I took a tour of the new exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the “African Elephant Crossing,” as a member of the Cleveland Zoological Society. The zookeepers in charge of the elephants showed us around the building where the elephants sleep at night. Two of the four cows (females) don’t always get along, so they’ve been taking turns separated from the other three the past few days. Bulls normally live separately in the wild, so Willy, their one male, was off in his own enclosure. I was amazed by how gigantic he was, even by comparison to the other elephants.
Toward the end of the tour, after we’d looked at everything else, they took us out into the building’s back yard. There were big piles of sand out there, where the elephants love to roll around. After marveling at the dirt for a bit, the tour was over; I hung back and chatted with the zookeepers while everyone else was filing out. We discussed how one gets into zookeeping in the first place (you get a summer job there for a while and then you go get a bachelors in whatever-the-heck-you-want) when somebody suddenly asked “what’s that thing over there?”
“That thing” turned out to be the elephants’ old outdoor watering fountain. It had been an ingenious self-filling bowl made of six-inch-thick concrete affixed to the ground. The elephants would suck water out of with their trunks, and shoot it in their mouths. Willy, the bull, had walked past the bowl with a big ol’ log in his trunk one day and decided he wanted a drink, so he dropped the log right on top of the bowl, and snapped it in half.
They realized that any protruding structure would ultimately be destroyed by the elephants, who are huge, heavy, and don’t see very well. SO: they carved a two-foot hole through one of the walls and hung a plastic bucket from the other side, inside the elephant barn. When they’re outside, the elephants reach through the wall with their trunks and suck water out of the bucket.
We went around to the other side of the wall to get a look at the bucket. It was more like a translucent plastic box riveted to the wall with pipes and valves running in-and-out. Since the zookeepers couldn’t always be around to fill the box back up, they had to jury-rig it so it would be self-filling like the last bowl. The zookeeper explained the pipes like this: “there’s a float in there,” he pointed at the box, “and when the water level goes down, the float drops, too. Then the pipes fill the bucket until the float returns to its original position. If the water gets dirty, we pull this lever, and the water flows out through this bottom pipe and runs down through the drains in the floor.”
I thought about that for a second, and then I said, “y’know, that sounds kind of familiar…”
“It should,” he replied, “we took the parts out of the upper deck of a toilet!”
If you take the time to show an interest in somebody who has a great job like “zookeeper,” at a great zoo, like Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, then you might just find out that all the great stuff is held together with toilet parts and PVC pipes. The point is, if you have a BIG problem, the solution isn’t necessarily big itself. The big solution, like putting in a reinforced concrete bowl that can take a beating, may cause problems of its own, simply because it sticks out and draws attention. The best solutions are the ones you barely notice, like the hole in the wall that we wouldn’t have seen if the zookeepers hadn’t pointed it out, or the solutions that take care of themselves, like the bucket that fills itself, or the ones that are made from simple ideas or materials, like the components they took from a toilet.