WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. -- Visitors to the zoo here prefer windy days. They hope gusts will blow feathers out of the golden eagles' enclosure so they can retrieve them.
Eagle feathers are coveted by Navajos who believe strength, special powers and healing are bestowed on those who possess the feathers.
If an owl feather floats through the air or is seen on the ground, Navajo legend demands that it be avoided at all costs, for the owl is the symbol of death. An owl feather brings bad luck.
There isn't another zoo anywhere quite like the Navajo Nation Zoological Park in Window Rock, the Navajo capital. Owned and operated by the Navajo tribe, it is the only Native American zoo in America.
"Traditional relationships between Navajos and animals and birds are vastly different than those of non-Indian cultures," said Loline Hathaway, the curator of the zoo.
"This is a fascinating place to work," she said. "There are challenges every day that never come up in other zoos. And they're all tied in with the ancient Navajo culture."
Five Navajo animal keepers work with Hathaway caring for the birds and other animals at the 10-acre zoological park. The zoo is not far from Window Rock, the spectacular orange sandstone outcropping with a windowlike opening. The sacred Navajo orange Haystack Rocks hover over the zoo.
Hathaway, who is not a Navajo, is the only one who feeds the snakes. She never does this in the presence of the other animal keepers or zoo visitors because Navajo tradition forbids anyone to see a snake eat. Nearly all the zoo's visitors are Navajo.
"There are many complex issues over and above the mundane world of a typical zoo," Hathaway said. "I consult tribal medicine men whenever I encounter a situation I'm uncertain about. It isn't like biology. I have to wait until knowledge falls in my path. I can't go off and pursue it."
As for those falling eagle feathers, for example, she cannot simply give them away. It is a federal offense to possess eagle feathers without a permit. So Hathaway collects the feathers and gives them to Navajo Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who distribute them.
There is a long waiting list for the feathers. Some ask for tail feathers, others for wing feathers, still others for the inner fluffy feathers. Different feathers have different powers. Feathers dropped from a live bird have much more power than those from a dead bird.
"When the wind blows the feathers out of the enclosure, people will grab them and stick them in their purses or pockets no matter how tiny the feathers are," Hathaway said.
The zoo, which is open every day of the year, was blessed by medicine men when it opened 13 years ago "to protect zoo workers and visitors from evil spirits that lurk in some of the animals," Hathaway said. "Medicine men prayed that holy people, like Changing Woman and Spider Woman, will not be upset because the birds and animals are penned."
Many of the 187,000 Navajos on the 24,000-square-mile reservation, the largest in the United States, have misgivings about keeping birds and animals in cages, according to zoo officials.
But a dozen medicine men have met with Hathaway to reassure her that they approved of the way the animals were being cared for and that it was not necessary to release them.
"Whenever an animal dies, I supply the carcass or parts to medicine men. A bear died. The medicine men asked me for the bear's gallbladder," Hathaway said. "When animals are dying, it is a difficult time. The Navajo keepers don't want to get near the dying animal. They are afraid the animal's spirit might move into their body."
Visitors often bring corn pollen to the zoo to sprinkle on the animals. Corn symbolizes the Navajos' origin. The Indians say prayers when they sprinkle the pollen on an animal and want to leave the zoo with pollen that touched the animals. Some sprinkle corn pollen on the road runner so they, as humans, will be able to run faster.
But "when they sprinkle corn pollen on a coyote or snake," Hathaway said, "it is usually done for evil purposes. I try to stop that. But one old man who had trouble breathing came back to the zoo three times over several months, each time to sprinkle pollen on a bull snake. He said he was doing it for his health. I believe him," Hathaway said. "His health actually improved."
Some visitors stand back from the bear cage to avoid the bear's breath. And no one will ever eat in front of a bear, considered the holiest of animals by the Navajos.
"No one has ever asked me for owl feathers," Hathaway said. "If they did, I know it would be for witchcraft. We have two great horned owls at the zoo. An owl feather was dropped on a tractor on a Navajo farm recently. The tractor was abandoned. No one would use it again."