At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, the phones were expected to start ringing shortly after dawn on April 1, right on schedule. Ditto for the phones across town at the Brookfield Zoo. The callers all had the same mission: return mysterious messages they’d received from strangers whose first name was never given.
Even as the recorded greetings informed callers they had reached a zoo, many would remain on the line, anxious to speak with a live operator. “Is Mr. Fox there?” callers would inquire. Others requested a Mrs. Lyon, or a Mr. Byrd, all of them fictitious names, or course.
When it comes to the annual ritual of pulling pranks on April 1, the good old call-the-zoo trick remains the industry standard.
“I’ve done it myself sometimes,” laughed a Brookfield Zoo employee who said she fields scores of such calls each year. Since April Fool’s Day comes but once a year, many of us have long since forgotten last year’s wildlife prank, and are perfectly willing to believe a Mr. Hawk really does exist—and has important business to discuss.
Of course, those of us who happen have suspicious names have a hard time introducing ourselves on April 1.
Take Bob Catt—his proper name is Robert Catt—site superintendent at Lake Murphysboro State Park. As a Department of Natural Resources employee, many people assume Catt’s outdoorsy name is actually a nickname. Not so.
“My parents probably knew what they were doing when they gave me the name,” Catt chuckled. Naturally, trouble occasionally pops up when he’s asked to state his name.
“I remember some years ago a good friend and myself were going fishing and tried to get a camp site at a private campground,” Catt recalled.
According to standard procedure, the men were asked to fill out a slip of paper with their names.
Bob Catt and Tom Fox wrote their names as required.
“When the guy taking the reservation saw what we wrote down, he stepped back and said, ‘You guys aren’t fooling anyone!’” Catt said. “I think we had to take out our driver’s license to convince the guy.”
When it comes to April 1 pranks, animals and wildlife topics continue to top the list. And there are plenty of takers in this era where familiarity with the facts of nature seems to be waning among the public.
A northern Illinois radio listener decided to test Chicagoland on April 1, 2008, following a frenzy of “cougar” sightings in northeastern Illinois. A Chicago disc jockey took the bait and went live with the caller on the air.
“I am watching, as I speak, a cougar sitting on the roof of my neighbor’s garage,” the radio caller whispered into the phone, adding drama to the field report. The disc jockey begged for more details—a location—so that listeners could marvel at a live report of an animal that hadn’t been known to exist in the wild in Illinois for more than 150 years.
Then it dawned on the disc jockey.
“Is this an April Fool’s joke?”
“Gotcha,” the caller replied.
Inevitably, we are all April Fools many times in a lifetime. Anyone with friends is on the waiting list. Yet we all delight in being clever enough to detect a fraud. The savvy outdoorsman knows, for example, rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs (despite what that little package filled with white jellybeans advertises) and claims of a brother-in-law catching a 17-pound largemouth bass in Illinois don’t fit within the realm of possibility.
Test your nature knowledge. Here’s a true-or-false pop quiz about April Fool’s jokes and other suspiciously tall tales involving nature and wildlife. See how many answers you knew already--and which ones would’ve “gotcha.”
Q: Is it true that divers doing maintenance work below a dam on the Mississippi River (or was it the Illinois River?) once spotted a catfish so large the terrified divers immediately resurfaced—and refused to go down again, fearful of being swallowed?
False. This oft-told tale would have us believe there are catfish in North America large enough to swallow an adult diver. One of the interesting aspects of this tale is that it’s told almost everywhere in America and is always adapted to the local waters, such as the Ohio River or Kentucky Lake. The largest catfish ever caught in Illinois—Tim Pruitt’s hefty 124 pound blue catfish caught near Alton in 2005—weighed only about as much as a lightweight adult human. Ask yourself: Could you swallow a 124-pound catfish? Then how could a 124-pound catfish swallow you? Add air tanks and related diving gear, and the possibility that a catfish anywhere in America could swallow a diver is, well, a big fish tale.
Q: Armadillos now occur in Illinois.
True. Since 1995, dozens of armadillos have been documented in Illinois—including pregnant females. The northern advance of this south-of-the-border native is being studied by the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Q: A white-tailed deer is born without any scent, a defensive mechanism that helps it hide from predators.
True...sort of. While newborn fawns tend to lack the musk-producing traits of adult deer, the scent of fawns still can be detected by predators (but not as easily as adult deer).
Q: Crows are as intelligent as humans.
This is occasionally true. But, for the most part, folk beliefs about the complex communication skills displayed by crows pale in comparison to the fact humans have the advanced cognitive ability to type LOL and :) and call it communicating.