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magazine home > archives > summer 2001 > features

The Memphis Zoo opened in 1906 as a showcase for exotic animals. With an increased emphasis on research, preservation of endangered species and education, the zoo is striving to become a world-class facility. U of M students and graduates are at the forefront in helping this institution achieve its lofty goal.

Monkey Business
by Greg Russell

When Dr. Steve Reichling was bitten by a venomous rattlesnake in the hot sun of the West Texas plains several years ago, The University of Memphis alumnus really didn't seem to mind.

 
Reichling and spider
 

Dr. Steve Reichling (BS '90, PhD '96) examines a tarantula with co-workers at the Memphis Zoo.

"I always wondered if I would keep my cool in a situation like that," says Reichling (BS '90, PhD '96). "It hurt a lot and I spent quite a few days in the hospital, but it was really no big deal."

Reichling did keep his cool and now finds himself frequently surrounded by poisonous snakes - purposefully - as curator of reptiles at the Memphis Zoo.

Reichling and 15 other U of M graduates and students are intricate parts of a facility that is quickly becoming recognized as one of the top educational and research zoos in the country. The Memphis Zoo houses more than 3,000 animals including 500 species, many of them endangered.

As zookeepers, administrators and researchers, U of M students and graduates are playing an important role in ensuring the future welfare of not only the animals in the zoo, but also those in the wild.

Spider Man

Reichling says he has been attracted to spiders and snakes since he was a young boy. One might say the creepy and slithering creatures have been attracted to him too.

Reichling has established himself as one of the top spider men in the country, having discovered four new species and one new genus of tarantulas while combing the jungles of Belize.

"You first suspect you have something new," says the herpetologist. "You then make a case, publish a paper and make an argument. People look your argument over and it stands the test of time or doesn't; the hardest part is confirming your hunch. You must be accurate, or your name could be sunk forever."

Reichling, like many others, chose a career as a biologist because of a longing for exploration.

"Some of the old herpetologists back in the real days of herpetology would go to Africa and pay the local people to take them out on expeditions," remarks Reichling. "They would go out and collect all kinds of species and bring them back - that is how museum collections here were built up. It was all taxonomy - just discover and describe. I read about their expeditions and thought, 'I want to be a biologist because I want to be an explorer and adventurer."'

Reichling researches the genetics of Louisiana pine snakes by tracking their movements with the help of radio transmitters placed on the reptiles. The Memphis Zoo houses several pine snakes, but only 160 have ever been collected in the wild. Reichling wants to know why the snake is so rare in the wild.

He also studies and works toward captive breeding of the Lesser Antillean iguana, a reptile that is quickly becoming extinct because of its availability as a cheap food source.

The status of zookeepers has changed greatly the past few years, Reichling says. "We used to be viewed as manure shovelers and farm hands, but now zookeepers are made up of a lot of people out of graduate school who are looking to do research and educational work," he says. "And the Memphis Zoo is supporting research in an ever-increasing way."

The zoo's latest exhibit, a "spider house," was coordinated by Reichling, who has worked at the zoo for 25 years. It houses 16 different species of spiders from all over the world, including brown recluse spiders, black widows and the bark scorpion.

"I like to act as an ambassador for reptiles and spiders," says the herpetologist. "Just to pick up one of these rare boas and think, 'Gosh, this is a beautiful creature,' to feel it in my hands and to know how rare that particular one is … for me that is almost a religious experience."

Reichling says the snakebite he suffered was just part of dealing with reptiles.

"All in a day's work," he says, with a smile.

Walking Tall

The Memphis Zoo hosts 650,000 visitors a year, but none measure up to four of the institution's more favorite "guests."

Stevens and giraffe  

Brad Stevens (BS '01) feeds one of the zoo's more popular animals, an 18-foot giraffe

 

The facility's giraffes that tower 15 to 18 feet attract huge crowds daily, and at the center of the action is recent U of M graduate Brad Stevens (BS 01). Stevens feeds and helps draw blood from the quadrupeds as well as disseminates little-known facts about the tall mammals.

"I was looking for a unique career when I found the zoo," says Stevens. "I knew I didn't want to sit behind a desk 9 to 5 … I wanted an outside job."

Stevens takes part in a relatively new type of giraffe training called operant conditioning. "We make the animals feel more comfortable around humans, which in turns makes it easier for vets and for us to care for them," says Stevens. "If you can gain the giraffes' trust, it makes it easier to perform medical work on them."

The process includes getting the animal used to human contact, then using a blunt needle and ultimately a sharp needle to draw blood. The procedure replaces tranquilizing the animal to draw blood, which was dangerous to the mammals.

Stevens, who has worked at the zoo since 1996, says the most important part of his job comes during his interpretation talks with visitors.

"A lot of these animals are endangered and it is important to educate the public about why it is so important to save and preserve these species," says Stevens. "If we can educate the public about these things, it is one more animal we can save."

Stevens says the animals continually fascinate him. "The giraffes don't sleep for more than an hour at a time. They spend 95 percent of their time on their feet," he says. "The bears and the elephants are extremely smart animals. The elephants know 50 commands. When I leave the bears' lot, they will always come to the door I went in and out of and sniff around it to make sure I locked it. They know the way out if it isn't locked."

The best part of his job, Stevens says, is interaction with the animals. "Not too many people can say they bathed an elephant or fed some grizzlies and or took blood from a giraffe today," he observes.

Going Ape

Zookeeper Mary Louis Manson says she doesn't get emotionally attached to the animals she cares for - at least not until a recent addition to the zoo.

The second-year U of M biology student usually looks after nocturnal animals, but the zoo's latest star, Elok, a baby orangutan, is housed in the Nocturnal House where Manson works. "It is hard to get attached to a bat, but there is a special bond with Elok," says Manson.

 
Manson with Elok

U of M student Mary Louise Manson spends much of her time at the zoo with the baby orangutan Elok.

The U of M student spends much of her shift in the orangutan's exhibit, feeding him and letting the small ape swing from her arms. Elok often will clutch her for comfort. "I sometimes feel like I am her mother," Manson says with a laugh.

The U of M student worked in the zoo's guest services department for several years until settling into her associate keeper position early this year. She, like others keepers, started as a volunteer and moved her way up to paying positions. Zookeeper jobs are coveted, with about 100 applications for each open position.

"My job varies from day to day," says Manson. "In the mornings we clean up the exhibits; we are also the ones who prepare the diets and feed the entire building. We also have to know the animals to know whether or not this one is feeling sick, if he is not acting right and if that particular limp is normal or not."

Manson says the zoo's mission of preserving endangered species is becoming more important as civilization continues to expand. "We don't want to lose an animal; imagine how upset everyone would be if the pandas are ever extinct."

She says the zoo plays a vital role in education. "Everybody is going to take some kind of knowledge home with them. I work here and I come home with a new piece of knowledge every day."

Manson works with more than 30 types of animals in the Nocturnal House, including armadillos, anteaters, bats, owl monkeys, lemurs and porcupines. "Ultimately I want to do some research on animals," she says.

With its Cat Country, new spider exhibit and proposed acquisition of panda bears, the Memphis Zoo continues to grow. A $30 million improvement project that began in 1990 is helping turn the zoo into a world-class facility. U of M students and graduates will continue to be an important part of the transformation.

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