“Please don’t make me chose among my children!” pleads Kelly, declining to speculate on which exhibit would be most at risk. “Those collections are big and stable and took years to build. If, God forbid, we have to shut down lions and tigers, it would take more than a year to find homes for them. And then if the money was found, it would probably take three years to start it up again.”
The zoo knows what it will face if it moves to shutter an exhibit. Two years ago, Kelly announced the end of the Kids’ Farm, a barn full of domestic livestock that didn’t add much to the zoo’s research on endangered species. The outcry was instant, and the exhibit remains open, thanks to a five-year grant from State Farm insurance company.
Curators and keepers are already adjusting to budget constraints. They are crossed-trained, like understudies in a musical, so that they can step in to care for unfamiliar animals in a staffing emergency. Actually, emergency has become the new normal. In addition to the African lions and Sumatran tigers, Saffoe has gained custody of Andean bears, prairie dogs, a giant anteater and, yes, the Kids’ Farm.
“I have a very ill anteater right now,” he said. “I have tigers that are breeding; I have tigers that are being shipped out; I have Andean bears with cubs fresh on the ground.”
The animals are getting their food and medicine, but Saffoe worries another round of cuts will mean even less time for anything else. He looks on as keeper Kristen Clark works with Naba through the mesh. Clark is getting the lioness used to maneuvers that are helpful for her frequent visits from the vet, such as sticking her tail out for a blood test or pressing her open mouth against the fence for a dental check.
Conditioned like this, the animals can get routine exams quickly and safely. But if there’s no time for training, they will need to be darted with tranquilizers more often, a traumatizing and dangerous procedure.
“We’re kind of getting down to the bare essentials,” Saffoe said. “I have tons of new data that we’ve gathered on the lion cubs, but it’s sitting on my hard disk because research has gone on the back burner.”
After his morning work with the big cats, Saffoe headed out through a light rain to tend to the other end of the food chain.
“For the last 19 years, I’ve worked with large, dangerous carnivores,” he said in the Kids’ Farm barn as he fed bits of kibble to a flop-eared Nubian goat. “Now I’m managing the animals that I usually feed out” to the cats.
At first, working with tame livestock was a challenge for Saffoe. After decades of the hyper-security protocol of the lion house, where not even a finger goes into the enclosure where the teeth are, he had to learn to walk right into the pen with Rose, the polled Hereford.
“What do you say, Rose?” he said as he greets the docile black-and-white heifer. “You can get kicked. You get butted. But yeah, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a carnivore keeper getting hurt by a goat.”
Karen Wille is one of those zoo devotees who keep a close eye on animal care. The Arlington County woman visits the zoo several times a month and has even traveled to China three times to visit Tai Shan, the panda who was born at the zoo in 2005 and lived there until 2010.
“It’s very frustrating to see what they have to go through,” Wille said of the keepers’ increasing need to do more with less.
She is confident that the animals will be well cared for even in the face of a sequester. But as a management consultant for federal contractors, Wille is less certain about what will happen to her. “Honestly, I’m worried about my own job,” she said.
Over at the American Trail exhibit, North American seals and sea lions and otters cavort near beavers and gray wolves and a bald eagle. It’s a massively complex ecosystem, with sophisticated water systems and one of the biggest ranges of species in the zoo. The five keepers on the exhibit’s staff had hoped reinforcements were coming, but further cuts would make that unlikely. Three keepers have to be on-site every day, so they will work seven or eights days in a row when anyone gets sick and cut back on the question-and-answer time with visitors.
“We’re pretty much running from one place to another,” keeper Rebecca Miller said as she tossed an ice ring to the sea lions, her hands still smelling of the 150 pounds of fish and squid that are cut each morning. She has missed weddings, Thanksgivings and Christmases, and usually works federal holidays.
“It’s become kind of a lifestyle,” she said. “We do it because we love the animals.”