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A Bedtime Story : Spending the Night With 4,000 Animals at San Diego Zoo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nasal, high-pitched “Hello! Hello!” wafted through the damp, night air at the San Diego Zoo, momentarily freezing a couple of visitors in their tracks on Bird and Primate Mesa.

At 3 a.m., there’s almost no human activity in the park. So the salutation made them jumpy as they stared nervously down the mesa’s coal-dark paths, peering for movement among shadowy foliage and benches.

It took a veteran of the zoo at night to recognize the voice of Queenie, a male golden conure and denizen of a nearby aviary who had called out an early-morning greeting.

“At first, everyone who works the zoo at night is afraid of something,” security guard Sharon Schmidt said. “If they say they aren’t, they’re lying.”

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But the zoo turns out to be anything but spooky for the few who work after dark.

For them, it’s a chance instead to see the animals eat, sleep and move around--sometimes very differently from the way they behave during the day.

At night, the 4,000 animals take center stage in a quiet, more natural environment, when they are freed of the constant stream of onlookers.

“I really enjoy the night--it’s calm, peaceful, quiet,” guard Marsha Sanchez-Beegle said enthusiastically, maneuvering her four-wheel-drive truck slowly past the darkened outlines of daytime-shy African Bongo antelope walking to and fro in the front of their enclosure. “We see the animals in a whole different way than the public does. They seem to us much more relaxed at night when people aren’t around.”

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11 P.M.

Make no mistake about it. The zoo is dark at night and--except for occasional squawks from a flamingo or other animal--quiet. Voices from pedestrians on Laurel Street Bridge half a mile distant carry into the preserve. The splashing of sea lions cavorting for a late-night swim resonates up Bear, Dog and Cat canyons, which are themselves enveloped in a misty gloom enhanced by the dewy overhang of eucalyptus trees.

Apart from administration and concession buildings at the entrance, there are few lights in the 100-acre animal park, outside of an occasional neon snack stand menu or indoor exhibit plaque left lighted.

The dim backdrop illumination from neighboring Balboa Park and downtown will grow fainter after midnight, when lights from the California Tower and skyscrapers are turned off. The non-animal noises diminish after the dozen members of the zoo’s cleaning crew finish for the night and the airport curfew takes hold.

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Without light, the zoo is painted in eerie shades of blacks and gray.

“The biggest fear is your own imagination,” Sanchez-Beegle said. “You just can’t think back to old horror movies and (fantasies) about animals.” Schmidt recalled the first night she came upon the lifelike gorilla sculptures that grace the new Gorilla Tropics area.

“I almost ran up the back of my partner!” she said.

After 13 years, Sanchez-Beegle fears only spiders. The gushing sound of a rhino relieving itself to mark its territory doesn’t faze her, even when amplified in the midnight stillness. But when a web brushes her forehead on the path toward Gorilla Tropics, she recoils.

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“I feel much, much safer inside the zoo than outside” in Balboa Park, added colleague Dan Fitzgerald, a veteran of 18 years of overnight zoo duty. In fact, the guards’ only major fear is bumping into an occasional homeless person who has gotten through perimeter fences. The homeless are looking for a safe place to sleep, secure from other homeless who might prey on them in park bushes.

Otherwise, the guards see their work as that of surrogate keepers, the zoo’s eyes and ears at night to ensure the well-being of the animals. Their own love of animals has led several of their colleagues into careers as keepers, and Schmidt is now studying for a similar job.

1 A.M.

A female zebra new to the exhibit backs away from a security light as Sanchez-Beegle checks animals on Horn and Hoof Mesa, temporarily arousing the other three zebras into back-and-forth pacing.

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“She’ll soon get used to the sound of the truck,” Sanchez-Beegle said, pointing to nearby gazelles, antelopes, ostriches and deer who remain stationary and at rest despite the guards’ vehicle.

In fact, the animals themselves provide the best clues that a human intruder is nearby, because so few of them ever fall into a total sleep.

“An animal will stare stiffly at the spot where something unusual is, and we’ll recognize (the different) behavior immediately,” Sanchez-Beegle said. “The birds also do a good job of making a noise at an unfamiliar thing.”

At another exhibit farther along the road, she and Fitzgerald puzzle at a new animal they haven’t been told about.

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“What is that?” he asks Sanchez-Beegle, shining his light on the startled creature. “Looks like a (Chinese) takin but it’s not,” she said. (It turns out to be a Mishmi takin, a subspecies of the takin, an antelope-like animal.)

The guards are irritated that they have not been told of the exhibit. They take pride both in knowing the inhabitant of every cage and every enclosure protected by a moat, and in being able to identify every location despite the dark.

“We’ve called keepers at 3 a.m. at times to ask where an animal is if we think something is wrong,” Fitzgerald said. A keeper needs only one such call to remember to tell the security office of future moves, he added.

Many moated animals--in particular the gorillas, orangutans, elephants, giraffes and tigers--are locked in off-exhibit bedrooms at night for their own safety.

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Some of the moat exhibits could be dangerous to animals at night because of their steep slopes and rocky outcroppings. Also, in the event of a tree falling across a moat--during a storm, for example--the animals would have free rein to cross and roam the zoo, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Other moated animals, and all of those in cages, are free to go back and forth between their public exhibit area and their private quarters.

“There’s usually very little chance of an animal getting out at night,” Fitzgerald said, although Cretey the goat (a female Cretian goat) is famous among both guards and keepers for her regular nocturnal wanderings around the zoo. No one can figure out how she escapes from her enclosure at will after dark to tiptoe along the tops of moats and fences belonging to other animals. Nor do they know why she always returns to her home at dawn by herself.

Cretey, a prolific breeder, prefers to give birth to her offspring in the Przewalski horse moat, Fitzgerald said, and the guards usually know there is a newborn goat because the horses become agitated at the baby intruder in their midst.

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3:30 A.M.

The zoo sounds and smells different at night.

“You notice them (odors) much more in the evening, unless you smoke,” said Fitzgerald, who hasn’t managed yet to quit the habit. He likes to take a cigarette break near Gorilla Tropics, kicking back on a dark bench while listening to the exhibit’s recorded jungle sounds of birds and primates, which are often left on all night.

Up and down the many canyons, the scent of damp eucalyptus wafts sweetly through the air, contrasting with the more pungent odors of animals resting in their dens or pacing their enclosures.

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Even though locked up for the night in their barns, the half-dozen elephants emit a musky odor. They also make a rhythmic “chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka” sound by moving their legs from side to side, dragging the chains that confine them to their indoor quarters along the concrete floor.

Their rhinoceros neighbors come right up to the edge of the exhibit to greet Sanchez-Beegle. Although not exactly doing wind sprints, the rhinos stay active most of the night, contrasted with their normal, more sluggish daytime routine.

“Here, fella, here fella,” Sanchez-Beegle coos to a black rhino, who pays more attention to the guard than to the baby Indian rhino in an adjoining enclosure, who is leaving a distinctive odor in an effort to gain the black rhino’s affections.

The large cats in the canyon below are also just as active--much more so than they are for the people who see them by day--but not at all friendly as they stalk the guards walking past their cages.

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Three Persian cats hiss and bare their fangs at the human intruders. The jaguar, the black leopard, the snow leopard--all stolidly track Sanchez-Beegle as she moves from left to right in front of their cages, their glass-like eyes sparkling in wary recognition.

The Chinese leopard proves so unnerving with its intense stare and open-jawed growl that even the guard decides not to tarry.

“I think they feel the night belongs to them,” she said.

The bears definitely feel the night belongs to sleeping. Alone among the visible animals, they are deep in slumber, although each prefers a different style of repose.

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The two polar bears are sprawled across their exhibit floor, oblivious to either the guards’ lights or the constant trickle of water draining from their pool. The spectacled bear prefers to snore while prone across a large log in his enclosure. When a flashlight shines on him, the bear merely moves his paw to cover the rest of his face.

Most of the snakes in the reptile house aren’t moving either, but Fitzgerald and Sanchez-Beegle don’t really take a close look at them. When they check that structure, they shine their lights along the floor to check for glistening broken glass, a telltale sign that an exhibit has been shattered and a snake, possibly poisonous, is out and about.

“We’ll walk down the middle of the aisle,” Fitzgerald said.

5 A.M.

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More of the animals are now moving about, sensing the approaching dawn, ready for an early meal and another day of watching people watch them.

Morning worker Debbie Lowe arrives. Jokingly called the “meals on wheels” worker, she delivers the daily meals to the animal enclosures.

Roger Trusk is another early arrival. He revs up the zoo’s street sweeper, rumbling through the Richmond Street security gate to begin cleaning the 25-acre parking lot. At this hour, the lot is devoid of all but a single car--a zoo marketing vehicle--and a solitary man with several bags busily looting the zoo’s recycling bins.

Within an hour, those animals not already pacing for breakfast will get Trusk’s wake-up call as he wheels the noisy sweeper back inside the zoo to tidy up the tourist paths for another day.

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In the future, San Diegans and tourists alike may get a chance to see a part of the zoo at night.

A gourmet-style restaurant is under construction at the west end of Primate Mesa and will feature a panoramic view of Deer and Antelope Canyon, along with a pricey menu. Although plans are tentative, zoo administrators expect to have the restaurant open by next spring for day and nighttime dining, meaning that at least a part of the park, along the most direct path to the facility--the flamingo, primate and bird areas--will stay open after dusk. Plans call for naming the restaurant Albert’s, after the zoo’s first male gorilla.

“We still have a lot to work on--how any new lighting and people at night will affect the animals,” zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett said, “and as to how we will block off the rest of the zoo.”


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