Archive for the Memphis Zoo Category

Cuvier’s gazelle sketch

Posted in African Ungulates, Available Originals, Charles Alexander, Cuvier's gazelle, Drawings, Memphis Zoo on July 30, 2011 by Charles Alexander

The gazelle in this sketch-in-progress is a very rare and endangered one from North Africa: the Cuvier’s, also known as the Edmi. I worked with a herd of them during my keeper years– and came in one morning to discover this little calf exhibiting his hiding behavior. I got down on the ground next to him to take my reference photo. He didn’t move. Some antelope are followers immediately– like wildebeest. Others are hiders for a while, like this little one. The zebra: you can just see the left side of the composition. It is a long design of a zebra wading in a lake in the Serengeti–a long sand bar with blacksmith plovers are also part of the composition. This is the first time that I’ve showed any part of it here on FB. The painting will be quite large– this is just the thumbnail sketch to help work out the composition on paper. From my In The Studio 2011 Album:​6253&id=689647275

A link to tell you more about the Cuvier’s gazelle:​zella-cuvieri/

Raptor Rehab Program, Memphis Zoo

Posted in Charles Alexander, Memphis Zoo on July 25, 2011 by Charles Alexander

American kestrel chicks, rescued by the Memphis Zoo’s raptor rehab program

I helped out with the raptor program on a regular basis during my zoo career, mainly documenting in photos all of the birds that came in and creating a database of shots showing the development of chicks week by week. Birds brought in had often been hit by cars, wounded by gunshot, blown out of their nest as chicks, or had collided with power lines. Sometimes nests were discovered in industrial or construction sites and the chicks had to be brought in. On one memorable occasion, a clutch of barn owls was rescued from the top of an enormous crane many stories high that had been sitting idle. I am not sure what the story was with these little kestrels, but it was most likely a case of their nest being blown down in a storm.

Day old barn owl chick held by raptor rehab specialist Knox Martin, Memphis Zoo. I documented the growth of this chick and its siblings on a week to week basis for 8 weeks. It was fascinating to observe the astonishingly rapid change in its appearance. This bird and its siblings were released into the wild at the Ames Plantation–superb barn owl habitat–not far from Memphis.

In addition to documenting the growth of chicks and birds-on-the-mend, I also assisted with the release of many of the rehab birds back into the wild. It was always a gratifying moment to see an eagle, hawk, or falcon take wing again after the long, labor-intensive process of rehabilitation. Knox Martin, head of the raptor program, did not receive extra pay from his keeper salary to work with these birds– it was sheerly a voluntary labor of love on his part and required constant diligence, many long hours, and single-minded dedication to succeed. The zoo’s vet staff also volunteered many hours of surgery and monitoring time to help heal these birds and restore them to the wild.
Species that benefitted from the rehab program included bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons and American kestrels, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s (pictured above) and sharp-shinned hawks, ospreys, barred/barn/great horned/screech owls, Mississippi kites, and black/turkey vultures. These kestrel chicks–little falcons in miniature that are often seen hovering over fields at the side of the road– were successfully reared and returned to the wild.

It was always funny to hear an announcement over our zoo radios for Knox Martin to go to the main zoo gate, that someone had called to say that they were on their way with a “baby eagle”. Invariably, it turned out to be a kestrel, a red-tail chick, and on one memorable occasion, a pigeon in a shoebox.

Knox Martin with barn owl chicks

About ten years ago, the Memphis Zoo discontinued the raptor program, which was then privatized and moved to a new headquarters at the Shelby Farms Conservancy (where I’ve spent so much time over the past year studying the bison herd). Shelby Farms Conservancy is the nation’s largest urban park– at over 4500 acres it is 5 times larger than Central Park in NYC. Visit the Mid-South Raptor Center website here:

Abstract Painting by the famous Kongo, Western Lowland Gorilla

Posted in Bronx Zoo, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo, Western Lowland Gorilla on July 17, 2011 by Charles Alexander

Many thanks to my friend Karen Johnson for the framing of one of my most memorable moments from my keeper years: a painting created by the venerable silverback western lowland gorilla Kongo. During the early 70s Kongo and his mate Lulu lived in squalid conditions at the Central Park Zoo. When their daughter Patty Cake was born in 1973, the baby gorilla accidentally broke her arm– the resulting press and the famous children’s book The Story of Patty Cake led to greater awareness of the needs of the animals at the Central Park Zoo, which eventually helped to inspire a complete renovation of New York City zoos. Kongo–aka “Michael Jackson’s favorite gorilla”– went on to sire many offspring at the Bronx Zoo. He came to Memphis in the early 90s while I was a keeper, where he painted this abstract piece for me. The artist even included “found objects” in his composition: bits of straw from his night nest are embedded in the paint. Kongo was born in the wild in 1964 (we share the same birth year) and spent his last days with a long-awaited mate at the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida, where he passed away in 1998. I’ll never forget Kongo: his serene, majestic presence touched me deeply. I will treasure his painting as long as I live.

Bosak and Me, 1991

Posted in Asian Ungulates, Charles Alexander, Memphis Zoo, Przewalski's horse, San Diego Wild Animal Park on July 2, 2011 by Charles Alexander

Bosak, the Przewalski’s stallion– and Asian hooved-stock keeper (me), summer 1991. A friend sent me this picture years ago. I took many clear shots of Bosak during the time that I cared for him, but this is the only one that I have of the two of us together. Can it really be 20 years ago already?

Bosak was born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park on 3/06/1986 to a Russian sire… and a Topeka mare– and came to Memphis on 5/30/1989. He was shipped out to another zoo after I left.

This fiery-tempered stallion was a big part of my life for many years– and came running every morning, whinnying his high, shrill neigh with his head held high– when he realized that I was there. I found out recently that he passed away several years ago–but he will live in my memory for the rest of my life.

Learn more about the Przewalski’s horse here:​27s_Horse

Kuja, Part IV

Posted in African Primates, Bronx Zoo, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo, Mountain gorilla, Rwanda on December 5, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Since that “endless summer” taste of being close to the largest and most powerful of the great apes, I have been fortunate to be able to observe mountain gorillas (Kuja was a western lowland) in the wild. I’ve sat and observed many of the gorilla families that live in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. I’ve seen how precarious the continued existence of gorillas in the wild has become. Situated on the upper slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, the ever-shrinking world of the mountain gorilla is now completely surrounded by cultivation. The gorillas there are castaways on an island of habitat, adrift in a sea of humanity. Less than 750 mountain gorillas remain alive today, in two isolated and increasingly vulnerable remnants of forest. Each gorilla lost, every acre of forest destroyed, threatens to tip the balance against the continued survival of the mountain gorilla.

Virunga volcanoes, Rwanda– an island of gorilla habitat in a sea of cultivation

In central and west Africa, lowland gorilla populations–while still numbering in the thousands–are increasingly under threat as bushmeat hunting, logging, mining, and human-borne diseases like Ebola decimate their populations and destroy their forest home wherever gorillas are found.

Mother gets a kiss at Bronx Zoo’s amazing Congo Gorilla Forest, home to two families of western lowland gorillas.

Gorillas will have an important place in my heart as long as I live. I’ve sat within a few yards of Guhonda, the largest silverback in the Virungas, an enormous being with the strength of 10 football linebackers.

He could have crushed me like an insect and never broken a sweat, but I never felt afraid in his presence. Gorillas are that gentle. And yet, Guhonda would without hesitation use every ounce of his great strength–and even sacrifice his own life if necessary—to defend his family, should they be attacked. Gorillas are that devoted to one another. But leave them in peace to live out their lives– and they in turn will leave you in peace. Unlike people, they have no need to misuse their strength for selfish purposes.

Ryango, the Sabinyo group’s second in command after Guhonda, deftly peels and munches on a stalk of bamboo

With a week old bongo calf, January 1995

Posted in African Ungulates, Bongo, Charles Alexander, Memphis Zoo on December 5, 2010 by Charles Alexander

One of the most interesting things about bongo is that their red pigment will come off on your hands when you touch them! You can see a bit of the pigment staining the white wall of the barn stall behind me where the bongo mother has brushed/rubbed against it.

Bongo are among my favorite animals and I feel so lucky to have spent so much time caring for them day to day.

At the Memphis Zoo with my mother Kay, 1967

Posted in Charles Alexander, Memphis Zoo on December 5, 2010 by Charles Alexander

I was three on this outing with my beautiful mom in 1967–and could barely contain my enthusiasm for animals long enough to sit for a photo. The zoo was without question my favorite place to go. Nine years later I started volunteering there in the Zoo Action Patrol, a youth education program, then subsequently was hired as a keeper at the age of 18. To learn more about my first paying zoo job– serving as surrogate parent to an infant gorilla–have a look at my “Kuja” posts here.

Kuja, Part III

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 30, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Kuja’s muscular strength was as out-sized as his voice. One afternoon the actress June Lockhart–star of many classic MGM films and the tv series Lassie and Lost In Space– paid a visit to the zoo and was welcomed into the nursery for a special visit.

An animal lover and avid conservationist, she was thrilled to be holding a baby gorilla in her arms for the very first time. As she doted on him, Kuja became fascinated by her immaculately coiffed fifties-style hairdo–and grabbed a handful, holding on for dear life and almost bending his somewhat elderly visitor double before his fingers were pried loose. Ever gracious, Ms. Lockhart quickly regained her composure–and her “do”–and didn’t hold it against the now-shrieking Kuja as I took him back and swiftly tried to calm him.

I learned a lot that summer. I became fully aware as never before that great apes share so much with humans– they think, laugh, cry, and need love–just like us. I discovered that the boundary between the animal and human worlds was far less distinct that I had ever imagined. Gorillas are neither the savage beasts nor the comic human parodies depicted in movies and in the media–they are creatures of deep emotion and great dignity. They deserve our respect– and our concern. In central Africa, gorillas are routinely killed and eaten as bushmeat. I find that fact hard to fathom.

Kuja, Part II

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 25, 2010 by Charles Alexander

The job was a dream. Often I was at the zoo from midnight til 8am, 7 nights a week. Every few hours, formula was prepared; baby was fed, burped, and weighed; records were scrupulously kept; diapers were changed and baths given as needed. We bonded and initially he spent long hours asleep in my arms or in his crib. As he grew, he became active and wanted to play with his toys and explore. He enjoyed looking at picture books and watching TV. He started eating spinach, carrots, and other flavors spoonfed to him out of a babyfood jar. I can still feel his fingers touching my face as he stared up at me, mapping every detail.

Those nights at the zoo were memorable. So much goes on when the last visitors leave and the zoo gates are locked behind them. Sometimes when Kuja was sleeping I would step outside and talk to the animals in neighboring exhibits. At dusk, shy creatures showed themselves and became active. Animals that had been sleeping in the heat of the day began to stir. As the sun went down, the zoo took on a completely different aspect in the dark: the grounds echoing with animal sounds, the exhibits alive with moving shadows. Sometimes I stayed on till the end of the following day if someone had a day off or couldn’t come in to relieve me. I lived at the zoo and that was fine by me.

Almost from day one, Kuja was strong enough to do a complete chin-up. If he didn’t get his way or get something he wanted fast enough, his lips would purse, fists would clench, until he vented his frustration with a powerful, high-pitched shriek of rage completely out of proportion to his size ( a sound meant to bring every member of a wild gorilla group rushing to the aid of an infant in danger).

Part III

Kuja, Part I

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 20, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Gorillas have played an important role in shaping the direction of my life since I was a teenager.

My first real paying job was at the Memphis Zoo when I was almost 19. I had been volunteering (in the Zoo Action Patrol!) in various capacities from the age of 12: picking up trash, chopping animal food, telling people to please not toss coins in the crocodile pool, etc. I did everything in my power to show the zoo administration during those teen years that I meant business and was totally committed to working with wildlife. I spent entire summers at the zoo ( I am so thankful to my parents for shuttling me back and forth, every day when I wasn’t in school). The Curator of Mammals finally gave me a big break close to my 19th birthday by offering me a job in the zoo nursery –handraising an infant lowland gorilla. The infant’s mother Beta was quite old and was so arthritic that she couldn’t hold the baby for nursing. The infant had been removed and was now safe in the nursery in the zoo’s primate building. Would I be interested in the job?

At first, the curator’s offer seemed barely believable. The zoo was going to pay me to do what? As I was ushered into the zoo nursery for the first time to meet my day-old charge, I could barely think as reality began to sink in. When they handed me the infant for the first time–wrapped in a blue felt blanket, his bristly black hair sticking straight up on top of his head– it was the equivalent of an actor being handed an Academy Award. The responsibility was staggering.

His name was Kuja. Suddenly, I was a teenage surrogate parent. My life would never be the same–and the path to my future was revealed. I actually read Gorillas In The Mist for the first time with a baby gorilla sitting on my lap, looking at the pictures with me. Here we are reading a gorilla picture book for kids.

Part II