When I worked in Columbus, the zoo — then under the stewardship of Jack Hanna — was the sort of place where a reporter just couldn’t win. The editor sat on the board, the publishers were big boosters, and the rules seem to be: We can’t write enough about this place, and it better be flattering. To be sure, there were a few good stories there, but for the most part it was Here’s the New Gorilla Exhibit, Is the Elephant Really Pregnant, et al.
Here’s one good story: A report came over the scanner that a gorilla had escaped from its cage. An escaped gorilla! It was a Superman comic! A photographer and I raced to the scene, only to find the gorilla had wandered through an unlocked door, nosed around the place, did no harm and then had to suffer the indignity of a tranquilizer dart. I wrote a whimsical piece that evoked King Kong and Fay Wray, the copy desk eviscerated it, and I hated zoo stories after that.
A much better zoo story came the night two keepers got drunk after hours and threw a troublesome, nipping goose into the cheetah exhibit. “Is this really Page One material?” the editor-on-the-zoo-board wondered. For once, he was overruled. If that isn’t a Page One story, nothing is.
The Fort Wayne zoo is a somewhat different story. It always got friendly coverage, but it pretty much always deserved it — it’s a children’s zoo that manages to be fun, inexpensive and people-pleasing all at once. It’s not too big, doesn’t have delusions of grandeur and is just a nice place to spend an afternoon. As is frequently the case with standout public institutions, it’s all due to one man — the former director, Earl Wells. He was a reporter’s dream, fun to talk to, easy to quote. I recall a long conversation about how misunderstood snakes are, while a friendly baby boa constrictor went up and down my arm. He was also a 4-H leader and all-around great guy. Everybody loved him. He retired a few years ago.
Last week came the awful news: He’d set up a ladder at his house that slipped into an underground wasp nest. He fell, was knocked unconscious, and stung something like 1,000 times, after which he fell into a coma. Died yesterday. Damn it all. Talk about irony. The man spends his life helping animals, and ends up slain by wasps.
Longtime readers — if there are any left — might recall the spring before last, when I was working the world’s nuttiest schedule, one-third columnist, one-third reporter, one-third metro editor. The latter was a night shift, which meant I answered at least a dozen calls a night from people who didn’t get their newspapers. Most of these I could transfer to the appropriate people in circulation, but there were always a few who called too late.
Most were righteously p.o.’d, and I can’t say I blame them — just because you didn’t get home from work until 7:30 doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your newspaper if your carrier screwed up. I always asked where they lived, and if they lived south, I’d drop by on the way home from work and hand-deliver a copy. It took me into strange neighborhoods, but almost all of them would chat a bit, and that was a very nice fringe. It was spring, the world was turning warm, and I played jazz on the radio. I was Nick Danger, Late-Night Newsboy, who always goes the extra mile for a subscriber.
So you can imagine where my sympathies were when I read about this woman, cited for delivering her Harrisburg, Pa. Patriot-News route to a flooded area in a rubber raft. Illegal operation of a watercraft, or some such crapola. Of course the paper won’t back her up, because she’s an “independent contractor.” I say every so often you get to stand up for the good people in the world, and they oughta. We shall see.
Another southern California day — 80s, not a cloud, bright starlight, no humidity. You couldn’t have ordered a better one, so I spent the afternoon making phone calls, lolling with “Cloud Atlas” between them, and finally taking a bike ride. I went past our new skate park, which I’ll have to get the picture-machine going on — it’s quite a nice one, and it is packed, it seems. I’ve never ridden past that there weren’t at least 50 kids risking their necks. The city tried this in the ’80s; they threw up some half-pipes and let the lawyers take over, so it was liability-release-on-file and helmets-must-be-worn and restricted-hours-yessir and blah blah blah. Amazingly, it failed. This one is much nicer and has a plainly stated, skate-at-your-own-risk sign on the gate, and it’s hopping all the time. It’ll probably be supporting a snack bar before long. Economic development downtown! Who’d have thought?