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It's Raining Tortoises
by Bill Naylor

Talks, guided tours and demonstrations are now an important part of every zoo visit. Zoo keepers equipped with microphones, give polished performances often in purpose built arenas. When I was a young keeper, an informal unrehearsed tour by a zookeeper, was all that was available to visitors. The tour terminated when the tour guide ran dry of information, or disinterested bored visitors dispersed. You knew your tour was not going well, when there was only one person in your party, and they were doing a crossword. This happened to me one wet January. After traipsing past empty cages and enclosures, where the inmates had the good sense to keep out of the weather. I asked the crossword fan if he wanted to continue. “Yes! by all means, carry on doing what you’re doing, I’ll tag along and just finish the crossword, my train doesn’t go to till three.”

A guided tour by one zoo keeper was simply an opportunity for him to talk about his prize budgerigars, illustrated by photos he would hand round. When anyone asked questions about the animals in the enclosures, they were hurriedly being shepherded passed. He would always bring the conversation back to budgies.

“Elephants! Seen one you’ve seen em all. Big, long nose, grey. That’s it. But budgies, come in a multitude of colours, as you can see in this next batch of photos.”

Lenny was an introverted keeper, and his tours were an ordeal for everyone concerned. He became tongue tied when asked questions, and resorted to simply reading aloud the few lines of information from the signs on the cages. But he had a fondness for latin scientific names. Spouting these so much, people often thought he was Spanish. I advised Lenny to spice up his walk and talk, by including anecdotes. And told him the story of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. He died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head? Lammergeyers, a type of European vulture, air lift bones, dropping them on rocks from a height, enabling them to feed on the exposed marrow. They also use this technique with tortoises. Aeschylus had a premonition that on a certain day his house in the mountains would burn down, and he would die.

On the day in question, he took no chances, and at first light sat outside on a boulder, awaiting the house fire An eagle air lifting a tortoise, mistook Aeschylus’s baldhead for a rock, and tortoised him. Lenny loved the anecdote.

“Great I’ll tell that story at the Lammergeyer aviary as a finale. But I’ll never remember the Greek guy’s name.”

“Just say the first Greek name that comes into your head, no one will know.” On the next tour, Lenny was unusually confident, ending his tour at the Lammergeyer aviary, where he launched into the tortoise anecdote.

“And that people, is how the ancestor of the lammergeyer you see before you, caused the death of that famous and much loved Greek philosopher, Demis Roussos,”