SALT LAKE CITY — Wherever she goes, Stephanie Natt is the most interesting person in the room, so you might as well pull up a chair and listen. Whatever anyone else does for a living, she can probably top it. All she has to do is reveal her job and the questions begin.
She’s lead keeper for wild cats at Hogle Zoo, which means she has the most dangerous job in any room, one in which one mistake — one moment of, say, forgetting to lock a door — could make her the dinner entree. So when someone asks her what she does for a living, she’s got a ready audience — if she wants it.
“Sometimes I just tell them I sell insurance,” she says.
That’s because any mention of her real job “leads to a billion” questions and sometimes she’s simply not up to it, but usually she feels obligated to go with the truth.
“Especially when I encounter someone who is anti-zoo,” she says. “I educate them. Nine times out of 10 I can convince them of the need for zoos.”
Natt mentions all this while answering a billion questions from a newspaper writer and photographer as she makes her morning rounds, inspecting, training and feeding lions, tigers and leopards. As lead keeper, she is responsible for every aspect of caring for the big cats — feeding, breeding, habitats, “de-pooping” (her word) the enclosures and the emotional and physical health of the animals.
During the interview, she was feeding the lions cow bones as a post-breakfast snack while performing mock injections by poking them with a stick. This is to prepare the cats for a time they might require a jab from a hypodermic needle. The two large males, brothers Baron and Vulcan, suffer this indignity patiently.
“(The cats) all have different personalities, just like people,” says Natt. “Vulcan is more in your face. Baron is more the laid-back type. The leopards are high strung. Jaguars, too. Never trust a jaguar.”
At one point she enters the back room of the lion house, which is off limits to the public, and the lions roar when they glimpse her guests through the open door.
“They don’t like new people,” says Michelle, one of Natt’s assistants.
The lions are magnificent, regal animals with large pale green eyes and thick tawny coats. The males weigh upward of 400 pounds and are powerful and athletic, armed with clawed feet the size of a catcher’s mitt and long ivory teeth. The No. 1 question Natt is asked: Isn’t she afraid to enter the enclosure with lions and tigers? Answer: Are you nuts? Nobody enters those enclosures. This isn’t Jurassic Park.
The keepers take the same precautions with the carnivores that they would take if they were working in a maximum-security prison. In a back-room office, there’s a map on the wall with magnets marking where each of the big cats is that day. They also monitor the movements of the many assistant keepers around the zoo. They are required to announce via radio when they enter and leave an area that is connected to a carnivore enclosure — where only one door separates them from the animals.
As she does her rounds, Natt is interrupted several times by radio calls — “I’m going into habitat 3” — and protocols require her to acknowledge receipt of the message. When the keeper leaves a habitat, he reports, “I am leaving habitat 5. It is clear and locked.” This is followed by another acknowledgment.
There is an indoor facility the lions can enter when they want to escape the heat or cold. It includes a walkway for keepers to move between the cages. Before the keepers enter the room, they must peer through a hole in the door to ensure that no lion has escaped his cage and is roaming free inside. There are signs on the door: DID YOU CHECK ALL LOCKS AND DOORS. At least two keepers check the locks at lunch and dinner.
“You can’t have a sloppy day,” says Natt. “To say it’s life and death is not overstatement.”
She habitually checks the locks of the enclosures “a hundred times. There’s always a worry — and there should be.”
Eleven months ago a keeper ignored or forgot the safety protocols at a zoo in Florida and was killed by a tiger. A zoo official told CNN that the keeper “entered the same portion of the night house after it was clearly designated as accessible by tiger.” She was heard screaming for help into a handheld radio just before she was mauled. Last spring, a keeper was mauled to death by a tiger at a zoo in England.
“I know that I am dinner, and I have to be careful,” says Natt. “You can’t get too comfortable. There have been times when I got too close (to the cage) and (the lion) was roaring and upset. It’s a realization that they are not cute and cuddly; a reminder of the danger.”
She pauses from her work and continues.
“There is a stress that comes with being a carnivore keeper. I know people who have left the profession and six months after leaving they realize that they don’t have this underlying stress anymore. They realize something is missing. It’s the same stress that soldiers, firemen and police experience.”
She never wanted any other career.
Growing up in Baldwinsville in upstate New York, she preferred stuffed animals and pets — goats, hamsters, ducks, show rabbits — to dolls. After a keeper at a local zoo told her she needed to attend school to pursue her dream job, she told her parents and school counselor about her aspirations.
“No one wanted to help me,” she says. “My counselor thought it was a dumb idea and my parents wanted me to study art.”
She found two schools that had teaching zoos and chose Santa Fe Community College in Florida. After graduation she took a job at Hogle Zoo. That was 20 years ago and she’s been here ever since.
It’s a tricky business, looking after wild carnivores in captivity. One of her jobs is to stimulate the cats’ senses to elicit natural instincts and tune their mental health. She does this by lacing the lion habitat with herbs, spices — cinnamon is a favorite — and something a little earthier, such as deer urine and feces from other cages.
“They talk to each other through poop and pee,” she explains. “They love hyrax poop.”
She stimulates in a variety of methods: through pre-recorded sounds such as a deer screaming like a wounded animal or nursery rhymes; through manipulative toys — “things they can kill and drag off” — and puzzle feeders such as pinatas filled with bones and meat that they have to “kill and eat”; or through the placement of mirrors in the enclosure for the cats to puzzle over their own image.
“What we’re trying to do is create a little stress, as they would encounter in the wild,” Natt says.
Natt continues her rounds at the tiger habitat, where she feeds Kazek, a large male, gobs of beef at the end of a stick. He gets beef rather than the usual horsemeat because it is better for animals with irritable bowl syndrome. She hides IBS medication in the meat but the tiger spits it out a couple of times before he finally chews it.
Natt moves on to the leopard cage and keeps her distance — leopards like to reach through the fence, which is hazardous for human hands and legs. She has trained the leopard to lie down and roll over so she can inspect it for potential problems. A year ago, the leopard escaped, but she didn’t go anywhere. She simply fell asleep on top of the cage instead of inside it.
It’s a never-ending job for Natt. Like a parent, she worries about her animals around the clock. On her days off or after hours or on vacation, she fields texts, calls and emails about their welfare. When her animals are sent to another zoo, she seeks updates on how they are doing.
“I love ’em all, but they don’t know it,” she says. “They’re not my pets, but I’m responsible for them. I’m very aware when things aren’t right with an animal, when things aren’t working out and we need to make things better.”
When she leaves the zoo she goes home to a menagerie — reptiles, a parrot, three dogs, a turtle. She also goes home to her husband Mark, whom she met at the zoo, where he was charged with caring for the apes. They were married in the giraffe building, which was covered by CNN. Natt has a tattoo of a cougar on her left ankle to mark her 10th anniversary of working at Hogle Zoo, and a tattoo of a snow leopard on the back of her neck to mark her 20th anniversary (and another tattoo for one of her dogs).
She has lost none of her passion for the job or for animals.
“It’s a job,” she says, “but at the end of the day, I think, wow, I just fed a leopard. There are only 60 left in the wild. I was just 4 inches away from one.”
Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com