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You Belong in a Zoo
My stepmother finally reached her limit of endurance and declared, “You are an animal, and you should be in a zoo.” I immediately took her at her words, more out of spite than anything else. But where? I had visited the Bronx Zoo many times as a child, being bitterly disappointed when I found the Reptile House interminably closed for renovations, over what seemed to be years. The Bronx Zoo was more than just a place named in a book; it was real. Wouldn’t it serve her right, I thought, for me to get a real job and get paid for working with snakes, the very thing that had marked my animal-keeping interests as “childish and immature”? Did I dare?
But I speculated that my chances were nil. I was just eighteen years old and had no real experience with taking care of reptiles, other than the pets I had kept through childhood. I had read volumes on reptiles, written by the late Raymond L. Ditmars, the first curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo. It was 1954, and his last books had been written in the 1940s. He was dead, but who had replaced him? I immediately addressed a letter to the Curator of Reptiles, Reptile Department, the New York Zoological Society, whomever he might be. I extolled my live animal-keeping accomplishments, which really were very meager compared to my experience with dead animals and my great interest in reptiles. I asked for a job.
To my surprise, and my stepmother’s, I promptly received a reply from Dr. James A. Oliver asking me to come to his office at the Bronx Zoo for an immediate interview. A few days later, I found myself at the Administration Building, a grand edifice with a lounge for members of the New York Zoological Society that was replete with working fireplaces, plush sofas, potted palm trees, and oil paintings of flamingos and cranes. Oaken shelves filled with books about animals and scientific journals lined the hallway outside Dr. Oliver’s office. Even the smell of lemon-oil furniture polish made it seem like an important, serious place, and a respectful hush filled the air. Oil paintings of scholarly looking people hung from the walls and over the fireplace: Madison Grant, William T. Hornaday, and Henry Fairfield Osborn. All the men wore a suit jacket, a white shirt, and a tie. A tall, gray-haired man in a brown plaid suit, smoking a distinguished-looking down-curved pipe, was leaving the building. Another venerable-looking balding man, with silver hair and a silver mustache, sat reading from a leather-bound book about birds. Neatly dressed women in businesslike dresses, wearing elegant but unobtrusive earrings and necklaces, spoke in whispers as they carried sheaves of white papers from office to office. This was all very intimidating to a kid from Brooklyn who had barely made it through high school. My experiences with white-shirted intellectuals had largely been with teachers, the insurance salesman, and the family doctor. These must be scientists, I thought. I was glad I had worn my Sunday clothes rather than my black leather motorcycle boots and denim jacket.
Dr. Oliver was an imposing figure, tall, heavily built, with a wonderfully clear speaking voice. Oliver was a respected herpetologist and an academician, and in the coming years, I would never see him wearing anything other than a white shirt and tie. I was terrified—not of the illusory prospect of possibly having to catch and restrain a large, dangerously venomous snake as a possible test of my nonexistent credentials, but because I thought I knew something I was sure Oliver did not know: I was a fraud. In fact, Oliver understood exactly who I was: a young, interested kid looking for his first real job.
Oliver’s secretary, a pretty, young, dark-haired woman in a simple but elegant blue dress, ushered me into his office, then returned to her typewriter and proceeded to spit out a string of tapping sounds. Oliver greeted me from behind his oak desk, surrounded by books, files, and piles of papers. On top of his desk sat a small glass aquarium, warming under a gooseneck lamp. There was no water in the tank, only sand and a rock cave from which the spiny, thick tail of a lizard protruded. I would later learn that this was Oliver’s special lizard, a spiny-tailed Indian dabb lizard from the deserts of North Africa and Asia, belonging to the genus Uromastix. This species derives all of the fluids it needs from the foods it eats. Each Saturday and Sunday, for the next several years, I would dutifully turn its light on at 8:30 a.m., off at 4:00 p.m., and place exactly three leaves of lettuce in its tank for food. As I never really saw the entire animal, for all I knew I may have been feeding a rock with a spiny tail. Oliver took care of it himself the rest of the week.
The interview proceeded quickly and was not nearly as painful as I had expected, largely due to Oliver’s kindly manner. He could have been anyone’s father and teacher. “Tell me about your experience keeping reptiles and amphibians,” Oliver said. “What animals have you had and how long have you been successful in keeping them alive?”
I recounted having had a dog all of my life, a small white-haired mutt called Bessie that had been given to me by my aunt Roberta for my first birthday. Bessie still lived—albeit barely, given her advanced years. I related how we took family vacations at a resort in Yulan, New York, each year and brought home an assortment of turtles and green frogs we had caught in the local lake. The following year we would take any survivors back to the lake. There was always a turtle or two to return, if that counted. I once had caught and unsuccessfully tried to choke and drown a water snake near my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania. “Why did you do that?” Oliver asked. I wanted the snake’s skin, I explained. He appeared to be neither impressed nor amused. I continued: “I took a correspondence course in taxidermy from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, in Omaha, Nebraska, when I was eleven. Throughout high school I worked part-time for a commercial taxidermist, the M. J. Hoffmann Company in Brooklyn.” I was quite expert at taking animals apart and replacing their unneeded bodies with artificial components. I said that I had also purchased a blue racer snake from the Quivera Specialties Company, a mail-order animal dealer. I was secretly glad there really was such a snake; all too often, animal dealers make up common names that have no relationship to officially recognized species. I did not tell Oliver that in fact I had ordered a Mexican imperial boa constrictor, but instead they had sent me a bag of about ten snakes that had immediately escaped—most of them down a drain—when I had unpacked them in my father’s rented garage. One of the snakes was indeed blue—at least I had glimpsed the color blue as its tail disappeared into a crack in the garage wall leading to the garden behind.
I had also purchased a king snake from a pet shop, I said, and had kept it for several months. It was a poor feeder, I added. In reality, I had found it shriveled and dehydrated one day about a month after I got it. Feeling sorry for the snake, which I thought was suffering from an agonizing disease, I had killed it with a shot from my .22-caliber rifle. I later learned that the snake was simply in the process of shedding its skin, and the old skin, being deprived of sufficient moisture, had dried on its body. Had I known better, I could have soaked the snake in warm water and taken off the old skin harmlessly.
“How about other live amphibians, like toads,” he asked. “Did you keep any of those?”
“Of course,” I lied; I was feeling bolder. “I have kept a toad for more than ten years.”
Oliver smiled, knowing better than to believe me. “Have you read books on reptiles?”
Here, I could answer truthfully. I had, indeed, devoured every book on snakes and reptiles I could get my hands on, especially those written by Raymond L. Ditmars, the first curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo.
At this point, Oliver said, “Let’s give you a chance. The job starts right away as a probationary keeper at the Reptile House. The work is dirty, and the supervisor is hard. You have to work forty-two hours a week and pay half the costs of your uniform and medical plan. You get one and a half days off a week, not necessarily together. The pay is twenty-seven hundred a year—plus or minus. Report to the supervisor of the Reptile House on Saturday,” he concluded. (Thirty-four years later, I would have another such interview, prior to becoming a curator in charge of the world-famous Central Park Zoo.) My career had begun.
As the lurching cars of the Lexington Avenue express carried me back home to Brooklyn from the Bronx, my mind was filled with expectations and fears, and I couldn’t wait to flaunt my success to my stepmother, Rose. As usual, she had dinner ready for me, and I was hardly seated before I blurted out, “I did it!” I was now working at the zoo! She smiled in disbelief, not only at my signs of ambition but also at the zoo’s willingness to hire me, whose shortcomings she knew only too well.
To my surprise, she, too, could not wait. As my father came in the door after work, Rose said, “Guess what your son did today?” Without waiting for an answer, she announced, “He got himself a job at the Bronx Zoo.” For the first time, there was pride in her voice.
From the Hardcover edition.