All day long, rain pelted down on Houston. And all day long, Kimacho the okapi refused to leave the comfort of his cozy, dry barn.
“If he hears the rain on the roof, that’s it. He stayed inside all day yesterday,” said Steve Fueglein, a zookeeper who is amused and only a little exasperated by the okapi’s stubborn streak. “No one must have told him he is from the rain forest.”
And so the day begins in one of the barns backstage at the Houston Zoo, where I’ve been invited to help out during the morning routine. This hidden world is like a little dormitory of sorts. It is home to two okapi, a couple of bongos, a cranky crown crane, a handful of docile duiker, and a warthog who is so ugly and sassy that I became utterly convinced that she is a thing of rare beauty.
In the close quarters of the barn, the animals’ personalities and quirks shine in a way the public rarely gets to experience. Inside the barn, their wild nature rubs against the comfortable domesticity of zoo life. Sometimes that friction creates sparks, and sometimes it produces comic relief.
It is just before 7 a.m., and darkness is lifting from the leafy canopy surrounding the zoo grounds. Walking up to the barn for the first time, you notice how quiet and still everything is. You know animals must be nearby—watching, listening. But they remain silent and invisible until the crunch of your footsteps sets off the crown crane, who sets up a honking that sounds like a small automobile stuck in traffic.
“The crane is our motion detector,” Steve explains.
The animals who sleep inside overnight seem to be expecting Steve—and the arrival of their breakfast. For most the morning meal is a mixture of leafy greens, carrots, maybe a chopped-up sweet potato, and some manufactured zoo chow. As the first animals are released outside, the little warthog named Sekini began banging on her stall door. “She is impatient. She wants out when she wants out,” the zookeeper explained.
One of the first animals in the yard was the okapi named Kwame. He was not afraid of a little rain, and he definitely was not afraid of people. When I scratched under his furry jawbone, he used his giant tongue to lick me under my furry chin. He didn’t stop until I stopped.
“I wouldn’t mind the licks so much,” Steve said after Kwame and I finally cut it out, “if he didn’t plunge his tongue in his nose immediately afterward.”
I quickly looked around and sure enough, Kwame’s tongue was probing the dark recesses of his snout. If ever there were a textbook example of getting information too late to be helpful, this was it.
While Kwame was too interested in his nose to be amused by my disgust, some animals love to prank on people. When Steve worked with chimps at the St. Louis Zoo, he learned of their sport of spitting water on people passing by. When the victims yelled and made faces of astonishment, the chimps would whoop their approval.
“The zookeepers learned to stop reacting to it, so the chimps got bored and left us alone. But the maintenance guys never seemed to figure it out. So whenever they came inside, all the chimps would run and fill their mouths with water,” Steve recalled. “One chimp actually climbed a pole so he could spit over me and hit a maintenance guy right on top of the head.”
While Kwame acted almost like a big, striped pet, the crane was having none of this Doctor Doolittle stuff. When it came time to open his stall, I was instructed to back up. The door swung open and the crane started to bob and weave like Muhammad Ali. He spread his wings to show he was prepared to strike if Steve did not give him the proper respect. It was no idle threat, either. The crane was ready and able to peck with his beak and scratch with his large, clawed feet.
“It can be painful,” the zookeeper admitted while avoiding a showdown by using peanuts to lure the beady-eyed bird outside.
Sekini the warthog finally got the green light, and she prissed past with a quick, high-stepping gate, her wild wisps of hair trailing behind her.
“She is the queen of the barn,” said Steve, who could not hide his admiration for the little pig.
It is little moments like these and the unscripted, irrepressible nature of animals that keeps Steve coming back every morning. “The great thing about working at the zoo,” he said, “is you never experience the same day twice.”
And while I may never get to experience a second day in a zoo barn, it will be a long time before I forget Kwame, his tongue, and the strange beauty of an ugly pig with attitude.
Editor’s Note: Greg Hassell is a contributing writer for The Buzz Magazines. If you have a new adventure for Greg to write about, please e-mail your suggestions to (email@example.com) info (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com.