“Soon! I’m coming!” Bob Keesecker calls to Missy as he wheels his electric cart past her cage and across the empty footpaths of the Phoenix Zoo. Missy, a jaguar, is giving him the eye.
Keesecker, an animal keeper, has another item on his to-do list: “Remind to pick up a blood ball once we’re done here.”
Most of us imagine zookeepers as a pastoral lot who love animals, wear overalls and pass the time tossing feed to giraffes. But for Keesecker, today’s lockdown keeper at the Phoenix Zoo, loving animals means an intense, high-energy journey: Serving meals, dispensing medicine and treating the thousand little quirks that flesh and fur are heir to.
‘THEY’RE NOT DOCTORS’
“I’ve always loved animals,” says Keesecker, as he noses his cart toward the primate house in the morning sunlight. Wiry and 50-ish, with a mischievous grin, the former policeman prefers praising the chimplike apes on Siamang Island or chatting up Camille the mountain lion to talking about himself.
“As a police officer in Toledo, I worked the district where the zoo was,” he says. “And I enjoyed that.” While most animal keepers come to the field through college, Keesecker volunteered at the zoo when he moved west, and parlayed a native interest and three years of work into a part-time position.
“The more I did this, the more I wanted to do.” Six years after joining the zoo, Keesecker is one of 56 animal keepers and a specialist in the carnivore/primate section where he oversees the care of several dozen animals each day.
Keesecker calls out: “Michael, come over here. We got raisins.” It’s noon and two of the orangutans, Duchess, who’s 45, and 250-pound Michael, 18, have just come off exhibit.
“Each of us have a favorite,” says fellow keeper Debbie Evers.
Keesecker’s favorite is Duchess, who gamely offers hands, feet and face for inspection at the bars while her keeper dispenses carrots and lettuce.
Michael, wary of today’s visitors, is a little tougher sell.
“They’re not doctors,” Keesecker tells the orangutan.
To the humans he explains, “they don’t like the vets, because it usually means a medical procedure.” It takes a while, but Evers and Keesecker coax Michael to the bars, where he uses a cucumber-sized finger to scoot fruit wedges under the door.
RESPECTING THEIR WILDNESS
“You never stop learning about animals,” Keesecker says as he cleans out the stall of 15-year-old Ebeneezer the anteater. The animal sticks his clarinet nose through the chain-link fence and shoots a banana out of a visitor’s hand as Keesecker continues.
“You look up a lot of facts to answer people’s questions. But also, you’re just interested. I mean, how many people get to work with an anteater?”
Every meal eaten and every excretion is noted in daily reports. “That way, if the saki monkey has a runny nose, we know about it. You’re constantly on the lookout for your animals’ health. Most times you can tell by looking if they don’t feel right.”
Dung patrol may be a downside, but animal keepers enjoy a special status on their beat.
The squirrel monkeys perch like wide-eyed groupies when Keesecker appears with his white tub of mealworms. “They know I mean food,” he says with a chuckle. Tiny brown hands accept the worms reverently, except for one monkey who tries to make off with the tub.
“Some people say, ‘They’re so cute. I want to take ’em home.’ ” he says. “But (a domesticated) monkey, in diapers, I don’t think that’s right. You’ve got to respect their wildness.”
While keepers inevitably grow fond of their animals, they try not to trivialize their identity. “You don’t want to say they’re pets,” Keesecker says, wheeling his cart toward the next exhibit. “Because they’re not your pets. But you see ’em every day. You know ’em, worry about ’em. If they’re sick, have to be ‘knocked down’ or taken to the vet, you want to stick around and see how they do.”
WOLVES AT THE DOOR
By midafternoon, the already-brisk pace quickens. The Phoenix Zoo is home to more than 1,300 animals, many of whom require a final meal, or pill, or passage to inside shelter before their keepers can call it a night.
Keesecker presses carrion meat into a metal bowl at the Mexican gray wolf exhibit. “Morela, the dominant female, will eat her food, then run around and try to eat Sonora’s food, as well.”
So he makes Morela’s food hard to grab, and Sonora will have a few seconds to eat.
It’s quite a spectacle, “but don’t let them catch you looking. Sonora won’t eat if she’s watched, then Morela eats twice.” Keesecker opens the access doors and dashes. A flash of gray, three loud clangs, a snarl, and both wolves are fed.
Each lock-up house call is different. Woody, the coatimundi, is a matter of an open door, a swept passage and a good-night meatball.
“Woody, come on in, now!” Keesecker calls. Woody is dappled brown and confused by a visitor in the night-house. Lucky, the coyote, requires a mouse snack and a quick inspection.
“We’re watching that back leg of his, but it isn’t any worse,” says Keesecker. “We try to let them work through it, like in the wild. If they can’t, we intervene.”
Ominous red levers and warning signs dot the baboon night-house. In an hour, the powerful, volatile Himalayan baboons and mandrills will be caged here for the night.
But first, Keesecker is making them peanut butter sandwiches.
“One female baboon gets peanut butter and jelly with ibuprofen,” he says. “The male mandrill gets peanut butter with honey. And you have to spread the honey just right or he’ll taste the valley fever meds in it and throw it away.”
Each stop is brisk but cordial. Each animal is coaxed and called by name. But the escalating pace of closing time still allows a friendly side trip.
“Want to see something neat?” Keesecker grins. He pulls up to an off-site enclosure, where five faces — black-masked, with wide saucer ears — run to the fence.
“African wild dogs,” he says proudly. “The one with the big notch in his ear is Mac, the little notch is Kio, Jolla has the raccoon tail, Manny is lighter, and Ziggy is . . . the other one. These guys are some of my favorites.”
Three house calls later, with only the jaguar to go, Keesecker opens the doors at the baboon night-house and sits by the cage as the male mandrill approaches his dinner.
“I can’t look directly at him, that’s a sign of aggression,” he says. The mandrill eats his sandwich, licking the honey off each finger, before shuffling away. The female baboon consumes hers as quickly, and shows Keesecker her colored hindquarters in an apparent gesture of thanks.
Now it’s back to Missy, with a frozen ball of blood.
“It never drags here,” Keesecker chuckles, weaving the cart between the long shadows at twilight. “There’s not a day I don’t enjoy coming to work, because I know these animals count on me.”