[Congressional Record Volume 160, Number 41 (Wednesday, March 12, 2014)]
[Senate]
[Pages S1575-S1576]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]




                        TRIBUTE TO DAVID KESSLER

  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, earlier this year, after 39 years of public 
service, most recently as the National Zoo's keeper for the Small 
Mammal House, David Kessler turned in his keys and turned toward 
retirement. He has dedicated two-thirds of his life to caring for the 
howler monkeys, lemurs, and shrews living at the zoo.
  In addition to feeding the animals and cleaning out their enclosures, 
Kessler spent his days watching, closely observing any changes in 
appetite or behavior that might suggest something was amiss. He 
remembers the endless hours he spent with William, a gibbon, after 
William's traumatizing experience at the hospital that left him afraid 
of humans and ostracized from his parents. Kessler holds on to a photo 
of William sleeping on his shoulder.
  At the zoo, it wasn't just about Kessler caring for the animals; it 
was about connecting with them. They kept him as much as he kept them. 
He admits he wouldn't be the same person if it weren't for the animals. 
Their connection has kept him in the moment and happy.
  I was touched to read a moving profile of David's career and of his 
last day in the Small Mammal House. His love for the small mammals for 
which he cared is evident. Health may have rushed his retirement, but 
by any measure his was a career spent in service to some of the most 
interesting creatures visited at our Nation's zoo. I ask unanimous 
consent to have printed in the Record this touching profile from the 
Washington Post of a career well worth celebrating.
  There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

               [From the Washington Post, March 6, 2014]

          National Zoo's Longest-Serving Keeper Bids Farewell

                         (By Rachel Manteuffel)

       On his last night as the longest-serving keeper at the 
     National Zoo, David S. Kessler checks and rechecks the locks 
     on the enclosures in the Small Mammal House. He collects his 
     farewell gifts and mementos and softly narrates to himself 
     what needs to be done. ``Okay, lights out here, good. Hi, 
     babies!'' he says to Reuben and Jolla, the howler monkey 
     couple. ``Aagh, g'night, sweetheart. Did I wake you up? I'm 
     sorry.'' He checks the seven timers on the lights, saying 
     ``timer'' aloud at each. He's not thinking, he says, about 
     how this January night is the last time after 39 years, two-
     thirds of his life, at the zoo. Now Gus the rock hyrax--who 
     looks like a four-pound guinea pig but is more closely 
     related to the elephant--catches his attention in the dark. 
     It's as if the little guy knows something is up.
       Considering the personal magnitude of the occasion, 
     everything is going fine as Kessler prepares to walk away 
     from the animals who he says rescued him, who might just have 
     saved his sanity.
       ``Gus is sticking his head out--'' Kessler notes, then 
     stops. He sobs once, his knees buckle, and he drops face-down 
     on the floor of his House.
       Earlier in the day, Kessler talked about his career. ``I 
     like to work with animals that nobody thinks about,'' he 
     said. Small mammals, it's true, are not headliners. Hey, 
     kids, let's go see the shrews! In the past few years, Kessler 
     has been lavishing his attention on the naked mole rat, an 
     animal that resembles a flaccid penis with buck teeth. He 
     always has a favorite weirdo. He has been the red panda guy, 
     the house shrew guy, the Prevost's squirrel guy and the 
     moonrat guy. Moonrats have no natural predators, Kessler says 
     with admiration and a little pride, because they smell so 
     bad.
       There aren't a lot of jobs like zookeeper. Technically, 
     Kessler's job has been biologist, but the caretaking--the 
     keeping--is what he loves best.
       ``It's the care of living things. To keep, that's a 
     beautiful thing. The longer you watch an animal or a person 
     just doing their thing, the more you feel connected to 
     them.''
       A keeper feeds the animals and mucks out their enclosures, 
     but the real work is observation, watching their bodies and 
     behavior closely for subtle changes that mean something is 
     wrong. And figuring out how to fix it.
       Take the lemurs, smallish primates with doglike faces, some 
     of the most social creatures in the Small Mammal House. 
     Cortes and Coronado are recent acquisitions--Kessler drove 
     them down from the Bronx Zoo in his Honda Civic--who are 
     being carefully phased in with Molly, who has been the sole 
     lemur at the Small Mammal House since her mate died. The 
     keepers noticed the new lemurs were keeping low to the 
     ground, un-lemurlike behavior. Lemurs are at home in 
     treetops, and the damp ground was irritating one of Cortes's 
     paws. Perhaps Molly was being territorial. They would wait 
     and see, maybe give Molly more attention. And keep watching.
       Kessler and his colleagues would eventually determine Molly 
     wasn't behaving aggressively toward the other two lemurs. A 
     volunteer noticed it was the rock hyraxes antagonizing Cortes 
     and Coronado. The rock hyraxes were moved to a different 
     exhibit and, voila, the lemurs returned to the trees.
       Lemurs are comparatively easy to read. You can spend less 
     than half an hour watching Molly and feel as if you almost 
     understand her thought process. You can become so absorbed 
     you forget who and what you are, and that you are watching. 
     It can become like reading a novel, the closest humans can 
     get to having someone else's consciousness for a change.
       It took a year and a half in the reptile house, but 
     eventually Kessler could tell when something was wrong with a 
     snake.
       He's about average height, and he has had a beard most of 
     his 59 years, but not now. He wears khakis and polos to work, 
     with big rubber boots, disposable gloves and face masks. 
     Primates can pass each other disease easily, he says. A 
     keeper's herpes cold sore can kill a gorilla.
       In conversation, Kessler tosses out bits of philosophy, 
     science, novels, plays--knowledge you should have, if you had 
     time to read, and he acts as if you probably know them, too.
       He knows each of the hundred-odd residents of the Small 
     Mammal House by their six-digit reference number. He has also 
     published or co-written about a dozen research papers. 
     Written three unpublished novels. He once went on a radio 
     show to compose sonnets on demand. He mentors high school 
     students and oversees their research projects. Every year 
     Kessler takes off work to see as many shows in the Capital 
     Fringe Festival as possible, since they often run past 
     midnight and his work would start at 6:30 a.m. He spends an 
     hour a day on the treadmill. He lives in Silver Spring and 
     has been married for 30 years--he still writes his wife, 
     Patricia, sonnets. He smiles when he happens upon a picture 
     of her unexpectedly. They have a grown son, Ben, who co-owns 
     an urban farming company in Charlottesville.
       When friends asked, he officiated their 2006 wedding, 
     working with them to write a personalized service, complete 
     with sermon. Kessler took lessons from an actor friend on how 
     not to cry. He always cried at weddings but didn't want to 
     distract while performing one. He was asked to officiate 
     another wedding in Rockville, even though he was racing to 
     New Jersey and back to be with his dying father. His father 
     died. Kessler made the arrangements so his mother and sisters 
     wouldn't have to, then drove from New Jersey to the rehearsal 
     dinner that night. When another friend needed him to, he was 
     the one to officially identify her husband's body.
       For a while he fronted a calypso-reggae band. He is 
     universally beloved among colleagues and friends--
     suspiciously so, if you are a person suspicious of that sort 
     of thing.
       Kessler's last ``Meet a Mammal'' demonstration for 
     zoogoers, on his last day at work, was attended by Linda 
     Hopkins, a zoo electrician who'd known him 11 years and 
     brought him a bottle of wine, and Susie Kane, who had never 
     met him, but she had heard he was leaving, and in 2005 he had 
     kindly answered her e-mailed question about building a naked 
     mole rat habitat for her dorm room.
       In December, Scientific American declared the naked mole 
     rat Vertebrate of the Year. He is a happy man who's leaving 
     the job he loves.
       He's retiring young because of his psoriatic arthritis. 
     It's much better these days----he gets injections of 
     monoclonal antibodies. But it is progressive. ``I only have 
     so much health left,'' he says, and zookeeping is physically 
     taxing. He wants to travel with his wife, and write.
       A loved one once told him that he would probably be happier 
     as a hermit. He wasn't insulted.
       ``I'm more comfortable by myself and with animals than I am 
     with people,'' he says. ``I

[[Page S1576]]

     don't feel like I fit around people.'' Around people, he is 
     giving a sort of performance. ``But an honest performance.'' 
     Sometimes he loves it, performing, fronting a band, 
     officiating at weddings. ``There's tension, but fun tension, 
     like scary movies. I like the attention and the tension.''
       So ask to watch him work, ask him to ignore you, and it 
     doesn't work. That's a private part of him, reserved for 
     himself and the animals. He'll start offering you books or 
     telling you stories, and if you patiently sit around, 
     pretending to use a computer in his office until he forgets 
     you're there, he will not forget you're there. He will grow 
     slightly agitated and need some alone time with the lemurs 
     after you're gone.
       His last day is a whirl of well-wishers, friends, leftover 
     food from the party the day before, paperwork, gifts, tears 
     and hugs. ``I don't like to be touched,'' he says to one 
     hugger, ``but being hugged is fine.''
       He hadn't been assigned to do the lines that morning--the 
     shift that starts before sunrise, when the animals get their 
     breakfast and their enclosures are cleaned out. He had e-
     mails to read, but people kept coming by for hugs and 
     predicting he'll be back. He says no, never coming back. He 
     seems to mean it.
       Even friends who aren't physically present are distracting 
     him. ``Happy birthday to you,'' he sings into a friend's 
     voice mail, gargling the last line. ``Happy Jimmy Page's 
     birthday, happy your birthday, happy your aunt's birthday 
     yesterday.'' He attends to the needs of the humans for hours, 
     their need to say goodbye, to say they would miss him. He 
     almost always has a specific memory or thought for each, as 
     he thanks them and assures them he won't miss this place and, 
     after some time, they won't miss him.
       He's proudest of his work with William the gibbon in 1978. 
     William was a juvenile living with his parents when he got 
     stuck in the enclosure and broke his arm. He was in the 
     hospital so long--so long in the company of humans--that his 
     parents rejected him when he got back. And because his 
     hospital experience was scary and painful, people now made 
     William fearful and angry. He was kept out of the exhibit for 
     a while, off by himself.
       Kessler sat in his enclosure each day, doing nothing except 
     being nonthreatening. No mask, no gloves. Back then, this was 
     acceptable zookeeper behavior--interaction not initiated or 
     welcomed by the animal.
       William would brachiate around in the farthest corner from 
     Kessler, swinging limb to limb, elaborately ignoring the 130-
     pound human in the room. Over the course of a week, William 
     came closer and closer, until his feet would brush his 
     keeper's head as he swung by. Eventually he would put his 
     head on Kessler's sweatshirt and go to sleep. There's a 
     picture with William's arms around Kessler's head.
       One thing he will miss from the zoo: watching the howler 
     monkeys eat. Jolla likes beets but not the squiggly end of 
     the taproot. She will pick it up, put it down, eat something 
     else, return as if to see if the bit she doesn't like is 
     still there. Maybe it got better! You can learn so much about 
     optimism from her, Kessler says. ``People tell me she's just 
     stupid,'' he says, shaking his head at that human stupidity.
       Twelve years ago, Kessler walked with a cane, couldn't turn 
     his head and could sleep only an hour and a half at a time 
     because of his arthritis.
       Thirty-six years ago he called his psychiatrist to say he 
     had everything ready to commit a tidy, no-fuss suicide, just 
     a hose and towels in a car exhaust pipe. His doctor had him 
     hospitalized for four days.
       Then, at 27, he taught himself to be happy. ``You learn 
     from evolution, from animals. If you have a strategy that 
     doesn't work, change your strategy.''
       His new strategy was to avoid introspection. Completely. 
     ``Working with animals made me start thinking about other 
     things more. And when I was able to start thinking about 
     other animals more, I was able to include humans in that 
     group.'' Understanding William the gibbon, for example, and 
     building his trust, was a big ``breakthrough with myself.''
       ``The real change was Patricia,'' he says. ``But I probably 
     couldn't be with her if I hadn't been working with animals.''
       According to dominant psychology and philosophy, 
     introspection is the key to living right. But Kessler's 
     unexamined life is the only kind he wants to live.
       For obvious reasons, it's difficult for him to explain how 
     he stopped being introspective. Working with animals is one 
     way, but there were others. When he worked alone off-exhibit, 
     he narrated his novels in his head. He noticed that closing 
     certain doors in the building was musical, producing two 
     notes, a seventh interval: the first two notes of a song from 
     ``West Side Story": ``Somewhere.''
       Sometimes he needs to go alone to see if Molly wants a 
     belly rub. Lemurs and Reuben the howler are the only ones in 
     the Small Mammal House to much enjoy the touch of a human. 
     But lemurs are not pets. They did not evolve to be companions 
     for humans, to cheer us up or give us something to love. 
     Molly indicates if she wants a belly rub, not unlike a dog, 
     and a keeper may administer it, but the belly rub is entirely 
     for the animal. That's important to Kessler.
       It turns out Molly wants a belly rub on Kessler's last day, 
     after he has finally gotten rid of all the people and sneaks 
     off to see her.
       Afterward, he keeps putting off leaving, until his shift 
     stretches to 11 hours. And because the rock hyraxes have been 
     moved away from the lemurs they were scaring, here's Gus, too 
     present-focused to understand ``goodbye'' but seeming to say 
     goodbye, popping his head up, watching the keeper leave for 
     the last time, and the keeper--finished with crying, hugs and 
     goodbyes with people--goes down, face first.
       Suzanne Hough, the volunteer coordinator, is leaving with 
     him, and she joins him on the floor. ``I'm sorry, I'm 
     sorry,'' he says. ``No. No, no, it's okay.''
       After a moment, Hough speaks. ``The floor can be tricky 
     this time of night,'' she says, generously. She helps him up. 
     He's fine, as far as he lets anyone know.
       Moments later he is calm again, and performing. ``Well, 
     that was a surprise!'' he says breezily. Hough and Kessler 
     walk out into the cold night.
       Inside the House, the hundred-odd residents have no sense 
     that their time as keepers of David S. Kessler has come to an 
     end.

                          ____________________