The sun was barely peeking over the frosted roofs of the wooden buildings when we climbed out of the car at Micke Grove Zoo on Dec. 28. Sitting on five acres off of Armstrong Road, the zoo is home to over 50 species of birds, mammals and reptiles from around the globe.
We were looking forward to the plethora of monkeys, exotic birds and even the mountain lion. What could be so tough about taking care of these guys for a day?
We had idealistic images of Curious George and friendly birds perching on our pointer fingers.
We were wrong. So very wrong.
Boots and breakfast
Colleen Millikan, a sturdy woman in a green sweatshirt and cap who would be our zookeeper overseer for the day, barely uttered a word to us before she looked at our feet and ushered us into the keeper's break room. She rummaged through cupboards and pulled out several pairs of chore boots — thick, snug rubber boots that reached to our calves.
We shoved them on our feet, secretly pleased we would not muddy our own shoes, even though we had worn clothes we cared little about.
Nodding in approval, Millikan promptly whisked us to the kitchen a few brown buildings away. She smiled as she opened the back door, leading us in.
It was breakfast time.
But where was the cereal and milk, eggs or toast?
A cornucopia of lettuce, apples, carrots, chunks of meat and fish heads stared at us from plastic and metal bowls sitting on a counter.
Breakfast never looked so unappetizing.
The squirming meal worms made our mouths go cotton-dry and our stomachs dangerously gurgle in disgust.
"You get used to it," Millikan said with a shrug, as she placed mountains of bowls into a small wagon.
Getting out of the kitchen into the chilly morning air was a welcome change.
But before heading out, a short stop to say hello to Diablo and Esme, a male and female green iguana, revealed Millikan's inner passion for this stuff.
She detailed their histories, their various scars and even where they liked to sunbathe, like a parent listing a child's favorite foods and sleeping habits.
Diablo's left eye circled back over his shoulder while the keeper stroked Esme's scales.
"Oh, you want attention, too, don't you?" she cooed and reached up to rub his belly next to the ridge of spikes running down his spine.
It was weird to think that these animals — wide-eyed and a putrid green — could suddenly be sort of cute.
We spray and we wash
We wandered over to the aviary, an enclosure riddled with fresh bird droppings and skittish feathery fiends who glanced judgmentally at us, seemingly aware that we were total zookeeping neophytes.
Taking one look at the ground, we knew our cleaning skills were about to be tested.
Zoo visitors often flock to this walk, which is home to about 35 birds, so it's important to keep it in good shape.
We hosed it down from tree limb to tree root, attempting to extricate any evidence of possible excrement that had fallen to the exhibit floor. Spooking a few birds in the process was inevitable, and their watchful eyes became more squinty as water splashed off a rock, nailing a bird square in the head.
We attempted to improve their feelings towards us with an age-old temptation — food. We even collected, scrubbed and refilled their water dishes in hopes that our offerings would be taken and accepted with some compassion.
From her wagon, Millikan unloaded several dishes of diets, aka breakfast, for the birds. And while each bird is supposed to eat their own dish, the mentality in this exhibit seemed to be share and share alike.
A smew, a black-and-white bird that moved with unnatural speed through the water, sped to a dish that housed the once-wiggly worms that now lay lifeless — it was their only defense.
The worms, sprinkled over what looked like kibble, decorated the morning meal as a chef may beautify a salad with croutons.
It was a feathery feast, and the age-old phrase "the early bird gets the worm" was displayed with precision as the smew pecked out every insect from a dish before zipping off into a corner of the pond, leaving the larger birds with nothing but dry feed.
Through it all, Millikan kept up a running commentary about each animal. One hermit ibis, a bird from North Africa, had broken its beak years ago and found it hard to eat, so it needed special food. Another was hard to catch for vaccines or checkups because it liked to sprint back and forth across the far wall of the exhibit.
She even knew each bird's temperament. One hawk-headed parrot was a biter who refused to stay shut up in his cage while Millikan brought in food for that exhibit.
Each day, the keepers are also required to take notes on any irregularities they notice when they make their rounds. These notes are typed up into a file for each animal that follows them if they should transfer to another zoo.
To say we absorbed half of what she said would be a stretch, but we sure did our best.
The art of sunbathing
Slightly soaked and certainly shivering, we were thankful to head out of the aviary and over to the biggest destination spot of our day — the lemur enclosure.
Expecting to have an array of wide-eyed faces smile at us from their perches, we instead were greeted with a whiff of God-only-knows-what and three lemurs screaming like banshees. We wanted to curl up in the fetal position and whimper.
"Perfectly normal," Millikan said of the screeching. "It's a daily routine. They are talking to each other."
Tokay, Thetus and Mister, three related red ruffed lemurs, were the first to leave their sleeping quarters as they sauntered out into the sunlight while we once again put our cleaning skills to the ultimate test — inside and outside.
We headed out to the island where it was like going on a treasure hunt to find hidden excrement before returning to the cages to unabashedly scoop, scrub and sweep out anything and everything.
Holding our breath against the stench proved futile, but we certainly got the job done.
We headed back out to "The Island Lost in Time," the lemur's outside play pen, where we were greeted by Tokay, Thetus and Mister sitting criss-cross applesauce in the grass, arms outstretched and palms up, faces lifted to the sun.
"It's like sunbathing yoga for them," Millikan said. "Mister sometimes leans back against a log and just sits there for hours."
The lemurs hardly gave us a second glance — they had far more important things to worry about.
Satisfied with our work, we headed back to headquarters.
Rounding out the day
Back in the kitchen after our morning of cleaning and feeding, it was time for more food — only this time we were the chefs.
Before us lay a smorgasbord of vegetables and fruits that we sliced and diced and measured to the exact gram for each animal's specific diet, thanks to menus provided to us by Millikan.
Behind us, frozen rodents and quail sat in plastic baggies, a special treat for some of the birds and mammals.
"The hawks just love the white mice," Millikan said, beaming. "It is their afternoon treat and they just gobble it down."
After a handful of morning meals were prepared, we returned the boots and headed back to our car, a little more wise to the fact that it takes a small village to keep up a zoo.
Millikan, one of five zookeepers on staff, would be at it again the next morning, clearing drains and cooing at Spaz the Meanie — a hawk-headed parrot — while she cajoled him into his cage so he would not peck at her while she fed him.
And while taking care of a zoo seven days a week — someone is even there on Christmas — seems like a formidable task, or like having to care for a second household, it is safe to say that we certainly fulfilled a childhood dream, and dare we say, may try it again.