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Take Five: 'Animals Always' author talks (to herself) about the St. Louis Zoo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2009 - Raja's birth, Phil's antics, Miss Jim's penny drive ... all of the St. Louis Zoo's great legends appear in a new coffee table book that traces the evolution of the city's beloved institution during the past century.

"Animals Always: 100 Years at the Saint Louis Zoo" (University of Missouri Press, $29.95) includes stunning photographs, historical tales and interesting facts.

Did you know, for example, that in 1939 Zoo director George Vierheller made headlines around the world when he acquired two giant pandas, Happy and Pao Pei?

Or, that Vierheller's successor Marlin Perkins -- who became world famous on the old TV show "Wild Kingdom" -- started out as a snakekeeper at the Zoo and used to hunt for specimens in southern Illinois?

There is also a chapter on the future of zoos by Jeffrey Bonner, the current president and CEO. The book is now available in the Zoo's gift shops and will be in local bookstores this holiday season.

Now, in full disclosure, I must tell you that a Beacon staffer wrote the book. And in even fuller disclosure: It was me.

Before joining the Beacon in 2008, I was commissioned by the Zoo to write the text for "Animals Always" and, odd as it may be, features editor Donna Korando has assigned me to talk to myself. She said that if Tiger Woods could interview himself after winning a big golf tournament last summer, I should be able to pull this off. I also suspect that she thought it would be fun to inflict me upon myself.

So, here we go:

SELF: What do you think readers will enjoy most about "Animals Always?"

MDL: The pictures -- without a doubt. There are gorgeous color pictures of elephants and lions and leopards and lots of adorable zoo babies but also striking close-ups of birds and butterflies. Nothing I wrote could come close to matching the beauty and power of the pictures. And I'm not being modest -- you of all people would know that.

I think modern visitors will also enjoy the black-and-white historical pictures that show what the Zoo was like in the very early days. People used to wear their Sunday best. Imagine how uncomfortable those wool dresses and suits would be on a hot St. Louis summer day.

There are lots of pictures from the Zoo's own archives, as well as some great pictures published by the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat and other newspapers. One of my favorites was taken by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer inside the Reptile House when it opened in 1927. It shows this solid wall-to-wall throng of people packed so tightly that I'm sure none of them saw a snake that day.

SELF: What surprised you the most about the Zoo's history?

MDL: I think most people today know that the Zoo is as much about education and research as it is about having fun. But that was the case from the very early days, even when the founders were campaigning to build a world-class Zoo in St. Louis to keep up with the rest of the big American cities. Hello, Chicago.

In the front of the book, there is picture of a pamphlet from the old St. Louis Zoological Society, published sometime in the 1920s, that spells out the mission. It's strikingly similar to the modern mission of the Zoo that appears on the facing page. In the early years, the zookeepers didn't always have the money or the know-how, but they had the goal: to create naturalistic surroundings where animals would receive the best of care.

As the Zoo prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2010, here's something that hasn't changed: St. Louisans love their Zoo, and they continue to support it. From the get-go they have always stepped up with tax dollars, but also with private donations and thousands of volunteer hours.

SELF: Do you have a favorite Zoo story?

MDL: It's hard to pick one. I love the tale of a swearing parrot that offended gentle ears of the day. And the one of Marlin Perkins and an electric eel shorting out a live broadcast by KMOX. But my personal favorite is a classic told by retired Zoo director Charlie Hoessle about a cobra that went missing for 40 days in 1970.

Even though Hoessle was certain that the snake never left the Reptile House, he felt obliged to notify the public. People would call with snake-sightings, and Hoessle would run out to investigate: banana peels, furnace pulleys. They eventually found the snake - in a crawlspace near his cage -- and Hoessle finally got a good night's sleep.

Hoessle is such a down-to-earth guy and still popular with Zoo visitors. He took me on a behind-the-scenes tour one Saturday morning and said hello to absolutely everyone we met along the way. He was the bridge from the old days to the new. He made the decision to do away with the animal shows, even though people were upset at the time, because he knew it was time to move the Zoo forward.

SELF: What was the toughest part about writing this book?

MDL: Leaving out so much rich and wonderful material. The animals are, of course, the true stars of the book, so the challenge was to leave lots of space for pictures. I have a big box of material that wouldn't fit, and, as you know, I simply can't bring myself to throw it away -- so try to stop tripping over it, will you?

SELF: No offense, but many local writers would have loved to write this book - why you of all people?

MDL: How sweet of you to ask. Actually, I think it was because of Raja. While working as a feature writer at the Post-Dispatch, I covered any number of stories at the Zoo, including the mating of Raja. That was an unforgettable experience that required, let's say, a very careful approach when writing for a family newspaper. I've always assumed that the Zoo folks thought that if I could write tastefully about their elephants mating, I could write anything.

That said, it was a wonderful project because I got to meet so many of the curators and keepers who care for the animals. They have such a passion for their work - and are some of the happiest people I have ever interviewed. And why not? They get to go to the Zoo every day.

Note: Mary will be talking about the book at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 27 on Charlie Brennan's show, KMOX AM 1120.

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