Stories run wild when zoo volunteers gather

Sit three people together who have long-term relationships with the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and stories begin to flow, randomly, bouncing off one another.

That's what happened recently on a grey September morning. One of those gathered around the table in the Zoo's small coffee shop was Bob Pate. His association with the Zoo goes back to its very beginnings and includes over 20 years as a Zoo board member. Then there was Susie Voke, daughter of Sammye Seawell. Sammye started the Zoo, with its official opening back in 1969. And I was the third, associated with the Zoo as a volunteer from the year my family and I moved to Alaska, 1975.

It was a rambling session of storytelling that could be titled, "You Know You Can't Make These Things Up." My original intent in planning this coffee shop gathering was to find out about Bob Pate's project, archiving Zoo history. For a long time he has been collecting clippings, videos, tapes, booklets and photos related to the Zoo and storing them over the Zoo's old gift shop, in a cabin along the Zoo's front edge. (He admits it's a pretty informal collection at this point, with things stored mostly in cardboard boxes.)

We were easily distracted. Stories flew around – "I remember that!" "Yes, that really happened!" "And then there was the time . . ."

So I've decided to share some of them here.

There is a story that has become legend about the animal that inspired the Zoo's founding, Annabelle the elephant, and how such an animal came to Alaska in the first place. Anyone who has lived in Anchorage for any length of time can probably tell it.

Annabelle was won in a national contest, sponsored by Zellerbach, a tissue company. Who could sell the most tissue products in a certain amount of time? The contest winner was offered $3,000 – or an elephant. The Anchorage winner, grocery-store owner Jack Snyder, chose the elephant. That was in 1966. Originally, he kept her in the store's parking lot.

No, you can't make this stuff up.

Sammye felt her horse ranch on O'Malley Road would be a better place for Annabelle, and eventually Annabelle was housed in a barn on her ranch. She'd walk the little elephant along O'Malley Road, to the startled stares of passersby. Sammye once told me, "There were so many people coming to see the elephant – an elephant in Alaska – and there was a need for a place to keep her where people could see her. So the idea for the zoo evolved."

That's all it took. A barrage of stories about Annabelle, the Zoo's matriarch, was launched around the table.

"Annabelle took things apart with her trunk in her stall at the ranch," Bob comments. "She frequently dismantled the furnace, stretching out her trunk to reach it." Susie adds, "She could be a troublemaker. She took apart a lot of stuff. Her trunk was always reaching for the horses. It's funny to wonder what the horses thought with a trunk coming after them."

Here comes another Annabelle story, spun by Susie. "Remember Woofie, Sammye's Newfie, her Newfoundland dog? Woofie and Annabelle bonded. Annie would stand on Woofie's tail so the dog couldn't move and leave her."

That brings to mind one of Bob's favorite zoo stories, an image of the day he found himself standing at Annabelle's rump. "Annabelle had a barnacle-type growth on the tip of her tail. The San Diego Zoo said if we could get a photo of that, they would help us with a diagnosis. Well, Annabelle didn't want anyone fussing with her tail. So there I was at her backside with my camera, close up, and Sammye at Annie's head with a big bunch of lettuce, trying to distract her. I wish we had a photo of that – the three of us!"

Both Bob and Susie remember the day the Zoo officially opened. It was August 2, 1969, and was incorporated as the non-profit, The Alaska Children's Zoo. Bob says, "If I remember right, we had a bunch of pheasants, a hair seal named Olie, a bear cub named Tuffy, an arctic fox named Salley – and Annabelle, our Asian elephant." He chuckles as he adds, "Admission was 25 cents!"

Thinking of hair seal Olie, Bob backtracks a bit, recalling Olie's days in Sammye's house on the ranch. "Olie was often in her bath tub. He learned how to turn on the faucet. One day he flooded the house."

Susie nods, laughing as she remembers. "And he climbed the stairs with his flippers. Sometimes he'd get into Sammye's bed."

We'd all seen how much Sammye cared for each and every animal at her ranch and then at the Zoo. Charlie Joe is another example. Wolverines are not known for their tender temperament. Yet Bob recalls how Sammye would hand-feed Charlie Joe, the Zoo wolverine. "She'd give him hard boiled eggs, through the fence – every morning."

These stories tumbled out, one after another, accompanied by shouts of "I remember that, too!" Of course there was mention of Binky and the Australian tourist who lost her tennis shoe to Binky, when trying to get too close to the polar bear. "That story spread so far. I think she was pretty embarrassed," Bob says.

I couldn't help telling my favorite Zoo story.

I'd been asked, many years ago, to create the first comprehensive zoo guide. It was to be a many-paged publication, in full color on slick, glossy paper. 'Sure,' I remember thinking. 'I can take that on as a faithful Zoo volunteer.' Every animal was to be included.

It's important that I mention that as I was putting this all together, there was a bar in town called the Monkey Wharf. It actually had monkeys, swinging around in trees behind the bar, in a glassed-in enclosure. The bar was closing and the owner wanted to donate the monkeys to the Alaska Zoo.

"No" was Sammye's unyielding response. "Just no! They are not northern animals and are very high-maintenance. I don't want them."

Sammye had a way of making her opinions known and was adamant that the Zoo have orphaned, wounded, rescued northern animals. This was not the opinion of all the Zoo's board members at the time. A pro and con monkey rift had developed.

I had finished the comprehensive Zoo guide. It had been proofed, and proofed again, by me, the Zoo staff and all the Zoo board, so off it went to China for publishing. Thousands of copies were printed and were making their way across the Pacific Ocean on a Tote Ocean barge, when the first few copies were air mailed to us, pending the arrival of the entire huge order plugging its way across the seas.

Let me just say that there were donkeys at the Zoo. Yes, there is just one letter difference between donkeys and monkeys. And, yes, these thousands of brochures were on their way to Anchorage, proclaiming that there were monkeys at the zoo. A mammoth editing fail!

What to do? Ever resourceful, Sammye had a plan. We'd gather together as many volunteers as possible, all equipped with liquid White-Out, and we'd white out very 'm', and pen in a 'd'. All mention of monkeys had to go.

As I was picturing this monstrous, tedious task, my phone rang at home. It was Sammye. She was chortling so loudly I could hardly make out what she was trying to tell me. "Storm at sea," she managed to spurt out. "All containers with brochures tossed overboard," she gasped, amid fits of wild laughter. "Shippers so sorry. It will have to be reprinted – no cost to the Zoo!"

Naturally, I joined Sammye in breath-stealing bursts of laughter. When Sammye recovered a bit and could talk more coherently, she told me, "I told the shippers, sternly, that was just terrible. Of course insurance would cover all the reprinting costs – and by the way, could one tiny correction be made, before the reprinting? Just change one 'm' in the original to a 'd'?"

There would be no monkeys in the thousands of brochures. All those copies were at the bottom of the sea. I pictured them in sand and seaweed, with fish swimming contentedly around them.

Bob, Susie and I made a scene, gaffawing over the story in the coffee shop. I should add that I've used this tale many times when instructing people on the pitfalls of perfect proofing. I don't know how many times in our two-hour visit we found ourselves declaring, "Yes, that really happened. Yes, it's true. I well remember that!"

Bob and Susie clearly know how entertaining, unique and remarkable are the Alaska Zoo stories. Hopefully, Bob Pate, in his attempts to archive and record these stories, with the help of others, will be successful. Each animal is a story. Sammye is a story, of purpose and dedication. The stories are treasures.

No, you can't make this stuff up, and it calls for remembering.

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