A trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo proves that the cult of celebrity exists even in the animal kingdom. Crowds flock to the lions, bears, and gorillas, or to see the newest baby as it teeters about on four adorable legs. But what about the animals that prompt ewws instead of awws? Lincoln Park Zoo has its share of them, too: snakes, cockroaches, bats, and rodents that rarely see the spotlight. Though they might not be as attractive as the more popular beasts, they have their own quirks, as well as caretakers who are eager to refute their unsavory reputations.
Three of these scavenger birds call the Regenstein Birds of Prey Exhibit home. One is Sophia, a chick who was born on June 7. She's already big enough that it takes a moment to tell her apart from her parents, Bruno and Lurch. At upwards of 3 feet in height, they’re all rather intimidating—especially when they “go to town” on one of the rib bones that the keepers feed them. Curator of Birds Sunny Nelson confirms that she commonly sees grossed-out looks from guests when they first see the scavengers.
However, vultures aren’t aggressive; keepers can work alongside them in the enclosure without fear. That’s because the hulking birds will pick carrion over live prey every time. And, though their eating habits may elicit disgust, Sunny says that vultures are "amazing…They fill a really important ecological niche, in that they take care of all that stuff that is normally going to be left there [to rot]."
For skeptics, Sunny suggests that simply watching the vulture family might be enough to reverse prejudices. "When they expand their wings and [interact], I think that endears them…When there's time to engage, some of those [negative] opinions change." That's fortunate news for the vultures, whose numbers are dwindling due to habitat and food loss.
People who see the pied tamarins up close typically compare the tiny, bald-headed primate to some sort of mythological creature. Gremlins and gargoyles are popular choices. "This morning the kids [were] calling them 'demon monkeys,' because they have the big ears and the bare head," says Michael Brown-Palsgrove, Zoological Manager of Primates. And, in some ways, the tamarins live up to their impish appearance. Michael explains that they're very territorial (keepers can't work inside the exhibit with them) and quick to sound an alarm call when they notice unfamiliar faces and objects.
Certainly, a pied tamarin—or really any primate—would make a terrible pet. But that doesn’t stop Michael from favoring them. "I started as a generalist, but my gears are primates now, definitely." He’s captivated by the sprawling natural history associated with each species, a timeline that makes every type of monkey or ape unique.
As for the tamarins, he has affection for their ugly-cute faces, and tries to convince spectators that they aren't weird or scary. The squirrel-size monkeys are critically endangered in the rainforests of Brazil, a fact that strengthens Michael's resolve to teach people about them and their plight. After all, it's tough to call them demon monkeys when you see them snuggled inside their nest-box for a midday nap.
EASTERN MASSASAUGA RATTLESNAKE
Ever since a youthful stint in his school’s herpetology society, Dan Boehm has considered snakes beautiful. Now, as the Zoological Manager for the Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, he works to correct misconceptions about the creatures that many people find scary.
"Rattlesnakes…have a very bad rap, historically. There's been bounties on the species, including here in Illinois," he says. But the massasauga rattlesnake defies stereotypes—they rarely rattle or strike, preferring to "hunker down and hope that you don't see them." They don't live in the desert, either. They like wet, swampy places, and even wile away the winter in underwater crayfish burrows. Due to extermination and habitat loss, however, Dan says that we'll see them on the federal list of endangered species soon enough.
The zoo is home to what may be the last remnants of the Cook County massasauga rattlesnake population. Finding the few snakes that remain in the state is a labor of love for Dan, who has to wear hip-waders and trek through poison-sumac-infested marshland "where I can fall [in] up to my chest if I go through the ground layer." It's all in the interest of creating a captive insurance population of Illinois rattlesnakes, which are a fragile part of the Midwest's wetland ecosystems.
SMOOTH GREEN SNAKE
"I love it when names make sense," Dan says of the smooth green snake. He fishes one out from an enclosure and holds it up. The snake is indeed a vibrant green, and it curls around Dan's fingers tamely. "It's great working with this species, because you can't see this as a threat. In fact, they are really cute."
The zoo is collaborating with the Lake County Forest Preserve District to breed and "headstart" these snakes, releasing them into their native Midwest grasslands when they've grown out of a vulnerable infancy ("When they hatch out, they weigh significantly less than a penny!"). Because the insectivorous snakes are small and harmless, Dan is hopeful that people won't reject the prospect of having one in their backyard. They're extremely docile, and even if they do try to bite upon being harassed, he says the attempt is "just comical."
Dan also takes encouragement from the fact that society seems to be upping its acceptance of scaly citizens. Kids in particular seem more curious than timid around the smooth green snake’s display in the Children’s Zoo. “Growing up with nature programs,” Dan says, “[leads to] less and less of this learned and ingrained fear of reptiles."
NAKED MOLE RATS
Dan is also the manager of the zoo's naked mole rat colony. These hairless rodents have wrinkly skin, beady eyes, and enormous front teeth for sculpting their underground burrows. There are 20–40 animals in the group, but only one queen, whose sole responsibility is breeding. Dan says that the queen is the largest mole rat in the colony. If a smaller mole rat successfully usurps the crown, "all of a sudden they'll grow in size…It's amazing."
To keep the rodents' teeth at a manageable size, the keepers give them coconut shells and other chewable objects. And, despite those impressive fangs, Dan thinks they’re "kinda cute." He owned hamsters and gerbils as a child, and finds the differences between the pets and the mole rats intriguing: "You get five years out of a pet hamster and it's an incredible senior citizen. These animals live 15-plus years."
Photo: © Stephanie Bassos, Groupon; Tamarin photographs courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo