That’s him in front of the entry foyer tank at Natural Encounters.
You may be scratching your head, as all you see is a blue volunteer tee shirt, khakis and a hat. Well, Paul is a little bit of a mystery… and he likes it that way.
But I can tell you this much: Paul is a volunteer who comes twice every week, and has been for the last four years. Among other things, he’s in charge of making all the meals for the fish in the Aquarium and Natural Encounters. But Paul is also is famous for his baking skills.
I think I hear you asking: Do fish have a sweet tooth?
No! But people do. And as the many of the zoo staff and volunteers will attest, Paul’s baked goods are the best. Though I imagine those in Paul’s immediate department would like this to be a well kept secret, it seems that word has spread. And folks from other areas of the zoo have been known to pilfer– er, sample–Paul’s homemade cookies.
Which are their favorites? Hard to say, as Paul has brought in at least one if not several bags of different, bite-sized cookies each day and tells me he has not repeated the same recipe, save once or twice, in all his time at the Zoo. If you do the math for 4 years of volunteering twice weekly that’s hundreds of different cookies made and consumed!
When I went in to meet Paul for this interview, it was a day he’d brought in three different kinds: Orange Oatmeal Raisin, Chocolate Diamonds, and Peanut Butter. I went for just one, then I had to try another, but told myself that was it. But he encouraged me not to leave until I’d tried them all. Really, the sacrifices you make for writing!
All kidding aside, the experience was much like tasting fine wine. There were subtleties in flavor and texture, as well as being pleasing to the eye. The oatmeal was oh-so tender and had the lightest hint of orange essence. Exquisite! The peanut butter was great — how can peanut butter not be? The chocolate cookies were cut into a diamond shape with a subtle sprinkling of multicolored dots on top and while quite thin, were somehow as moist and chewy as a thick brownie. I had no idea how he did it!
So how do the fish fare, if Paul takes care of human palates so well? Paul took me around and explained how each bank of tanks have a number and that corresponds with various sizes and colors of Tupperware containers. What he feeds an octopus might be very different than what he feeds an eel. Some species are fed more than once a day, and those meals may vary to provide all the needed nutrition. I was impressed as Paul spoke easily to me about each different sea animal in detail, covering far more than their diet — including their habits, personality, breeding patterns, the kind of water each needed, and their history at the Houston Zoo. There wasn’t a question I asked that he couldn’t answer.
When I trained as a docent, I remember thinking that the aquarium had to be one of the more difficult areas to run because each tank must maintain a delicate balance. Many elements need to be just right — temperature, water quality, plant life, complimentary co-mingling of species, cleaning and feeding. Paul takes to all that like a fish to water (I just had to say it!).
To feed the animals at the zoo you have to get in early. And Paul does. The Zoo’s general commissary delivers what’s needed on a daily basis to each section’s kitchen first thing in the morning. Then there’s cutting and measuring out each animal’s meal, which may be determined, among other things, by species, weight, general health needs and what’s found in their natural habitat. Then you either leave those prepared meals for the keepers to actually feed to them, as I did when I was a Carnivore Keepers Aid, or you may be able to assist in the feeding, as Paul does.
So you just might find Paul behind the piranha exhibit in Natural Encounters. The day we met, during a Meet the Keeper Talk, he stood above the tank and the fish knew he was there. They went from randomly floating to swimming rapidly and in a tight circle right in front of him. They know he’s the man with the goods.
I shivered at the idea of feeding piranhas, thinking of them from movies as flesh eating attack fish. Paul set me straight, “It’s a crock that piranhas are man-eaters! Those effects are staged.” While he informed me that they do have a natural trigger that involuntarily makes their jaw snaps anytime it hits something, natives swim in the rivers where piranhas are found all the time without incident. “Our very own keepers dive in the tank every two weeks to clean it,” Paul added, “and those fish go hide on the other side of the tank.” While I was reassured, I think I’ll stick to watching him feed them!
Paul credits his wife Pat, who is also a weekly volunteer, for getting him started at the Houston Zoo. When I asked what made him so devoted Paul said, “I enjoy it. I enjoy doing things where there’s a sense of accomplishment. You prepare the food and feed the fish and you feel you’ve done good. And if it weren’t a good crew of people,” he added, “I wouldn’t be here.”
I could not agree more. Those who I’ve met at the zoo have been among the nicest, most dedicated and knowledgeable folks I’ve ever met. Paul and Pat demonstrate how much they care for their zoo friends in many ways (as if mouth watering cookies weren’t enough), often hosting anything from Thanksgiving dinners to baby showers for their co-workers. And they even come in on Christmas to work so others can get home a little early. Paul and Pat probably don’t realize that they are key members in the very group they admire!
Besides volunteering at the zoo, Paul goes every other week to the blood center to donate a pint of blood… He is closing in on his 79th gallon!!! At 8 pints per gallon you can do the math on how often he has gone. The record is 200 gallons and he’s well on his way. Thankfully the piranhas aren’t taking any!
Please check back to learn a little more about Paul in the article I’ll post next about Pat… since it seems you can’t really talk about one without including the other. In the mean time, make sure to be on the look out for a tall, thin man feeding the fish. It just might be our Paul.
Post written by Rochelle Joseph, Houston Zoo Docent
More Posts Like This!
- Photo of the Day: May 8 Skunk Anemone Fish...
- Meerkat Mob’s Keepers The meerkats kits are continuing to display exceptional cuteness and are ranging farther and farther around their exhibit. The whole...
- Otterly Fantastic Facts Otters in the wild spend 40-60% of their day foraging for food. They are carnivores and may eat fish, crustaceans,...
- Enrichment Day is for Humans Too! In my short time here at the Houston Zoo, I’ve been amazed at the energy and enthusiasm that goes into...
- Jeffery was in Savoca, Italy! Week 1 Wrap Up! Were you surprised to see that Jeffery has made it to Sicily during his travels? I think you’ll be impressed...