Sunday, July 6, 2003

Zoo's feathered friends make trainer's work fun

Lifelong Tristate resident and aficionado of all things avian is 'living proof' one can love their job

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Gary Denzler with an Amazon parrot (front), two macaws and a cockatoo (peeking on the side).
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Gary Denzler proves the truth of the cliche: Find a job you like and you'll never work a day in your life. "I'm living proof," he says.

Denzler, 53, is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden's bird show manager, a hazy title that means he's keeper, trainer and ringmaster of more than 20 species of show birds. Not to mention a dozen live rats and one RoboRat.

They're part of the new Great American Wings of Wonder bird show playing since Friday in the Wings of Wonder outdoor theater, newly renovated to the tune of $350,000.

"My two passions growing up were animals and flight so, of course, I combined them ... I knew I'd never get rich at it, but I also knew I would never work at anything else. Even today, I can't believe I actually get paid to do this. I won't retire until they carry me out."

When they do carry him out, it probably will be to the studio on his 55 heavily wooded acres in St. Leon, Ind., where he lives with his wife and two children. It's also where he paints and sculpts birds. He fashions them in clay, then carves them out of wood and paints them authentic colors.

"Or I could build another pthausar."

Come again?

Once built a big bird

Denzler once confused the daylights out of west siders when he and friends, with the help of an aeronautical engineer, built and flew a 22-foot pthausaur, a pterodactyl-like creature. "It's a huge prehistoric bird that flew over Cincinnati 65 million years ago. A few of us decided to build one and see if we could fly it. It worked perfectly. But eventually it crashed."

He grew up in Cincinnati near Mount Airy Forest and spent his younger days roaming the woods and observing animals. He got his first hawk to train when he was 12, and his first zoo job at 17.

He's still there 36 years later, still training birds, still hamming it up 180 shows a summer, still keeping close watch on his charges in their new digs in the amphitheater's backstage area.

Make that noisy digs. Standing in the parrot room, the normally soft-spoken Denzler shouts above a piercing shriek coming from Chico, the Red Legged Seriema.

"We usually wear headphones in here. A sound technician shooting a commercial recorded Chico at 140 decibels. That's 10 more than the front row of an AC/DC concert. They kill their prey by grabbing the lizard's tail in their beak and slamming its head on a rock. He does that in the show with a rubber lizard.

"It's natural behavior for a Seriema, and that's what makes training the birds easier than you'd think. No parrots on roller skates or anything, just every bird doing what comes naturally. The difference is, they do it on cue."

Like the hawk that's released from a box atop a 50-foot pole. "I have a remote control car I converted into a rat. We call him

RoboRat. When he crosses the stage, the hawk swoops down and grabs a piece of meat off its back. It's what he would do in the wild only he'd pick up the whole rat.

"I wrap dialogue around all that to explain the hawk's role in nature. It's a conservation message, but done with humor."

And the 12 rats? "They demonstrate the importance of predators, how we might be overrun if it weren't for birds of prey. The rats swarm all over these ropes here. The thing with training rats is they only have a two-year life

span, so I have to do a lot of repeat training."

Not so with Boris. Now in his 12th year at the zoo, he's a third-generation show vulture - his grandparents did shows at Busch Gardens. His parents still perform. there. "Boris' role is to demonstrate the need for scavengers or what I call nature's clean-up crew. We have a professional comedian in the show named Ken Freeman who at one point gets scared to death and collapses. He just lies there so the vulture swoops in. When Ken gets up, the vulture chases him with Ken doing a Monty Python bit and screaming 'I'm not dead yet.'

"We can do more elaborate things like that now because of the renovation."

The amphitheater, formerly a bare-bones half-circle below the Cat House, now has an African theme with outcroppings of rocks, a waterfall and small pond, lanterns and - finally - a roof.

Some peril in his work

It also has a "splat zone."


"See those perches above the back row? The hawks sit there for quite awhile, so we painted warnings on the seats below: 'Splat Zone.' It's a courtesy thing."

What's unusual about the renovation is that it was conceived and designed by Denzler to be the ideal arena for bird shows.

Even with the custom design, one fear remains: Free-flying birds flying off. "It's not that big a worry, because the birds are creatures of habit that always return to the best feeding ground, and that's right here. But sometimes things happen and I wind up driving around town with a lure, trying to recapture them."

Like when the Goodyear Blimp flew overhead? "The birds went crazy. Anytime they see something large hovering above, they think it's a predator and tend to scatter. That show was a disaster.

"But I've been lucky in my 18 years doing the show. Disasters have been few and far between."

If you go

Zoo visitors can catch Great American Wings of Wonder Bird Show at 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. No shows Mondays and Tuesdays. It's free with zoo admission.

E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer .com

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