On a recent afternoon, between feeding the animals their dinners and putting them to bed, part-time zookeeper L. Lee Harper excitedly recalled one of her favorite moments in the three years she's been at the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo.
One morning last fall the zoo's director, Robert Steele, asked her to give a tour to about 40 blind and visually impaired students and their families. As she led the children one-by-one into a gated area beside an animal enclosure, she instructed them to kneel down and place their palms gently under the gate, where a small paw reached out and touched their hands. The children had just been introduced to one of the zoo's newest inhabitants, Loki, a young playful one-eyed raccoon.
"The children were meeting another visually impaired animal, and it just blew their minds, and I'm seeing parents and they're all shook up," Harper said. "It's just magical -- one of the best days ever."
Harper's story reflects the many different roles the small local zoo fills both in the community and in the lives of its passionate staff members and volunteers. It's part zoo, part wild-animal refuge, part classroom, part family destination, part learning center for young veterinarians in training and part sanctuary for those ardent about animals.
Founded in 1934, the Palo Alto Junior Museum is one of the oldest children's museums west of the Mississippi. The zoo was added in 1969. When Steele came aboard in 1989, the place looked vastly different.
The old incarnation of the zoo, described by Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo Executive Director John Aikin as a "concrete basin," had a collection of about 20 indigenous rescued animals mostly placed in cages and "bathtub exhibits" with little space for them to hide from public view. In those days the zoo was maintained by the museum's janitor and was designed to be easy to clean for a one-man crew.
Steele, who has a background in education and animal services, set to work with limited resources and began transforming the enclosures himself to make them more naturalistic.
"As more emphasis on animal husbandry was placed in zoos throughout the years, we came to realize that there can be a happy medium between having an enclosure that's easy to maintain and, more importantly for the animals, areas to run and hide and play," Aikin said.
Steele set to work, rented one of the city's jackhammers and taught himself to use it to tear up the concrete so he could place dirt and trees in enclosures. He disassembled half of a large aviary to make room for what is now the current bobcat area. He oversaw the implementation and construction of a new raccoon home, which Harper and husband Miguel Martinez designed and built, along with the renovation of an old owl's cage, which became a nesting area for colorful weaverbirds purchased from the Oakland Zoo.
"I'm very proud of this place," Steele said. "I wouldn't be here nearly as long if I didn't love the work."
One of Steele's major areas of pride has been the construction of a home for bobcats Rufus and Tule, filled with large rocks, trees and logs for the cats to roam and climb, funded by the $450,000 raised by the nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.
Steele felt compelled to add bobcats to the zoo in the mid-1990s, after a series of mountain-lion attacks and sightings led to many cases of mistaken identity for the smaller wildcats.
"I wanted the public to see what a bobcat really looked like," he said.
Rufus and Tule are third-generation declawed bobcats specifically bred in captivity for placement in zoos. Aside from the cats, Steele has helped to bring in 50 different species, including flying foxes, exotic birds, hedgehogs, geese and waterfowl, lizards, a tortoise, a red-tailed hawk, a bald eagle with a paralyzed tail and two one-eyed raccoons -- which, like many of the animals in the zoo, were found injured or abandoned and rescued.
"We've been able to get these animals into our zoo because we've been able to accommodate their special needs, whereas in other zoos you probably wouldn't be able to do that with an eagle that can't fly or a raccoon missing an eye," fellow zookeeper Marlon Kasberg said.
Occasionally Steele gets questioned about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. Though he said he can agree with people on some concerns about animal welfare, he explained, "Most of our animals are non-releasable (into the wild). So is it better to keep them here so we can educate the public about them or would it be better to euthanize them?"
Unlike his predecessor, Steele has much-needed daily help from a devoted staff of four part-time zookeepers and about 20 volunteers from local high schools, colleges and a vet-tech program at Foothill College.
On a typical day, zookeepers start at 7 a.m. and tackle a series of seemingly endless tasks, including preparing all the animal's food, cleaning the enclosures, landscaping, watering plants, repairing anything that broke in the middle of the night, talking to the zoo's young visitors about the animals, coordinating the animals who go out to the elementary schools as part of the museum's science program and what the staff calls "working" the animals to check their health and to stimulate the animals.
"Working" usually involves going inside an animal's enclosure to play with it, taking it out for walks or flights, and hand-feeding or handling it. Though it might seem like play, it's actually a chance for zookeepers and volunteers to check animals for bumps and scrapes or a decreased appetite and loss of weight, Steele said. Larger zoos have an on-site veterinarian to care for injured animals right away, but staff at the Palo Alto zoo has to be extra vigilant about any differences in animal behavior or appearance since the mammals' vet is located in south San Jose and the birds and reptiles are cared for in Portola Valley.
One of Harper's favorite methods of working an animal is taking Edward, a 13-year-old, 136-pound donated Salcata tortoise, for his daily walk. She uses the time not only to let Edward get some exercise and treats but also to educate preschoolers who are eager to pet the reptile's smooth shell.
"It's this little romp we go on, and I see how much joy it brings people," she said. "My thing is I love just elevating people's worlds. Who in the world gets to touch a giant tortoise? How cool is that?"
Another thing that really touches Harper is the sense of ownership and intimacy that children create through their interactions with the animals.
"I hear kids, and they'll see Edward and say 'I touched him; I know him! Edward's my friend,'" Harper beamed. "I love being able to foster that. Now I have a kid that's out in the world that has a friendship with a giant tortoise, and when they hear about the tortoises needing care in the future, they're going to have the empathy for them."
Zookeepers and staff agree that the zoo's small scale allows children and adults to foster relationships with the animals, which visitors to a larger zoo wouldn't necessarily experience.
"On this level, they're kind of like rock stars, these animals, because people come here specifically on weekends to see them," Kasberg said. "When an animal's been here, say, for 30 years, and a person's been coming here since they were a child or teenager or an adult, they've been growing up with that animal and it makes it more personal."
Still, not every visitor has as much respect for the zoo's inhabitants. Steele explained that he's witnessed a number of bad behaviors, like rowdy kids chucking large rocks at animals swimming in the duck pond, preschoolers banging on the hedgehog's glass, adults tossing beer bottles into enclosures, high school kids sneaking in after hours, and even parents who reach their hands into the bobcat enclosure trying to pet them.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people who come through here you love, but you remember those 1 percent who don't treat the animals with respect above all else," he said. "You have to be professional about it, as much as you want to run over there and scream at them," he said. "Sometimes you need to talk to the parent just as much as the child."
One teaching opportunity Steele enjoys is helping to "dispel myths" with children as he lets them pet the snakes and tarantula -- creatures many adults fear. He also loves how the zoo allows people to get to know the unique personalities of creatures often seen as "problem animals," like the raccoons.
Aikin agrees and stresses that maintaining an up-close and personal experience for young zoo visitors is pivotal in the museum and zoo's plans for expansion in the near future.
"If we can change the hearts and the minds of these kids at a very young age and get them enthusiastic about these animals, which some older people grapple with, then conservation will happen," Aikin said.
Among the potential plans the museum is considering in the next five years, Aikin said, are rebuilding and expanding into a two-story, environmentally friendly building with "green" roofs and a bigger parking lot; devoting space to house the museum's vast (and currently buried) natural-history collection to better augment its current collaboration with K-5 science classes; adding space for classrooms and large groups; establishing a conservation program for native species; and designing an immersive zoo layout in which kids would be able to crawl through tunnels to see root structures or climb to the top of trees to better understand how animals live in the wild.
A conceptual master plan is under development and will be presented to the city soon, Aikin said. Private donations are expected to come largely from the Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.
Despite the big changes in store, Aikin stresses that the museum and zoo's core mission of educating children up to 9 years old will remain its key focus.
"It really is a gem that the city has preserved this long. The zoo really resonates with people of every imaginable age who all grew up here and have memories of this place. We want to keep up that relationship with the community."