When a 350-pound sloth bear needs a root canal, how does Zoo Boise make it happen?
I’ve been looking behind the scenes around town – at the county jail, Boise State football games, and now, Zoo Boise, which is part of the Parks and Recreation Department of the city of Boise.
The 30 full- and part time employees and 300 volunteers (who donate 35,000 hours every year) help inspire and educate some 340,000 annual guests while also raising money for conservation of animals in the wild. Since 2007, in fact, Zoo Boise has generated $1.8 million for conservation. As a percentage of total revenues, that puts our zoo among the top donators in the world.
But when I heard that Paji, the female sloth bear, had a root canal in October, I was hooked.
Early one Tuesday morning, long before the zoo opened, the 5’5” tall bear was knocked out with a dart gun. It took 15-20 minutes for Paji to fall to the ground in her den. The zoo veterinarian, Dr. Holly Holman, tested the bear to make sure she was really out (by touching the area around her eyes; she didn’t blink, so the bear was in dream land).
All of this happened before the bear’s den had been cleaned, to keep her as calm as possible beforehand, so Paji fell into her own manure and whatever else had collected. Six staff members stepped through the muck on the ground, rolled the bear onto a cargo net, put her onto a red golf cart and motored off to the zoo hospital, officially called the Animal Health Complex. The vet weighed the bear on a 6-foot long scale to figure out how much anesthesia to use, cleaned her up, and then monitored vitals during the procedure.
The animal was stretched out on the surgery table in “bear rug fashion,” stomach down, head out front. Since bear teeth are about 1.5” long, the team of two dentists and two techs used hefty files (not the wimpy ones used on humans). Afterward, staff members hauled Paji back to her den (by now cleaned up), where she spent the day recovering.
Another day in the life of a zoo animal and those who care for it.
On 11 acres, Zoo Boise is home to 107 species, including more than 300 animals, although the keepers count the “cockroach collection” as one animal. The exhibits range from the rainforest to one about animals who live on islands (all sorts of interesting evolutionary and scientific curiosities from those systems) to jellyfish and insects.
Nine zoo keepers oversee the animals and their living quarters, using checklists for daily, weekly and monthly tasks. The Rainforest area exhibit — which houses an Aldabra tortoise named Ms. Mac, along with sloths and spider monkeys — needs weekly raking of leaves, misting of indoor exhibits, replacement of wet soil, and removal of cobwebs, for instance.
And while many of the animals seem cuddly, the keepers know that these are wild animals, many quite dangerous. Behind the den of the Desert Exhibit’s 9-foot-long Komodo Dragon, an intimidating sign — reflecting zookeeper humor — makes the point: BEWARE OF ATTACK LIZARD. Next to the door leading to the venomous snake and gila monster exhibits is an eye-level, ping-pong-ball-sized red button and a sign: PUSH IN CASE OF SNAKE BITE.
On the other hand, Julius the Giraffe was thrilled to get a cracker from his zookeeper, Leticia Herrera, and show off his 8” purple tongue in the process.
Some people despair that we even have zoos. But Director Steve Burns notes that zoos like this one raise over $160 million each year to save animals that might otherwise be killed or die off. Animals like the famed Galapagos Islands’ tortoises would be long gone if it weren’t for the humans who help breed and care for them.
And from a personal standpoint, visiting the zoo on a quiet December afternoon (it is open year round) was a perfect antidote to my hectic life, bringing me to a spot where I could think about nothing else for a few minutes but the feel of a purple tongue on my fingers.
Nancy Napier is executive director of Boise State’s Centre for Creativity and Innovation. firstname.lastname@example.org