A story by Mark Smith (part 2/7)
It was at the San Diego Zoo in California. The zoo itself is in a big city park called Balboa Park that has, in addition to the zoo, lots of gardens and museums of various kinds. It’s a huge zoo, and even in those days it was kinda like the Google of zoos. At least in the US it was. The job was in the group that worked with snakes and lizards in a place called the herpetology department. The whole snake and lizard house was full of poisonous snakes from all over the world, and they had a big refrigerator filled with all kinds of anti-venom in case anyone got bitten, but after washing disease filled glassware for 4 years that didn’t seem like much of a big deal. The job was pretty amazing. They were building a new exhibit for a collection of giant lizards called Komodo Dragons. At that time, only one other zoo in the world, the Berlin Zoo, had managed to successfully keep Komodo Dragons. A lot of other zoos, especially in the US, had tried to keep them and failed but San Diego decided to give it a try. They had gone to the Berlin Zoo and what they brought back was that the secret to keeping them was their environment. That’s for sure! Over the years, I have come to realize that environment is one of the secrets to keeping anyone or anything alive. But for the dragons, the environment had to be as close as possible to where they came from which was Indonesia. At least that was the idea. So they were designing an enclosure for them that had plants, trees, rocks, and everything modeled after the way it is in Indonesia, and they had ways to make it temperature controlled. They even had an artificial river and lake with heated water. My job was to come up with a way that they could measure temperature and other parameters all through the environment and track it so that they could see that it matched what would happen during a typical Indonesian day. They also wanted me to track the internal body temperatures of the dragons themselves because they are cold-blooded and regulate their body heat using their environment. To warm up they like to sunbathe on a hot rock. To cool off they go into the water or shade. Things couldn’t be too hot or too cold and their body temperatures had to be just right at different times of the day. We had no computers. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it even if I had access to one. At the school where I was an undergrad, you had to be somebody special to even get near a computer.
The dragons were bastards. I got introduced to them the first day I arrived at the zoo and it didn’t take me long to understand where the expression that someone was “cold-blooded” came from. They were not like any animal, domesticated or otherwise, that I knew anything about. They were as unaware of friendship as anything alive could be, which was weird because most of the rest of the animals in the zoo were very much aware of it. I found that out later. The dragons were in a holding pen, and the only thing they wanted whenever they saw me was to eat me. I was warned repeatedly by the keepers about that. If anyone had to go into their pen, they had to wear steel armor around their legs and be careful that the dragons didn’t knock them down with their tails. They were also sinister looking. Green and scaly, and they had huge forked tongues which they flicked out of their mouths in a kind of slow motion way. Just like snakes, they sensed with their tongues. I don’t know how well they could see, but they could move pretty fast when they wanted to. I was told that their normal diet in Indonesia were goats and villagers. Well, that’s what I was told. And, they were a lot bigger than me.
The keepers who were full time zoo employees were sorta bastards too. The curator, or scientist in charge of the snake and lizard house was great, but the actual keepers were not. San Diego is a US military city. It has most of the usual things US cities have like stores and parks and universities and a downtown. But San Diego also has huge bases for all branches of the US military so most of the population there were either military people or in services for military people. You can easily imagine what a lot of those were because most of them revolved around sex in some form and getting drunk. It was a very aggressively male social model that I didn’t fit into at all. I remember really well driving to work in my tiny car and hearing on the car radio advertisements for services to get you out of jail, and other services that would help you if you tried to run away from the army or navy or whatever, and got caught. All the zoo keepers in the part of the zoo where I had my internship were from the military. They had all been in something like the army for years and years, and finally got out and took a job in the zoo as a second career. They looked at me and could not understand why I was not in the army. I was the “school kid” who was doing stuff that was not aggressive. I was building lots of radios and circuits and test and measurement stuff to install in the new exhibit. But that was not what someone of my age was supposed to be doing. At least they didn’t think so. So I had to put up with a lot of comments about that sort of thing. It didn’t help that I was from the San Francisco area, which even then had a reputation for liberal mindedness. These men were anything but liberal minded. There were no women in the snake and lizard house.
They made their points most clearly by using my car as an example.
Stay tuned for part 3!