About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

War Stories of the Big Cat Variety: Part 1

Here's a post I wrote for On Wings of Murder, about the origins of Rajah the tiger in Night Kill.


The contest to win a free copy of NIGHT KILL is extended until September 30. Read the post for rules.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hint Fiction

Now back to the writing thread of this blog...

I've been reading about "hint fiction" which is like Twitter, only not so long-winded. Hint fiction is limited to 25 words plus the title. I'm giving a hint fiction contest a whirl. Here's the link if you want to try your luck: http://www.robertswartwood.com/?page_id=8

Monday, August 3, 2009

Zoos then and now

Hey, I'm a guest blogger on On Wings of Murder! But a glitch in the process meant I wasn't notified when the posts went up, so I'm repeating them here. Be sure to catch the contest!

Maybe there’s an occupation or a work scene that doesn’t change over the decades, but zoos aren’t it. My zookeeper years straddled the mid 1970s to the late 1980s. With NIGHT KILL, the first of the Iris Oakley “zoodunnits”, set in current time, I knew I would have one foot in the zoo world I worked in for twelve years and the other in the world of today’s zoos. I made sure that fictional Finley Memorial Zoo, where Iris works, is small and poor and thus a lot more like the old zoos I knew. But to be fair to modern zoos (and because it’s fun), little Finley Zoo got a bond measure passed and is upgrading as fast as it can go.

When I started at what is now called the Oregon Zoo, farm and circus methods of handling animals influenced how zoos managed animals. Zookeeping was almost exclusively a male profession. The older exhibits were designed primarily for safety and cleanliness. Zoos focused on breeding animals because taking them from the wild was no longer acceptable. Zoo staff and anyone else paying attention to the natural world were deeply concerned about dwindling wild populations of many species, especially in Africa and Asia.

Some of this has changed, some has not.

Bronx zoo tiger training

Modern training methods are a wonderful tool for moving animals to where you want them and for getting them to tolerate examinations and medical treatments. I left the zoo world when these techniques were just starting to be adopted, and I’m sorry I missed this huge shift. What B.F. Skinner started, the marine mammals trainers and others developed until today we can interact with wild animals in ways that that are calm, cooperative, and mutually beneficial.

Harbor seal trained for weighingHarbor seal trained for weighing.

Training requires skill and time, but it has taken much of the drama out of animal handling. Force and fear-based methods now must be justified by unpredictable emergencies. Otherwise, they are mostly failures to train properly.

At the same time as “husbandry training” was adopted, zookeeping shifted from almost entirely men to over fifty percent women. As a result, keepers and their managers redesigned jobs to require less muscle and to accommodate pregnancy and nursing. I suspect issues still remain, but it’s not a matter of breaking trail any more. I need to add that the male zookeepers at Oregon Zoo were very supportive of me as I participated in that transition.

Ann, Back in the day with Sand CatAnn, Back in the day with Sand Cat

Back in the day, I weighed 112 pounds and compounded my physical inadequacies by two pregnancies. None of the men gave me a hard time for not being up to the job. Their tolerance was only partly because some of them couldn’t toss heavy bales off the hay truck either, due to allergies. We figured out how to get the work done safely and equitably.

Gorilla exhibit at the Bronx ZooGorilla exhibit at Bronx Zoo.

Today, zoo exhibits are still designed for safety and ease of cleaning, but many other design requirements come into play. It’s assumed that animals must have the opportunity to behave the way they would in the wild, as much as possible. Pigs like to dig—they need dirt or sand. Gibbons live high in the treetops—they need tall, long exhibits for brachiating. Plus, the housing should offer opportunities to show visitors what the natural environment looks like and signs to explain why particular animals choose to live there. Bigger exhibits may or may not be better, but more complex seems to suit a lot of creatures. Ponds, sand pits, trees to climb on… take a look next time you are at the zoo and see what’s been provided. And please forgive the trashy-looking buckets, balls, and cardboard boxes in the exhibits. Keepers want to see animals mentally and physically stimulated and it’s not easy to come up with safe toys. Sometimes esthetics suffer.

As for breeding, I was there at the right time. Babies were welcomed almost universally. Mandrill monkeys, chimpanzees, elephants, and other animals seemed engaged, busy, and relaxed when they had babies to raise. Abnormal behaviors dropped out as parents focused on their young. The public loved it and so did the staff. Today, it’s not so loose. Stud books and Species Survival Plans ensure that only unrelated animals are bred, so that genetic diversity is maximized. Other factors restricting breeding are the availability of good zoo homes for the offspring and keeping a good age mix. Keepers use great creativity in finding other ways to keep their charges occupied.

Concerns about the status of animals in the wild has changed since my zoo days—it’s gotten worse. The situation for a long list of creatures is increasingly dire as humans consume more and more of the earth’s resources. We aren’t leaving much for our companions on this little planet. Whether zoos are doing all they can to turn this around is hotly debated, both within and outside of the zoo world. It’s a good discussion to have, but keep in mind that zoos are trivial endeavors compared to other human activities that affect wildlife.

I hope this little bit of history helps you enjoy your next zoo visit. Slow down, spend an extra minute or two at each exhibit. Every animal has its story, its personality, its routine. See how much you can catch.

Drop me a comment about your favorite zoo experience.

Enter the Zoo Contest to win a free copy of NIGHT KILL!
Send me an email with Contest in the subject line. In the body of the email, tell me your favorite wild animal and the reason why. Entries will be entered into a random drawing. Contest closes August 27, 2009. The email address is