Attica Park “The Zoological Park at Spata Is Not a Show,” Says Jean-Jacques Lesueur
Before you set off for Attica Park at Spata, near Athens International Airport, view Attica Zoo through the eyes of the man who dreamt its creation, and was able to make it come true with the help of Co-owner Rudy Rallis. Remarkably clean, functional, with interesting information for each animal, and directional signage that won’t let you get lost, Attica Zoo Park is definitely the most fun way to spend your morning.
Hush! Everything is so peaceful here. Who are we to disturb the sound of animal innocence?
By Denise Rhonda
Meeting Mr. Jean-Jacques Lesueur in his Attica Zoo office is like entering an Indiana Jones scene. During the interview, for the first time in my life, I see a peacock coasting down from up high. It makes two unsuccessful attempts to enter through a closed window. (Oops!) Attica Park Managing Director’s cell phone rings with the Tarzan yell. In a totally contrasting solemn tone of voice, JJL informs the caller, “We see things differently here. We run educational presentations. We don’t do shows.”
I ask Mr. Lesueur what inspired him to create the zoological park at Spata, Athens.
“Ever since I was a kid I had a passion for animals. All my travels were to forests and parks in Africa, in America … Greece lacked a zoological park, and I thought I would do something that I loved, something that was missing in Greece. ”
̵ Do people have a clue as to how a zoological park should run?
“To a great extent, they don’t, but little by little, they are getting knowledgeable. At least those who come to Attica Park see that this place does not reflect the pathetic conditions they might remember from some bird or animal cages at the National Park or the one at New Philadelphia. Some have still similar notions. Some people are also under the impression that there can’t be a zoological park in Greece such as those operating abroad. And of course, when they come here, they see that not only does it exist, but also is much better in some aspects compared to international zoos. Animal-care and zoo structural and operational standards are equal if not higher against other zoological parks abroad. So they come to realize the situation in Greece is changed for the better. Respect for Nature, animals, and ecology is somewhat new in Greece. But it’s something kids learn at school nowadays. They learn about ecology, about environment protection and so forth. And when you come to a park and see the animals in their natural habitat ̵ well, that’s a big word ̵ anyway, in a proper environment, you get involved. So when people leave the park, we hope they have gotten the message that we need to protect animals.”
̵ Are animals born here at the Attica Zoological Park?
“Lots of them. Birds, dolphins, wolves, tigers, lions, giraffes, zebras, penguins, snakes, sea turtles… all animals procreate here.”
̵ Is the procreation rate at the Attica Park lower or higher than in the wilderness?
“In some cases, animals procreate in much higher numbers at the park. Living conditions are ideal here at the park. The animals are provided with veterinary care and proactive veterinary care.”
̵ Is it true that captive animals do not conceive easily?
“No. In proper living conditions, animals procreate normally. Besides, you can’t go to Africa, Asia or South America to catch animals anymore. Those times are long gone. There’s no way you can do it nowadays. The current legislation is such that does not permit importing animals from their wild habitats. Of course, zoological parks operate under a special legal framework, but still that can only grant you the right to take an animal out of its natural habitat only if you are to preserve an endangered species: when there is only a limited population at zoos, and that is not enough for the species to be preserved. Then and only then you are entitled to import certain animals.”
̵ Where did you take the first animals for Attica Zoo from?
“From other zoological parks in Europe or the American continent. These animals were conceived and born in a controlled environment. You don’t take animals from nature anymore.”
̵ So, in effect, you multiply animal populations.”
“Of course. The surplus goes to other zoos.”
̵̵ …Because you cannot host but a limited number of animals?”
“Naturally. A zoo cannot host ten or fifteen lions!”
̵̵ What is the total area provided for the animals at Attica Park?
“The total area of Attica Park is 20 hectares. Taking out the walking paths and facilities for visitors, the animals occupy one third of the area.”
̵̵ Which animals are the most difficult to care for?
“Birds, some serpents, dolphins… The difficulty has to do with their management. Serpents need a warm and humid environment, which is difficult some times of the year. You have to provide proper conditions. That goes for birds, too. Some birds eat insects, other birds eat fruit, and yet others eat seeds. Some birds need special food supplements, for instance, flamingos and some other species. This is what makes care for some animals more demanding. A zebra feeds on alfalfa as does a horse, which is simple. Of course, it will have the vet’s care, but its management is easy. The same is true for antelopes and camels. Care for these animals is easy. Dolphins, on the other hand, need fresh fish, special care, they need sea water. Difficulties have to do with a suitable living environment, and proper nutrition. Some animals may be more rare, but easier to manage. For example a tiger, or any feline for that matter, is relatively easy to manage.”
̵̵ All they need is their meat chunks…
“Well, it’s not just the meat chunks. You also give them vitamin supplements at times, but that’s relatively easy.”
̵̵ How easy is it for an Attica Zoo keeper to feed the animals?
“In some cases it’s easy, in other cases it’s difficult. With certain animals you have no contact. If the animal is in the cage, the keeper feeds it from outside and vice versa.”
So there is no real friendship between the animals and their keepers?
“There’s a lot of friendship and a lot of contact with some animals, and none with other animals.”
̵ I imagine there is no contact with felines…
“No contact whatsoever, with the exception of some felines we had to bottle feed, as they were abandoned by their mothers.”
̵ In those cases is there friendship between the animal and some particular people?
“Friendship with these animals has its limits. It doesn’t mean that you go in and caress a jaguar. A jaguar may recognize you, and come to you when it sees you, but you have to stay outside. Big animals cannot be trusted as friends.”
̵ Even if you’ve bottle fed a feline?
“You’re close to them up to a certain point of their development. From then onwards you keep them at a distance. Big animals are dangerous. You never know how an animal may react. They never lose their wild instincts. You need to handle them with caution.”
̵ What is your best advice to visitors to avoid harming the animals at the park?
“Not feeding the animals, ever. The only animals they can feed are water turtles, through a feeding device administering their special food. Rabbits and little goats can also be fed at the farm, as children touch them and play with them. Other than that, visitors are not allowed to feed the animals.
̵̵ Not even birds?
“No. All animals require a special kind of diet. Take monkeys, for instance. Some people do not respect the animals’ feeding process. Some think they can take gum out of their mouths and give it to the monkey. We have seen people giving lit cigarettes to monkeys. We’ve seen a lot here. Sometimes, we have to deal with extreme behaviors from visitors. Mind you, animals may change their behaviors accordingly. When an animal gets used to eating chips and cheese puffs offered by visitors, it turns to a beggar. So when the visitor comes and expects to see the animal behave naturally in its environment, playing with other monkeys, instead, they will see an animal extending a hand to beg. This is what irrelevant feeding by visitors leads to. Besides, there is a hygiene issue for people and for the animals themselves. The animals carry diseases. So do we. Then there are also safety issues here. If an animal is cute, this doesn’t mean that when the cutie offers its hand you can take it. When you give an animal something to eat, it can pull your arm towards itself and tear it off. When we believe there is such danger, we alert visitors with signs. And yet, despite all the warning signs, you still see people feeding the animals.”
̵̵̵ How do you deal with visitors feeding animals where they are not supposed to?
“In most cases, a polite remark is sufficient. However, there are cases when we have taken visitors out of the park. Quite often, other visitors reprimand the feeder, and let us know. We also have some of our own people patrolling the park, as unfortunately, wrong attitudes die hard.”
̵̵̵ What’s the funniest incident you remember at Attica Zoological Park?
“Most usually the big laughs come from visitors. For instance, you see a Dad stopping by the vultures place, and the kid goes, “Hey, Dad, what’s this?” And his Dad says, “It’s a pelican.” That is to say, people do not read signs. That we see all the time, and it’s funny. Even adults do that with each other. You see grown-ups passing by a tucan, and asking one another what the bird is, only conclude it’s a parrot. For the keeper, and for anyone who knows, this is funny. Alas, some visitors come to the zoological park, pay for the ticket and sometimes they don’t receive all the information we offer on the panels at each animal space. They don’t grab the opportunity to educate themselves in a field of knowledge other than their own. Well, that’s not a pelican. It’s a vulture!”
…The truth is it’s so easy to fall into the trap of a wild guess before reading the label. I myself made an uneducated guess on a ‘zebra’ before I read it was a Somali wild ass (my excuse being its zebra-like legs). However, all panels at Attica Zoological Park provide very interesting information. Even names themselves are fun to read. Visiting the birds’ places (we’re not talking about cages here, but if you insist on calling them that, those would be a bird’s Hilton suite), go say hello to the Secretary bird (Sagitarius serpentarius). I couldn’t help a connotation noticing its long smooth legs, and the latest trend feather hair extensions.
̵̵̵̵ Are some species hosted at Attica Park the only ones housed at European zoos?
“Yes, the Coleto mynahs. If I’m not mistaken, this bird is only housed at one more park in Europe. In birds, we have some very rare species. We house the third or fourth biggest bird collection in the world. Some of our bird species are housed only in two or three other zoological parks, meaning they are quite rare. I am in a position to know that, since Attica Zoological Park is a member of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria). This association certifies zoological parks. Among the 1500 zoological parks in Europe only 305 are certified.”
̵̵̵̵ What are the membership requirements for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria?
“To become a member of EAZA you have to meet a number of standards. These standards have to do with animal management, what you offer them, veterinary care, educational programs for visitors, safety… You get scrutinized as a temporary member for a couple of years, during which time people from EAZA come and check you out without you knowing. And when they see you have met their standards, they make you a full member. Attica Zoological Park has been a full member of EAZA since 2003. By 2001 we were a tentative member. International associations of zoos and aquaria fulfilling these standards share a data base called ICIS (International Species Information System). Entering ICIS you see which zoos also have the animals you have at your park.”
HEY! A peacock is hovering outside the window. After two failed attempts at breaking and entering it flies away. (Wow!)
̵̵̵̵ What are the chances of you walking at the park and get struck on the head by a peacock, or a vulture?
“There are no vultures flying here. We only have the educational presentation of birds of prey.”
̵̵̵̵̵ …During which vultures actually fly in the air?
“Tey do, but these birds are trained.”
̵̵̵̵ Trained not to come close to visitors?
“Birds are trained to stop only at certain points or go to the trainer’s glove. They do not approach other people. They have no reason to do so.”
̵̵̵̵ Besides, they are being fed. Do they also hunt for themselves?
“We give them baits. You throw something in the air, and they catch it. In the cage they are fed on the ground, and while in the air, we throw them baits for their training. It depends of the bird. Some birds do not catch their prey in the air, only on the ground.”
̵̵̵̵ So you train birds and animals to feed in the zoo the same way they would in the wild?
“This is exactly what we are trying to do with educational presentations. Show visitors animal behavior in the wild.”
̵̵̵̵ Do bears at Attica Zoo hibernate?
“Never. Hibernation has to do with the change of climatic conditions, but mainly it has to do with nutrition. In winter time, a bear living in its natural habitat cannot find food. So it eats proactively. Eating, eating, eating, collecting fat, and then finding a safe hole to protect itself in, it hibernates. It stays there for three or four months asleep. Here on the other hand, it does not hibernate because it gets to eat. Only when the female is ready to give birth, it sort of demi-hibernates. Sometimes a few days before giving birth, and two months after having her cubs, she stays put in her place without ever coming out. The thing is the cubs are altricial, not sufficiently developed to survive. The bear weighs 200 kilos, and she gives birth to a cub (or two or three cubs) of 400 grams. When the bear cub is born is completely hairless, and has its eyes closed for one of two months. During that time, the cub goes to mom’s nipples and breastfeeds, while mom is practically napping. And little by little, the baby bear grows up, its body grows fur, and one day it’s ready for survival.”
̵̵̵̵ Do you get real close to dolphins?
̵̵̵̵ Does a dolphin become friends with its keepers?
“Dolphins recognize someone by sight. People working with dolphins rotate. You don’t get to work with the same dolphin all the time. In that way dolphins get to know all keepers at the park. I have worked with the dolphins myself. Certainly there is friendship among us. So is with felines or some parrots.”
̵̵̵̵ The difference being that dolphins are never dangerous.”
“True. You get in the water with them, no problem. First of all, they are third or fourth generation born in a park environment.”
̵̵̵̵ Is there something that could annoy dolphins, and visitors should avoid?
“Like all animals, they don’t like some abrupt movements. Or a foreign object in the water…”
̵̵̵̵ So we shouldn’t throw anything in the water?
“Dolphins are curious for whatever drops in the water. If someone throws in an object, the dolphin may swallow it. Or it may get stuck in its blowhole. That’s what happens in the sea. Some dolphins lose their lives when they see a plastic bag. They go near it to see what it is, play with it, and then may swallow it, or the plastic bag may block their blowhole, and kill them.”
̵̵̵̵̵ How often do you renew water at the Attica Zoo dolphinarium?
“Every four hours.”
̵̵̵̵̵ With fresh water from the sea?”
“No, it’s a closed circuit. The water gets cleaned and renewed. Ozone, proteins….»
̵̵̵̵̵ Have you named the dolphins at Attica Park? Do they listen to their names?
“Each dolphin has its name, but they don’t listen to names. They recognize voices, not words. They recognize sounds. We use a special whistle.”
̵̵̵̵̵ …To show the dolphin something is good or bad
“There is nothing good or bad here. We whistle to let a dolphin know it has completed an activity. We are trying to show all natural dolphin behaviors relating to their fishing, swimming, breathing, and playing. In nature, a dolphin jumps out of the water. If you go to other countries doing shows with dolphins, they make them play with balls, throw a ball in the basket, hold a brush and paint. At Attica Park we don’t do that. Games are only there to show the dolphins’ hearing and sight capabilities. The only game we have is show a ball out of the water, and the dolphin being in the water, sees very clearly what’s out. So we throw a ball in the air, and the dolphin emerges from the water and hits it, because a dolphin sees everything outside the water with amazing eyesight. Only then do we use a ball. In no other case.”
̵̵̵̵̵ Dolphins like that kind of game, anyway.
“There are different ways to play with a dolphin. At other zoological parks they have the dolphin hold the ball on its snout. We don’t like that. If you go to Spain or Lithuania you will see that, because they think of dolphins differently. There are a lot of dolphinaria in Spain, and maybe it’s a matter of competition.”
At a zoological park in Mexico there is a special ‘cage” with mirror walls. As you get closer trying to see the animal through the mirror, you only read the sign over your face, “Here you see the only animal in nature destroying its natural habitat.”