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Scared speechless

Wild job

By Nancy Bartosek

The introduction didn't go as planned. Denise did not like Newton in her space, so she began to galumph around, agitated. Newton, thinking it was a game, charged after her, nipping poor Denise on the rear and back. Not a good way to impress a future mate.

Exotic friendships. Bonds forged with animals like Indy, the black rhino, and Denise, the two-hump Bactrian camel, makes Lisa Fitzgerald's job at the Dallas zoo worthwhile.

Lisa Fitzgerald '81 (MS '84) smiled as she related the tale of the failed meeting on the way to the compound where the two-hump Bactrian camels live. A mammal supervisor at the Dallas Zoo, Fitzgerald was checking on Denise, who the next day was stiff from the unaccustomed running and swollen from the bites. The huge animal looked at Fitzgerald warily as she entered the pen.

"She didn't like it a bit and kept spitting on him,"Fitzgerald said as Denise lumbered to her feet and gently nibbled on Fitzgerald's shorts. "She needs to stick up for herself. She's bigger than he is."

Though dealing with bad first dates in the animal kingdom is not the future Fitzgerald envisioned, she can't think of anything she'd rather be doing.

"Like every grad, I was going to save the world," she said, laughing. "Now it's just the zoo world."

It's a career she "fell into" when Biology Prof. Gary Ferguson suggested she apply for a research fellowship at an Oklahoma zoo in 1982. Several years and a master's degree later, she was back in Texas studying the animals in Dallas.

That was 15 years ago. Fitzgerald, who oversees the care of some 48 animals in 13 species, spits out facts about the various mammals as she walks among their habitats. Javelinas are fearless and downright mean (stay out of that pen), llamas blow in each other's noses in greeting (so Fitzgerald stops to blow in one's nose as she walks past), and the Arabian oryx, a small antelope from the Middle East, was hunted to extinction in the wild, preserved and bred in zoos and then reintroduced into the wild.

Fitzgerald's initial interest in biology centered around preservation issues, so the move to animal conservation was a natural and satisfying step.

"When I got into the field, zoos were changing their focus toward conservation and reintroduction, away from just display," she said. "The goal now is to never take any animal out of the wild for zoos, but to breed the ones we have and return the endangered ones to the wild."

Her favorite is Indy, a black rhino born at the zoo five years ago. When Fitzgerald approaches, Indy saunters up to the iron railing and thrusts his massive horn though the bars searching for a pat. When she reaches out, one finger disappears into a deep fold of leathery skin just below the eye.

"Feel here," she said, referring to the baby-bottom-soft layers. "He loves this."

Most of the resources at the zoo are devoted to enrichment of the animals, which includes various forms of training. Indy, for example, has been trained enter a chute for blood draws and present his front feet for inspection. No one is allowed in the pen with a rhino. Thought generally docile, they have terrible eyesight and could seriously injure or kill their trainers accidently. Training also makes necessary medical procedures less stressful on the animals, not to mention more interesting for the workers.

A supervisor now for more than a year, Fitzgerald finds her days filled with planning and researching the best ways to care for and keep the animals in her area. Each day she makes her rounds, talking with the keepers and observing the animals, but she misses the day-to-day care and study.

Still, she understands her work has greater long-term value. As she consults and coordinates with zoo workers worldwide, she may be preparing some nearly extinct species to return to their natural habitat someday.

The work is hard, dirty and carries few practical rewards.

"Yesterday I poured this concrete and laid some PVC pipe," she noted, pointing to a muddy slab of cement in a pen. "I never thought I'd use my master's degree in biology to do construction work.

"But it's rewarding to do some things I'm not trained to do and know that it has really benefited that animal's life."