Of the 4,000 critters that scamper, slither, swing and swim at the Denver Zoo every day, a tan mutt named Bodie may be the least exotic. The approximately one-and-a-half-year-old collie/Labrador mix is a domestic counterpart of the ringtailed lemurs, hippos, Asiatic bears, vultures, clown fish and macaws that share his habitat. But Bodie is also one of the zoo's most unusual animals: a common house pet living among creatures of the wild.
"In my collection, we have some really awesome family members," says Molly Maloy of the zoo's education department. "We've got a lot of rare birds like the red-legged seriema, which comes from the grasslands of South America. But Bodie has literally become our mascot. He's unique, a very special animal."
Bodie's path to the Denver Zoo was unique, as well. In May he was adopted from the Colorado Humane Society shelter in Englewood, where he'd arrived two weeks earlier as a stray. Bodie was in a bad way when he was admitted: His hair was falling out in patches, he had a tapeworm, and fluids oozed from his genitals. But he was sweet-faced, and the staff immediately fell in love with him. So did Maloy and Teresa Skinner, the zoo's animal-programs manager, who were at the shelter looking for a show dog.
"They said they wanted a dog that was outgoing and would do well with the public, and Bodie's very friendly," says CHS's Sarah Howie, who supervised Bodie's adoption. "They also wanted a dog that was intelligent, which Bodie is. He's got a huge personality, and he seemed to be just what they were looking for."
Still, CHS executive director Mary Warren wasn't ready to let Bodie go so easily. Like most metro-Denver animal shelters, CHS has a policy of approving adoptions only for families or individuals who have not only the resources, but also the dedication to nurture a pet. Warren initially planned to reject the zoo's application for adoption but changed her mind after a lengthy evaluation between her staff and Maloy and Skinner.
"I don't know that I want to base my career on placing dogs into zoo environments. We're not in the business of adopting out circus animals," says Warren, who has served as CHS's director for fourteen years and has overseen thousands of adoptions. "I did do it in this instance, because I believed that these women who came to see me really wanted to love that animal."
Bodie, the first dog ever to live at the zoo, was the reliably frisky star of this summer's "Let's Play Creature Connections," a show that illustrated the differences between wild and domesticated animals. In one corner, audience members rooted for a red-wing hawk, a free-flying falcon and a porcupine; in the other, they cheered a chicken, a rat and Bodie, who mugged with puppyish charm.
But Bodie is nobody's pet. Like all zoos, the Denver Zoo primarily collects animals as specimens for display, research and education, not companionship. Mascot or no, Bodie's a working member of that collection, living inventory. "Bodie is a representative of what kind of animal would make a good pet," Maloy says. "Whenever I walk him around, we'll run into groups of kids who call out his name, because they remember him and they can relate to him. But we discourage people from thinking about him as the zoo's pet."
Bodie's life at the Denver Zoo is unquestionably better than it was in his small cage at the Colorado Humane Society shelter, a minimal facility in an industrial swath near the South Platte River that's overflowing with animals awaiting adoption -- or a more dire fate. (Because CHS euthanizes only very aggressive or very old animals, Bodie would have been permitted to live at the facility until he was placed.) Warren and her staff are warm and involved -- even when all 36 pens are full, she and Howie know the names and personalities of every animal in residence -- but they're unequipped to dote on every creature.
At the zoo, Bodie enjoys celebrity status. He has an enclosed pen that sits behind the Conoco Wildlife Theater, hedged between a porcupine habitat and a reptile exercise yard. He trains daily with members of the education department and, four or five days a week, appears in school programs both on and off the premises. And now that "Let's Play Creature Connections" is off the schedule for the winter, he spends the rest of his daytime hours barking at birds, tagging along to staff meetings and hiding out in Maloy's office, where, she says, he has two "very fancy beds."
"Bodie is incredibly spoiled," Maloy says. "We've got the hospital here, so he could see a vet at a moment's notice if necessary. He gets to go for walks on eighty acres of grounds and look at elephants. It's really the life of Riley right now; he's got more contact with humans than most private dogs I know."
Still, Warren and some zoo staffers wish he had more. When Bodie first arrived, volunteers were encouraged to spend as much time with him as possible. But in July, zoo administrators announced that, like other animals in the collection, Bodie was to be handled by designated trainers only. That raised eyebrows among some employees, who were concerned that he would languish in his outside pen, where he was forced to sleep.
Maloy says the decision was made to help Bodie focus on his training program, and now that temperatures are falling, he is sleeping in her office. Warren does growl a little at that arrangement, however, because Bodie is often left alone for up to thirteen hours at a time. CHS usually denies potential owners who intend to keep their pets outdoors, and they discourage leaving a dog alone for more than nine hours. After the adoption evaluation in May, Warren believed that Bodie would sleep indoors with zoo employees or volunteers who offered to take him home. That's never happened.
"Dogs are pack animals," Warren says. "They want to be a part of your pack. And when a pack of dogs or wolves wants to let a dog know that it lost its place, they don't eat it or attack it and rip it to shreds. They simply isolate it, ignore it. The average person doesn't realize that that's the message they are sending to their dog when they leave it outside, or leave it alone for hours and hours at a time, but they are."
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Warren knows that her standards for optimal animal care are difficult for most owners -- whether zookeepers or individuals -- to meet. In an ideal scenario, she says, a dog is always within earshot of its owner, even while sleeping. But she's comforted by the zoo's recent efforts -- like getting Bodie a new doghouse outfitted with an air conditioner and a heater, as well as a mailbox and flower bed.
"I didn't know a doghouse like this even existed until recently," Maloy says. "They're used by the Toronto canine police, and they're custom-built for each dog. I don't know that many dogs that have a heating and a cooling box and a place where they can receive fan mail."
Warren's not quite ready to mail her own letter, but she's getting used to the idea of Bodie as an entertainer.
"Who knows?" she says. "Bodie could help to show people how wonderful a dog can be, to make them think maybe they should adopt one and love it. He has a mission, and he goes about it very well."