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