When Linda Lombardi, 50, was a child, she liked to play with plastic animals instead of baby dolls. Much later, Lombardi gave up a career as a tenured college professor for a job as a zookeeper. She now takes revenge on her fellow creatures via her blog, Animals Behaving Badly. The week the latter emerged in book form (Penguin/Perigee), Lombardi took a moment to answer our questions about reinventing herself as a writer, her future plans, and whether there are any animals (including humans) that actually don’t misbehave.

1. Congratulations on your new book, Animals Behaving Badly, which is based on your blog. When you started the blog, did you think a book would be the result?

Obviously I was thinking that it would be nice to become one of those bloggers who was so famous that I could make a living selling ads on the blog and posting snide remarks about animals for the rest of my life, but I knew that was a fantasy.  A book seemed like a more plausible goal. Writing the blog forced me to keep up with collecting material and it helped me develop the voice.

2. When you’re looking for information about badly behaved animals, for your blog or the book, what are some of your go-to sources? How do you make your choices?

There is almost always more material than I can use for posting twice a week. I spend a lot of time on weird news pages and sites about animals, and I follow a number of science writers online. British news is a pretty infallible source of animal antics; The Telegraph does a good job on that beat. If all else fails and I’m not inspired by anything I’ve got, it almost always works to go to Google News and type in “dog” or “monkey.”

Sometimes the choice is obvious: If every news outlet on earth covers the heartwarming story of a cat missing from Colorado for five years who’s found in New York, how can I not write about the reunion where that cat bites the 3-year-old daughter? And since for journalists three of anything counts as a trend, if I can put three related stories together, I’ll always go with that. Otherwise it’s just whatever I’m inspired to make a joke about.

3. You’ve worked in a zoo. What is your favorite one to visit? What do you see in a zoo that the average person might not notice?

The Bronx, in large part for the nostalgia value, since it’s my childhood zoo and has such a long history, and for its great old buildings. Also, check out their bug carousel, which is fantastic. What I notice about zoos that others don’t is whether an exhibit looks easy to work in, or whether I’d constantly be hitting my head and poking my eyes out on branches.

4. After reading about badly behaved animals ranging from bunnies to baboons, we have to ask… is there any animal you consider to be well behaved?

This is a good question! I wish. There are lots of animals that I have a soft spot for, and unfortunately nearly every one has made it onto the blog eventually. I love sloths, and there’s no animal more inoffensive — until you find a report of sloths that dive into manholes and come out covered with sewage. There’s nothing cuter than a roly-poly wombat, until one attacks a guy so violently that he has to defend himself with an axe. Nearly all of my idols have fallen — I think the last one left is the Patagonian cavy or mara, one of the world’s largest rodents. So if you want to break my heart, find a wicked story about a mara. It’s one of those animals that’s allegedly monogamous for life, which is always a lie, so that would be a good place to start.

5. Many writers have experienced dramatic reinventions, several of whom we’ve featured on this site, from Patricia Spears Jones to Mary Jo Buttafuoco. But your story is particularly compelling: You had risen to the top of your sub-field in linguistics, with tenure at the University of Maryland/College Park, when your volunteer work at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., convinced you to start over. What’s your elevator speech when people ask you how that happened?

When I moved to D.C. to take my academic job, I also started volunteering as a keeper aide at the National Zoo Small Mammal House. By the time I’d been in my job for ten years, there were a lot of people I wanted to murder, so I thought I should write a mystery to discharge the impulse fictionally. My first idea was to set it in Venice, California, a place I fell in love with when I visited a friend, so I could sort of live there vicariously. But that friend made the wise observation, “You idiot, you should set it at the zoo.”

As I started to write, I thought “Wow, this is so interesting, maybe I should do this for a living.” Soon after I had that thought, a temporary keeper position opened up, so I took a leave of absence from the university. I figured if it came to nothing else, it would be book research, since no matter how long I volunteered, there were things only staff gets to do that I ought to experience first-hand.

The temp job was supposed to last for three months, but kept getting extended, and my department started nagging me to decide whether I was coming back. I had tenure, I could have strung them along, but you know how when you’re a kid and you don’t want to accept an invitation, you say that your mom won’t let you go? This was kind of like that. I took the chance to be able to partly blame the decision on the university, and quit.

6. How did your friends and family react when you made the career switch to zoo keeper?

Honestly, I don’t remember, because I am so pigheaded that it wouldn’t have mattered what they thought. The one person I was concerned about was my dissertation advisor. We’d had a close relationship and he had put so much effort into me and my career, I felt like this was a terrible thing I was doing to him. But he’s been incredibly nice about it.

7. What’s the educational process to get there?

Job ads for zookeepers nowadays ask for college degrees in biology or some related field, so if your kids want to be zookeepers, they definitely should get those degrees first. But hands-on experience with animals is critical, and in reality people are still hired for their practical experience if they don’t have formal animal-related schooling. As a volunteer I had done all the routine daily work that a keeper does, on average a little less than one day a week, for ten years. That on-the-job training was more important than what I’d majored in in college (or afterwards).

8. You’re also a novelist. What’s the relationship between this book and the mystery series you just started?

No relationship, really, except they both come out of my experience with and interest in animals. I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades — I was about to give some examples from my youth, but what more do you need than “professor of theoretical linguistics turned animal keeper.” As a writer, it’s the same — I’ve written newspaper articles, I’ve written candy reviews for a blog, I’ve got novels in different genres in the works. I’m one of those animals that is easily bored and makes trouble for the keepers if I don’t get a lot of enrichment.

9. When I finished this book, it suddenly occurred to me that this could be a reality show waiting to happen, kind of a cross between “Animal Planet” and “Tosh 2.0.” Has anyone approached you about doing one yet?

No. But I am open to being contacted by anyone with a big checkbook!

10. What’s on your plate right now? What would you ideally like to be doing this time next year?

Realistically, or dreaming big? In my dreams, I’d love to be a huge success with one of the novels I am working on, because it’s so much easier to write books that don’t have a 25-page bibliography. And I’d like to find my fantasy part-time animal keeper job that doesn’t require a long commute and leaves me half the week to write. As long as we’re dreaming, let’s say that in that job, I get to take care of capybaras, sloths, tapirs, maras, wombats, and frogs and salamanders. It’s a dream, so it doesn’t matter that that’s an unlikely combination.

But in the real world, I would be happy to have a followup to Animals Behaving Badly in process, have an agent for the fiction (my current agent only represents my nonfiction), and have enough other work to not be at risk of living in a cardboard box on the street. Writers these days, that’s probably all we can ask for.


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