This is another story about Roy when he worked as a zookeeper at the prestigious NYC Bronx Zoo.
Roy’s Wolf Pack
Roy used a large knife he had just sharpened to cut through the muscles and tendons. When he hit bone, he pressed down harder until a sudden dull crack told him that he had cut the leg in half. He did the same to the other leg and then continued to dismantle the rest of the body into small pieces. He cut up three more chickens the same way and threw the parts along with the guts, lungs, hearts, and livers into a large pail. After two weeks Roy had become quite skilled preparing food for carnivores. The pail of chicken parts was for the wolves.
The fresh, raw chicken had a distinctive odor. It smelled as only fresh-gutted chickens do. It wasn’t offensive; it was kind of natural and somewhat satisfying. Roy wondered if ancient instincts from hunter-gatherer ancestors were influencing his feeling about fresh raw meat as he put three large scoops of Canine Multi Vitamins mix and into an industrial grade mixer along with twenty pounds of ground beef and turned it on.
As the machine hummed, Roy looked out the zoo kitchen window at the sun-flooded plaza between the Large Cat Building, where he was preparing food, and the Administration building. It was 9:30 am and the zoo would open in half an hour. Roy was sure the good weather would bring a large crowd of visitors. He turned off the mixer and portioned the meat into six large meatballs about the size of softballs, one each for the zoo’s wolves. Roy loaded the meatballs, chicken, and a bag of commercial wolf chow onto a little cart and guided it through the kitchen door into the interior of the building viewing area.
Roy pushed the rattling food cart by the cages of lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and pumas. He waved and greeted each cat by its name as he passed its cage. They impatiently paced back and forth while watching him intently; they were eager to get their morning meal, and Roy loved feeding and caring for them.
After the wolves were fed in another part of the sprawling zoo, Roy planned to return to help the other keepers prepare slabs of fortified meat for the big cats. Little did he know that this beautiful morning held an unusual adventure for him, one that would drastically interrupt his normal schedule.
Each summer, and during weekends and holidays, Roy worked as a temporary zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo in NYC. He loved working with animals and hoped to make it a career, possibly as a zoo curator or in wildlife management. Those thoughts were running through his mind as he pushed the food cart through the building and out the front door into the bright sunshine.
It was then he saw six shaggy gray shapes. Roy shook his head and looked again; the wolves were still there, sitting in a little group on the lawn in front of the building. Roy was shocked. He wondered how they could have escaped from their cage and then found their way across the zoo to the Large Cat Building. The wolves had never been to the building before and had no idea this was were their meals were prepared. Roy had a good understanding about animal senses. Animals had a keen sense of smell and hearing, far superior to humans. They lived out their lives in a different perceptual world than did humans. The human sense of smell is no longer a critical sense upon which survival depended. Smell might lead a child to a fresh batch of chocolate cookies, but canines’ sense of smell is only rivaled by the butterfly’s ability to find a mate sensing rare molecules of sexual hormone over many square miles. Wolves and even dogs live in an enriched world of odors, humans cannot even begin to appreciate.
Tonga, the alpha male wolf, named after the Alaskan National Park, and his mate, Spring, who was born in the spring three years ago, cautiously advanced toward Roy and his food cart, sniffing the air. The others stood cautiously behind them. Roy knew they smelled the meat in his cart and were hungry.
Tonga was an unusually large wolf, over 150 pounds, and was in the prime of his life. Many times Roy watched him display his dominance over the other wolves. He never hurt them but he was so ferocious and intimidating that no pack member ever seriously questioned his leadership. They crouched in submission or rolled over on their backs while Tonga stood over them baring his huge teeth.
Roy knew the wolves by name and talked to them every day as he feed them. He made a point to drop by their enclosure several times a day to check on them and give them little treats. They were always there waiting for him with eager yelps of recognition and anticipation.
Roy thought fast. If he rushed back into the building to phone for help, the wolves might tear apart the food cart or disappear into the Zoo grounds and possibly escape into the city. He had to keep them together and lead them back to their cage before they got into trouble. He had to do something fast, before the zoo opened and visitors started flooding in through the gates.
“Well, hello Tonga and hello Spring. What are you doing here? How did you get out of your cage and find your way across the zoo to greet me?”
Roy knew the wolves were primarily keying in on his body language and tone of voice than the actual words he spoke. As top predators, they could easily sense fear and confusion so, although his heart was beating fast, he tried to be act calmly and confidently.
The wolves crouched as if ready to rush the cart, or run away, Roy couldn’t tell for sure. They watched him nervously and Roy feared they were about to take off. He reached into his pail and grabbed a handful of chicken parts. He threw one to Tonga and Spring. They pounced on the morsels and after one crunch or two, gulped them down. The other wolves advanced behind their leaders making soft begging wines. Roy pushed his food cart along the sidewalk toward the wolf and bear dens on the far side of the zoo, hoping the wolves would follow him back to their dens. They did to Roy’s relief. Tonga and Spring taking the lead and the others, following.
Every so often, Roy stopped and dropped more chicken pieces for Tonga and Spring, and scattered a handful of wolf chow to the other four wolves. The morsels were gobbled up as soon as they hit the ground. Tonga sniffed the bucket and tried to get his nose into the pail of chicken but Roy put his hand on his huge, coarse gray head and gently pushed him down. It was the first time he had ever touched a wolf and it thrilled him. He could hardly believe what he had done. Tonga didn’t seem to mind the rebuff and padded along beside Roy like a dog, with the rest of the pack following.
As he walked, Roy talked to the wolves with a calm voice like he had done so often with other wild animals. “Common guys, come along with me and I’ll give you a nice treat. I got plenty of chicken for you.” Roy knew they understood he meant them no harm. He knew wolves are highly social animals and if they accepted him as a temporary leader, they would follow him back to their cage. It seemed to be working; the wolves followed him as if he was their leader.
On their way across the Zoo grounds, Roy’s little parade attracted the attention of other keepers and zoo staff. Roy hoped they wouldn’t interfere and spook the pack. Fortunately, they realized the critical situation, and did not approach or shout to him. They watched silently in amazement, well aware of what Roy was attempting to do. A few keepers followed behind at a safe distance to offer help if needed.
Roy felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, only wolves were following him instead of children. He was relieved that his plan was working until he noticed two wolves leaving the pack and running on ahead. His nose told him why. He smelled hot dogs.
A small zoo concession stand, twenty yards ahead, had hotdogs on the grill, getting ready for zoo visitors. Roy threw a chicken part at the roving wolves and tried to regain their attention. “Hey you guys, get back here to our parade. Leave those hotdogs alone.”
The runaway wolves stopped for the treats and then reluctantly returned to Roy’s little parade. Roy was grateful that Tonga and Spring remained at his side as they hurried past the concession stand. Roy chuckled to himself as he noticed a girl’s wide-eyed face peering out at them over the top of the concession stand counter.
As the parade approached the den area Roy realized his biggest challenge was about to occur. In order to reach the wolf enclosure, he would have to lead the wolves right past the bear habitats. The bears were all out at the front of their cages waiting to be fed as Roy approached with his contingent of wolves. The bear’s keeper was throwing loaves of vitamin and calcium fortified bread to the grizzlies and was surprised when the bears stopped feeding and stood up on their hind legs. The bears sniffed the air and made nervous woofing sounds.
Roy was worried. As expected, the wolves naturally reacted to the bears. They stopped and bristled at the challenge from the bears. Roy heard low growls coming from the pack as they watched the two big grizzlies. He tried to distract his pack with tidbits of beef burger. Fortunately for Roy, the wolves couldn’t resist the tasty morsels, turned their backs on the bears, and swarmed back around the cart. Relieved to have regained their attention, he coaxed them past the excited bears by rewarding them every few yards and by keeping their attention with his calm but authoritative one-sided conversation.
Roy’s parade made it passed the other bear dens without incident and finally reached the Gray Wolf Habitat Area. It consisted of over two acres of boulders and trees stretching across a gentle slope. A little stream cascaded down the slope and splashed into a small pool in front of the fence and visitor viewing area. It was a nice comfortable habitat for the wolves, better than a barren cage, but nothing like their huge natural range in the wild.
It didn’t take long for Roy to figure out how the wolves escaped. A large dead tree had fallen during the night and landed on the ten-foot high fence surrounding the enclosure. The fence remained intact under the weight of the tree but the wolves must have used the tree as a ramp up to the top of the fence and over. All they had to do was jump down to the ground and they were free. Roy guessed that they were hungry and took off in the direction from which Roy and their food appeared every day. Somehow, they used their noses to find the zoo kitchen in the Large Cat House.
Roy laughed to himself as he pushed his cart up to the locked gate of the enclosure. The wolves surrounded him as he fumbled with the lock in his haste. Tonga nuzzled his arm like a big dog begging for a treat. Roy looked down at his huge head and intelligent eyes that showed no signs of aggression. He knew the great wolf could be ferocious and intimidating if his leadership was questioned. However, for now he was at Roy’s side acting like a happy dog. Roy knew I would be enthralled to hear this story; and sister Millie would have wished she could have joined the wolf parade.
Roy opened the gate and scattered the wolf chow into the enclosure. He threw the remaining chicken parts into the rocks and bushes. The wolves rushed by Roy almost knocking him over and seemed glad to be back in their familiar home territory. They were eager to get in and scavenge up their share of food.
Roy pulled the food cart out of the cage and shut the door behind him. Other keepers were approaching from all directions. The Zoo Director and Veterinarian had been alerted and pulled up in a little golf cart. They immediately saw the tree and understood the necessity of removing it before the wolves escaped again. After the wolves finished eating, they were lured back into their indoor den with the remaining beef burgers balls while the grounds crew removed the fallen tree.
Roy’s story of the wolf pack and his Pied Piper parade quickly spread throughout the zoo. There was much of nervous laughter and relief that the incident was over, and there were no casualties. The zoo opened on time and no one was the wiser.
Later in the day, after Roy finished his other chores, he returned to the wolves with a bucket of meat scraps. The wolves rushed down to the fence to greet their friend and get his treats. Roy stood close to the fence and scratched a few muzzles as if nothing had happened that morning.
The wolf exodus story never leaked out to the newspaper so the zoo was spared the unfavorable publicity. Roy never told the story to anyone outside the zoo except to his family. Sister Millie could not keep the secret and blabbed about Roy’s wolf adventure to her friends at school because she was so proud of her big brother. Fortunately, no teachers and few of her friends believed her. I added the story to the many others in my journal. Eventually they would become a book about my son’s adventures with animals. I knew kids would love the stories as much as I did.