in 3-hour shifts as they were scheduled around the clock. These willing volunteers sat behind the scenes, following staff directions closely, passing along any developments by word of mouth, shift to shift. Then, one April morning before dawn, the Zoo’s seventh baby gorilla was born. The watchers had properly summoned keepers and other staff, and the baby was soon safely settled into the Nursery, as was the custom at that time. The eyes, which witnessed that event, belonged to a pair of Northern Kentucky University anthropology students, who were interviewed by the press and envied by 103 other “Gorilla Watchers.” They could not know that 40 more gorillas would be born here, or that a precedent was being set for future Animal Watches at the Zoo.
During the next few years, the inevitable changes, which mark a good and growing zoo, were occurring rapidly, and the ZVOs were learning to adapt. In 1978 the gorillas were spending their days outdoors at Gorilla World. The ZVO program assisted in implementing the formation of Visitor Aides and Safety and Security Volunteers who educated the public and offered protection for the animals in the new Gorilla World exhibit. There were now more buildings, more renovations, and more volunteers, making it possible for ZVOs to come from within the zoo itself, knowledgeable about its animals and their exhibit areas.
ZVOs were ready now to go behind the scenes, upstairs and down, in retreat areas or basements, especially overnight, to watch for births, to summon help, and to become better acquainted with the night keepers, those valuable folks who met them at the gate for each change of shift and escorted them to their location on the grounds. Perhaps we should add, on a human note, how much they enjoyed many a sweet treat furnished by ZVOs who needed food and coffee to keep them awake!
In the 1980s, keepers began to request assistance more often with the rare ones as the animal collection grew in diversity. Such observations included the birth of a tiny rusty spotted cat, which was off display in the basement of Gorilla World. The next animal observed was the Zoo Ambassador cheetah “Angel” for a possible pregnancy, which proved to be false. Observers went to the Elephant House to keep a detailed account of the behavior and birth of our first okapi. Did you know that newborn okapi calves always return to the same “nest spot” for rest and sleep? During this time volunteers continued to watch gorillas (the next generation), not for births, but for mother-infant interactions, nursing, reintroductions, etc. Mother-reared infants were becoming the goal.
With the addition in 1984 of the zoo’s science adjunct, the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Wildlife, the director, Dr. Betsy Dresser, turned her efforts toward a study of embryo transplants and transfers. This was an experience new to ZVOs as they observed surrogate mothers successfully produce calves of bongo born to bongo, bongo born to eland, and, some months later, an eland which bore a calf produced by implant of a frozen embryo. To be able to call Dr. Dresser at 4:00 a.m., in time for her to get to the Veldt Barn to view the births on the TV monitor alongside a ZVO on duty, was truly a thrill for both.
As the last decade of the 20th century arrived , ZVOs were thrust into a rapidly passing show where they gathered information about 17 species, most of them involved with conservation issues. Within the Zoo itself they traveled from the Komodo Dragon yard to Wildlife Canyon, home of the Sumatran rhino; from the Walrus Pool to Jungle Trails where they learned to time and check certain bonobo reproductive behaviors daily. At the Elephant House they carefully noted the births of Asian elephant and okapi, as well as recorded the development of the bonding behaviors between mothers and infants. On went this day-and-night “field” research with the arrival of three white lion cubs, a gift from Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried and Roy, who hoped that zoo life might contribute to the conservation of that rare species.
A carefully planned introduction of female “Prosperity” to the two “boys” was ZVOs first watch over the big cats. As the conservation clock ticked on, the Zoo’s Aquarium gave way to Manatee Springs, a fabulous exhibit of Florida wildlife where Stoneman and Douglas have focused visitor attention on the plight of manatees in the wild. Here ZVOs communicated to our vets, before the building opened to the public, information about how this pair reacted to their change from salt to fresh water, and how and what they ate.
During this past decade more gorillas were born due to the presence of Chaka, who came on loan from Philadelphia as that zoo recovered from its terrible fire. A quite different watch was scheduled, however, just around the corner from Gorilla World in the Nocturnal House, when that keeper requested ZVO eyes to focus in the dark upon small nocturnal animals about which so little is known. A flashlight was the tool used to observe introductions of female to male of three species. ZVOs really loved meeting banded linsangs, banded palm civets, and, most of all, four pair of striped opossums from New Zealand!
Have there been rewards during these years of commitment to the Zoo? You bet! Tangibles have included special pins and badges, and keeper recognitions with trips behind the scenes. From Las Vegas came autographed program booklets, even privileged seating at shows. Appreciation from the Zoo Development Department was expressed by way of an article about ZVOs’ contribution to the zoo in Footprints, a publication sent to all supporters and donors.
But the best reward for every Zoo Volunteer Observer remains intangible. The ties of respect and friendship established among peers and zoo personnel, together with a very deep sense of personal closeness to the animals at the heart of it all, will forever be part of their memories of the Cincinnati Zoo. Now a ZVO night volunteer will describe to you her experiences (while trying to stay awake) and demonstrate the tools used for the watches, such as ethograms, notebooks and clipboards, two-way radios, flashlight to watch a log (thought to be a Komodo Dragon), and describe her one experience that all of us hope for–seeing a birth in person. This is not always happy, as the world’s first ever Indian Desert Cat born to a surrogate mother domestic cat did not live. She has talked with vets and keepers as they often come late at night to check on their charges and to read our notes to be assured all is well before heading