David Grazian: A Sociologist at the zoo, Father’s Day style

Grazian jacketThis Father’s Day, millions of American families with small children will trek to their local zoos for the pleasures of springtime—afternoons of strolling tree-lined paths, watching lions nap and flamingos dance, hand-feeding elk and free-range peacocks their picnic lunch leftovers on the sly, warning signs—DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!—be damned. Zoos are not only great places to observe orangutans and chimpanzees but human primates as well, especially when the weather warms and they emerge from their winter hibernation to join the masses seeking to commune with nature in the city’s outdoor public spaces: its waterfronts, public squares, bird sanctuaries, botanical gardens, nature preserves, and of course, its aquariums and animal parks.

It’s all quite a hoot. I even I wrote a whole book about it—American Zoo—to which I have fatherhood itself to thank. As a cultural sociologist and urban ethnographer by training, I had earlier in my career written two books about urban nightlife, the first on Chica­go’s blues scene, the second on the growing social world of res­taurants, nightclubs, and cocktail lounges in and around downtown Philadelphia. These projects required me to spend long hours at late-night music venues, corner taverns, nouveau-fusion eateries, martini bars, high-end speakeasies, dance palaces, and corner taverns from dusk until dawn—until the wee morning hours of April 22, 2006, when my wife gave birth to our son (in the book I call him Scott). Suddenly this nocturnal, free-for-all lifestyle no longer seemed all that tenable. (I would joke that I still hoisted a bottle at 2:30am every morning, but it was a bottle of baby formula, not Budweiser.)

During his infant and toddler days, Scott developed an acute fondness for our neighborhood’s menagerie of leashed puppies, wandering house cats, and (somewhat illegal) backyard chickens. This enthusiasm eventually brought us to the local Philadelphia Zoo nearly every weekend to take in its far more exotic elephants, red pandas, marmosets, pumas, and gorillas. From the helium-filled Channel 6 Zoo Balloon that rose hun­dreds of feet up into the sky to its intricate naked mole-rat exhibit down below, we took it all in: the unforgettable sights, sounds, and smells of the nation’s oldest zoo. (The smells were the most difficult to forget.) With each visit, our curiosity grew about the zoo’s strange creatures, and what makes them tick—and chirp, moo, growl, honk, quack, roar, and squeal.

Yet as Scott and I continued our father-son visits to the zoo, the sociologist in me couldn’t help but wonder about its strange allure, so I spent four years volunteering at two different metropolitan zoos. At one institution I worked primarily in an outdoor children’s zoo where I cleaned enclosures and exhibits, prepared and distributed zoo-prescribed diets to birds of prey and small mammals, managed children in a petting yard filled with goats and sheep, and provided behavioral enrichment to a variety of animals. Along the way I shoveled cow manure and chicken dung, goat pellets and duck droppings. I scrubbed owl and macaw cages and lined them with old issues of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, clipped a ferret’s toenails, and once got locked inside a bird’s double-caged enclosure. I picked horse and donkey hooves, stuffed frozen feeder mice with vitamin E capsules, bathed tortoises, and exercised overweight rabbits.

At a second zoo, I worked as a docent, or volun­teer educator. I handled and presented a variety of small live animals to a range of zoo audiences, including families, school groups on field trips, children’s birthday parties, and busloads of local nursing-home residents. I learned to handle red-tailed boa constrictors, fat-tailed geckos, black vultures, and an American alligator. (Fortunately, no animals were ever seriously harmed on my watch, although I myself endured bites, scratches, and other humiliations from several domestic rabbits, a bearded dragon, an African gray parrot, and at least one goat.) I also regularly helped prepare diets for most of the animals in the zoo’s collection, which in­cluded giraffes, jaguars, howler monkeys, river otters, peccaries, and Jamaican fruit bats. Much of the food was expired (but still safe) meat, fish, and produce donated by local supermarkets and grocery stores, including whole strip loins, boxes of oranges and kale, and odds and ends of raw salmon and squid for the otters.

The best part about my zoo job was how much I absolutely crushed it on Career Day in Scott’s kindergarten class—unless one of his classmates’ parents turned out to be a firefighter or astronaut, my reputation as the Dad with the Coolest Job was super safe. Of course, when I wasn’t in uniform Scott needed to accompany me on all my zoo visits, since a grown man walking around animal exhibits while taking notes and photographs of other people’s children tends to attract the wrong kind of attention. That was the other highlight of writing the book—trekking across the country to 27 different zoos and aquariums, all with Scott in tow. The only downside is that the repetition of our visits made him immune to the charms of zoos altogether. (“Oh, another Siberian tiger? Yawn.”) It’s a good thing the book came out by the time he turned nine, since he is no longer as susceptible to being bought off by bribes of stuffed animals from the zoo gift shop.

Now Scott is thirteen, and the other day he picked up a copy of American Zoo lying around the house, and he read the whole thing. He asked if we could go back to the zoo one last time, just to double-check my findings in the book against the real thing. Sign me up; I think we’ll go on Father’s Day.  

David Grazian is associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues ClubsOn the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, and Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society.