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Zookeeper Thomas Brown Charms Bears and Visiting Cubs

The wild calls every day at the Detroit Zoo, but this devoted employee helps animals and kids find the fun

On 90-degree days, the residents of the Detroit Zoo are tamed by heat. The normally white polar bears have sun-tanned yellow fur and lions lounge like fat house cats in the shade.

But the animals come alive when they hear Thomas Brown.

"They learn to recognize voices. And the jingle of keys sometimes they will respond to," says Brown, a senior zookeeper. As he makes his way around The Arctic Ring of Life exhibit to visit the seals, the rarely seen arctic foxes come to greet him. Visiting kids standing by jump with excitement. "In the morning is really the best time to see a lot of the animals, because as they are just released out of holding. That's when they are doing the most intense search process for food."

Brown has been a zookeeper for 18 years. Currently, he helps manage The Arctic Ring of Life animals, which also includes polar bears and grizzlies. But the most important skill his job requires is switching seamlessly between the animals and visiting children. "Each has their own personality and quirk to deal with," says Brown—just like seals.

"That's Pequot and Kiinaq. And Freita and Sidney in there," Brown explains, able to recognize the seals at a glance. His daily routine is to first prepare their special diets of fish for feedings and enrichment activities. And the seals, like legless dogs, scoot over to happily greet him. "They are a lot less graceful on land," he says, with a uniform smile.

Brown, 46, born and raised in Detroiter, has a lifelong love for the outdoors.

"Animals have always been an interesting thing for me," he explains. "As a kid, I was one of those who was taken down South every summer by my folks. Go play on a farm there. Stay outside until they had to come looking for me quite often."

After graduating from Michigan State University with a major in biology, Brown soon became a zookeeper.

"I started out in bird section. And I worked all the exhibits in bird section. Then I worked on Belle Isle. I worked at the deer recapture project, where we captured all of the deer of the island. Then I transferred here to The Arctic Ring of Life."

He adds, "I've always been an outdoorsy person, and this job is really ideal for that. It's not at all monotonous." And Brown's favorite exhibit at the zoo is always whichever he is currently working in.

"Right now The Arctic Ring of Life is nice because it has the air conditioning," he says. "Because I've worked in so many different areas, there is really a challenge in all areas."

Zookeepers, he explains, rely fully on the cooperation of the animals.

"The seals have been very good in training to the point where we can brush teeth, clip nails and get blood voluntary. And in this position, they are really like well-trained dogs," Brown says. "Training is one of the essential things for all animals at the zoo. Because it allows us to do things outside of the realm of knocking them down and using force—which for some animals is not even realistic. How do you wrestle a polar bear?"

An emergency firearms team is made up of zookeepers in case things get too wild at the zoo. And the zookeepers are given pepper spray if they are ever in trouble with the animals. Brown, fortunately, has never had to use his. "Some people have, but not me," he says. But he did get accidently peppered sprayed once.

"We were working with the dangerous and fierce kangaroos," he quips. After treating a sick kangaroo in hospital holding for several days, Brown says its health miraculously improved.

"He apparently got better over night, because when we went to grab him to give him the (injection), he decided to throw about four or five people around. Somebody got thrown against the wall and their pepper spray cracked—sprayed everybody in the room, which is not fun when you are holding a kangaroo that is already winning the fight," he explains. "They can do a little bit of damage if they kick you in the right way at the right time. You just cry and hold on for a little while until you resolve the situation."

But it all comes with the job. "And only one person went to the clinic that day. Not me."
 

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