The Zookeeper

The legacy of long-time Calgary Zoo director Peter Karsten

By Marcello Di Cintio

As we tour the aviaries on his Denman Island property, Peter Karsten doesn’t hold doors open for me. This isn’t rudeness; it’s a zookeeper’s etiquette, a behaviour Karsten picked up during his 30 years at the Calgary Zoo. “I was always the first to go in the cages,” Karsten says, “in case someone forgot to lock up the tiger.”

Peter walks from cage to cage—spring-hinged doors squeak open and slam shut—and checks on the dozens of birds in his care. He fills their water bottles and loads their feeding trays with grated apple, hand-raised waxworms and bird cake. “Hi, birdy birdy,” he calls. The cake is his own recipe, an oily pound cake enriched with soy flour. The birds love it—and so do Peter’s unexpected house guests. “If people come unannounced, I serve them bird cake,” he says.

Peter and his wife Margarit knew I was coming. I wanted to talk to Peter about his birds and his time at the zoo. I wanted to know what Peter thought of the direction the zoo, and zoos in general, have taken in the years following his directorship. The Karstens prepared the cabin on their property for me. They put a few beers in the fridge and chocolate on the table.

Peter urged me to wake early and look out the cabin’s east-facing window. When the alarm buzzed at 5:30 a.m., I wiped condensation from the panes and saw a family of mule deer—a doe and her two young—step past the cabin toward the Karsten house. Peter was there, too. He had a bucket of grain and watched the deer lower their heads to the small piles of food he’d just left. I couldn’t hear Peter from inside the cabin, but his mouth was moving. He was talking to the deer. 

Both Peter and Margarit were born in Germany but met at Uppsala University in Sweden. Peter had wanted to be a farmer, and was studying agriculture. Margarit was a chemical engineering student and wasn’t enthused at first about meeting Peter. “Not another German,” she thought. But then Peter took her for a walk in the forest near campus. He pointed out birds’ nests in high branches. He showed the city girl saplings and wild mushrooms. He revealed to her a wilderness she’d never seen before. “And it was not only shown to me, but it was all full of excitement,” Margarit recalls. They were married a year later.  

The pair returned to post-war Germany, where Peter continued to study farming. Then he met the cowboy. Walter Kupfer worked on an Alberta ranch and was in Germany visiting his brother, one of Peter’s classmates. Kupfer was a cowboy movie cliché. Battered leather boots. Large hat. Suit made of corduroy. “The sun was just beaming off his face,” Peter remembers. Awed by this manifestation of the Canadian West, Peter and Margarit assembled their immigration papers. 

They stepped off the train in Calgary in 1962 and spent a few days in a $10 room at the Yale Hotel. Peter quickly found work as a farmhand. He planned to labour on someone else’s farm for a couple of years, get some money and experience, then travel north to Peace River, where the CPR was selling land for a dollar an acre. But Peter never reached Peace Country. He injured his back stacking hay bales and had to find less strenuous work. He rented a rabbit farm in Okotoks for awhile, then found a job at Haysboro Nursery doing landscaping.

“We realized we had to eliminate animals’ monetary value. They have to be owned by the world.”Karsten

The gardeners he worked with told Peter the Calgary Zoo was looking to hire a new zookeeper. The job appealed to Peter. He had always been attracted to animals, and bred tree frogs in terrariums at home. The position, however, was open only to municipal employees. Peter applied for a job cleaning buses just to get an in with the city. When this didn’t work, Peter crossed the bridge onto St. George’s Island and met the zoo director himself. Peter told Larry Cahill that he’d visited the zoo, had seen the reptile cages—barren except for plastic dishes for food and water—and had noticed the snakes had three layers of skin on their backs. He told Cahill the snakes needed something to rub against to shed their skins. Peter told him, too, how he’d built habitats for his tree frogs. Cahill was astonished. Peter was hired.

When Peter came home from the zoo with a shoebox full of baby rattlesnakes, Margarit offered him two options. “You can keep the rattlesnakes, or you can keep our kids.” Peter opted for his children. 

But Peter kept bringing animals home. In the 1970s, it was common practice for keepers to bring home rescued animals that needed special care. For the Karsten children, Karen and Werner, this was a dream. Pictures of baby animals scrambling over shag carpets and ’70s-era furniture fill the family photo albums. Over the years, a lion cub named Tinka had a brief sojourn in their home. So did a Siberian tiger, a Canada goose, a porcupine and a baby beaver that lovingly followed Peter around the yard. Margarit remembers a time when there were four baby bottles in their refrigerator. One held milk for a baby badger, one for a cougar, one for a baby jackrabbit, and one for Karen. (The rabbit had been confiscated from a house where it watched TV and ate potato chips all day. Margarit swears he fancied cowboy movies.) Each infant required separate feedings in the middle of the night. 

Cleo, another infant lioness, lived with the Karstens. Her parents “liked to make whoopee,” as Margarit says, but the mother would kill the resulting cubs. At the Karsten house, Cleo developed distinct relationships with Peter and Margarit. In evenings, Peter wore leather gloves and played rough with Cleo to tire her out before bedtime. The cub clawed and bit at Peter’s gloves until she was exhausted. Margarit never wore gloves when she played with the lion. Cleo was gentle with her, but on rare occasions accidentally scratched her hand. “She felt bad because, after all, I was mommy and I shouldn’t be hurt by her,” Margarit remembers.  

Cleo returned to the zoo and was reunited with her siblings after four months with the Karstens. When Peter and Margarit went to visit, Cleo followed them along the glass until they entered the cage. She rough-tumbled with the Karstens for a little while—an affectionate feline celebration—then went to the other side of the enclosure to coax her shy brother to join them.

Critics say Zoo Lights disturbs animals' sleep.

Critics say Zoo Lights disturbs animals’ sleep. (Michael Jones)

Margarit speaks of Cleo and the other animals that shared their home in the same terms that she speaks of her own children. “They were all creatures that needed raising. So it was a human creature or an animal creature. Who cares? They wanted love. And they gave love.”

The tiger didn’t know what to make of his new home. He had lived in a concrete cage and spent most of his life pacing past steel bars. Now before him was an open space. Rocks. Trees. Two lagoons. A waterfall. He crouched still for a long time, afraid that he might be trespassing on another tiger’s territory. Eventually, cautiously, he lumbered to a shallow pool, dipped his paw and moved it back and forth in the water. He leaned forward and took a sip. When a mallard flew over the enclosure and landed in one of the lagoons, the tiger fled and hid behind some tall grass.

Still, something inside of him must have stirred. Some genetic darkness brightened. Before long, the tiger was prowling across the fallen logs and splashing in the lagoons. He soon learned how to startle ducks off the pond, bounce them off the high fence and snatch them out of the air.

When Peter Karsten was first hired, zoos around the world were still mere menageries, concrete-caged “stamp collections” of animals kept in Noah’s ark-inspired pairs. Nearly every enclosure at the Calgary Zoo was strewn with wood shavings like a hamster cage. Animals were fed and watered but nobody thought animals had any sort of social needs. Peter remembers a pair of baboons in the old monkey house. Each time a keeper came to feed them, the male sat on a high ledge, shook his head and showed his teeth. If the female dared approach the food, the male would jump down and rape her. The keepers didn’t see the problem because, after a little while, both baboons would sit close and groom each other. And zoo visitors found the male’s clownish, toothy smile hilarious. 

The late ’70s saw an awakening. Animal behaviour scientists began to publish their research and zoos started to understand what was going on in their cages. Keepers learned that gregarious animals, like baboons, needed to be kept in groups and in large enclosures. (Calgary’s female baboon could not get far enough away from the dominant male during feeding and this stressed them both.) Nocturnal animals need to be shown in the dark. Enclosures required structures, or “furniture,” that was appropriate to their species and designed according to the latest science. 

Within a decade the entire concept of zoos changed. “We realized we had to disown the animals,” Peter says. “We had to eliminate their monetary value. They have to be owned by the world. We are their custodians.” So zoos reduced their collections. Regulations were drawn that forbade the sale of endangered animals and restricted their transport across international borders. Zoos collected, organized and shared genetic data. They collaborated on species recovery schemes. They transformed from entertainment venues to centres for education and conservation.  

The Calgary Zoo promoted Peter to director in the midst of this “golden age.” He took the post in 1974 and immediately instituted a “ban the bars” program, which sought to replace the concrete pens with proper enclosures such as the new tiger habitat. Peter established a conservation fund, handwrote a keeper training program that is still used by zoos around the world, and insisted that the zoo convert its shoebox full of animal records into a computerized database. He hired the first full-time veterinarian and education employees. He coaxed naturalists away from the national parks, people who would never have considered working with captive animals before Peter persuaded them with his passion for conservation.

“It wasn’t evil when he was there. Now it’s not the same zoo. I wish to hell he hadn’t retired.”Alvarez-Toye

The zoo administration judged all proposed programs through the prism of Peter’s vision. When the local public electric utility, for example, approached the zoo in the early ’90s with the idea of an animal-themed holiday light display, Peter turned them down. “It collided with our philosophy,” he told me. He was afraid that visitors tramping through the zoo at night would disturb the sleeping animals. More than this, though, was the fact that bird habitats are often destroyed to build the power plants that would supply electricity to the light display. The irony was too rich.

Peter believed a zoo should inspire its visitors to value stewardship of wildlife and wilderness, that a trip to the zoo should feel like a trip out of the city and into nature. He opposed any building that broke this illusion. The old polar bear and beaver exhibit was such a structure. The enclosure, built before he had the authority to stop it, was a bunker made of cement cubes and filled with sharp angles. It looked nothing like the natural world. The designers defended the exhibit—concrete and intersecting lines were the architectural fashion—but it was dysfunctional for the animals penned inside. Beavers were forced to lug branches up concrete stairs, and Calgary’s bored polar bears paced so obsessively they were eventually, and famously, treated with Prozac.

For Peter, zookeeping is an art form, more akin to theatre than architecture. The enclosure is a stage upon which the animals perform. Behaviour scientists script action based on what they witness in the wild. These biologist/playwrights know, say, that grizzlies like to chase twigs through a creek. They know how the bears turn over stones to find food, bend saplings beneath their bellies and scratch their backs beneath fallen logs. When a stage is set with this script in mind—when grizzlies have creeks and logs and saplings—the animals follow the storyline. “We want the events in the life of a grizzly to happen at the zoo,” says Peter. It is a form of manipulation, to be sure, but the animals are acting according to instinct. In Peter’s metaphor, the animals are their own directors.       

The reputation of the Calgary Zoo flourished under Peter’s 20-year watch, and his influence grew beyond the shores of St. George’s Island. Peter collaborated with like-minded directors around the world to develop species survival and habitat enrichment plans. His idea of building an animal quarantine facility on Easter Island proved too ambitious—but he did persuade a Korean zoo to take the pants off its chimpanzees and stop breeding tigers with lions. In addition to his directorship in Calgary, Peter served as president of the Canadian, the American and the World Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Each year, the Canadian association bestows the “Peter Karsten Award” for achievement in the field of conservation. 

Even the zoo’s enemies couldn’t help but admire Peter. Michael Alvarez-Toye, an activist with the Calgary Animal Rights Coalition, opposes the idea of zoos in general, but he concedes that the Calgary Zoo did not inspire much action by the coalition while under Peter’s watch. Alvarez-Toye never doubted Peter’s commitment to the welfare of the animals in his charge, and praised his humility. Alvarez-Toye knew, for example, how much the condition of the polar bears troubled Peter. “The zoo wasn’t evil when he was there,” says Alvarez-Toye. “Now it’s not the same zoo. I wish to hell he hadn’t retired.”

Peter pours me an Alberta rye and ginger—a dusk ritual at the Karstens’. Margarit says “the zoo has changed so much that we are not really relating to it anymore.”

When Peter retired from the Calgary Zoo in 1994 it was free of debt. This was one of Peter’s goals before retiring. The new director, Alex Graham, was worried about cuts in public funding and adopted new revenue-generating programs. He brought in Zoo Lights. He commissioned huge, architecturally impressive and crowd-drawing buildings such as Destination Africa and Elephant Crossing, complete with towering glass facades, that doused Peter’s wilderness ideals with urban design. The buildings include a hall to host non-animal events such as weddings and corporate meetings. Weekend classes teach visitors how to make soaps and scented bath salts. The annual Zoo Gala fundraiser includes live bands and once even featured a fireworks display. “Fireworks. At the zoo. Can you imagine?” Margarit says with dismay. 

Peter vowed that after he left the zoo he would not second-guess his successors’ decisions. Still, he laments that since his retirement the Calgary Zoo, and zoos in general, are run by businesspeople rather than those who, in zookeeper parlance, try to “get inside animals.” Zoos have now returned, in a sense, to the bad old days. The Calgary Zoo’s cownose ray exhibit is an example. About 50 rays circled a shallow tank while visitors touched them as they glided past. The exhibit was popular but Peter didn’t see the educational value. What do people really learn from touching a fish? More than 40 rays eventually died due to a lack of dissolved oxygen in their tank.

The dead rays were only one of several tragedies to befall the Calgary Zoo in recent years. A hippopotamus died in transit. A markhor goat accidentally hanged itself with a toy. An infection felled an elephant calf, and in 2006 four gorillas died. A capybara was crushed by a door. In 2009, another gorilla picked up a knife left behind by a keeper and gripped it like the villain in a slasher movie. The bizarre photograph was picked up by news agencies around the world.

The incidents inspired criticism from media, animal welfare groups and the public. In response, the zoo in December 2009 asked the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) and the Washington, DC-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to conduct an independent review, the results of which are expected to be made public this summer.

In all fairness, the incidents that prompted the review could have occurred under anyone’s watch—but the controversial “Arctic Shores” would never even have been considered under Peter’s directorship. In 2006, Alex Graham announced plans to replace the long-dead polar bears’ concrete-block enclosure. The $120-million Arctic Shores exhibit sought to return polar bears to the zoo and built a stadium-sized bathtub for beluga whales. The plan, since scuttled, would have demolished the zoo’s Karsten Education Centre. The symbolism is not lost on Peter: “I am dead as far as Calgary is concerned.”

But Peter is wrong. His legacy looms large over St. George’s Island. The administration that followed Peter may have changed the zoo’s direction, but the senior keepers who worked for Peter—dubbed “Karstenites”—remain loyal to his vision. “They’re nostalgic for the days of Peter because he was an animal guy,” says Kevin Strange, the zoo’s current senior adviser for conservation outreach. “He was a keeper. He was one of them.” To this day, a common complaint of senior zoo staff is “this wouldn’t have happened if Peter were here.”

Strange admits that he is just one of many who were indoctrinated into Peter’s way of thinking. The new president and CEO of the Calgary Zoo, Clément Lanthier, happens to be a former veterinarian who was motivated to work in zoos after hearing Peter speak at a conference. Strange is convinced that under the Karsten-inspired Lanthier—the new president requested the CAZA/AZA review himself—things will turn back for the better.

The dogs had already disemboweled the pregnant doe by the time Peter chased them away. The deer’s insides, including the uterus, spilled over the ground. The deer, however, was still alive. “Have you ever heard a deer scream?” Peter asks. “The sound shakes your bones.”

As Denman’s contact for the wildlife department, Peter receives regular late-night calls about deer that have been hit by cars or “run” by dogs. He usually puts them down with a rifle or, if they’re too close to the road, brains them with a ball-peen hammer. On this day, he had neither gun nor hammer with him. Instead, he stood over the wounded doe, closed her mouth with one hand, covered her nose with the other, and held her as she died. “It is not something I like to talk about,” Peter says.

I ask Peter if religion informs his relationship with animals. He tells me that while he and Margarit say grace before dinner, neither subscribes to any Biblical claims about man’s dominion over beasts. “I don’t see humans as the ultimate life form,” Peter says. “Perhaps the most advanced, but not superior. We respect the fact that we are a part of a large system and are humbled by it, to a certain extent.”

And they are more than humble. The Karstens are subservient to creation. Every day, the Karsten property sees rituals of care that are as precise as sacraments. Peter rises with the sun to feed the morning deer, and kneels on the ground to dig for spiders to feed his birds. Margarit reminds me that the yeast that ferments her strawberries, apples and mirabelle plums into wine is also living. She calls her autumn mushroom hunt a “sacred occupation.” The forest owes her nothing, yet offers her so much. “Am I not to be grateful?” she asks. “Should I not give it everything that I can?”        

Peter leaves the kitchen to fill a bottle of strawberry wine for me to take home. When he is gone, Margarit leans forward and whispers to me about Peter’s enduring passion for his animals. His unwavering sense of wonder. She tells me that each time Peter sees something in his birds that he hasn’t seen before, some new behaviour, he dashes into the house with wide eyes and hurries to write it down or take a photograph.

“There is something unspeakably loveable about somebody that can keep that childlike enthusiasm into this age,” Margarit continues. “And yet, Peter is breathless. How could I be a human being and not be drawn to it?” 

Marcello Di Cintio was the Markin-Flanagan Writer in Residence at the U of C, 2009–2010. He lives in Calgary with his wife and son. 

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