Sick and Fired

Former curator Karl Peterson has been shut out of the zoo, and he wants to know why

Mr. Karl H. Peterson, age 41, walked into the office of the Houston Press in May 1998 and started telling his story to the receptionist. Karl's arms were bulked up and covered with tattoos of Gila monsters and Guatemalan palm vipers. He had a ZZ Top beard, long, stringy hair and the intense focus of any number of the obsessively aggrieved who arrive unannounced at this office clutching coffee-stained manila file folders full of "documentation" and a righteous thirst to see the truth of their story unveiled. Although Karl was there to see anyone at all and nobody in particular, the receptionist called the newest reporter on staff up to meet him. Punting apparent weirdos to new hires is journalism's version of hazing.

Karl talked for well over an hour. He related something Byzantine and convoluted about his mistreatment at the hands of his former employers, the Houston Zoo. He was obviously smart, well-read and intellectually strong, but he also seemed perhaps a little unbalanced, a little too tied to his idea of principle, a little too ready to believe in conspiracy.

I took notes as best I could, photocopied a pile of his papers, told him I'd be in touch and stashed everything in a hanging file tabbed "Zoo Psycho." I didn't think Karl was actually psychotic in any medical sense, just that he was one of those people so caught up in their mission that untangling actual fact and gaining perspective on details long before blown out of any reliable context seemed a fruitless effort. There may well have been a kernel of truth in his complaint. There usually is. But it looked like it was going to be an awful lot of effort to prove that one guy got screwed, which, after all, happens every day.

These early impressions are important only because one year later it's starting to look like Karl -- like someone every day -- did get screwed. And he got screwed, it seems, as a direct result of people who took one look, weren't quite sure what to make of what they saw and filed Karl Peterson away -- wrongly, it now seems -- as the Zoo Psycho.

Karl grew up the son of a cop in Los Angeles. He attended El Camino Community College in Gardena, California, for two years studying biological sciences and industrial arts. Then he jumped to the University of Houston, where he spent another two years studying biological sciences, literature and technical writing. He was a herpetology freak, an impassioned student of reptiles and amphibians.

His first zoo job was a nine-month stint as a bottom-rung animal keeper at the San Antonio Zoo's Department of Batrachology and Herpetology. Then again he jumped to Houston, as a keeper in the same department at the Houston Zoo. That was 1977. In 1983 he was promoted to senior keeper at Houston. And then in 1991, skipping the supervisor level altogether, he was promoted to curator of the department.

The steady climb up the ladder in Houston was a rarity in the business. Curatorial positions at zoos are similar to first-chair violin gigs with symphony orchestras. People tend to hold those jobs till they drop, and applicants for promotion are resigned to the fact that skipping from zoo to zoo as positions become available is the only way to move up. Karl Peterson never skipped from zoo to zoo because, he says, he didn't care to move up. He just liked his job. When jobs above him came open at his zoo, he just happened to be the best candidate. Fourteen years after he started, Karl became management.

He was, by most accounts, an odd fit with management, a hands-on curator and an exceptionally wide-ranging thinker in his field. Between 1979 and 1996 he published 43 papers with titles such as "Conspecific and Self-Envenomation in Snakes" and "The Effect of Toe-Clipping on Houston Toad (Bufo houstonensis)" in publications with such titles as Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society and Evolutionary Theory. Since 1982 he has been the studbook keeper for the International Aruba Island Rattlesnake.

Gordon Schuett, Ph.D., assistant professor of integrative biology at Arizona State University West in Phoenix, has collaborated with Karl on studies of the Gila monster and invited him to organize the zoo component of an international symposium on pit vipers.

"Karl does excellent work. He's an excellent thinker. For a person where publications aren't part of their curriculum, he's done it on his own with his own resources, for the most part, and has published some really insightful pieces, not only in herpetology, but in evolutionary biology. As a person I think very highly of him. I have a lot of very good opinions about his intellectual capacity. And as a curator as well."

Alan Kardon, supervisor of the reptile and amphibian department at the San Antonio Zoo, and a sometime co-publisher of articles with Karl, says that his friend "had a very strong reputation throughout the zoo community, especially involving captive husbandry and reproduction." "His specialty has been montane reptiles, meaning reptiles from high elevations," he says. "There's a species called the Bothriechis rowleyi, and those have only been bred at the Houston Zoo while he was there and at his private facility. There have been fewer than 11 ever collected, period, and he has those on loan courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Campbell at the University of Texas in Arlington. That should give you an idea of Karl's reputation, too. Karl established the mandarin rat snake program when he was at the zoo. That's a snake that always did poorly in captivity. He was able to acclimate them and start breeding them. And it was actually through the work that he did and the zoo did that established the protocol for keeping that species throughout other zoos and in the private sector."

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