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Slice: Zookeeper Caters to Picky Eaters

July 15, 2008

The primate would move when he pleased.

Lied Jungle zookeeper Jennifer Giessinger needed to clean his cage. She tossed small chunks of sweet potato into an adjacent cage to entice the primate from his own enclosure into the other.

A female primate had immediately moved into the adjacent cage when the gate opened, but the male was stubborn. Then the female went through the open gate again, back into the cage with the male.

This had the makings of an exercise in zookeeping futility.

Take two ebony langurs — small- to medium-sized, orange-haired primates with white faces and large back feet — and try to move them in unison at human command.

Giessinger rattled the gate and gestured with her head toward the cage where she wanted the obstinate primates to go. The female moved over; the male stayed. He looked down from a shelf and had a bowel movement.

“Raow!” he squawked from time to time.

This was one brief drama in the diverse world of the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Lied Jungle, home to a dozen reptile species, 25 bird species, 28 mammal species and 30 fish species. Plus three amphibians.

Through the course of the day, Giessinger would feed many of them, clean display windows, sweep and hose feces and uneaten food from cages, and look over bats and birds, snakes and otters to make sure they were well.

Henry Doorly Zoo animals eat 2,700 pounds of meat, 1,000 pounds of fish and 900 pounds of bananas weekly, and that’s only part of the menu. The zoo’s annual grocery bill exceeds $800,000.

The jungle animals’ diets are healthier than those of most human beings. Each morning about 10 Lied Jungle zookeepers set out with buckets full of plastic bags packaged by the zoo diet kitchen. Each bag is filled with the items for a particular species. Many bags contain slices of bananas, carrots, apples and sweet potatoes, plus lettuce or kale.

Some contain biscuits or pellets so the creatures receive grain, fiber, minerals and vitamins. If an animal is ill, Giessinger might hollow out a banana, put in some powdered or liquid medicine and possibly some honey so the animal will eat it. This day she had no sick animals on her beat.

Giessinger, 29, wore a beige zookeeper’s outfit and reddish-brown rubber boots. Hooked to her belt were a flashlight, a small tool that served as screwdriver, knife and pliers, keys to open the doors to animal enclosures, a nozzle to attach to hoses, and her green Shrek watch. She also carried pepper spray in case an animal attacked her. She said she’s never had to use it.

The daughter of teachers, Giessinger has worked at the zoo for seven years.

Serious, always on task, the South Dakota State University graduate is not squeamish about the strong animal odors or feeding rats to carnivores. That’s how nature works, and it’s part of the job.

Some animals didn’t go near her when she pulled out an empty bowl and put in a new bowl of food. The pygmy slow loris, a little primate, sat high in a corner and looked down on her with big, sad eyes. Others met her at the door.

“Back up. Back up,” she told two red-ruffed lemurs who were delighted to get their food.

Then there was the silvery-cheeked hornbill, a cartoonish-looking bird with a massive bill. Old and losing her sight, the bird walked up to Giessinger, who crouched with fruit between her fingers.

The hornbill ate out of her hand, taking a grape in her bill and tossing her head back, then taking another.

The zookeeper went into a holding area in back. It was time to release five ring-tail lemurs from their night holding area into the day display area, which happened to be in the same enclosure with the silvery-cheeked hornbill. The primates and bird leave each other alone.

The lemurs crawled up a walkway toward their day area. They obeyed. “But they know that they’re going to get treats when they go out there,” Giessinger said. The lemurs raced into the cage in a momentary frenzy, splashes of gray and black bounding about like pinballs.

They stopped long enough to be hand-fed banana and apple pieces. One uninterestedly dropped a piece.

It’s easy to personify these animals; the primates in particular have expressive faces that seem almost human. The Lied Jungle zookeepers tend not to give them human names. They’re wild animals and should be respected as such, the zookeepers say.

The little vampire bats wanted nothing to do with fruits and veggies. For those flying mammals, the zookeeper carried a bottle of cow’s blood. She poured the blood to the tops of five small petri dishes. One of numerous vampire bats flew down and walked awkwardly from dish to dish, seemingly inspecting the blood, sipping from one that had bubbles on top, like a foaming beer.

A gecko sitting inside a plant received a dose of crickets for dinner. The clouded leopard eats a rotating menu of meat, including pieces of chicken, bison, rat and occasionally a small bone on which to gnaw. Using pliers, the zookeeper held a dead white mouse by the tail and fed it to the mata mata turtle.

The zookeepers also like to challenge or stimulate some of the animals, especially primates, with a variety of diversions — newspapers to tear up, perfumes to smell, fruit embedded in ice. Giessinger hid some of the ebony langurs’ vegetables inside brown paper.

She continued to try to move the ebony langurs from one cage to another so she could clean their enclosure. The male climbed and squawked, then scratched his cheek. Giessinger cocked her head like a mother waiting for her child to obey. She tossed more sweet potato into the pen into which she wanted the primates to move.

The female went into the correct cage. This time, the male followed. The drama lasted only five minutes.

“Good boy,” Giessinger said.

–Contact the writer: 444-1123, rick.ruggles@owh.com

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