My EXPERIENCE AS ZOO MOTHER
The census official stood in kitchen doorway, putting questions while I prepared our dinner.
“Your husband’s occupation?” he asked.
“Keeper at the Bronx Zoo,“ I said.
“Three,” I replied, “Dacca, Rajpur and Raniganj.”
“Unusual names,“ he said, looking surprised.
At that moment, the three tiger cubs came up, walking toward the kitchen. Seeing the stranger, they stopped and started at him with their eyes wide open.
“I am leaving,” said my visitor, and he did so quickly. I wondered what he would tell his wife that night.
It all started when my husband appeared at home one evening with Mac Athur, a two-day-old lion cub whose mother had died. “I told the curator that you would be glad to take care of him,” Fred said.
I had not the slightest ideas how to deal with a baby lion.
“Just do what you would do for a human baby,” Fred suggested. He handed the dirty cub to me gently. Suddenly MacAthur opened his mouth and made aroar just like a real lion. I laid him on a frying pan and weighed him on my kitchen scales. Exactly three pounds, so my kitchen was filled with milk bottles and baby blankets. For a bed covered a cardboard box with bath towels, placing it in a corner. Then our problems began. MacAthur refused to drink from bottle.
We tried every way we could think of, but all failed. Suddenly an idea came into my mind. I sat in a chair and put a pillow on my lap. I put the cub on the pillow and held the milk bottle in front of my stomach. Soon MacAthur started to take the bottle nipple with his mouth, holding my hand with his forefeet.
In a few minutes the cub finished three ounces of warm milk and was asleep in his box. My hand was bleeding, injured by MacAthur’s paws, but I regarded it proudly as the first sign of my success as zoo mother.
When two months later, I had to return Mac Athur to the zoo, I felt sad, hoping that another big cat would be sent to me to be taken care of. Sure enough, a few weeks later my loneliness was cured. This time Fred brought ne a pair of tiger cubs.
I heard that most of the baby tigers that were born at zoo soon died. Now I released that with the two tiger cubs I was being given a very important task.
Knowing that I realized this, Fred said, “Do your best, Hellen. The authorities at the zoo very anxious, and hope that you will succeed in this attempt.”
With that, he hurried back to work, leaving me to start the feeding. Fortunately the two cubs were willing to feed from a bottle. I felt so optimistic that I opened the atlas to the map of India and started looking for names suitable for tigers. Just then Fred came home again with a third tiger cub!
“He’s in bad condition, Fred sighed. Taking the sick cub in my arms. I wrapped him in an electric heating bag, and struggled for six hours to get some warm milk down his throat. The following morning he looked much better.
Some weeks later when I had proved myself to be a successful mother for the three tiger cubs, the news about this began to spread around. Hearing this, our landlord sent us a letter announcing that he didn’t agree with that I was doing and that the tigers had to go.
I couldn’t bear the thought of sending them back, “motherless, ” to the zoo. Fortunately the curator agreed to let me stay with them there until the young animals were accustomed to zoo life without my care.
The cubs soon made themselves at home in their new cage. That evening, when the zoo had closed, the tigers could feel that I was going to leave them. Raniganj climbed onto my lap and refused to be put down; Dacca and Rajpur held my feet firmly. Seeing this, Fred suggested, “Why don’t we have supper here? I’ll go out and get some food.”
As Fred left, I relaxed and sat down easily. Suddenly I realized that, more than anything else. I wanted to stay here and help Fred. But could a woman be a zoo keeper?
Next day, wandering around the zoo, I found as tore-room that just suited my plans. Then and there I decided to ask the curator for it, and to tell him that I wanted a permanent job. I knew that I was asking for something foolish.
When I explained my plans to him, the curator smiled. Watching my cubs playing happily, he said, “We’ll see.”
A week went by. Nobody told me that the room was mine, but I worked hard to make it look as much like a real nursery as possible. I panted the celling pink, the walls a soft blue. For a final touch, I hung up my cubs’ baby pictures, and we were already for business. I had become the so-called heard of the Bronx Zoo nursery department, the first of its kind in the world.
I was given the task of raising orangutans, gorillas and dozens of other animals in that blue-and-pink room. Of them all, the most memorable one, I thought, was a black leopard cub named Bagheera.
The leopard was a new challenge. Experts had warned me that this cat was a born killer, no matter how well he was treated as a cub. My new baby jumped at me when I offered him a milk bottle, leaving my hands bleeding with pain. I didn’t want to wear gloves, because they would disturb my sense or touch. For days we struggled over the nursing bottle. Finally, after two weeks of “bloody battles,” he decided to trust me and accepted the bottle willingly.
The zoo authorities commented that the problem child had won his mother’s heart. Later I realized that actually this small black creature loved me, and he showed it in his own way. If someone visited me, Bagheera would sit at my feet with jealous eyes, looking suspiciously at my guest as it he was ready any time to protect me if something bad happened to his “mother.”
We frequently brought Bagheera home at night with us ( by this time we had bought our landlord’s house)
One evening, I took the newspaper from our mailbox and put it in Bagheera’s mouth. He carried it upstairs as proudly as any trained dog. We repeated this action for six days, but on seventh, the newspaper didn’t come, as it was Sunday. That evening Bagheera waited by the mailbox, refusing to go until I gave him an old newspaper. Always after that I had to have a copy of an old newspaper ready at and on the day when there was no newspaper.