That Avian Blog would like to take this opportunity to welcome renowned Zoologist and Author Frank Indiviglio. With his experience as a zookeeper at institutions like the Bronx Zoo, field work with such exotics as hummingbirds, palm cockatoos, ostriches, and a lifetime’s worth of intense interest in all things animal, Frank is here to share his experiences and answer any pet-related questions you may have. He will be contributing articles to That Avian Blog, and related blogs: That Fish Blog and That Reptile Blog. Take a look at Frank’s autobiography and read about his exciting life!
I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later.
I was fortunate in having at my doorstep institutions that were, quite literally, paradises for one such as me. I spent countless hours roaming the grounds of the Bronx Zoo and the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, and was there set upon the path that would determine my life’s course. That course was, no doubt, a convoluted one – at one point, feeling the financial pressures that inflict most of those interested in working with animals, I became a lawyer. Fortunately, and for this I remain ever grateful, those closest to me helped me decide to follow my heart and return to the work I was born to.
My first jobs with animals were as an unpaid helper at local pet stores, after which I moved on to be a poorly-paid assistant at an animal importing facility. Much of my “salary” came in the form of permission to keep certain creatures – usually sick ones – as my own. As I write these words, I am watched by a musk turtle that I acquired in this manner in 1969. While there is no denying the need for regulations on the trade in wild-caught animals, I must say that I learned a great deal by caring for the unending parade of chimpanzees, coatis, kinkajous, ocelots, squirrels, rare fishes and reptiles that came through the doors in those days.
I paired my start in the legal profession with a volunteer position at the Bronx Zoo – Sundays would find me swatting Indian rhinoceros on the rump to nudge them into their exhibit or netting fruit bats while Mondays would have me at a desk in midtown Manhattan drafting leases – obviously, it was not a fair contest, and I soon found myself as a full-time bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo. As with the importing business, I entered the zoo field at the tail end of a wonderful period, when curators were naturalists as opposed to administrators and all were encouraged to learn animal care in hands-on fashion. I built upon the foundation laid down in the pet trade, and was soon caring for animals ranging from ants to elephants, and most everything in-between. As concerns zoo animals, I have always found myself drawn towards the smaller creatures, as it is these for whom we can best provide in captivity, and who reveal more of their life-cycles to us. Happily for me, such animals are also those most suited as pets. I also am pulled unfailingly towards the world’s odd, unknown and under-appreciated species.
I worked in all of the zoo’s many buildings and as a keeper of fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, and helped to establish its first substantial invertebrate collection. I also functioned, among other things, as head mammal keeper, supervisor of the Prospect Park Zoo and educator. Thus I came to live the life I know and love – courting adventure and knowledge and, hopefully, passing along something of value in the process.
Field research projects have taken me throughout North, Central and South America in an exciting quest for information about the natural histories of many varied creatures. I don’t have the words to describe the excitement felt during weeks of wrestling 17 foot long anacondas from the swamps of the Venezuelan llanos, nor my amazement at watching scores of macaws cross the sky or a brilliant basilisk run atop the surface of a forest pool. The anaconda project was highlighted in National Geographic Magazine – growing up, the idea that my photo might somehow wind up in that grand publication was simply unimaginable. Other projects had me dodging electric eels, marking crocodiles, tagging leatherback turtles, collecting spiders, stalking dart poison frogs and catching piranha in locales ranging from the beaches of Costa Rica to the pine barrens of New York.
My work has put me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping pets of every description, and I believe I have benefited more than they from the experience. For in their sense of wonder and caring I found a constant renewal of my own, and a validation of the path I had taken. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site.
After a career of over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo, I signed on as consultant for the Staten Island Zoo, working on the re-construction of their famed reptile house. This building was, in years past, presided over by none other than Carl Kauffeld, a veritable giant among herpetologists and an inspiration to a generation of snake enthusiasts. The new building, made possible by the efforts of the zoo’s unusually dedicated staff, is wonderful, and I hope you can visit. I continue to act as a consultant there, and am also designing exhibits for the Maritime Aquarium and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. I have spent time in Japan, fascinated by its public aquariums and pet stores, and regularly exchange ideas with zoo and aquarium professionals there.
I often pursue another life-long interest – writing – and have published books on invertebrates and fish, fresh-water, marine and brackish aquariums, newts, salamanders, seahorses and geckos. I was also fortunate in having opportunities to write articles that were published in professional and popular magazines, and in a number of books and conference proceedings. Appearances on television and radio have enabled me to discuss pet-keeping with large audiences. Perhaps because of my own roots, I enjoy helping NYC children discover nature, and have long presented animal-related programs for Science Development, Inc. and have taught biology at Columbia Preparatory School (somewhere along the line I had acquired a Master’s Degree in Biology, which was infinitely more interesting than acquiring a law degree!).
I hope that I can help you with your questions, and that you will favor me with your pet – keeping observations, ideas and suggestions. In your decision to correspond, please bear in mind that no observation, no matter how seemingly mundane, is unimportant, especially considering all that is yet unknown about many commonly-kept pet species. I myself recall letters that I wrote to Bronx Zoo curators and other such people, seeking information and noting my observations. Several times my quite questionable conclusions were validated, in one case after 18 years, by later experiences with these same people (many times I was mistaken, of course, but I learned a great deal none-the-less). Sometimes such led to a publication, often just to a good laugh, but everyone, including the animals involved, benefited. The point is that, in this wonderful field of ours, the exchange of information is necessary, and always interesting and enjoyable. I look forward to corresponding with as many of you as possible.