By her own admission, Kathleen LaMattina is much more comfortable with a 3-foot-long Indian Crested porcupine in her arms than she is speaking with me.
One moment cleaning up emu droppings and the next making baby talk to a Fennec fox running circles around her, LaMattina is tailor-made for the job of acclimating 300 animals to human contact for the Bronx Zoo’s outreach programs in New York. In fact, she often takes them home with her overnight.
With long dark hair and a bright, easy smile, she greeted me at the door in a tank top and cargo pants, holding a baby emu named Kevin.
We spoke in a classroom in the Old Zebra Building at the Bronx Zoo.
Tarmy: How did you start your day?
LaMattina: I woke up at 7 a.m. and fed all of my own animals. I have three dogs, three cats, four parrots, some turtles, snakes -- nonvenomous, of course -- frogs and fish.
And then I ran around for an hour with Kevin, who came home with me yesterday. Have you ever seen emus run?
Tarmy: Only on the Discovery Channel.
LaMattina: Kevin books it! And then I had coffee, worked out and came to work.
Tarmy: What did you do when you made it into work?
LaMattina: First I checked on all the animals and said ‘hi’ to my zookeepers to make sure everything was OK.
Saved From Mom
Then I played with Buckley, a wallaby that I hand-raised after his mother tried to eat him.
Tarmy: Wallabies eat their young?
LaMattina: He was probably just bitten as she was trying to get him out of her pouch. It’s very energy inexpensive to give birth to a kangaroo or wallaby, but to actually raise the baby takes a long time.
So if she’s not feeling well, the mother decides to focus on herself. It happens in the wild.
Tarmy: How many people are you in charge of?
LaMattina: I am so not a boss, but I oversee three zookeepers and five instructors. It’s a nice, intimate staff.
Tarmy: That doesn’t sound like very many people to take care of 300 animals.
LaMattina: When I started, it was me and just one other person. But I love it. I’m the luckiest person in the world because this never feels like work.
Tarmy: So what did you do after you played with the wallaby?
LaMattina: I had to bring an owl in for a surgical procedure. He has a tumor on his foot. It hadn’t spread, but to make him more comfortable the veterinary surgeon did something called debulking, which removes the tumor.
He came here in 1994, the same year that I came, actually. We take care of animals from the cradle to the grave.
Tarmy: When do you have time to eat lunch?
LaMattina: We all eat here in this classroom, standing and talking. It’s fun! While we eat we’ll take out an animal, maybe a parrot.
We used to have pizza with the capybara before she died.
Tarmy: Are you a vegetarian?
LaMattina: For 31 years.
Tarmy: Do you think most people are who work here?
LaMattina: They’re all carnivores! But I don’t preach.
I cook meat for my mom. Can you believe it -- she actually asked me what emus taste like?
Tarmy: What are you going to do after we talk?
LaMattina: I’m going to work on animal enrichment activities. We worry about the physical well-being of animals, but their psychological well-being is just as important.
We build sandboxes for our desert foxes and make toys for our parrots.
Tarmy: So enrichment activities, and then home?
LaMattina: Not yet. We have to check animals’ nails to see if they need to be cut.
Then I’m going to play with Jerika, a blue and gold macaw who was actually sketched for the movie “Rio.”
Then Stickers and I are going to run laps later. She’s an Indian Crested porcupine. We run up and down the hall -- she chases us, then we chase her.
Tarmy: Has this been a typical day for you?
LaMattina: Every day is different. I never know what’s going to be waiting for me. Once in a while I’ll have a meeting, which I hate. I just can’t sit still.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: James Tarmy in New York: Jtarmy@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.