Alone with the animals, before the tumult


A quiet realm greets Kim Todd as she arrives at work. Schoona, a green sea turtle rescued from frigid Canadian waters after a wrong turn somewhere south, glides by in the big tank at the Vancouver Aquarium. The lurking caimans, cousins of alligators, watch her pass, breakfast but for a glass panel in the way. Outside in the pools, the ghostly white beluga whales transform into shimmering blue figures as they submerge.

It is 8 a.m. In 90 minutes, the doors of the aquarium will be unlocked to the excited squeals of children, the oohing of adults and the patient patter of aquarium guides. For now, though, the fish patrol their tanks in silence.

Todd, 33, passes the sea creatures, intent on fluttery things. Behind the screened doors in the aquarium's tropical zone, a slice of Amazon forest awaits. Hidden among the green leaves of the transplanted tropical palm and coffee and spice trees are 20 species of birds, mammals and insects, from shy two-toed sloths to hissing cockroaches.

Todd's job is to feed them. An animal care specialist, she came with a bachelor's degree in biology from eastern British Columbia to do this.

"It's really the dream job for someone like me," she said. She likes animals &

big ones, small ones, no matter. They don't need to have brown eyes; even the fish fascinate her, she said.

8:10 a.m. Todd has laid out bowls in a morning routine familiar to many households. She pours cereal, in this case special nuggets for the ibises. She sprinkles a generous helping of krill over the food, which helps the flamingo-like birds keep their scarlet color. The ibises will dunk their food in the pond, like slippery donuts, before gulping it down.

She chops up a fruit salad for the tiny tanagers: dragon fruit, kiwi, pears, mangoes. She dollops a helping of vegetable medley, peas and corn, into the dish.

"It's better than I eat sometimes," Todd said. Every week, the aquarium gets a load of fresh fruit from the local grocery.

The Brazilian teal gets special duck food. The parakeets will feast on raisins, blueberries and cranberries, along with birdseed and crunchy pellets that are added like croutons to their meals. The sloths have a buffet of potatoes &

red, yellow, sweet and russet &

all thoughtfully sliced by Todd in a shape they can manage. It's not all native food: "The sloths love tofu," she said.

At 8:20, her curly hair tied back, Todd pulls her cart loaded with dishes into the sultry rain-forest gallery. Colleagues are spraying trees with a hose, a tepid mimic of the cool Vancouver shower now playing on the roof.

Todd uses a 12-foot pole to lower feeding baskets from high in the branches. She replaces the empty bowls with filled ones. A pair of blue-grey tanagers spring immediately to the lip of a basket for their breakfast. The ibis pair, though usually found stalking in the shallows of an artificial pool, are hiding one, two or three adolescents in a nest they have built in the branches above. The adults parade down the branches with a haughty impatience. They stop midway down to help themselves from the dish hung for the sloth, who this morning is being slothful and is still asleep.

A colleague of Todd's brings in Gino, the resident parrot, who prefers to sleep in another room. The gentle chirps and short melodies in the small forest are suddenly overcome by Gino's raucous call. "Mawk! Mawk!" he hollers. With a grin, Todd said it means hello.

At 8:35 she hops over a railing to help a red-footed tortoise roll off its back. "Sometimes they need a little shove."

This is a nice time for the staff, alone with the animals before the crowds arrive. Todd said she welcomes the visitors, however. "I like the fact that people are coming to see them for the first time. They may become interested and care for animals more," she observes.

As she speaks, an occasional rising flake of color brushes past her face. There are thousands of butterflies in the Amazon display, disrupting the linear logic of the scene with their jerky, zigzag flight. Todd feeds them, too. From a bottle of sugar water, she fills small plastic balls &

bright orange to attract the butterflies. Within moments, the butterflies land, folding their muraled wings as if saying grace.

At 8:50, she adds to their numbers. Reaching inside a display case where butterflies have emerged from cocoons, unfolding new wings, she carefully nabs a dozen of the young with two fingers, then releases them into the air of the gallery.

At 9:10, twenty minutes before the aquarium doors open, her first round of feeding chores is done. "Now I do the dishes," she said, referring to the used bowls she has collected.

At 9:30, the cashiers upstairs step up to the counters. The first visitors head for the marquee attractions, the racing dolphins, the now-chattering belugas, the adorable sea otters that bring the crowds. But soon some families drift into the Amazon gallery, where they find the creatures well fed and Todd is already tucked behind the scenes grabbing her own bite to eat.

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