City kid goes to the zoo and stays for 50 years: a charming memoir about the unaffected pleasures of a zookeeper's life.
Fresh from high school and operating on a hunch that his childhood fascination with snakes was not a fluke, Brazaitis signed on the dotted line at the Bronx Zoo to become a “broom-pushing, turtle-feeding, glass-cleaning, often terrified reptile keeper.” Thirty years later he was still in the reptile house, keeper of as many good stories as creatures. By far the greatest in number here are those featuring “animals forgoing the confines of their captivity”—staging breakouts, that is, and when you are dealing with mambas and pit vipers and king cobras (“eighteen feet in length . . . one of the most poisonous snakes in the world . . . very aggressive”), those escapes can make the heart beat stronger. The author skillfully draws unvarnished portraits of animals like Sam, the dwarf crocodile that was forever trying to sneak up behind Brazaitis and bite his bum; the Komodo Dragon that laid an affectionate paw on a photographer’s leg, inadvertently tearing it to shreds; and Mack the macaw: “I decided almost immediately to make friends with Mack. But he was evil, and my wish was delusional.” A number of these raise the question of exactly who should be in captivity, the animals or the humans who have done things like leave behind semen and feces as their calling cards in the reptile house. By the time Brazaitis moved to the Central Park Zoo as a reptile curator in 1988, he had enough of a reputation to be called on by the police (“they had two dead bodies and an apartment full of snakes and spiders”), the Drug Enforcement Agency (to handle poisonous snakes that might be used to conceal a drug shipment), and as a forensic specialist keeping an eye on the luxury exotic-leather industry.
Old-fashioned stories from a time before zoos became ethical quandaries, when good-natured zookeepers loved their charges, and maybe even vice versa. (8-photo insert, not seen)