Anyone can pop off a cool photograph at the North Carolina Zoo, even me - your grandiloquent cameraman. See, even a TV news viewfinder to the face can’t eclipse the menagerie of snapshots free for the taking. It’s why - whenever the suits send me down to Asheboro - I make sure to pack a hand-Canon. Of course, video comes first. My producers didn’t dispatch me down Highway 220 just to gather fodder for the blog, ya know. They want moving pictures; heavily distilled vignettes sliced fresh for the evening news. That’s cool. But we both know my digital camera is always at hand and unless I’m hemmed-in by a fringe-eared Oryx, I’m making a grab for it. Such was the case today, when perhaps for the sixth time in eleven years, I attended Pumpkin Day at the Zoo. Hey - a fella my age can’t be afraid to tackle the tough issues. Sure, there’s a Presidential Election in the offing, but those blowhards on cable got that covered seven ways to next Tuesday. Me - I’m pursuing the important questions, like "How many pumpkins can a bull elephant eat?” The answer: “How many you got?”
I'm not sure how you feel about keeping wild animals in captivity. Truth is, I don't really care. But if ever you were concerned about the welfare of our furry, scaled or cloven-hooved guests of the Old North State, might I suggest you introduce yourself to one of those nice persons with the Z-word on their shirt? They, are the Zookeepers. I'm not saying they're all fanatical, but more than a few of them would happily run an activity bus full of third graders off a dirt road if it that's what it took to relieve that woodchuck of his constipation. Really! I once had an aviary lady yell at me because I was 'scaring the birds' -- with my mind! Okay, she was more concerned with how I was swinging my tripod around, but my point is this: The members of the animal kingdom currently lounging in their off-exhibit living quarters down in Asheboro are living better than most kids in that city's public housing projects. If you don't believe me, stroll through the 'hood sometime. You won't see educated professionals ringing their hands over the dietary habits of twelve year olds. Not with the same passion the otter-keeper uses to pick through his slippery charges' stool.
When I was but a boy, my Uncle Jennings took me, my brother and cousins to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I've still got a picture from that day somewhere; a fading Polaroid of Brian, David, Richard and me, straddling giant turtles while clad in outfits straight out of the Brady Bunch. Sartorial shame aside, it is a pleasant memory. For little did that dweeb in the Coke-bottle glasses know he'd grow up to prowl the grounds of his own state's zoological wonder. That's what I've been doing off and on since 1997 - when a newsroom executive by the name of Lori Mabe decided to throw the new guy a bone - and asked me if I'd meet with Rod Hackney, of 'What's New at the Zoo?' fame. That's what a competing station once called their regular visits to Asheboro - a weekly segment produced in part by the great George Vaughn. Unbeknownst to me, that franchise had recently landed in El Ocho's lap - who thought so much of it they assigned it to their newest photog, the one who kept muttering long words under his breath...
Since that fateful day, I've schlepped gear around the Zoo's 1,448 acres more times than I really wanted to . In the freezing cold of late January, in the sweltering stew of mid-July, I've aimed a lens at Blesboks and Palm warblers, Longnose gar and Ringtail cacomistle, Greater kudu and, of course, the River cooter. For more than a year I visited the Zoo every month, shooting enough footage for four stories to air each following week. This kind of productivity would never have been possible without the sweat and ingenuity of (friend of the blog) Rod Hackney, who eventually teamed up with Terry Shiels to produce the award-winning Zoo Filez - a syndicated series that runs throughout North Carolina and beyond. I'm proud to have even a fleeting connection to the Zoo and not just because it got me out of so many drive-by shootings. No, I'm proud because of what the Zoo does to kids everyday. Check out Harry Potter here, for example. He's absolutely gobsmacked - and there ain't an iPod, laptop or X-Box in sight.
Let's just hope he doesn't grow up to be a photog. a Sorcerer's brain is a horrible thing to waste.