Scales & Tales Traveling Zoo

Have Zoo – Will Travel – Article

   Feb 10

Have Zoo – Will Travel – Article

Have Zoo Will Travel

A life-long animal lover, Beth Bishop collected over 40 different “pets,” ranging from snakes and turtles to rabbits, ferrets, and raccoons, by age 29. At that time, she worked endless hours in her catering business with little time for herself. After putting in a long day catering wedding receptions and corporate events, the animals required her full attention for feeding and play time. Facing her 30th birthday, she found herself exhausted and overwhelmed by mounting pet care costs which often totaled thousands of dollars a month.

Lamenting her lack of a social life, Bishop threw a huge birthday party for herself, complete with hired entertainment which included a magician and a Tarot card reader. Bishop reluctantly allowed a reading to be done for her, consequently gaining advice that would set her life on a different course.

“The Tarot card reader told me, ‘You already own something you can make money with,’” recalls Bishop, 38. “She said, ‘You will be very successful at it.’ I had been in catering for 10 years and I was burned out. You work seven days a week. You’re up early and go to bed really late. That was not the way I wanted my life to be.

“I went on vacation in Canada after my birthday, and I realized that she was talking about my animals. And all of a sudden the name ‘Scales & Tales’ just came to me. I knew that was the name for my new business.”

That business evolved into a traveling zoo that attends children’s birthday parties, corporate events and retail open houses, and visits libraries, schools, churches, day care centers and park districts. Through Scales & Tales, Bishop teaches children about animals and their habitats, helping kids become more knowledgeable and less afraid.

“It just never occurred to me that I could make money with my animals. Back then, all I did was work. I didn’t have enough going on in my life that I loved. Soon after my birthday, a homeless man brought me a monkey because he couldn’t care for him. I’d never had a monkey before, and I had to get the proper USDA license for him. So I got performance licenses for my other animals as well, and within a couple of months, we were doing shows.”

Bishop’s roster of animals grew to include a second monkey, hedgehogs, marsupials, and a magnificent blue and gold macaw. Ultimately, she sold her catering company.

“When I first started the catering business, I said, ‘This is going to be a business.’ When I started the traveling zoo, I was following my dream. Turning my life into my livelihood. And to me, it wasn’t like work. I just couldn’t wait to have another animal show. I love this business so much more.”

Catering frustrated Bishop because of the endless need to be competitive and the futility of striving to please every customer.

“But now, one of my monkeys goes in and tears up a twenty dollar bill out of a customer’s purse, and they think it’s the funniest thing in the world. Now I make beautiful plates of food for the animals. I get to cater to them.

“Animals are a necessity in life. My mom died when I was young, and I don’t think I could have gotten through that without animals around me. I was the kind of kid who’d go out and bring home as many animals as I could find. Snakes, pigeons, spiders, bags of kittens, no matter where they came from. My mother was very tolerant, but always made me take them back. She told me, ‘When you grow up, you can have as many animals as you want.’ So now I have around fifty.”

Bishop lives with her animals, husband, and five-month-old baby boy, Willie, in a 10,000 square-foot building that was once a ballroom, in the Pilsen section of Chicago. The animals have ample cage space on the first floor of the building, while she and her family live upstairs in the open, loft-like space of the old ballroom.

Scales & Tales’ road-tripping animals perform hour-long shows, with birthday parties requiring a maximum limit of twenty-five kids. Often, Bishop will do three or four events in a day.

“With the road shows, the client requests eight specific animals out of the twenty animals that travel. Maybe a pig that eats like a vacuum cleaner, an armadillo, a spider monkey, or a snake that takes ten to twelve kids to hold. Or maybe a bunny that gives whisker kisses, turtles that race, or a ferret that dances. Maybe a rainforest theme with a fruitbat and a marsupial. Every show is different.”

Neighborhood children help Bishop care for the animals, and teens are hired to assist with the road shows. Bishop and one of the teens get the animals ready and take them in her van to the events. A neighborhood mother joins them on the road shows to watch Willie while Bishop works with the animals.

“First we put the animals in their carriers. They love to go and they get right in. The show starts when I arrive. I sit the kids in a circle and take the animals out one at a time. We talk about where they come from and what they do. The environment that they live in. Each animal is different: some you feed, some you touch, some you hold. Kids need to learn respect and empathy for animals.”

The paid performances enable Scales & Tales to do benefits for inner city kids, disabled kids, and children with cancer, one of Bishop’s pet charities because it is the disease to which she lost her mother.

“Animal therapy is great for kids who are abused or who don’t have the right socialization skills. When I take the animals to homes for retarded children and adults, the response is amazing. Individuals who don’t respond to anything, respond to animals. “It’s nice to know you have a positive effect on children. Inner city kids are afraid of animals because they don’t have experience with them. It’s rewarding for me to take kids who are unwilling to touch even a baby chick, and educate them. Help them to not be afraid of snakes like they see on TV. You always have to consider yourself an important role model for kids. It’s not just for parents and grandparents and teacher. They are all our children.

“I like to see these kids grow up. I’ll be there for their third birthday party, and then their fifth and their eighth. I have one girl who’s now seventeen and coming into the city to volunteer with kids. She says she wouldn’t be doing that if it hadn’t been for the traveling zoo.”

The kids in Bishop’s neighborhood love to hang out at her place. There are often two or three kids feeding the animals because it’s their responsibility, and three or four more who simply enjoy being around the animals and the environment.

“I like to impart responsibility on these kids. I have a Capuchin monkey that won’t let the kids feed him. When this one kid tries, the monkey pulls his hair and then pounds on the cage. Frustrated, the kid pounds back. I told him, ‘This isn’t going to work. You have to bring him a caramel apple slice, make him your friend. You have to do things in a non-aggressive way.’ In this day and age of gangs and everything else, learning non-aggressive tactics is really important.

“But it’s not a one-way road with us. I give a lot to the kids, but the kids give even more back. They help me with chores, they help hold my baby. We all gain. I’d rather spend time with kids and animals than adults. The zoo is entirely run by kids, and as a result, it’s a lot more fun.”

The business isn’t always fun and games for Bishop. Often the kids who help feed the animals don’t show up after school, and hosing down the pig pen can escalate into water fights. Sometimes she’ll come downstairs and Koko the monkey will be out of his cage. Child care for Willie presents problems as well.

“It’s great that I can take the baby on the road with me. But it’s not always easy. The other day, the woman who comes with us for the road shows to take care of him couldn’t make it. I asked the principal at the school where we were doing the show if it would be a problem. She looked at me and said, ‘This is a whole school full of kids. I’m sure we can handle a baby.’ So the kids took turns holding him and it was fine. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”

The addition of Beth’s husband and baby has slowed down the pace of her life, and she has also been surprised by the similarities between animal raising and child-rearing.

“I don’t do 500 shows a year anymore. I don’t work as many days. My husband built me a new zoo so the animals weren’t all over the house. When I first met him, there was a bear in the bathroom, and there were deer we were raising and a raccoon walking around. He loved it that there were all these kids and animals.

“It’s an advantage in parenting to have experience with animals. It gives you a laid back attitude. You know they’re not going to break. I didn’t used to think there were similarities between babies and baby animals. But with Willie, I find that all the little games I do to socialize my animals, like making funny noises, singing, playing with fingers and toes, tickling – all work with him too.

“I always sing to my animals. We have morning songs. When they hear the Beatles’ ‘Get up, get out of bed, drag a comb across your head,’ they know to get ready for a show. And the baby likes to hear songs with his name in them, just like the animals do. It’s important to play. I love to play. And fortunately, my animals have never laughed at me.”

Bishop took seven months off from touring with the animals during her pregnancy and after her son was born, only starting back up with the road shows in April.

“In the future, I think I might like to also do a TV show with kids being part of it. Each week work on a different project. Like build a fish tank or a terrarium. Something to do with the environment. And maybe offer a zoo keeper class at my house, for kids to learn how to be an animal keeper for a day.

“What I’ve learned is that when you do something well, when you do something you like, people want to do business with you.”

Scales & Tales can be reached at (312) 243-6066. end

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