Annette Libeskind Berkovits is the author of the new memoir Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator, about her experiences working at the Bronx Zoo over several decades. She also has written the memoir In the Unlikeliest of Places. Her work also has appeared in Silk Road Review and Persimmon Tree.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your work with the Bronx Zoo, and how did you become an "accidental" zoo curator?
A: As you know, Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator is my second memoir. You have already conducted an interview with me about my first memoir, In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism.
While I was anxiously waiting to hear from my editor, Bill Roorbach, about the final draft of my first book, my husband suggested that I start writing a memoir of my wild and crazy experiences working at the Bronx Zoo for 34 years.
At first, I wasn’t even sure I had an entire book in me, but my husband reminded me of the many humorous things that happened to me at the zoo and while I traveled to remote corners of the world as a part of my work.
After I began, the stories tumbled out. At first I thought of them as independent, but as the book unfolded, I began to see an arc of an unconventional career that few women had at the time.
It was very satisfying to see myself as an observer, looking at the changes in me and the world in which I worked. I began as an instructor, but I retired as a senior vice president responsible for education programs in the four New York zoos, an aquarium and all of our many national and international programs.
As for exactly how I became an accidental curator, one would have to read the book. It would be a spoiler for me to reveal it here. But I will only say that I grew up in a place and a family without any possibility of pets (the why is explained in my Author’s Note) making me truly the most unlikely person to work in the zoo in any capacity, much less a curatorial role.
Q: Of all the various animals you describe, are there a few that especially stand out in your mind?
A: I’d have to say that Carlos, the mountain lion is at the top of the list. I fell in love with him, head over heels. Once readers learn of my greatest fear (before landing the zoo job) they’ll be even more surprised that I list a powerful hunter like a mountain lion (also known as a puma) in response to your question.
I am also very fond of Claude, the fugitive pig at the zoo. Once readers learn of my family’s history, they’ll understand why. For total surprise, I’d have to mention the foul-mouthed mynah my department inherited, so to speak. I’ll never forget it, and neither would the readers.
Q: You traveled all over the world working on conservation issues. Was there one experience that you feel made the most difference?
A: Well…it’s hard to limit it to one, so let me briefly mention two. The first was working with African colleagues in Kenya to design a wildlife experience in Nairobi so Kenyan people, especially Kenyan children, could become familiar with their own magnificent wildlife heritage.
Most of the marvelous creatures Americans know, from gorillas to elephants, giraffes, lions and cheetahs are African animals, yet few Kenyans ever get to see them. So, making it possible by creating an interactive zoo, close to where most people live, was extremely rewarding. We modeled it after the Bronx Zoo’s Children’s Zoo concepts.
The support of Kenyans for conservation measures of their native wildlife depends on their having knowledge and awareness of their incredible animal species.
The other experience that made a difference was bringing science curricula based on wildlife into Chinese classrooms—from the elementary levels to secondary schools. We developed these curricula at the Bronx Zoo to teach basic natural science, but at the same time we married all the lessons to fascinating wildlife exploration games and simulations which kept the students fully engaged and excited about learning.
It was a major coup to get the Chinese authorities to allow our programs into China’s schools. Given the drastic decline of wildlife and depletion of wild habitats in China it is critical that new generations of stewards are interested in conservation. But for such interest to develop, young people need to be educated and made aware of what is about to be lost.
Q: How has the field of zoos and conservation changed over the course of your career?
A: There were three major changes that are obvious to me as I look back. The first is the growth of women in decision making positions in zoos. Many women now occupy director and curator positions.
When I entered the field in 1972, I doubt there was more than a tiny handful of women. Even in keeper positions there weren’t many women. Believe it or not, some male curators thought female keepers would not be effective during their periods! Doesn’t that sound medieval?
Another huge change is the overall professionalization of the entire field. 40-50 years ago, all one needed to work in a zoo as a keeper was to know how to use a broom, bucket and shovel.
Today most keepers have advanced degrees in zoology, ecology, animal behavior or conservation biology. You need some of these kinds of courses even to get an unpaid internship position! And most field scientists working in zoos have PhDs.
And finally, these days nearly all accredited zoos have substantial conservation and research departments as well as extensive education programs, many modeled on the Bronx Zoo programs.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: As of now I have published two memoirs and have one other unpublished coming-of-age memoir so I’ve written a lot of non-fiction. Now I am turning my attention to writing historic fiction and finishing a poetry chapbook. Your readers can keep up with my work on my website, and there they can also subscribe to my blog.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’d really like people, particularly young people, to be open to pursuing unconventional career paths and not be tied to anyone’s notion of the “right” way to work or explore the world. There are many paths. If I had hesitated about accepting the zoo job, my life would have been infinitely poorer.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Annette Libeskind Berkovits, please click here.