When it's feeding time at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Pete Lee heads out to experience something that Animal Planet and YouTube can't provide.
"I like to just get out of the zoo behind the scenes and interact with the visitors when I can because the sense of wonder of discover is amazing," the 60-year-old zookeeper says on a recent visit. "Some people say, 'Now that we've got everything on the Internet, Animal Planet, why do we even need zoos?' There's no substitute. Seeing a video of a giraffe is quite different from standing next to the 18-feet tall, marvelous creature."
The animals show some affection in return -- they recognize him because he's the guy with the treats. The orangutans are especially sharp.
"One of them will sight me first and then will actually tap the other one on the shoulder and point. 'It's him, it's the guy, the bearer of treats, stuff to eat!'" he jokes.
But there's a serious side to the work of zoos as safe havens for animals whose habitat is slowly vanishing.
"A lot of the creatures, even some of them here at Como, will not be in the wild because there will be no wild. With all the palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia there will be probably be no wild orangutans in our lifetime," he says. "There'll be sanctuaries which are really glorified zoos -- and that's just one animal. So many are threatened and endangered. "We are acting as something of an animal ark."
Pete opens the door to the animal barn and three reindeer come clattering in to feed out of pans.
"They are in the good appetite club, our three reindeer girls, and they've been grazing all morning on their alfalfa. This is the good stuff, this is the beet pulp, there's a little bit of sweet feed in there -- that's like the whipped cream on top." And when there's rolled oats on top, "that's the confectioners' sugar on top of the whipped cream."
The 25-year zoo veteran especially gets a kick out of the giraffes.
"They are ruminants, as are cows with their four-chambered stomach, so they chew their cud all day long. When they're chewing their cud they look like Dizzy Gillespie with their big bulging cheeks," he says. "The sad thing is you have to most of my younger co-workers you have to explain who Dizzy Gillespie was. "
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