WASHINGTON — On his last night as the longest-serving keeper at the National Zoo, David Kessler checks and rechecks the locks on the enclosures in the Small Mammal House. He collects his farewell gifts and mementos and softly narrates to himself what needs to be done. “OK, lights out here, good. Hi, babies!” he says to Reuben and Jolla, the howler monkey couple. “Aagh, g’night, sweetheart. Did I wake you up? I’m sorry.” He checks the seven timers on the lights, saying “timer” aloud at each. He’s not thinking, he says, about how this January night is the last time after 39 years, two-thirds of his life, at the zoo. Now Gus the rock hyrax — who looks like a 4-pound guinea pig but is more closely related to the elephant — catches his attention in the dark. It’s as if the little guy knows something is up.
Considering the personal magnitude of the occasion, everything is going fine as Kessler prepares to walk away from the animals who he says rescued him, who might just have saved his sanity. “Gus is sticking his head out,” Kessler notes, then stops. He sobs once, his knees buckle, and his emotions drop him to the floor.
Earlier in the day, Kessler talked about his career. “I like to work with animals that nobody thinks about,” he said. Small mammals, it’s true, are not headliners. He always has a favorite weirdo. He has been the red panda guy, the house shrew guy, the Prevost’s squirrel guy and the moonrat guy. Moonrats have no natural predators, Kessler says with admiration and a little pride, because they smell so bad.
Technically, Kessler’s job has been biologist, but the caretaking, the keeping, is what he loves best.
“It’s the care of living things. To keep, that’s a beautiful thing. The longer you watch an animal or a person just doing their thing, the more you feel connected to them.”
A keeper feeds the animals and mucks out their enclosures, but the real work is observation, watching their bodies and behavior closely for subtle changes that mean something is wrong. And figuring out how to fix it.
Take the lemurs, smallish primates with doglike faces, some of the most social creatures in the Small Mammal House. Cortes and Coronado are recent acquisitions — Kessler drove them down from the Bronx Zoo in his Honda Civic– who are being carefully phased in with Molly, who has been the sole lemur at the Small Mammal House since her mate died. The keepers noticed the new lemurs were keeping low to the ground, un-lemurlike behavior. Lemurs are at home in treetops, and the damp ground was irritating one of Cortes’ paws. Perhaps Molly was being territorial. They would wait and see, maybe give Molly more attention. And keep watching.
Kessler and his colleagues would eventually determine Molly wasn’t behaving aggressively toward the other two lemurs. A volunteer noticed it was the rock hyraxes antagonizing Cortes and Coronado. The rock hyraxes were moved to a different exhibit and, voilà, the lemurs returned to the trees.
Kessler, 59, knows each of the hundred-odd residents of the Small Mammal House by their six-digit reference number. He has also published or co-written about a dozen research papers. Written three unpublished novels. He once went on a radio show to compose sonnets on demand. He mentors high school students and oversees their research projects. He has been married for 30 years and still writes his wife, Patricia, sonnets.
He’s retiring young because of his progressive psoriatic arthritis. “I only have so much health left,” he says, and zookeeping is physically taxing. He wants to travel and write.
A loved one once told him that he would probably be happier as a hermit. He wasn’t insulted.
“I’m more comfortable by myself and with animals than I am with people,” he says. “I don’t feel like I fit around people.” Around people, he is giving a sort of performance. “But an honest performance.”
His last day is a whirl of well-wishers, food, paperwork, gifts, tears and hugs. People keep coming by for hugs and predicting he’ll be back. He says no, never coming back.
He’s proudest of his work with William the gibbon in 1978. William was a juvenile living with his parents when he got stuck in the enclosure and broke his arm. He was in the hospital so long that his parents rejected him when he got back. And because his hospital experience was scary and painful, people now made William fearful and angry. He was kept out of the exhibit for a while, off by himself.
Kessler sat in his enclosure each day, doing nothing except being nonthreatening. No mask, no gloves. Back then, this was acceptable zookeeper behavior — interaction not initiated or welcomed by the animal.
William would brachiate around in the farthest corner from Kessler, swinging limb to limb, elaborately ignoring the 130-pound human in the room. Over the course of a week, William came closer and closer, until his feet would brush his keeper’s head as he swung by. Eventually he would put his head on Kessler’s sweatshirt and go to sleep.
Twelve years ago, Kessler walked with a cane, couldn’t turn his head and could sleep only an hour and a half at a time because of his arthritis.
Thirty-six years ago, he called his psychiatrist to say he had everything ready to commit a tidy, no-fuss suicide, just a hose and towels in a car exhaust pipe. His doctor had him hospitalized for four days.
Then, at 27, he taught himself to be happy. “You learn from evolution, from animals. If you have a strategy that doesn’t work, change your strategy.”
His new strategy was to avoid introspection. Completely. “Working with animals made me start thinking about other things more. And when I was able to start thinking about other animals more, I was able to include humans in that group.”
Understanding William the gibbon, for example, and building his trust was a big “breakthrough with myself.”
According to dominant psychology and philosophy, introspection is the key to living right. But Kessler’s unexamined life is the only kind he wants to live.
Kessler keeps putting off leaving, until his shift stretches to 11 hours. He walks out into the cold night.
Inside the House, the 100-odd residents have no sense that their time as keepers of David Kessler has come to an end.