Monday, June 26, 2000

Watchmen at zoo a different species of guard

By William A. Weathers
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Night watchman Herbert Kingsbury rounds up the flamingos to put them in for the night, one of his many duties at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's dark and Herbert Kingsbury and Gilbert Jackson are walking a deserted path in Avondale. Animal sounds echo through the trees.

        Neither man is fearful.

        “All these sounds going on all night,” Mr. Kingsbury said. “Lions and tigers roaring ... . The peacocks howling. The gibbons whooping. It's pretty neat. You have it all to yourself.”

        Mr. Kingsbury, 58, of Milford, and Mr. Jackson, 45, of Dry Ridge, Ky., are two of five full-time night watchmen at the Cincinnati Zoo. Their duties include checking on the 700 different species of animals and feeding some.

        “We make a round about every other hour,” Mr. Jackson said. “It's just a matter of looking to see everything is OK.”

        On any given night, at least two night watchmen are on duty, one until 7 a.m.

        “If we see something wrong, we'll call the keeper,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

        Most of the time the pair are the only homo sapiens on the 85-acre zoo property after dark.

        “Animals are my least worry,” Mr. Jackson said, noting they are more alarmed by the infrequently trespassing human.

        “If you're in the zoo after 9 o'clock and we don't know who you are, the police are going to hear about it,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

        Both men are former animal keepers at the zoo. Mr. Jackson handled primates and Mr. Kingsbury worked with elephants. They have been night watchmen since 1991.

        Call them night owl watchmen.

        One of the duo's first du ties on a recent weeknight was to move flamingos to the safety of their night shelter. Mr. Jackson climbed the fence and got behind the four flamingos and tried to shoo them in. Two went willingly but it took a while for him to corral the others.

        What's the greatest danger?

        Predators, like the great horned owl, he says.

        Several years ago a penguin disappeared. According to urban legend, an owl picked it up inside the zoo grounds and dropped it off near Spring Grove Avenue,

        Mr. Jackson said. At least that's the story a couple of men told when the penguin was found in their Covington residence.

        When the two night watchmen let the Indian Rhinoceros inside the holding area, they are careful not to stand directly behind it. The reason? When the horned snout animal urinates, the stream usually goes straight back instead of down. Since males can weigh up to 10,000 pounds, well, you get the idea.

        When Mr. Kingsbury arrives at the bongo pen, the large African antelopes are crowding around the enclosure door. “They're waiting to come in,” he said.

        Next it's on to the Manatee Springs exhibit. “We'll give them an evening feeding,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

        The menu: a big helping of Romaine lettuce, carrots, bananas and sweet potatoes.

        “We just throw them (bunches of food) in the tank and they sink to the bottom,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

        At one animal exhibit, their job is to turn the lights on rather than off.

        “We turn on the lights to wake up the nocturnal animals (like the three-banded armadillo and the Egyptian Fruit bat),” Mr. Jackson said.

        When checking on the Komodo dragon, the night watchmen have to check the temperature gauge to make sure it stays near 87 degrees to replicate the animal's native Indonesian climate.

        The only animal ever lost during his watch, Mr. Jackson said, was a West African assassin bug from the insect exhibit. Using an empty jar, he managed to corral that escapee, he said.

        What would the two night watchmen do on the chance that one of the bigger animals escaped and confronted them on a dark path?

        “I'd go back inside,” Mr. Jackson said.

        If you have a suggestion for Night Watch, call William A. Weathers at 768-8390: fax 768-8340.


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