Maybe Simon and Garfunkel were right back in the 1960s when they sang “Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo. I do believe it. I do believe it's true.”
After all, when you've got lions, tigers and bears, oh my, the show just goes on and on.
But for the 300,000 visitors who stroll through the gates of Tyler's Caldwell Zoo each year, that is the show from in front of the cages, pens and aquariums. Behind the scene it is an around-the-clock, 365-day-a-year effort to make sure no one really notices what it takes to maintain 200 acres and 3,450 animals.
“Our goal is to get the animals out by 9 in the morning. We want them all out when the people start coming through the gate,” said Hayes Caldwell, the zoo's executive director.
When working with something as unpredictable as an animal, it is never a sure deal.
Today's Caldwell Zoo actually got its start in 1937 when businessman D.K. Caldwell created a small menagerie of animals to teach and entertain children at his home. The zoo moved to its current location on Martin Luther King in 1953 and has grown to 85 developed acres with almost 3,000 animals on display daily.
Although there are visitors at the zoo almost every day of the year, the bulk of the visitation runs from March through the Fourth of July. Keeping that many animals healthy and happy and that much acreage manicured for the visitors requires a herculean effort and enough food and supplies to feed an army of both animals and people. It is an effort that begins with 82 full-time and another 40 seasonal employees. While some are college graduates interning at the facility along with hourly workers, the core leadership consists of employees who have worked at the zoo for 20 or more years.
The commissary, the one for the animals, bustles with activity early in the morning. Guided by Jud Phillips and staffer Sonia Arzola, special diets are created for the various animals. For someone just walking in the door, it doesn't look unlike the kitchen of a restaurant with crates of apples, bananas, carrots, oranges, sweet potatoes and lettuce being prepared for duikers, a small African antelope.
Later, the staff would be preparing meals for the anteaters, which have one of the most demanding diets.
A nearby walk-in freezer is full of a variety of prepared foods, along with frozen crabs, shrimp and meats. No longer does the zoo get its food from grocery store dumpsters, day-old bakery products and roadkill. Instead it has spends about $300,000 a year for a weekly menu that can include grain, vegetables, meat, fish, bones and a few exotic selections, such as rodents and occasionally Jell-O. The zoo also goes through 1,175 pounds weekly of a special blend of dry pellet feed called Caldwell Zoo Diet.
While some of the animals' food supplies are locally grown, others are sourced from throughout the United States. Coastal hay, used for roughage, comes from area farmers, while this year's three truckloads of alfalfa for the antelopes, giraffes and rhinoceros came from North Dakota.
Each diet is different. The black bears, one of the zoo's newest residents, require a special diet that includes pasta and rice during the summer to maintain weight. The popular river otters enjoy a meal of meat, carrots, tomato juice and raw eggs.
“I come up with these diets either from the institutions they came from or from a (zoo) association group site,” Phillips said.
The zoo staff also provides what is called an enrichment diet, such as watermelon Popsicles for the elephants, as treats, special nutrition and to keep them eating naturally.
The staff is divided into different groups who care for the same animals every day. Comfortable in their surroundings when they stay the same, a change in handler can result in an animal's behavior changing. It is also done for safety reasons around potentially dangerous animals, such as the big cats, poisonous snakes and elephants. And despite their size and strength, it is the elephants who require the most care.
That includes a nonstop rotation of pedicures using nothing more than a hobby shop sculpture knife and a second handler to keep the animal entertained by throwing it slices of fruit.
What goes in an animal must eventually come out, and zoo employees are adept at using big shovels. But instead of going into a dumpster, it is hauled to a compost pile used to grow some of the 12,000 flowers planted on the zoo grounds annually. The pile grows by about 10 cubic yards a day.
In the evening, the process is done in reverse with the animals taken back to their overnight quarters.
“If the animals cooperate it works like clockwork. If not, you may never get them in,” said Scott Maddox, assistant director.
Not all of the daily efforts go toward the animals. In the main part of the zoo, maintenance employees start the day mowing, tending flower beds and getting food ready at the Chakula Café, the zoo's concession stand.
“I remember when one Coca-Cola machine was our concession stand,” said Caldwell, a nephew of the zoo's founder. He has worked there 50 years.
That revenue, along with revenue from a gift shop, goes back into the operation of the facility.
The zoo has 22 employees dedicated to grounds, mechanical and building maintenance. That alone is a big leap from the early days when Caldwell said the zoo had about six employees who did everything.
“We try to do the work in the exhibits when the public isn't around. That is what we do at night,” said Maddox.
About 63 percent of the zoo's visitors come from within Smith County. Most of the remainder comes from Texas, but surveys have shown they might come from anywhere.
“Surprisingly we get a lot of people from Shreveport,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said that in his early years he never could have imagined the zoo being what it is today. And it might not have been had D.K. Caldwell's offer to donated the zoo to the city been accepted in 1958.
“It is fun to come to work every morning,” Caldwell said. “It is a challenge every day and it is never the same.”