- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Roman Kantorek sets out shortly after 5 p.m. with a clipboard he rarely consults and a container of chopped fruits and vegetables.

The assistant supervisor of the late shift at the Dallas Zoo is a few hours into his workday. He has many mouths to feed and locks to check before the night is up.

“All right, let me climb that fence and meet those dangerous animals,” he says.

Kantorek, a 62-year-old Polish immigrant with a deadpan sense of humor, hops the 3-foot-high wooden enclosure and comes face to face with sleepy Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises. The tortoises need access to their indoor enclosure.

These days they’re trained to be motivated by food, but not that long ago a group of keepers had to pick them up and take them inside.

Kantorek worked at the zoo 23 years before retiring in 2009. He felt burned out. But he returned in 2012.

“I couldn’t stay away,” he told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1PM3fWO). “This is such a unique job, even though it’s not all glamour, as some people may think. There’s so much stuff going on. It’s so interesting, especially at night.”

Kantorek loves working in the evenings, when the animals - nocturnal or not - show a side you don’t often see during the day.

“At my stage of life, I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “Zookeeping, it’s not an easy profession. It’s kind of hard, it’s physical, and you’re outside.”

The all-clear alert comes over the radio at 5:30 p.m., signaling that the guests have left the zoo. Kantorek says it’s time to go to the lemurs.

“When it starts getting dark, you’re out of luck,” he says. “They settle in the trees and they don’t want to go in.”

Kantorek lifts a series of color-coded levers that open the doors, and the lemurs dart inside, where a painting done by a lemur and a “Beware: Guard Lemur on Duty” sign hang.

He knows the lemurs’ names and personalities: Iggy is trouble. Hydrox is more dominant.

And he knows how to get a lemur into the correct enclosure.

“Sometimes you have to use little tricks of the trade,” he says, throwing a grape.

Kantorek grew up knowing he would do something with animals, but his town, Szczecin, did not have a zoo. He earned a master’s degree in animal sciences and was working in the zoology department of the local agriculture university.

Kantorek had to leave Poland because of his involvement with a publishing house that printed books banned by the communist government. He secured political refugee status from the United States and landed in Texas in February 1986, thanks to the sponsorship of a Dallas family.

By August, he’d found a job at the zoo.

Kantorek’s large keyring jingles with each step. His shift involves checking a lot of locks and then checking them again, and he never fails to find the right key.

He pops into the lesser flamingo habitat, shaking the bushes to get some ducks - marbled teal - out of the water. The fowl have to be shifted indoors for dinner, and when he opens the hatch, they follow him the way they would an avian Pied Piper.

“I was into birds when I was a little kid; then I turned to ants and I was never the same,” he says.

The job has allowed him to hand-feed baby orangutans and antelopes and interact with a lengthy list of reptiles, primates and hoofstock, though ants are still among his favorites. He has seen the births of oryxes, sunni antelopes, big antelopes, giraffes and primates. Before he retired, Kantorek spent 12 years caring for elephants.

“There’s still one I used to work here with, Jenny. She still recognizes me,” he says. “She starts rumbling or sometimes trumpeting. She’s a little moody; sometimes she kind of gives me a cold shoulder.”

At Don Glendenning Penguin Cove, Kantorek opens a little gate and 12 African penguins waddle through as he sits on a rock and gazes off. There’s no time to get lonely during the shift, he says; it’s too busy.

Next are the otters, and then a visual check of the snakes and alligators in the reptile building, where he switches off some lights.

Night keepers have their share of experiences with sick animals, baby animals, nursing mothers and quarantines.

The longer you work with the animals, the easier it is to recognize problems - if they don’t respond when you come in, or if they’re lethargic and sluggish, something may be wrong, he says.

Once, on Christmas Eve, a night keeper called animal senior director Harrison Edell about a Eurasian eagle-owl. She was concerned because he was walking strangely and in a hunched position. After calling other animal supervisors, Edell learned the eagle-owl had been given a Christmas gift - a huge, whole rat.

“He was just protecting his food from the night keeper,” Edell says. “It wasn’t necessarily that she caught a huge issue, but she flagged something appropriately. She did exactly the right thing.”

The keeper operation that cares for the 2,000 or so animals at the zoo runs “like a finely oiled machine,” Edell says. “It impresses the heck out of me. Most of the public doesn’t really understand what it takes to care for these animals. It’s not just hosing down the enclosure.”

In the crisp, quiet night, Kantorek moves swiftly from station to station greeting the animals.

“Hey, Mason, our lovely gibbon,” he says. “You don’t like me, I know that. Where are you going?”

He knows the creatures’ personalities, and they seem to remember him. He gives the monkeys, cougars, bobcat and ocelots access to their indoor habitats, feeds some, sweeps and does a visual scan of the birds. A crocodile glides silently toward the food pellets he tosses into the water, its teeth illuminated by the light from Kantorek’s small flashlight.

Many giraffes are already asleep when Kantorek arrives, but they rise slowly to their feet when he enters. He starts to talk to the animals as he approaches the building.

“When you walk in without warning, you don’t know how they’re going to react,” he says. “That’s kind of part of interspecies communication.”

Outside, a couple of zebras watch him closely. It’s hard to pin down what he likes best about the job. Part of the allure is the animals’ diversity, he says.

“When you think about how difficult it is to survive in their environment, how competitive it is, the fact that they’re surviving is just an incredible success story,” he says. “People generally under-appreciate animals. They have so much more to offer than people think, and we can learn so much from them.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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