First published in The Record, May 24, 2018
At this zoo, only the animals are small
Like most Americans, Ande the chinchilla is chubby. Unlike most Americans, wild or domesticated, skinny or fat, Ande is totally cool with strangers checking his weight. On a recent Wednesday morning, Dr. Curt Boren plopped the fuzzy gray rodent into a clear plastic bowl, then set the bowl on a scale.
The scale’s digital display read 759 grams, placing Ande on the hefty side of a pound and a half.
Some animals at the Bergen County Zoo become murderously angry when Boren, the zoo’s part-time veterinarian for the last 27 years, tries to weigh them. But Ande just stood there, his ears and tail sticking straight up. He did not chirp or squirm.
Ande keeps the chill in chinchilla.
“He’s a little lazy,” Cathy Walsh, the zoo’s veterinary technician, said of Ande, who is named after his ancestral home in the Andes Mountains. “He has an exercise wheel in his cage. He likes to sit on it.”Exams at Bergen County Zoo
Working as a veterinarian at the Bergen County Zoo is exactly like working as a vet at any other zoo, except here the vets rarely need to stretch. The zoo's collection focuses on animals from North and South America, which exclude the tall breeds that often become a zoo's marquee attractions.
“You’re not going to have your elephants and giraffes here,” said Cindy Norton, the Bergen zoo’s curator, who has worked at the institution for 32 years. “We’re not competing with that.”
This zoo and its animals may someday grow substantially bigger. Two years ago, Bergen County Executive James J. Tedesco proposed doubling the zoo’s footprint to include restaurants, a parking garage and 12 new animal species. That proposal was tabled until the freeholders can consider a broader plan for the entire county park system, said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for Tedesco.
So for now the zoo occupies the same diminutive 13-acre plot that it has since it opened in 1960. Its campus includes barns, walking paths, fenced-in pastures and alligator pools, all crammed into the northeast corner of Van Saun Park in Paramus, which itself fits so tightly into the map of Bergen County's 70 municipalities, it might have been shoved into place with a shoehorn.
Standing inside the operating room of the zoo’s animal hospital recently, a visitor was surprised to find himself looking out the window into the yard of a brick suburban house, cordoned off from the zoo by only a light-duty fence, a thin thicket of trees and the narrow-gauge tracks that carry the zoo’s miniature train.
Here in this densely populated, packed-in place, the employees of North Jersey’s only zoo focus on the big job of being small.
“We get a lot of young children because the county has a lot of families, and we’re inside a county park with pony rides and a carousel,” Norton said. “We know our space limitations.”
Making the rounds
The Bergen County Zoo has a great excuse for keeping its animals small, since the animals native to this part of the world aren't so big anyway. The zoo focuses on the Western Hemisphere, which happily includes adorable species like chinchillas, sloths and bunnies.
“OK, let’s look at her teeth,” Boren said as he picked up Lemmy, a black long-haired rabbit with a white spot at the base of her neck. “Hi, sweetie!”
Exceptions are made. Two years ago the zoo welcomed a pair of male peacocks, native to India. The plan was to let the birds strut wherever they pleased, delighting crowds of people with their huge, colorful feathers.
The experiment failed, Walsh said, because these particular peacocks proved to be a disappointing mix of shy and flighty.
“We wanted them to be free-roaming, but these two boys didn’t want to stay here,” she said. “They fly really well. They didn’t leave Paramus, but Paramus is a big town. We had to drive a lot to find them.”
For a while this spring, the peripatetic peacocks of Paramus were housed inside the zoo’s American wetlands display. But workers planned to move turtles, ibises and spoonbills into the space before long, leaving no room for the peacocks.
It was decided to send the birds to a farm in a less-crowded corner of New Jersey. To make sure the pair were ready for the trip, Boren walked into the enclosure and watched the birds walk around.
“We’re not actually going to grab them,” he said of the birds, which stayed as far away as possible as they paced back and forth. “I think they’re nervous enough already.”
Even in a zoo with no lions or pachyderms, dangers abound. The bison could charge at any moment. Tapirs, which resemble baby elephants crossed with koala bears, are actually 450-pound bulldozers with the unpredictable temper of a rhinoceros.
“Uh, don’t open any doors. Don’t touch any animals. Don’t stick your fingers in a cage,” Boren said as he led two visitors on a tour. “And seriously, don’t open any doors.”
Even little birds can harbor murderous intent. Recently the zoo prepared to send one of its female snowy owls to the Toledo Zoo in exchange for a male, in hopes of breeding babies with good genetic diversity.
Unlike the peacocks, this bird would be traveling across state lines, which required a more invasive inspection. Walsh, wearing thick canvas gloves, grabbed the owl by its talons. The bird’s eyes and beak opened into a wild-looking smile, as if to say, “Oh, yeah? You want a piece of me?”
More hands got involved. The bird’s face contorted into a grimace. Norton firmly gripped the owl’s head and chin, then rested her left hand against the bird’s left wing.
This arrangement left the owl free to swing its right wing, which it used to whip Boren in the face. The beating was unavoidable, Boren said, as clamping down on the bird’s body might cause it to suffocate.
“I’ve seen people get jabbed in the eye with a wing,” Boren said.
All this fury erupted from an animal that registered just 2 kilograms on the digital scale, or 4.4 pounds.
“It’s amazing how some animals don’t weigh as much as you think they will, especially birds,” Boren said. “She’s so big and strong."
Eventually the technicians managed to open the owl’s right wing, exposing a blue artery pumping hard under the white feathers. Boren slipped a needle inside and drew a sample of blood.
“I wish every vein was that easy to see,” said Evan Abernathy, a veterinary assistant working under Boren.
Little or big, the job is the same
In Paramus, the snowy owl was one of 200 animals that together attract 230,000 people annually. In Toledo she will join a collection of 4,800 animals spread across 51 acres, which together receive 1.3 million visitors a year.
“So for this transfer of the snowy owl, the Toledo Zoo has two vets involved,” Boren said. “One is just a pre-shipment vet to control the testing, and they have another vet who just handles quarantines.”
Boren’s contract pays him to work at Bergen’s zoo just four hours a week. He spends the rest of his time as a small-animal specialist at the Oradell Animal Hospital, where he’s always on call for the zoo’s questions and emergencies.
“Our medical staff is small,” Boren said. “I mean, Cindy and Kathy are the only medical staff we have.”
In addition to one bunny, one chinchilla, one snowy owl and two peacocks, Boren’s rounds this day included annual checkups on eight tortoises and an iguana with a wounded tail.
When he was done, the zookeepers of Bergen County plotted their next moves.
“The rabbit seems fine,” Walsh said. “The chinchilla will need follow-up to make sure he gets his exercise.”