Chaffee Zoo Workers Climb to Great Heights to Keep You Safe

May 1, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Last December's escape of a tiger from its exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo got a lot of zoos across the world re-thinking safety issues.Here in the Central Valley the largest public zoo has long gone to great heights to ensure the safety of visitors and animals alike.

Fresno's Chaffee Zoo nestled in the popular downtown Roeding Park is a magnet for families. And during the school year thousands of children enjoy an urban safari there.

It's an inviting break from the classroom that provides the opportunity for lively interaction between kids and two species of the ape family in the so-called 'Sunda Forrest'. It's a place where the very vocal apes, hanging from the flexible walls of their enclosure, invite zoo goers to hoot right back.

The Siamangs and Orangutans eagerly cavort within the confines of their steel mesh exhibit delighting every visitor. And the Siamangs' lively call is one that children love to imitate. But constant use of the cables and mesh by these apes over a period of the exhibit's seven years raises the question: Just how safe are you and your children while standing just a few feet from them?

To find the answer Photographer Richard Harmelink and I paid a visit to the zoo before the sun was up; in fact before the moon had set. We found zoo keepers Lynn Meyers and Sarah Acosta preparing to inspect a quarter of a mile of artificial vines and the steel cables and mesh they hang from. They start at first light to be finished with this monthly task before the zoo opens to the public at 9 am.

The apes climb every inch of their open air mesh walls. That makes the exhibit very appealing providing a sense of intimacy with these wild creatures says Zoo Primate Keeper Lynn Meyers. "That's what's nice about this exhibit. It's not a rigid exhibit it gives with the movements of the animals. You don't want your animals to be caught in any broken material or the potential of them escaping."

And that is why these two keepers mimic their charges to inspect and make repairs every month. You see, ensuring the safety of the enclosure that these creatures inhabit is paramount for their keepers, To do that means literally climbing to great heights to ensure the animals and the public are both safe.

For Sarah Acosta, another of the Zoo's Primate Keepers, climbing to the top of the flexible walls and ceiling of the enclosure is a lot harder than it looks: "It's very difficult once you get up there to move around and not get caught on the top of the exhibit."

All the keepers who do this work wear climbing harnesses that allow them to hook onto the mesh to provide their safety for falling. Like Acosta, fellow keeper Lynn Meyers looks at this check and repair duty as all part of the job. "It's like walking on a trampoline up there. This is a wonderful exhibit for them and its challenging for us as keepers also."

We were allowed to go inside the exhibit while they worked on top of it. The apes meantime were snug in their night house. From inside the enclosure looking up at the keepers it's clear they don't move as gracefully as the apes. We were reminded their purpose isn't play, its work. It's serious business for both the animal and their human visitors.

The two keepers look for and often find little kinks, damage and repairs to be made to the mesh walls, the supporting cables and all those artificial vines so loved by the Orangutans and Siamangs. This trip to the top of the exhibit was no exception.

Meyers says, "There's a few areas I want to check where we applied that new tape. These are really sticking out and kind of sharp. Oh, yeah a pokey right there. It's part of our job to take care of our animals in all aspects. Without an enclosure that is safe for them to come out, safe for them to enjoy and utilize they're not going to be very healthy individuals."

And it is the healthy, active interaction between ape and mankind that draws children of all ages to this neck of the Chaffee Zoo woods. The next time you're there just follow the calls of the Siamangs and see for yourself.

Rest easy, Keepers Acosta and Myers have your backs, but be careful, those charming apes will steal your hearts!


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