May 20, 2015
They’ve taken me on at the Kraków Zoo. I can still barely believe my eyes—I’ve pinched myself like thirty times, but it keeps being true!
(Walking to my interview with the Director of Breeding, I saw some pygmy hippos just as they were going to bed. And later, I lied that I’m not afraid of heights.)
May 25, 2015
On the first day of my new job, I discovered that:
—I work in the Hoofed Animal Section, which is further divided into smaller units, called allotments (that’s zoo jargon for you). I must make my way through all the allotments to get to know how they work, all the employees and the animals. I’m starting in the so-called upper allotment, cleaning for Przewalski’s horses, Barbary sheep, Père David’s deer, muntjacs, donkeys, and at the Mini Zoo.
—The Przewalski’s horses are a pain in the ass.
—I share the locker room with Pan Maciek—who smokes slim cigarettes and who, in a single breath, can talk up a storm about cars—and with two other men who, for the time being, I absolutely can’t tell apart.
—Tapirs have very soft noses.
The first day of my new job is brought to you by the letter P, for Przewalski’s horses.
May 27, 2015
A morning briefing in the kitchen. We’re talking through what needs doing for the day. Krysia, the section leader, is assigning tasks. Naturally there’s Pani Jasia, too.
Pani Jasia is almost seventy. She has eyebrows penciled in black, all the gentleness of a Soviet tank driver, and great trust in the Lord. She’s not tall, but she does the job of three, the empress of the middle allotment. She works with possibly the most dangerous animals of our section, the takins, who trail along behind her like little sausage dogs.
Maniek: I’ll let the hippys have their walkies before break.
Pani Jasia: No way, too cold! Ten degrees, snow in the mountains, and he’s thinking walkies for hippys!
Maniek: They were stuck inside yesterday, too—I’ll let ’em walk!
Pani Jasia: Like fuck you will! Better knit ’em some cardies first!
June 19, 2015
I like rainy days like these, when no one comes to the zoo, not even the bravest of visitors. It smells of wet woodland—there’s time to lounge with the Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. And in the distance, all you hear are the lemurs calling.
June 28, 2015
Andrzej Wojtusiak, a herpetologist, has worked at our zoo since 1969 and is now the director of the Exotarium, where we display the reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. He promised me a trip around the livestock facilities today. Proud (and slightly emotional, I think), he showed me the tiny fire-bellied tadpoles and poison dart frogs; then, we watched the cave-spawning cichlids (these small fish from Lake Tanganyika), the basilisks (lizards from South America), and the meter-long freshwater stingray.
Wojtusiak: “When this rascal came down from Płock, you could fit him in a salad bowl and now look. He’s had six carps today and he’s still up for more. You see the size of that bum!” Wojtusiak is a serious expert—we call him Maestro at the zoo. In the tiny Exotarium, with very meager facilities, he’s managed to breed jacare caimans (the third captive brood in the world), sailfin lizards (the fourth brood in Europe), reticulated pythons, and anacondas. In the eighties, thanks to his work, the Kraków Zoo hatched almost a hundred European pond turtles, which were all later released into the wild.
It won’t be long before I fall in love, that’s for sure.
July 8, 2015
The morning storm has dealt the zoo substantial damage: trees collapsed onto the aviaries for owls and Manchurian cranes, and onto the enclosures for takins, kangaroos, deer, Przewalski’s horses, and wolves. Windows in the antelope stables were smashed by the hail. We rounded up the animals from the damaged aviaries, except the female eagle, and placed them in secure compartments. The wolves came back to the enclosure on their own, through a hole in the fence, as soon as they saw Waldek walking in their direction. That’s where they feel safest. Everyone’s putting on a brave face, including the youngest rabbits, two days old, and the Andean condor chick. The zoo is closed until further notice; meanwhile we’re working in hard hats.
August 10, 2015
Today, at the Mini-Zoo, we had two charming brothers visiting: Wojtek and Adaś. Adaś—at a guess, seven years old—in large green glasses. Wojtek—a four-year-old stammering in the most endearing way possible. He proudly introduced me and all the animals we came across to his plushie hare. And so, bit by bit, we got into a half-hour conversation about rabbits, hares, their relatives and friends. Wojtek goes:
“We, we have a wabbit, too! Its name is, its name, its name, wait. I can’t wemember. A-a-a-a-adaś, what’s the name of our bunny wabbit? Oh-oh-oh yes, Ki-itty. And then, and then, I had another bunny wabbit. A li-little, white one. But it went out, went out in the big coldness. A-a-and it had to go to the doctor’s. But it didn’t work—my little bunny wabbit died.”
I thought I was going to burst out crying, and it seems Wojtek sensed this. He patted me on the knee and added:
“It’s always twicky.”
August 18, 2015
A day in the life of a Kraków nanny.
Primo: living with a flamingo has one flavor: that of formula for chicks. After just one day, everything tastes like formula for chicks, from morning coffee to vegetable soup. EVERYTHING.
Secondo: Zośka the dog has decided to become a veterinary technician, dusting off her long-lost calling which is—drumroll, please!—assisting with rearing chicks: with feeding, with cleaning, with washing (a key sight to behold: big old Zośka—an AmStaff, “a killer dog”—is afraid of water, so she sits in the doorway and cranes her neck over the bathtub). It doesn’t matter if it’s 8 a.m., 6 p.m., or 2 a.m.—Zośka’s always ready to give the full attention of an assistant. You’d think she was Lassie.
August 20, 2015
Somebody needs to donate or lend me a mirror. Ideally a rectangular one and not too big, so it can fit in the incubator. The matter is really pressing—give it a few more days and Zośka’s going to convince the flamingo it’s an AmStaff.
August 24, 2015
The flamingo got its mirror today—a bespoke cut and polish, very professionally done by the glassmaker on Lelewel Street. The mirror is thanks to Mutti, a.k.a. Kasia Zimmerer. My good mood is thanks to Kasia’s mum, Pani Joanna. In the car, she was telling us about one of the fundraisers at the famous literary cabaret, the Barany Cellar. The director, Piotr Skrzynecki, had thought up a Garden of Eden in the Stary Theatre and borrowed various animals from our zoo (once upon a time, such things were possible). Krystyna Zachwatowicz, a set designer, was very scared of the boa constrictor, which, to be honest, was pretty terrified itself. Talking mynah birds also performed on the stage.
After the concert in the Stary Theatre, the wives of a few notable party members decided to visit the mynah birds backstage, at which point the birds delivered their thunderous counsel: “Fuck off, you whores!”
(As for the mirror: the flamingo’s first reaction was to have a poo. It’s now desperately trying to get behind the glass.)
August 27, 2015
I read that in October, the last living Sumatran rhino of the northern hemisphere, Harapan, will permanently leave for Indonesia. Once he departs the zoo in Cincinnati where he was born, no one except for a small group of scientists will have the chance to encounter this animal species in the flesh. Harapan will join the last nine Sumatran rhinos living in a vivarium setting, that is, at a breeding station in a reserve. The wild population tallies at approximately a hundred individuals —no one knows exactly how many. After all, conducting observations of an animal so concealed within the mountain forests of Borneo and Sumatra is almost impossible. (Reminiscent of the pushmi-pullyu from Doctor Dolittle.)
Sumatran rhinos live to around thirty years old, reaching sexual maturity between eight and ten years of age. After a pregnancy lasting almost sixteen months, the female gives birth to one baby with whom she remains for the next year and a half. The equation is simple: Sumatran rhinos will become extinct and we’re the ones who did it.
August 30, 2015
It went like this:
We fed the rabbits and the guinea pigs, called the four senior hens into their coop for the night, then let the tapirs and zebras into their bedrooms, separating the males from the females. We put the hippys to bed—Julka first, and then, in the second stall, Romek the hothead. We gave the camels, llamas, vicunas, ponies, eland antelopes, and lechwe their evening hay. The waterbucks and addaxes got minced carrot. We checked that all were going to sleep comfortably—that’s important, since we’ve got as many as three of the addax calves. All boys, but what can you do. The lechwe stayed out in their enclosure for the night. Their bedrooms have been cleaned so that tomorrow they can be disinfected, and the walls can be whitewashed. We turned off the water in the Barbary sheep’s drinker, then poured more water for the Przewalski’s horses and vicunas. The red pandas got their evening bamboo; the female elephants celeriac and hay. The mangabeys, mandrills, chimpanzees, and baboons: yogurt and fruit. Benita the varanid went to bed in her pool; meanwhile, the armadillos were only just waking up. Bąbel the lion roared, as was his whim, and he was heard in the whole of Wolski Forest. The lights were out on time. We high-fived each other on the way out and went on to our other errands and families, no less important than those we were leaving behind in the primate pavilion, the elephant enclosure, and the Exotarium.
I find myself moved by these evenings at the zoo. They’re like something out of a bedtime story.
January 4, 2016
A certain politician from a certain party (I won’t say who—deliberate suspense!) recently said that vegetarians and cyclists have nothing in common with Polish values.
Yesterday, as part of my professional duties and in quiet protest, I volunteered to lead our section’s kitchen for the week. That is, of course, the greatest vegan kitchen in the Małopolska region!
I start the day by bringing some water to boil for porridge with flaxseed for the tapirs and pygmy hippos (unless it’s a Monday, in which case they get rice). Then, I chop a small variety of breakfast fruit: apples, pears, grapes, and bananas. For the tapirs, kiwi as well (hippos don’t like it). Someone from the elephant house pops in to collect two buckets of grain for the female elephants (mostly dry porridge oats, their favorite). Then, someone from the Carnivore Section comes for a few spoonfuls of porridge for Mańka, the old female sloth.
I throw forty kilograms of oats and almost twenty kilograms of barley into the crusher— that’s the basic concentrated feed for most of our hoofed animals. I pour it all into buckets. There are quite a few, almost forty, each one made up differently. Before I memorized it all, I would peek at a crib sheet: I had drawn the buckets on some paper, accounting for their size and contents, which looked a bit like some weird version of a Ludo board.
To the reindeer’s lichen pellets I add eight heaped tablespoons of herb mix (mint, nettle, juniper, rowanberries, raspberry leaves). The reindeer have recently arrived from Olomouc in the Czech Republic and are used to such a diet, so changes must be introduced slowly. For the muntjacs—smallish deer who bark like little dogs—I throw in some pellets and barley. They don’t like oats. For the sitatungas, the swamp-dwelling antelopes, it’s the opposite: I mix the pellets with oats. The camels get three buckets full of chunky pellets for camelids and on top of each bucket, two half-loaves of bread, so that when Pan Maciek delivers the feed, he can greet the camels by stuffing the bread in their faces, then safely pour everything out into the troughs. An excited camel is no conversation partner to settle terms of engagement with. For the elands, the largest antelopes in the world: a bucket of special Czech pellets with a little flaxseed added in. You can put two heads of napa cabbage on top—Edek likes that a lot. For the fallow deer, it’s similar, although I add barley and definitely make up two buckets because the herd is large. For the markhors and barasingha deer: grain with a special selenium additive. For the equids: apart from grain, a shovelful of muesli (but not too much!). Everyone gets vitamin and mineral supplements.
And then, I get started on mincing the fodder beets, carrots, parsley, celeriac, and apples. For the hippos, giraffes, and tapirs, I chop coarsely. For Knedel, the volatile male kulan who has a problem with his teeth and can’t chew hard vegetables, I double-mince. For everyone but the giraffes, I throw in some sauerkraut. It’s winter, and it’ll be good for them—an old trick in the animal feeding book. For the pigs, you also need to pour hot water over some finely chopped vegetables and bran. They eat more keenly then, delightfully smacking their lips.
And then, once I’ve washed the beet grinder and looked through the bread we get delivered from the bakery on Szczepański Square, I can calmly show my middle finger to Pan Waszczykowski (a certain politician from a certain party), my only gripe being that there isn’t a way of doing all that work on a bike!
May 25, 2016
Today marks a full year since I started my job at the Kraków Zoo. I’ve had the chance to nanny a flamingo, play catch with a female pelican, make friends with a tapir, tickle an Indian elephant’s tongue, play with little armadillos, shower with a vicuna, administer an IV drip to a markhor, and serve about two hundred breakfasts for my favorite pygmy hippo couple, Julka and Romek.
It’s been a really good year. On Friday, it’ll be my last day in the Hoofed Animal Section, as on Tuesday, the first penguins will arrive. So next year might also be a success.
Pawilon małych ssaków © 2022 by Patryk Pufelski. Published 2022 by Wydawnictwo Karakter. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2023 by Dawid Mobolaji. All rights reserved.