February 27, 2020
Dress for Success
- as seen by -Avishai Shuter
When you walk around any of the Wildlife Conservation Society parks today, you’ll likely see zookeepers going about their business in distinctive uniforms. Breathable polo shirts paired with forest green, water- and tear-resistant pants or shorts, and heavy-duty boots have been standard issue for a number of years. However, a look back at the history of WCS reveals many variations of the wild animal keeper uniform.
Long-time employee, Peter Brazaitis, who started his career as a zookeeper at WCS’s Bronx Zoo World of Reptiles in 1954, recounts in his memoir, You Belong in a Zoo!: Tales from a Lifetime Spent with Cobras, Crocs, and Other Creatures, that zookeepers at the time received khaki uniforms when they first started working at the zoo. After a three-month probationary period, Brazaitis recalls being sent to the famous Brooks Brothers, the oldest men’s clothier in the United States headquartered in New York City, in order to be fitted for his official uniform. This included “a pair of green 100 percent woolen whipcord pants, a double-breasted dress jacket complete with brass buttons, an Eisenhower jacket, two dress shirts with epaulettes and zoo emblems, two khaki ties, a wide brown leather garrison belt, and a summer and winter visored dress cap.” The entire uniform cost about $300 at the time — or $2,877 today.
Those Brooks Brothers uniforms looked pretty snazzy (above, zookeeper Fred Taggert handling a South American boa in 1939), even if they weren’t very functional. At WCS parks today, we zookeepers are happy preparing diets, navigating and cleaning exhibits, and working with sometimes messy animals without having to worry about ruining our fancy suits.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Wildlife Conservation Society is celebrating 125 years of saving wildlife and wild places in 2020. WCS was founded as the New York Zoological Society in 1895, and the flagship Bronx Zoo opened in 1899. Wild View will feature regular posts on the history of the Society’s photography and other events throughout the year.