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It's a Wild Job, But Someone's Got to Love It

July 23, 1993

Debbie Levy's devotion to her red uakari monkeys cannot be questioned.

"The young ones like to sit on my shoulders and purr," the animal keeper said. "If they ever turn up missing, the zoo will come check my house."

Perhaps such emotional involvement is a prerequisite for working at the Los Angeles Zoo. Most jobs pay less than $30,000 a year and the hours can be long. The keepers who watch over the California condors, for example, are known to remain day and night during hatching season. And Levy, like many of her co-workers, served as a volunteer before getting hired.

Now she works with a number of primates, including marmosets and tamarins. But the scarlet-faced uakaris are what make her job special, she says. They are smarter. They have human-like faces. And when she walks through their cage, to clean or to change the water in the pond, these South American monkeys swirl around her, chattering, wanting to be held.

Over at the Reptile House, keeper Jay Kilgore receives no such open displays of affection. The snakes and lizards and frogs pay little attention to him unless he has food.

"If they come running, it means they're hungry," he said. "But they can't tell the difference between the food and your hand. That can cause problems."

Still, Kilgore is enamored of his charges. He's been working with these slithery creatures for all but a few of his 27 years at the zoo. Most reptile lovers, he says, start out the same way.

"When you're a little boy, you can't catch a bird or a squirrel. But you can get your hands on a snake," he said. "Then you find out that adults are afraid of these things. Here you are, handling them. It gives you some self-esteem."

So he doesn't mind the heat and humidity of the Reptile House. He doesn't mind getting bit occasionally. (Kilgore has yet to be struck by a poisonous snake). And the animals' lack of affection can work to his advantage.

"You don't form that emotional attachment," he says. "It makes it easier for me if one of them dies."

A sign hangs at the entrance to the zoo kitchen. It is the sort of sign you would see at any luncheonette, with daily specials listed:

Chick Furritos: $1.50

Fried Chick: $1.00

Bird of Prey Platter: $.75

This gallows humor arises from working in a commissary where the freezer shelves are lined with dead rats and the cooks serve up nearly 5,900 worms a day.

"When I first started, I didn't think I could last," Inez Stovall said. "But I've been here for 12 years. I got used to it."

Stovall and co-worker Eric Morris tackle the Gargantuan task of preparing meals for hundreds of animals each morning. They open the kitchen early, boiling pots of eggs and yams on the stove, filling the room with a warm, sweet smell.

While Stovall sorts through crates of produce, Morris deals with the less savory chore of preparing for the carnivores. On an average day, he'll serve up 150 pounds of cold Spanish mackerel, 86 baby chicks, 53 mice and six goldfish.

Though they deal with tons of food, each crate of apples and carrots must be inspected for freshness and each meal must be exactly prepared.

"Everything has to be weighed," Morris said, squeezing ground horse meat onto a butcher's scale. "We have to be careful."

And all sorts of discriminating tastes must be accounted for. The gorillas drink only nonfat milk. The marmosets like yogurt.

"The elephants eat 20 pounds of onions each day," Stovall said. "So you can imagine their breath."

Johnnie McDuffie arrives at sunset, when everyone else is heading home and the animals have been locked away. As a night security officer, he patrols the premises during the dark hours, driving along three miles of walkways and checking back gates.

"I like to be outside, smelling the fresh air," he said. "I like riding around here."

Even though he rides alone, he has plenty of company.

"Coyotes, skunks, opossums, raccoons," he said. "They're all over the place."

These visitors occasionally kill a resident animal but, McDuffie said, "we don't try to chase them off. They know the zoo better than we do."

Humans are a different matter. The other night, McDuffie and several other guards caught four teen-agers snooping around the center of the zoo. The youths, in an effort to escape, dove into a tangle of vines and thorns.

"We had to pull them out," the night man recalled.

Such intrusions are unusual. Most of the time, it's just the animals.

"I know the elephant sounds and the lion's growl," he said. When he checks on the rhinoceros pen, the huge beast sniffles and walks up to the bars to have his horns patted. "The peacocks always crow. They let you know if you come into their area."

The most dangerous part of the job is patrolling the parking lot. At any given hour, a half-dozen cars may be parked out there, with the drivers drinking beer or otherwise lurking in the night.

Those, McDuffie said, are the real animals.

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